Dabe Alan / Sony

Less expensive, more powerful, fully operational: PAR talks PlayStation 4

Less expensive, more powerful, fully operational: PAR talks PlayStation 4

The PlayStation 4 is a system for games.

That shouldn’t be a statement that needs to be made, but Microsoft has spent years fighting a war for your living room, and the Xbox One is a full-frontal assault on everything from you cable box to other consoles. It’s the most expensive console on the market. It comes with a Kinect, and will do many things that aren’t games.

Sony isn’t really interested in any of that.

The PlayStation 4 is much smaller in person than you expect, and the packaging is unassuming. The system comes with a controller with a USB cable, an HDMI cable, and a power cable. There is no external power brick. There are no thick books of documentation. It comes with a code that gives you 30 days of PlayStation Plus, 30 days of Music Unlimited to stream music, and $10 to spend in the PlayStation Store.

Sony wants you online and using its services in the worst way, and giving the first hit for free is a great way to do so. Setting up the console is a breeze, and the box comes with everything you need to get up and running. It’s a non-flashy package, and simple to understand.

Unfortunately, the only way the press had to experience the firmware and UI was in a controlled demo in a hotel in New York; we won’t get a chance to try all of these features in our own systems until the system launches on Friday. The firmware has since been released, but we've had precious little time to dig in. Consider this a first-impressions post, with much more testing to come.

But what I've seen is already fascinating. The system makes it simple for anyone to stream their game through Twitch or Ustream, and with the optional camera you can talk to the audience and interact through video as you play. None of this is revolutionary, but the fact that it’s built in and so seamless means that anyone, without the need of optional equipment, will be able to stream their content for friends or anyone who wants to watch. Quality, it must be said, will be highly dependent on your Internet connection.

The “Share” button is right there on the controller, showing just how important these features are to the system.

The Sony representative giving the demo threw out the fact that the GPU is “50 percent more” than other consoles on the market, and there’s that. If the holy grail is 1080p running at 60fps, few games will be able to deliver the goods on either system. inFAMOUS: Second Son is running at 30 frames per second. Killzone: Shadow Fall runs between 30 and 60 frames per second. Assassin’s Creed 4 runs at 30 frames per second, although you may see a few dips if you’re in heavy naval combat.

All of these games look fantastic, and Sony has certainly delivered a system that can run games natively at 1080p, a feat that the Xbox One struggles with in many multiplatform games. But 1080p at 60 frames per second? That’s going to be rare on either platform. Based on the launch lineup, though, Sony will be able to get closer, more often. It's also the system with more games that run at 1080p natively, at least at launch.

Make no mistake, everything I've seen and everyone I've spoken to makes it clear that the PlayStation 4 has more brute strength than the Xbox One. Your choice will be easy if you're interested purely in graphics.

I’m going to stress that this is a problem for number crunchers more than gamers. I only learned of most of these stats after asking the developers as we chatted during my play sessions, I didn't see any graphical issues that would keep me from enjoying the games. If you want most, if not all, of your games to run at 1080p at 60 fps it's time to build a PC. 

The system will get better with age

Still, you can see the rough edges and missed opportunities in the firmware. You can set up parental controls, but you can only go by ratings; there is no way to whitelist individual games. Many of the voice commands that come with the camera aren't operational yet. There is no IR port for remote controls. There is no support for audio CDs or media streaming.

You can capture and upload video of your game play sessions, but the only place you can send that video is Facebook.

The system will go online every night between the hours of 2 and 3 a.m. to check for firmware updates and will apply them without you needing to interact with the system. That feature is standard. If you pay for PlayStation Plus, however, the system will also look for new content and updates to all the games you’ve played in the past three months and will automatically download and apply these updates.

In fact, the system will make getting all sorts of content easier. If you purchase the new Call of Duty via the PlayStation Store, for instance, you can choose to download the single- or multiplayer aspect of the game first, and begin playing when the download is still going on. It will download the rest of the content in the background, as you enjoy the game.

You do need to buy PlayStation Plus to play online multiplayer, but Sony doesn’t hide features like Netflix behind their for-pay service; the PlayStation 4 does much more out of the box without paying anything extra.

Contrast this with Microsoft pushing nearly everything behind pay walls, and Sony ends up with a much friendlier system. You can argue that the PlayStation 4 is more limited, as it can’t be used to play music CDs or stream content or deal with your MP3s… but it plays games. That’s the entire point. If you want something that does everything else, you came to the wrong place.

Microsoft’s claims that they’re the only system that can put a game on hold so you can multitask? Sony showed off a feature where you can swap between the game and any single application on the fly; so you can double-tap the PS button to switch between the game you’re playing and a web browser. It’s not quite as comprehensive as Microsoft’s solution, but for most of your needs it will do just fine.

This is the trend when it comes to the PlayStation 4: It doesn’t do as much as the Xbox One, but who said it had to? It’s a well-designed, often elegant piece of hardware with more power than its competitor while still costing $100 less. The experience out of the box is simple and easy to understand. It's a system that wants to be plugged in and played. It doesn't want to drive your entire home theater, it just wants to let you play some games.

Heck, you can even have up to 2,000 people on your friends list now, and there is the ability to become real-name friends. You both have to opt into this system, but it will display the real name of each player next to their tag. I can't tell you how much I love this feature; it gets hard remembering the face behind “Doomkiller55.”

The question is whether that will be enough. The Xbox One can do some cool things with that built-in Kinect, and Microsoft has shown itself to be willing to throw money at exclusives in an attempt to win the fight for the best software. We'll be talking about that system in the coming days.

The PlayStation 4, in contrast, is a simpler system, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s smaller, easy to set up, and doesn’t come with anything you don’t need. It focuses on games and, at least in the initial batch of games, it’s delivering more power. You need to pay for PlayStation Plus to play online, but Sony refused to hide other features behind a pay wall, and you get Resogun and Contrast free on day one with your subscription.

I've been playing games, interviewing developers, and traveling for the past 48 hours, so expect more stories from now until launch covering many of the features and games of the PlayStation 4. If you have questions, please ask in the comments. Sony wanted to focus on games, and by God they've succeeded in that goal. This is a hell of a system.