PlayStation 4 review: One year on, it's the choice console for gamers

One year after its initial release, and to cap off two decades of PlayStation, the Sony PlayStation 4 finds itself in an esteemed position at the tail-end of 2014.

The PS4 seems to be winning the new-generation console race against the Xbox One - at least, in terms of sales - and its growing library of games, with yet more exclusives to come, make it a tempting purchase.

But even one year on, Sony has neglected media streaming, and not all the Sony-exclusive titles have quite hit the mark. For now this isn't the be-all and do-all media machine, unlike its Xbox One competitor, it's a games console through and through. It's "for the players" as the ad campaign suggests.

But is now the time to get on board and buy one? A lot's changed in a year.

Design

By now you probably know what the PS4 looks like. It's a flat prism-looking box with minimal design fuss that measures 305 x 275 x 53mm in size. It's black, or there is a white model now available too, and just like the Xbox One, it's a combination of shiny and matte surfaces.

But very much unlike the XB1 the PS4 isn't a giant brick-like behemoth. There's more attention to the design than the Microsoft console: the PS4's front, which slopes away backwards, features separate touch-sensitive power and eject buttons, and that PS4 logo, which all looks rather neat.

On the whole the PS4 is quiet when running. Compared to the PlayStation 3 - and we have both consoles lined up to the left and right of the TV - it's far quieter, although not silent. However, we have found that it does get a little noisy when tasked with certain things like Remote Play via the PS Vita (more on that feature later).

Games and Blu-ray discs (and now 3D Blu-ray, which lacked at launch) slip into the machine in the thin gap that runs across the front, disappearing into the gaming carcass. It looks very Blade Runner, giving little away of the power contained inside. A strip of light that runs in a bright to dim fade across the top glows blue, white, or orange depending on the console's active state.

We think it looks awesome.

Controller and connections

The front of the machine also features two USB sockets, again largely hidden in that gap, for charging the wireless DualShock 4 controller. You'll want to make sure the charge when on standby option is selected from within the menus, as it isn't by default.

The DualShock 4 controller is quite a bit bigger than the previous controller for the PS3 - and although it doesn't really look it at first glance - and feels better in the hand. There's a built-in speaker, a dedicated headphone port for silent gaming (or using a headset), and the all-important touch-sensitive trackpad and motion-tracking light.

We've been getting around seven hours from a single charge, and because it's got a micro USB port you can charge it from other devices in the house if you want.

We've only got one particular issue with the DualShock 4 controller: it's £50 if you want to buy a second one. The console can cope with up to four in total - if, of course, you have a spare £150 extra to fork out. We'd imagine it's a case of asking friends around to bring their own, although most games these days are all about online play.

The back of the PS4 unit features an array of connections including HDMI, Ethernet, and a dedicated socket for connecting the PS4 Camera (which is sold as a separate accessory). There's also an optical output for audio too and any remaining part of the rear that doesn't need to form into some kind of a socket is a vent - that heat has got to go somewhere.

There's a single power cable that means you can neatly tuck the Sony console under your telly or on your hi-fi rack. You can place it vertically if you've got the height for it and there's a second logo so it still looks cool from its second angle.

The Xbox One, meanwhile, is designed to lie flat only and it has a power supply brick - it's literally almost the same size as one, sometimes referred to as the Xbox One mini - that adds another thing to think about when setting up.

Software and installs

There have been various software updates throughout the PS4's lifespan, with the all-important version 2.0 landing recently (we're on v2.03 now). Out of the box the on-board software won't be up to date, so you'll have a hefty initial download in store to get things up and running. Make sure you've got a good Wi-Fi connection or Ethernet cable at the ready.

If you've bought the Camera accessory for then you'll also need to setup its face recognition and microphone features. These can be used as a means to login to PlayStation Store - where you can make app, game and download purchases - rather than tapping in a password each time it logs out.

Once you are up and running the PS4 is incredibly fast to navigate the user interface. The interface is based around the well-known PS3 one, but improved, comprising a single bar of options that run across the screen and allow you to zip up and down individual elements: Games, TV, Settings and other sub-menus. It's an interface that is simple, but serves the PlayStation crowd well.

Cleverly the interface isn't static. It changes constantly based on how you use the PS4, giving quick access to the stuff that matters to you: the game you have played most recently appears nearest so you don't need to scroll through the list, or the movie service you keep using rises to the top, for example.

Wallpapers and background can be interactive too. Scroll over a game and irrelevant of whether the disc is in the machine or not, the PS4 gives you a much deeper dive into what is available for that specific title. It's like a dedicated hub, with associated content, including related downloadable content (DLC), manuals and even screenshots and videos experienced by your friends all on show.

There are some less exciting additions that Sony made noise about back in 2013, ones that you'll probably relegate to the back of the stack. Things like The Playroom and Browser have little use (the latter is a pretty awful experience; laggy and hindered by controls), while the What's New tab - which digs into your friends' activities to display what they've been playing or which apps they've been using - is often little more than a landing page distraction.

