A lot can change in a few years. This is the third time we've sat down and had a good, hard think about the PlayStation 4 since its 2013 launch. Back then the launch line-up was fairly stifled, with clangers like Knack not elevating the console to true new-gen heights. But on the advent of Uncharted 4's release in 2016, and with PlayStation VR incoming, the PS4 may well hold the console gaming crown; although Xbox One's Halo series, among other exclusives, ensures the fight is heated between the two gaming front-runners.
Not that it's all just about games. Consoles aren't what they used to be: they're a whole lot more. In the two-and-a-half years since launch we've seen a glut of PS4 software updates - the latest v3.5 handles media and cloud storage (latter for subscription-based PlayStation Plus account holders only) - that see Sony's console closer aligned with Microsoft's premise than before. It's not the media hub it could be, but that may be addressed in coming months.
For the PS4 tale has an apparent twist on the horizon. E3, the world's largest gaming expo, is rumoured to be the platform to reveal the "PS4.5", AKA Neo, a 4K-capable system with even more core power, RAM and on-board storage. So are we about to witness the first tiered console era - and what does that mean for the PS4 today?
PlayStation 4 review: Design
By now you probably know what the PS4 looks like. It's a flat prism-looking box with minimal design fuss, measuring 305 x 275 x 53mm. It's black, or there is a white model now available, 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 - something the also-rumoured-for-E3 Xbox "One.1" may address. There's more attention to the design in the Sony 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 had 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). It's also fairly obsessed with turning itself on in the middle of the night for updates, which can kick-in HDMI passthrough and fire-up the TV too. Somewhere between useful, spooky and funny all at the same time.
Discs 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. The 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. And we think it looks rather awesome.
PS4 review: Controller & 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 - 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 often had it plugged into new USB plug sockets in the kitchen.
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.
There's a single power cable provided 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.
Also around the back the PS4 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 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.
But back to that HDMI port for a moment. It's HDMI 1.4 which, technically, is capable of delivering 4K (3,840 x 2,160) resolution - you can view 4K stills images right now if you've got the right telly to benefit. However, there's a problem for the more desirable content: the PS4 isn't HDCP 2.2 compatible, which is the "handshake" standard to confirm content authenticity. Without it you won't see 4K Netflix, etc, hence the "PS4.5" rumours hotting up: that would likely include HDMI 2.0 for higher frame rate support (it's 60fps rather than 30fps of the 1.4 standard) and the necessary hardware for 4K content compatibility, we suspect. With the PS4 as it stands it's all about 1080p content.
PlayStation 4 review: Media and software
At launch the PS4 could do, well, roughly naff all with media. So our trusty PS3 was still the source of catching-up for loads of content.
But the times have changed. The PS4, with its latest software, can handle media via the Media Player app: MP4, MKV, AVI; all kinds of formats aren't a problem. There are also an array of apps in the TV & Video app - BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport, BBC News, All 4 and more specifically in the UK - that join stalwarts such as Netflix, Amazon Video, Now TV and TV From Sky (for Sky Go users).
However, we've found the Media Player to be really fussy with external drives and USB sticks. They have to be exFat or Fat32 formatted (beware Mac users), but even then we've never got an individual USB stick to actually work. To be fair we've given up because our Plex Media Server works just fine, and that funnels over all the content on our drive that we could want.
It works well, albeit in a slightly haphazard manner. The folder arrangements are scruffy, the visual icons not thought-out like a media-focused player should be. Basically the Xbox One is much better at handling media and always has been. But the PS4 is keen to play catch-up and is doing a pretty decent job too.
If you're more a physical media person then the PS4 is now as up to speed with that as it can be. DVD and Blu-ray discs, including 3D Blu-ray, can be played, with only 4K Blu-ray disc compatibility lacking (again, "PS4.5" anyone?). Or there's Sony's Video and Movie On Demand services for buying and renting content.
PS4 review: Software experience
The general interface of the PS4 is better than the mix of media players and apps, because it cleverly updates based on which apps and games you use/play, providing quick access to the stuff that matters to you. And the stuff that mattered to nobody, i.e. launch app The Playroom, has been ditched entirely.
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.
More detailed settings can be accessed by scrolling upwards on the home screen. But this is largely all the boring information that you'll rarely look at: messages, settings, friends and so forth. Oh, and that twinkly default background music, you'll need to dig through here to quickly turn that off before it messes with your brain.
When Microsoft launched the Xbox One its voice-recognition feature was a big deal, one that split the crowd. You can talk to your PS4 too, if you have the Camera accessory with its built-in microphone. It's not as detailed as the Xbox, but we can't say we're particularly enthralled by voice interaction anyway. Just hand us the controller.
