Hardware review: PlayStation 4

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This is one console you’d love to have front and centre in your living room.

The next-generation is here, and about time too. It seems like an eternity that we’ve been subjected to jagged edges, sub-30 fps performance, texture pop-in and low-res textures to the point where it’s normally accepted that those of the glorious PC master race have held dominion in gaming performance.

That is exactly why console manufacturers have attempted to beat them at their own game. Since its announcement back in February, the PlayStation 4 seemed to a lot of people, me included, to be a PC slammed into a petite case. Is it so or does it manage to be more than that? Read on to find out.

As you may have been able to decipher from our ghetto unboxing, the PS4 is a small piece of kit. It’s gorgeous. This is one console you’d love to have front and centre in your living room. Shaped like an eraser (or rhombus depending on your grasp of geometry), it treads the fine line between the uber futuristic and the immediately tangible. It is abundantly clear that Sony has brought its A-game for industrial design. This is by far the slickest looking piece of tech I’ve had the pleasure of using this year.

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Veteran PS3 owners will be happy to know that there’s absolutely no lag when it comes to navigating the PSN Store front.

There’s a heady mix of matte and glossy finishes, angular power buttons and a sleek rear end with the bare minimum needed to get the job done. No extra USB ports, no SD card slot, no support for exotic formats like SACD, and perplexingly, no MP3 playback either. It’s clear that Sony wants this to be a gaming machine foremost and maybe, depending on public outcry, allow for certain media functionality via firmware updates (MP3 playback and media server features have already been confirmed by Sony via a future update).

Looks and puzzling multimedia support choices aside, booting it up was quick and going online even more so. Veteran PS3 owners will be happy to know that there’s absolutely no lag when it comes to navigating the PSN Store front. It’s as snappy as it gets. This may also have to do with the fact that there are few items available in the store given that this is still the launch window. Nonetheless, it’s nice to see that Sony managed to fix one of the glaring issues with the PS3.

But this isn’t all; the UI has gotten an overhaul as well. Instead of the XMB interface we’ve all known and (have come to) love, the fine folk at PlayStation have gone with something rather different. What you have in its place are horizontally aligned boxes. Tapping any one of these takes you to details such as a brief overview, recently added content, and of course, the option to fire up an app or game.

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Even in-game, you’ll never have a problem with operational acoustics. The PS4 is pleasantly silent.

On pressing up on the d-pad, you’ll be taken to the settings section, which is also a bunch of horizontally placed boxes that let you access the PlayStation Store, check your messages, privacy settings, and the like. While navigating the PS4’s interface is manageable, in part due to the fantastic hardware specs, there are a few niggles. I can’t help but feel that certain parts of the UI feel tacked on. Take notifications for example: if you were on a PC, a tablet or mobile, the moment you get notified of a certain action, like someone sending you a message, you can easily access it and reply immediately. Doing so here takes more steps than necessary.

Such minor issues aside, it’s simple enough to get most of what you need done. Installing a game off a disc is instantaneous and surprisingly quiet. I installed Killzone: Shadow Fall thrice and not once was I on the receiving end of that annoying whirring sound that last-gen consoles were notorious for. Even in-game, you’ll never have a problem with operational acoustics. It’s pleasantly silent.

All along the way, you’ll be using the new DualShock 4 controller. It improves over the DualShock 3 in almost every way. I use the term “almost” because if you’re the sort of person who spams R2 to sprint while playing FIFA 14, you’re in for a surprise. You’ll be pushing the R2 trigger a lot further than you’re used to. This aside, it’s perfect for shooters like Killzone: Shadow Fall, shoot ‘em ups like Resogun, and platformers like Contrast. The textured grip is a welcome addition, as is the extra space between analog sticks. And the build quality is solid while managing to be light in spite of having so many features crammed in.

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I clocked in eight hours regularly with the DualShock 4 before having to charge; a let down from what was possible with the DualShock 3.

So it’s a pity that the battery life isn’t up to the mark. I clocked in eight hours regularly with the DualShock 4 before having to charge; a let down from what was possible with the DualShock 3.You may have noticed the front touchpad; it has its uses in games like Killzone to command your drone to do your bidding, and using it was quick and responsive. There’s a built-in speaker to pipe out audio logs and other game related sounds, much like the Wiimote. A 3.5mm jack exists to which you can plug in the mono earphone Sony bundled with the console or something better. Sadly, neither my Nokia Colouds nor my Apple earpods worked with it.