Scrolling upwards on the home screen reveals all the boring information that you rarely look at: messages, settings, friends and so forth. It's easy to access, and is where the menus really start in earnest. It's easy to manage, too, but we doubt you'll spend much time here once things are set up as you want them. That's clearly something Sony realises, having buried it out of your main line of view.

Oh, and that twinkly default background music, you'll quickly want to turn that off before it messes with your brain.

TV and media

From the PlayStation Store there are TV and catch-up apps, but only a handful in the UK. But most of the key ones are here: there's Amazon Instant, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, TV from Sky (for Sky Go users), Now TV, Demand 5, IGN, BBC Sport and BBC News, with the Sky options being the newest in the pack.

To interact with each you'll need to download the individual app. We've been playing with iPlayer to watch a bit of Professional Masterchef, as you do. There will likely be more app portals added in the future, making the PS4 more of a smart hub - but it's not progressed that significantly since day one.

Ultimately it's the TV and media abilities of the PlayStation 4 that hold it back from being a full-on media machine. Yes you can play Blu-ray discs and they look great, and there's Sony's Video and Movie On Demand services for buying and renting content, but there's not the TV-control and media streaming capabilities of the Xbox One to be found here. Not yet anyway.

Given that the PlayStation 3 could handle all manner of file formats - from MKV to MP4 and AVI to WMV - in addition to streaming from media servers, the PlayStation 4 seems a big step behind. Back in 2013 we thought this was an active stance from Sony to keep more users invested in the PS3 system while the last set of top titles came out. Things like Grand Turismo 6, for example, only ever landed on the PS3.

So here we are, a year on, and we're still waiting for such features to come as standard on the PS4. We know Sony can do it, and do it well, so it's a case of waiting. But we're getting impatient. If you are a PS3 owner chances are the PS4 will be joining your current console under the TV rather than replacing it.

Storage limitations

Disc-based games require the disc to be in the drive at all times to run. If you eject, the system will take you back to the home screen; if you try to load an installed title without the disc inserted then the PS4 will instruct you to insert the correct disc. Pretty straightforward stuff.

However, almost every new game you'll buy will eat into a significant amount of the 500GB hard drive - and not just ones downloaded from the Store, we mean required installs from disc-based games. Every disc we've put in over the last year has required additional download patches, which are often gigabytes in size. Some titles will bed in to almost 60GB of that hard drive space. Ouch.

Which is a problem as it turns out. In the space of about nine months we had played through enough different games to the point it wasn't possible to install new ones. Indeed we've had to venture into the Applications settings and delete game installs on numerous occasions.

There is a solution - but you'll want to do it on day one. It's possible to replace the PS4's hard drive for a larger one yourself. Why Sony doesn't sell 1TB and 2TB versions of the PS4 yet we don't know - it feels like an essential that's absent. We'd recommend a 2TB drive, as explained in the guide below.

READ: How to upgrade your PS4 hard drive

Games, games, games

On launch day the PS4 had but a handful of worthwhile games available. Ranging from the dire Knack, to the charming Lego Marvel Super Heroes, to supped-up versions of PS3 games such as Call of Duty: Ghostsit was Resogun and Killzone: Shadow Fall that we thought took pride of place in 2013. It's worth dipping back into Killzone, as we think it remains a largely underrated title.

In 2014 that gaming catalogue has grown. Yes, The Last of Us: Remastered and Grand Theft Auto 5 may also be reworked PS3 titles, but they're both incredible classics. And the graphical prowess of the PS4 is the exact way to experience those two, especially if you've not played either before.

READ: Grand Theft Auto 5 review: Bona fide thrill ride on new-gen consoles

Other exclusives such as Infamous: Second Son and DriveClub have also arrived this year, but neither were quite the 5-star smashes that we had hoped for. It's 2015 exclusives Bloodborne and The Order: 1886 that need to deliver a weighty blow, not forgetting that Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is also in the pipeline.

If you're all about exclusives, then the big question is whether the Xbox One's Halo: Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 2, or Sunset Overdrive (click those links for our full reviews) are enough to catch your attention, because they're all crackers in their own right.

If anything, it's the general quality of third-party games that have come to mark just how worthwhile the PS4 is to buy now. And we've seen loads this year (again, click the links to read our full reviews): Far Cry 4, Destiny, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Watch Dogs, The Evil Within, LittleBigPlanet 3FIFA 15, Dragon Age: Inquisition - there's a whole host of strong titles. All of which are available on the Xbox One too.

However, the PlayStation 4's extra power sees additional graphical flourishes in many instances. We've seen Watch Dogs run in higher resolution on the PS4, more foliage detail in Grand Theft Auto 5, and other examples to show off why the Sony is the gamers' choice, in a graphical sense.

But does that matter? Not always. We still enjoy playing on the Wii U, because the games are great, even if its technological innards are less capable overall. The games are what it should always be about, and Sony is scrabbling its way to the top in that department with strong third-party support firming a now strong foundation.

