A lot can change in a few years. This is the fourth 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 following Uncharted 4's release, and with PlayStation VR now available, the PS4 may well hold the console gaming crown; although the Xbox One's Halo and Gears 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 released like they used to be: the PlayStation 4 is increasingly tricky to track down in this original form. And that's because the cut-price and cut-size PS4 Slim is now also available. Or, if you're looking for the ultimate 4K-capable powerhouse, then there's the PS4 Pro. Is there any life left in the original PlayStation for bargain hunters?
PlayStation 4 review: Design
- 305 x 275 x 53mm body (PS4 Slim measures 288 x 265 x 38mm)
- Blu-ray and DVD playback via optical drive, not 4K UHD Blu-ray
- 500GB or 1TB HDD options (can be user upgraded)
By now you probably know what the PS4 looks like. It's a flat prism-looking box with minimal design fuss. It's black (or there is a white model if you can track it down) that's built from a combination of both shiny and matte surfaces.
Discs slip into the PS4 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.
Compared to the original Microsoft Xbox One we think the Sony has better attention to detail: 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. Conversely the plasticky and cheaper PS4 Slim doesn't look quite as attractive in our view, even if it is quieter and presented in a smaller footprint.
PS4 review: Controller & connections
- Bundled DualShock controller in the box
- Optical audio output (PS4 Slim lacks this)
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. The newer DualShock 4 included in the Slim and Pro boxes also offers PC compatability, however.
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 - so it'll be a case of asking friends around to bring their own 'round. If anyone actually games in the same room any more.
There's a single power cable provided that means you can neatly tuck the PS4 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.
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 - and that you'll need to run PS VR). There's also an optical output for audio - which the PS4 Slim ditches, so you'll want either the Pro or this earlier original console if that's of significant use for you.
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. For that you'll need the PS4 Pro.
PlayStation 4 review: Media and software
- Can handle HDR gaming
- App and multi-format media playback
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) and even high dynamic range (HDR) games if you have a compatible TV.
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). Or there's Sony's Video and Movie On Demand services for buying and renting content.
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.
If you're more a physical media person then the PS4 lacks a UHD Blu-ray drive - something even the PS4 Pro lacks, yet, bizarrely, the Xbox One S includes - with just a standard Blu-ray/DVD spinner included.
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.
After under nine months we found the 500GB limit turned into a problem. Three years om 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. 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
At launch 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.
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 already classics.
Where things have got a lot more exciting is in 2016. 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 Gears 4, 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).
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 have 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
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. 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.
Sure, PlayStation VR isn't be the most technologically advanced compared to HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, but it does have a much larger user base which is more likely to attract the developers.
On its third birthday, the Sony PlayStation 4 finds itself as part of the front-running console family. It's the one to buy if you find it for a bargain, otherwise the PS4 Slim is the natural (and near-identical) replacement. If you want 4K gaming and extra power then the PS4 Pro is the one.
Whichever console base you choose, however, it's the games that really make PlayStation 4 the success it is. Whether you want VR, or just awesome original titles like Uncharted 4, then Sony has plenty on offer. Microsoft, with its Xbox One S, also muscles in to deliver a more powerful (not than PS4 Pro, though) and better media-equipped experience, again with some excellent first-party exclusives, such as Gears 4.
After three years ruling the roost, the original PS4 has served its time well. It'll be a great buy if you can find one for a bargain price, otherwise the future has already been laid-out by Sony with its all-powerful PS4 Pro. Give it another three years and we can't wait to see what other gems will become available on Sony's excellent platform.