My Vita worked with the PS4 flawlessly. Syncing up was a simple exercise of inputting an 8-digit code that the PS4 threw up on the Vita via the PS4 link app. It works well as a second screen, allowing for easier navigation of the console. I was able to play both Killzone and Resogun on the Vita with no perceptible performance lag. Your mileage may differ due to the fact that remote play is network dependent and that your control options might be hampered as the Vita has less input options vis-a-vis the DualShock 4.

Coming to the much-touted social integration, the PS4 constantly captures the last 15 minutes of your gameplay, and you can edit, trim, tag and upload that to Facebook in a jiffy. Even for someone like me, who loathes most forms of social functionality in gaming, I can definitely see myself sharing how appallingly bad I play video games. Keep in mind that the default settings for sharing enable all your friends and family on Facebook to see what games you’re firing up and Trophies you get. So unless you have a death wish, you’d want to tweak them so as to not spam everyone’s feeds.

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Even for someone like me, who loathes social functionality in gaming, I can definitely see myself sharing how appallingly bad I play.

If you’re the sort who prefers sharing your jollies on Twitter, you can. It’s limited to photos only given the microblogging platform’s limitations. In both cases, Facebook and Twitter, it’s amazingly simple to get started; all that’s needed is a press of the Share button. The same applies to live broadcasting. Creating a Twitch or UStream account is painless and streaming even more so.

If you were expecting a deeper set of options that go beyond merely broadcasting and basic video editing (in terms of video uploads), you’ll be disappointed. You can’t add audio sources, resize screens or throw in images as needed. It isn’t as full-fledged as what you can pull off on the PC, and if you were looking to capture PS4 gameplay footage to an external device, that isn’t possible due to the HDCP DRM implemented (which will be removed via a future patch). But if you’re looking for the most painless, fastest way to share gameplay videos and live broadcasts, it can’t get better than this. Sony has done a tremendous job on implementing this feature.

The tragedy is that, given the unreliable internet connectivity in India, it would be interesting to see how many of us in India make use of social and video integration. Unless ISPs across the country drop rates and up the ante on service, it’s quite unlikely that we’ll see wide-spread adoption of these features here.

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Despite having the Killzone: Shadow Fall disc, we were faced with a mandatory installation of around 40 GB.

On the topic of the internet and connectivity, it’s odd that the PS4 doesn’t let you pause downloads. Lose internet for a bit or take your PS4 to a friend’s place and boot it up without connecting an ethernet cable and your downloads will get corrupt, forcing you to start all over again. You’d assume that Sony would take care to ensure something as simple and basic as this was available out of the box, but it sadly is not.

Shipping with 500 GB of hard drive space, it would seem like enough to get you by. That is until you realise that most games have a hefty download/install size, all the way up to 41.8 GB in the case of NBA 2K14. Popular cross-gen games like Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag weigh in at 33.9GB and 21.2 GB respectively. You’d think that getting the disc versions of games would help save hard drive space, but that isn’t the case either. Despite having the Killzone: Shadow Fall disc, we were faced with a mandatory installation of around 40 GB. So if you buy lots of games, you’ll be filling up that hard drive pretty fast. In the case of digital downloads, be prepared to violate your ISP’s fair usage policy if you want to play them anytime soon.

So does Sony’s new black box herald the next-generation of video games in style or is it a damp squib that has you waiting? Between relatively semi-decent digital prices (third-party games at Rs 3,799, Sony first-party games at Rs 3,499), large download sizes, and cost-prohibitive physical copies, there is no compelling reason to bother right now. This isn’t even considering that India has no launch date or pricing yet.

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Sure, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a competent, fun shooter, but the lack of fresh, new titles is brutally obvious.

Barring a handful of cross-gen titles and a few slivers of download-only goodness in the form of Resogun and Contrast, the launch line-up is sparse. Sure, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a competent, fun shooter, but the lack of fresh, new titles is brutally obvious. Factor in that pricing at retail is highway robbery (EA’s titles are Rs 4,499 a pop) and you have more than a few reasons to give the PS4 a miss. For now at least.  Firmware updates are out thick and fast; it’s barely been 10 days and we’ve seen three already.

It will be interesting to see which direction Sony takes with what they’ve built. The hardware is solid and the infrastructure to connect, play and share exists, so it’s just a question of refining what’s available, pricing it right, and hoping that Indian ISPs up their offerings. But for now, you can’t be faulted for waiting it out. Yes, next-gen is here, but with some strings attached and conditions that apply.

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