Social play and sharing

If you want to play online then you'll need to sign up for a PlayStation Plus account, which costs £39.99 a year, £11.99 for 90 days, or £5.49 for a monthly trial. It's essential for games such as The Crew, Destiny and plenty more besides.

In addition to online gaming, PlayStation Plus will open access to select discounts and some free games to download in the PlayStation Store on a month-by-month basis. And that's across all current PlayStation platforms.

You needn't sign-up to Plus if you want to access the Store and download games, though, or to share your gaming experiences as videos or stills.

At all times the PS4 is recording your progress, so pressing the Share button on the DualShock 4 controller merely captures the last 15 minutes of gaming for you to re-present as a share file on your PlayStation wall or a social network. A 15-minute video is around 800MB, though, which is something to be aware of if you are planning on sharing your gaming experiences a lot. Thankfully you can edit your video before you share it using basic editing options like trim from within the interface. It's saves you having to automatically upload the last 15 minutes of video including the bit when you died 28 times in a row.

Just as you can share game footage you can also tune in and watch other people play their games; yep, random strangers, just like you could in the arcades as a kid because you didn't have enough money to play the games yourself. As it's £50 a pop to buy a game on the PS4 - and often far more in PlayStation Store for the download, which irritates us - that feeling might remain much the same.

But there's a workaround. The PS4's latest oftware elevates things to another social level with Share Play. As a PlayStation Plus member you can invite a friend to watch you play, and it's even possible for them to take over the controls of a game that they don't own. How about that for a demo experience? Your console, your game, but their experience. It's like a cloud arcade, with sessions lasting up to an hour.

READ: What is PS4 Share Play?

In addition there's a free-to-download PS4 app that allows you buy games, check up on your stats, and even double as a second-screen experience. Handy if you've got text to type at speed.

Remote Play

One of the other fun features of the PS4 is that you can play its games away from the console using the PS Vita and, more recently, Sony Xperia Z2 and Z3 smartphones and tablets. You will, of course, need to buy the additional handheld console, phone or tablet to access the feature, but if you already one or more of them then it's a great idea to play when the big screen is being used for something else.

READ: What is PS4 Remote Play?

Like cloud gaming services, such as OnLive or PlayStation Now in the US, Remote Play effectively uses screen mirroring to send video of the game or user interface running on the PS4 over your home network to your remote device. It maxes out at 720p rather than the 1080p from the main console, but as it's often shown on a smaller screen - a much smaller screen if it's a smartphone or Vita - it still looks crisp and high resolution enough.

After connecting the Vita or smart device to the same PlayStation account you can then access the PS4 at any point. Unlike Apple and its Apple TV mirroring you don't need to be on the same network, just have a fast connection. The experience is very good with zero lag noted, although when the connection starts to weaken the quality degrades quickly.

Camera

The Sony PlayStation 4 Camera is an optional extra, unlike the Xbox One's Kinect which comes included in the Microsoft package's box. The Sony Camera costs £45 and works in a similar way to the previous camera on the PS3.

The Camera is a lot better than previous PlayStation efforts through incorporating two cameras that have wide-angle lenses with 85-degree diagonal angle views to can identify the depth of a space more precisely. There's also a microphone so you can bark orders at the console: "PlayStation: start" and "PlayStation: back". It's fun.

Unlike Kinect you don't need a huge space for it to work, but surprisingly it does insist on be placed around 50cm from the ground, so if you've got a wall-mounted TV that could be a problem. We started with it on the TV stand and it was too low - then we fiddled around with placing it on top of the TV, but it was a bit of a balancing act.

But it's all a bit novelty. Since moving house we ended up not plugging the Camera back in again. We're all about the games - and many of those haven't been developed to work in conjunction with the accessory.

Verdict

One year on the PlayStation 4 has more than shown its worth: it's the choice console for gamers.

Although some of 2014's biggest gaming highlights are the re-visiting of Grand Theft Auto 5 and The Last of Us, there's also success in Sony exclusives LittleBigPlanet 3 and Infamous: Second Son, while third party stompers such as Destiny and Far Cry 4 solidify that core gaming experience.

There's additional promise that stretches a long way into the future too. When it unleashes the interior power in full and shows off inevitable titles from the likes of Naughty Dog, Quantic Dream and various Sony Computer Entertainment departments it will be an even stronger console.

No, the PlayStation 4 still might not be the all-singing, all-dancing media hub of the home just yet - and c'mon, where's the file compatibility and media streaming? - but it's a solid console that looks great under the telly. That's why, 12 months into its life, our initial score sees a boost by half a star. Sort out the hard drive and media and the PS4 is a surefire full-marks product.

Whether you're coming from the PlayStation back catalogue or the PS4 is your anticipated first step into the gaming world, it doesn't disappoint. It's easy to see why after 20 years that PlayStation is at the forefront of gaming.



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