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The next generation of gaming is finally upon us: The PlayStation 4, Sony's first new gaming console since 2006, is now available. And this is the console that PlayStation fans have been waiting for. With stunning visuals and a cleaner user interface, the PS4 is a significant step up from the PlayStation 3—for gaming. As for entertainment, it doesn't give you much more than the previous-generation PS3 offers.
Because consoles evolve over time, it's hard to fully assess the new PlayStation this early in the game—but there are plenty of exciting features we can talk about now. After several days of testing, here are our first impressions. And be sure to check our Xbox One review, along with our head-to-head comparison of the two new consoles.
For $400, you get the PlayStation 4 console (of course), and a power cord, an HDMI cable, the DualShock 4 controller and charging cable, and an earbud/microphone for chat. You also get a 30-day trial of PlayStation Plus and Music Unlimited, $10 to spend in the PlayStation Store, a quick-start guide, and a safety guide.
Setting up the PS4 is a fairly simple procedure: Plug in the power cord, plug in the HDMI cable, and power on. You're then walked through connecting your controller and connecting to the Internet, setting up your PlayStation Network account, and syncing your account with social-media services if you choose. You have the option to set up the PlayStation Camera if you’ve bought one, but it doesn’t come with the console. Then you're ready to start playing.
The back of the PS4 console has connections for HDMI, Ethernet, USB, and optical audio. On the front are two additional USB ports, along with the Blu-ray disc-loading slot and two buttons, Power and Eject, which are almost hidden—they’re small and narrow, and the labeling is even smaller.
A strip in the middle of the console lights up to indicate the PS4's status: It turns orange in standby mode, blue to indicate the system is powering up, and white when the system is on. It took between 22 and 24 seconds for the console to boot up, regardless of whether it was turned off or in standby mode—only slightly faster than the most recent version of the PlayStation 3.
The DualShock 4 controller, including the new thumbsticks and triggers, feels more comfortable to use than the previous-generation DualShock 3. It features an LED bar that lights up on the back to indicate different things. When charging, for example, the light is orange. The controller also has motion sensitivity, dual motors for rumble feedback, a built-in speaker, a headset jack, and a touchpad.
The Start and Select buttons have been replaced by the Options button. The share button is also new and lets you share clips of gameplay, screen shots, or a live video feed with friends.
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The PlayStation 4's Dynamic Menu is much simpler, cleaner, and easier to use than the PS3's Xross Media Bar (XMB) interface. First you choose which account to log into. If you have the PlayStation Camera, you can do this via facial recognition.
Upon login, you see a group of tiles that represent apps or games that are available to you. These tiles let you launch a game, launch the Web browser, see which live videos are being broadcast on Twitch and uStream, see what you're currently downloading, or see which games and apps are available in your library.
The tiles update to show your most recently used apps or played games first. Scrolling down from any of these tiles gives you more information about it. For example, if the tile represents a game you've played, you'll see which trophies you've unlocked and new available content. A tile called What's New, which looks similar to Facebook's timeline, shows you your friends’ recent activities and provides information on new and upcoming games.
Navigate up from these tiles to see a simple row of icons that allow you to access the PlayStation Store, check notifications, check your Friend's List, send messages, set up or join parties, check your trophies and compare them to your friends', edit your profile, and access system settings. Once you’ve started another application or game, you can press the PS button on the controller to quickly jump back and forth between the menu and that application.
All this works intuitively. If you have a lot of apps installed, though, the bar of apps could grow to be a bit unwieldy.
The PS4 is capable of an impressive level of detail. In the game KillZone Shadow Fall, for example, the amount of detail you can detect in subtle features such as skin texture and facial stubble, along with new lighting effects, make for very lifelike images. Not every game will take advantage of this, but the PS4 is capable of significantly better visuals than its predecessor.
Online gameplay works largely the same way as on the PS3. It took me some time to find online matches to play Assassin’s Creed IV—but the console hasn't officially launched yet, so it's a bit early to assess the online gaming environment. Also, your online gaming experience will vary depending on the strength of your network. That said, the provided earpiece and microphone worked well, and I had no trouble communicating with other players.
