Seven years after its PlayStation 3 was unleashed upon the world, Sony's PlayStation 4 has arrived. It's a sleek, smart piece of hardware, full of next-generation components and features. It also represents a return to form for Sony – a system developed to play games, and to play them damn well.
For your cool $400 (plus applicable taxes), you get a PlayStation 4 console, complete with 500GB hard drive, 8GB of RAM, a DualShock 4 controller, an HDMI cable, an AC cord, a mono headset and a USB cable. It also comes with a voucher for free 30-day subscriptions to PlayStation Plus and Sony's Music Unlimited service, and a $10 credit to score games or accessories from the PlayStation store.
The hardware design is striking; the rhombus-like shape of the console is futuristic yet accessible, with a sensibility that harkens back to the PlayStation 2. Plug it in and a sleek strip of pulsing blue LED lighting runs through the middle of the console to signal that it's booting up; when it's on, the strip becomes a solid white light, and when it's in standby mode the light reverts to orange. (Tron-esque, one might call it.) Conveniently, the power brick is built into the console itself, meaning the cord is just a cord and a plug.
The DualShock 4 controller is a huge improvement over its predecessor. It's comfortable to hold, with a rubberized underside and longer handles. The analog sticks feel springier, the triggers grippier and the buttons clickier. A clickable capacitive touchpad sits in the middle of the controller, and a Share button lets you upload screens and video of your digital accomplishments (more on that later). There's also a speaker built into the controller that's used, for instance, to read aloud audio journals you find around the Killzone: Shadow Fall gameworld. Overall, it is the best DualShock to date, by a wide margin.
Getting around the PS4 is intuitive, and another big leap beyond the PS3's confusing XMB interface. The main menu is essentially a news feed for all of your friends' latest activities, and the layout is surprisingly easy on the eyes. Pressed once, the home button on the DualShock 4 takes you back to the dashboard; pressed twice, it allows you to multitask, moving you swiftly between your two most recent apps. Everything is speedy and fluid, with clearly delineated categories for gaming, watching movies and friend interactions. You'll need to download a system patch on day one, but it loads while you're completing the initial system setup.
If you purchase the optional PlayStation Camera ($60), you'll also get some of the features made famous by Microsoft Kinect. Automatic face detection will log you into the console for your account, and a nifty app called Sony PlayRoom lets you mess around with some cool augmented reality toys. You can, for instance, draw a shape on your Android tablet or PlayStation Vita and flick it onto the screen; it will transform into an interactive 3D object that you can bat around the screen using your hands. No, it's not really a game, but yes it will definitely impress your friends at parties.
Another nice feature: when you're playing on a friend's machine, you can choose to play as guest and sign in on your own account. It automatically wipes all of your data when you're done playing.
While it's tough to gauge entirely, launch games like Killzone: Shadow Fall serve as an impressive demonstration of the PS4 hardware. There's an incredible amount of detail and texture in the game, which runs at 60 frames-per-second and in full 1080p (in fact, most of the PS4 launch titles, including heavy hitters like Battlefield 4 and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, run at 60FPS/1080p). While the hardware inside obviously isn't quite up to the specs of a high-end, $3,000 PC setup, the deep integration of all the components and software help it make up some of the difference with increased efficiency.
One of the PS4's best features is the ability to share your exploits with the rest of the world. The console automatically records up to 15 minutes of your gameplay; hit the Share button, and you can trim that footage and upload it to Facebook with a few button presses. (Same deal with screenshots.) You can even broadcast live gameplay sessions on Twitch or Ustream.
As mentioned, the PlayStation Camera doesn't come with the console, and isn't quite as advanced as Kinect. You can't power up the machine from sleep mode by yelling at it, for instance, and none of the launch third-party apps seem to make much use of voice or gesture commands.
When comparing it to Microsoft's upcoming Xbox One, which interacts directly with your cable box, the PS4 seems fairly bare bones when it comes to becoming the brain of your living room entertainment setup. Yes, it has Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and Redbox Instant streaming. Sony's Videos Unlimited adds to the wealth of cinematic content, too, and there are apps for everything from anime (Crunchyroll) to the NBA (NBA Game Time), which is good.
Musically, however, the console seems a bit challenged. There's currently no way to stream MP3s from your PC, or load them onto the PS4 hard drive. Unless you have a separate sound source in your living room for listening to music, you'll need to subscribe to Sony's Music Unlimited service, which is like Spotify or Rdio, and for which subscriptions range from $4.99 to $9.99 a month. Yes, it's good that these tunes can stream directly into your games, effectively replacing their soundtracks with your custom playlists, but not having another option is disappointing. It won't even play audio CDs.
The PlayStation 4 is undeniably an impressive piece of hardware. It's been engineered from the ground-up as a machine built for the modern gamer, and while "future-proofing" is of course a relative term, it feels like a console that will remain plenty capable over the years to come. It's not quite the ultimate living room hub, but the sharing features are smart and intuitive, and a newly invigorated Sony seems committed to listening to its userbase and evolving the experience over time. This fact, combined with the sheer power under the hood, should make for a bountiful next-gen PlayStation.