It's been a long console generation. Developers made the PS3 and Xbox 360 systems last for as long as they could, which is remarkable when you realize the consoles have less RAM than most Smartphones these days. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One represent a large leap forward in terms of processing power and capabilities, and they take into account how much the digital landscape has changed since 2005. The PS4 is a very different beast than its predecessor, but in almost all ways, it's a marked improvement.
The PS4 is significantly more powerful than the PS3. We've been locked into the same specs and capabilities for seven years, and you can even see a difference on the PS4 launch titles. The games run at higher frame rates, with more objects on-screen, less loading, and a lot of minor visual and gameplay improvements. Anyone who has played high-end PS3 and Xbox 360 games can see them struggling to hit 30 fps or display about 780p.
While we can discuss the specs until we're blue in the face, it's safe to say that most game improvements are still to come. Games like Killzone: Shadow Fall look phenomenal, but many titles are tentative baby steps forward. There are a lot of areas in Assassin's Creed IV where it was clearly designed with the PS3/Xbox 360's limitations in mind. There isn't a game on the market yet that really sells the concept of a next-generation system, though Shadow Fall is a good graphics demo. On paper, the PS4 is more powerful than the Xbox One, but we won't see the impact of that for a few years.
The PS4 has a number of improvements over its predecessor. The system has a sleek, slightly angled, and incredibly small frame that makes it easy to fit in basically any entertainment system. It's an HDMI-only system and has an internal power supply, further limiting the wires and clutter. Unfortunately, most of its Bluetooth support seems limited, so you may be stuck if you want to use a remote control for its Blu-ray functions or a Bluetooth headset. You can directly plug headsets into the DualShock 4 controller, much like on the Xbox 360. It's not as quiet as the Xbox Ones, but it runs quieter than most of the previous-generation consoles, and it only has a noticeable spin-up when starting a game.
Speaking of the DualShock 4, it's a definite improvement over the last-generation effort. While I never had major problems with the DS3, the DS4 does everything better. The ergonomics are much improved. The sticks are slightly further apart and have comfortable grooves, the triggers are more like the Xbox 360's, and everything seems to have been considered with comfort in mind. The DS4 also has a simple touch pad that can function as additional buttons or a crude mouse interface. I'm conflicted about the touch pad because it works fine for simple movements like switching your OWL's modes in Killzone, but I'm not sold on its other features and capabilities. It will likely be limited to simple swipe movements, which is a boon but also a negative because it doesn't do much else. The controller charges quickly (and can finally charge with the system off), but it only seems to have about eight hours of charge. This isn't a huge problem unless you're a marathon gamer, but it means you'll need to charge it every night.
The Start and Select buttons have been replaced by Share and Option buttons. The Option button replaces Start for most functions. The Share button allows you to take screenshots, record video, and instantly broadcast to Twitch.tv or Ustream. It's a fun feature with a very low impact on performance. The PS4 has dedicated hardware that allows you to pull clips from previous minutes of gameplay, so you can quickly go back and save a video of an unexpectedly cool moment or trick. The video quality isn't the greatest, but it's a nice way to save your best moments. Screenshots can be uploaded to the social media service of your choice. Streaming allows you to play through games while friends watch and comment. I didn't notice any negative impact on my gameplay from the streaming, nor were there serious problems reported by the spectators. However, it takes exceedingly long for chat comments to show up, and several other promised features, like the ability to "take over" a friend's session, have not yet surfaced.
The user interface on the PS4 is a much-upgraded version of the PS3's XMB interface, and it's much easier on the eyes and much faster. Hopping in and out of games or exploring the menus is seamless. Signing in or out is a breeze, and you can have guest profiles added (and removed) from your PS4 in a few moments. However, it does retain some of the XMB's frustrating faults. Important system selections and menu options are buried deep within confusingly named menus. It took me a long time to find the download menu because it's buried under Notifications, along with a number of other features that should've had their own menu, like Friends. The games library is also cluttered and appears as a long horizontal list. Games are instantly installed, so if you own multiple games, even with the PS4's sparse library, it can become annoying. This will get much worse once the PS4 has a significant library.
There are a lot of minor changes to the online system, and they're both plusses and minuses. The PSN store is much faster and easier to browse, which is great after the problematic messes that were the PS Vita and PS3 stores. PSN friend lists have been boosted to 2,000 players, but there's relatively little in the way of organization. You can, by mutual consent, choose to use real names with real-life friends, but otherwise, you need to have a good memory for PSN usernames to keep everyone straight. The PlayStation Plus service is required for multiplayer gaming. This is a good deal since PlayStation Plus offers many free games and discounts on digital releases, but it might be tough for those who enjoyed PS3's lack of paywall on multiplayer. F2P games and digital services like Netflix are not gated behind the PSN+ barrier, so you still have a variety of options if you'd rather not pay a yearly fee. For those who love achievements, Trophies have been smoothed out and now include a rarity option, so it's easier to tell how difficult and valuable a trophy is.
The PS4's Remote Play capability with the PS Vita has been a subject of much of Sony's marketing. The handheld is doing poorly in comparison to Nintendo's 3DS, but Sony appears to be attempting to repurpose it as an accessory to the PS4 as well. Remote Play allows players to use the Vita as a second screen, almost like Wii U gamepad. The video from the games can be streamed directly to the Vita or used as a second screen in games that support it. The Remote Play seems almost lag-free, with only a moment of noticeable lag when played near the system. The further it goes, the more the lag seems to increase. It will be great for low-pace or turn-based games but may suffer for fast-paced action games. It's a good thing to let you play a bit of PS4 in bed before you go to sleep, but that's about it for now. The Vita uses its touch pad to replicate the functionality of the DualShock 4 controller, and while it works in a pinch, it's never quite as good as the real deal.
The PlayStation 4 system has a lot of potential. It's a sleek, stylish, and interesting machine. It has some problems and quirks, but most of them can be ironed out in patches or are otherwise nagging flaws instead of serious problems. Investing in a PS4 at this point is investing in future gaming, and given the lack of backward compatibility, you'll still need to keep your PS3 plugged in. Even with the new generation of consoles currently under way, we're really waiting to see how it shines. Infamous: Second Son, which will be released in March 2014, is likely to be the first "killer app" for the PS4. It's easy to be enamored with the PS4's huge potential.
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