PlayStation 4 review: Storage limitations
An ongoing kerfuffle with the PS4 is its 500GB hard disc. Sounds capacious, but it's not really, especially with some games taking up 60GB or more per install, plus the save files, and space required to download and install updates too.
And we're not just talking about games downloaded from the Store, as installs are required from disc-based games too. Often a new title will immediately prompt a patch download upon inserting the disc, so you'll want a good internet connection to crunch through that data at pace.
And after less than nine months that 500GB limit turned into a problem. Two-and-a-half years later and we've lost count of the number of games we've been forced to delete to make additional space available. 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.
Which, if you've read it, sounds like a fair chunk of work, doesn't it? Well, it is, but it's worth it. It'll cause plenty of jibing from any Xbox One owners though, as external hard drives can be plugged in and removed at will to that console, but no so with the Sony. There's an argument about stability there, and even aesthetics, but we'd like Sony to be capable on both fronts, not just the DIY approach.
PS4 review: All about the 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: Ghosts, it 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.
But that list sounds almost shameful now, considering what else has graced the system since. There's The Last of Us: Remastered and Grand Theft Auto 5 which, sure, are 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.
Where things have got a lot more exciting is in recent times. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is just about as close to gaming perfection as we've seen from Naughty Dog, and that's a Sony exclusive. Other exclusives such as Infamous: Second Son and DriveClub also hold some weight, but neither achieve the 5-star smash hit status of, say, love-it-or-hate-it Bloodborne.
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 (click for standalone reviews): The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Tom Clancy's The Division, Watch Dogs, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, Far Cry: Primal, Star Wars: Battlefront and more.
If you're all about exclusives, then the big question is whether the Xbox One's Halo 5: Guardians, Forza Motorsport 6, Quantum Break or Sunset Overdrive are enough to catch your attention, because they're all crackers in their own right (well, some would argue the last two aren't all that).
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. Its main loss to Microsoft is the delay in Tomb Raider and the rights to Titanfall (the sequel will be cross-platform though).
PlayStation 4 review: 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'll also get 10GB cloud storage too.
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.
There's also 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.
PS4 review: Remote Play & PlayStation Now
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 most recent Xperia 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, 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 little lag, although when the connection starts to weaken the quality degrades quickly.
Not out and about? Then there's PlayStation Now, which is a rental-like service to stream classic PS3 games to the PS4. It costs from £2.99 to rent a game. Nice idea, but as it's focused on games from a generation behind, it has fairly limited appeal. Microsoft offers considerable backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One, whereas Sony is asking you to plump up some extra cash instead, as it's not backwards compatible.
PlayStation 4 review: Camera and PS VR
We mentioned it before: the Sony PlayStation 4 Camera is an optional extra, priced at £45, which 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.
But the thing the camera will really open-up in the near future is PlayStation VR, which we've covered in greater detail (follow the link below). Yep, virtual reality is just around the corner and having used PS VR we think Sony is onto a relatively affordable (£349) winner. Comparatively the likes of HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, while technically superior, need a beefy PC to operate.
Of all the virtual reality headsets that are coming out this year, PlayStation VR won't be the most technologically advanced or even be best supported in software terms. But it will be the one that will have the most eyes on - both figuratively and literally. That's because, rather than aim at a dedicated minority, it is designed for the biggest majority in gaming at present: PS4 fans, who are many and varied.
We've always found the Camera to be rather unsightly, large and a bit of a novelty. But VR is what's most likely to change its popularity.
On the approach to its third birthday, the Sony PlayStation 4 finds itself in the esteemed position as new-gen console front-runner. Not necessarily just in terms of numbers, but arguably in terms of quality exclusive games, with Uncharted 4 and Bloodborne notable heavyweights in its corner; countered, of course, by Xbox One's Halo 5: Guardians and upcoming Gears 4.
With PlayStation VR just around the corner, Sony is also branching out. It almost seems to be out-Nintendoing Nintendo, minus most of the f-ups. That, plus enhanced media operability, sees the PS4 way ahead of where it started, pushing into Microsoft's territory, and in a very healthy place indeed. If only it came with a more capacious hard drive from the off and backwards compatibility with PS3 titles.
If it's taken just two-and-a-half years to get from Knack to Uncharted 4 then come 2017 we can only anticipate yet more progress and gaming greats. Of course the rumoured "PS4.5" might address 4K and the PS4's future in a different way, but until we find out those details (mid-June you can't come fast enough) the PS4 is one serious console for the gamers. Right now it's worth buying for Uncharted 4 alone.