Sony's PlayStation 3 (PS3) had something of a rough start, quickly losing both market share and mindshare to Microsoft's Xbox 360 in its early days. But the console finished strong, with excellent, exclusive games like 'Journey' and 'The Last of Us,' and a much-improved second iteration of its hardware. Sales started to even out across the two consoles and have remained close ever since.
On Friday, November 15 – a week before Microsoft launches its competition with Xbox One – Sony rolls out its latest gaming console: the PlayStation 4 (PS4). The result is a machine that brings back the tingle of the original PlayStation, a console built explicitly for video games. Yes, it can do other stuff – streaming video and audio apps are available, and the prospect of 4K video is exciting – but more than anything, for better or worse, this feels more like a gaming console and less like a media center.
Aesthetically, the hardware is a striking piece of industrial design. After inspiring the travesty that was the PlayStation 3 George Foreman Grill, Sony's hardware design team has made amends with a console that will look handsome on any piece of furniture that holds it. The lines are sharp and angular without being severe, and there are brilliant details like no visible screws on the machine (they're recessed under the outer shell). The console looks futuristic and forward-thinking, just as a gaming console should. It can lay flat or stand vertically, but you'll need to purchase an $18 stand if you prefer the latter. The power brick has been smartly designed to sit inside the console, saving you from another clunky external box to find a place for.
The DualShock 4 controller, which appears fairly similar to the DualShock 3 before it, is actually a significant leap forward. The overall feel and comfort is much improved, with juicier triggers and more buoyant analog sticks that are more precise. In the middle of the controller is a clickable capacitive touchpad; swiping it can be used, for example, to switch between items in a game. An LED that sits atop it allows the controller to interact with Sony's PlayStation Camera (unlike Microsoft's Kinect, which comes with the Xbox One, you'll have to pay $60 extra for it).
Sony has come a long way with its interface: Getting around the PS4 is clean and clear, and the whole experience is much more user-friendly than it ever was on PS3. You can upload screenshots or up to 15 minutes of gameplay video to Facebook with a press of the Share button and a quick trim (significantly, you can easily post to a group of Facebook friends that will appreciate it, rather than spamming your whole Friends List). You can even broadcast any gaming session, inviting others to come watch you game in real time, via either Ustream or Twitch. It's all extremely slick and smartly integrated.
And then, of course, there's the launch lineup of games. Unsurprisingly, Sony has managed to hit most of the big genres right out of the gate: First-person shooter fanatics get the visually stunning 'Killzone: Shadow Fall,' along with 'Battlefield 4' and 'Call of Duty: Ghosts,' while sports gamers get 'Madden NFL 25,' 'FIFA 14,' and 'NBA 2K14.' 'Need for Speed Rivals' is the sole racing title available at launch, and old-school space shooters will definitely want to check out downloadable title 'Resogun.' 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag' is a graphically enhanced version of the recent PS3 release. There's family-friendly stuff as well – 'Knack' and 'LEGO Marvel Superheroes,' to name a couple – if you need an excuse to buy yourself a console. The games all run in 1080p HD and look, as expected, very good – essentially what you'd get out of a solidly high-spec PC.
Also extremely cool, for when the small screen is preferable: Pretty much any game can be streamed directly from your PS4 to your PlayStation Vita, as long as they're both connected to the same WiFi network. Never again will you be forced to watch another episode of 'Real Housewives' if your significant other wants to use the main TV.
As mentioned, there's also a fairly standard slate of nongaming content available. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, and Redbox Instant streaming are all accounted for, along with Sony's own Videos Unlimited, as well as apps like NBA Game Time and NHL Gamecenter. You can play any DVD or Blu-ray disc, but for some reason you can't play an audio CD in the console, or even stream mp3s from your PC; in fact, if you want to use your PS4 to listen to music, you'll need to subscribe to Sony's Music Unlimited service, which is a lot like Spotify (subscriptions range from $4.99 to $9.99 a month). It's unclear whether or not this situation will persist beyond launch, but for now it feels rather limiting.
Deciding between the two next-gen consoles isn't easy; they house similar hardware components, making them rough equals when it comes to sheer performance. Both have 8GB or RAM and 500GB hard drives. Both make use of motion-tracking cameras (though at this point Microsoft Kinect, which comes bundled with the Xbox One, seems more fully integrated than the PlayStation Camera). Neither console is backwards compatible, but Sony has promised to enable PS4 players to stream PS3 titles from the cloud next year via its Gaikai service. The main difference, other than $100 in price, is that the Xbox One wants to become the center of your living room media center, while PS4 mainly just wants to play. Let the games begin. [$400; us.playstation.com]