When it comes to making friends on the PlayStation Network (PSN), there are a few options. You can designate someone an Online Friend, which gives you access to his or her profile and screen name. If you want to get to know someone better, or if you know the player outside the gaming world, you can make them a Real Name friend: This lets you see real names and photos.
You can also sync your PSN account with your Facebook and Twitter accounts, so you can update and annoy your friends with your gaming accomplishments. The privacy settings can adjust to how much content you want to share (if any).
As for entertainment options, the PS4's streaming services include Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Redbox Instant, and Vudu. And you have access to Sony’s Video and Music Unlimited streaming services; the latter can be used to replace the soundtrack of a game with tunes of your choice.
Subscription fees for all of the streaming services apply, but you won’t need a PlayStation Plus account ($10 a month, $18 for 3 months, or $50 a year) to access them. Unfortunately, you will need a PlayStation Plus account to play online games on the PS4. (You will also need the Xbox Live gold membership to play online with the coming Xbox One.)
Some of the most touted features of the PlayStation 4 require accessories that don’t come with the console: the PlayStation App, PlayStation Camera, and PlayStation Vita. The PlayStation Camera is probably the chief offender, as it really does seem like it was supposed to be bundled with the console.
An app called Playroom, for example, which comes installed on the PS4, requires the Camera to work. If you open the app and don't have the Camera, you end up watching a video about how awesome the Camera is. The Camera is also used for facial recognition and voice commands. These seem like features that were meant to be integrated, not optional.
The free PlayStation App, which requires an Android or iOS mobile device, lets you send messages to friends and see what games they’ve been playing and what trophies they’ve earned. You can also use the Second Screen option from within the app: The function of this option changes depending on which game you're playing and which second-screen features are available for that game. For example, in The Playroom, you can draw toys on your touch screen and throw them onto the TV screen so you can interact with them. You can also use the app as a remote to navigate the PS4 menu.
The PlayStation Vita, Sony's handheld gaming device, is required for Remote Play: This means that you can stream compatible games from your PlayStation 4 to your PlayStation Vita. For best results, you’ll need a strong network connection, so don’t stray too far from your router. Sony also recommends that you connect the PS4 via Ethernet and make sure both devices are on the same wireless network for the best results.
Still deciding which new gaming console is right for you and your family? Our story, "Xbox One vs. PlayStation 4: How the features compare," can help.
The PlayStation 4's simple interface makes it easy to navigate the menus and find your content. The visuals are impressive and definitely a step up from those of the PlayStation 3. A strong focus on sharing content with friends lends itself to a fun social experience.
The PlayStation Plus account, though required for online gaming, is not required for most online features, such as video streaming. You can now navigate the menu and launch some applications while installing games and updates. And you no longer have to wait for a game to be fully downloaded to play it.
Some of the PS4's features require additional accessories, which add to the overall cost. Unlike with the PlayStation 3, a PlayStation Plus account is now required for playing games online.
A growing trend in the smart-device world is the ability to access and control your set-top box. This is absent from the PS4, especially noticeable as it's present in the Microsoft Xbox One and was even included in the Nintendo Wii U; still, some may not find it to be a deal breaker. You can't use external media other than Blu-ray and DVD playback; so no photos, streaming video, or music playback, at least for now.
Here’s the big question: Should you buy a PlayStation 4?
If you play only casually, you won't get a lot of entertainment options with the PS4 that aren't available on the PS3 and other cheaper devices. And some of the popular games available at launch, such as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Ghosts, are also available on the PS3. Finally, console launches can be a bit buggy. So you may want to wait to see if any issues present themselves before you make an expensive investment.
If you're a serious gamer and a fan of the PS4's exclusive games, though, then the answer is a resounding yes. The killer app for the PS4 might be Remote Play, so if you own a PlayStation Vita or are planning to get one for the holidays, that’s also a good reason to jump on the PS4.