While it remains to be seen how the PlayStation 4 will stack up against Microsoft's Xbox One, it's clear that Sony has ticked all the right boxes for gamers with its new console. But the killer feature of this console isn't its game library, its entertainment apps or its connected online services. Instead, the PS4 succeeds through a combination of graphical prowess, processing muscle, and a profound new feature: The ability to do more than one thing at a time.
The PS4's killer feature? Multitasking
I know, it sounds like a little thing. But the immediate nature of everything you do on the PS4 stands in sharp contrast to the single-mindedness of previous generation consoles like the Xbox 360, which I've used almost daily for years, and the PS3. That is, previous consoles were designed to run only one app at a time, and while they can toss up notifications without too much trouble, moving back and forth between apps (including games) and the user interface is painfully slow.
This ability to multitask is indeed profound, and a huge differentiator between these devices and their predecessors. On the Xbox 360, if you are playing a game like "Call of Duty: Ghosts" and wish to do anything more complex than view a few simple overlay settings screens, you need to shut down the current app (Ghosts), wait for the Dashboard UI to laboriously load, and then navigate to whatever experience it is you wish to see. With the PS4—and the Xbox One, which I don't have yet—you can do this instantly. Just tap the PlayStation button on the controller and you're back at the home screen. The game keeps going in the background.
Eventually, of course, apps need to be closed. And in this way, the PS4 operates somewhat like a mobile OS such as Android or iOS. But if a top-level app (like a game, Netflix, or whatever) needs to be shut down before you can do something else, the system will warn you of this fact.
The PS4's ability to multitask has other benefits, too. System and game/app updates download in the background, mitigating another huge issue Xbox 360 users experience almost daily: The dull wait when you have to update whatever app/game, or even the console, before you can start playing. So when you run "Ghosts" on the PS4, you can just play the game. You don't need to wait.
Beyond this freeing multitasking capability, the PS4 is decidedly old-school, and you can trace its combination of a box, a controller, output to a screen, and onboard storage all the way back to the Magnavox and Atari proto-consoles of the 1970s. Like the original Xbox, the PS4 is basically a PC designed for the living room, and while it's not completely silent, it's much quieter than even the latest generation Xbox 360. This is much appreciated.
Sony's new PS4 user interface is simple to the point of being almost too simplistic, a Sony-esque take on Microsoft's Media Center UI from a decade ago. And while one might logically point out that the ability to navigate both horizontally and vertically through simple menus makes sense given the confines of the controller most people will use to control this interface, I will point to the Xbox 360/Xbox One Dashboards as evidence that such an interface can be both better looking and richer.
This UI is not distracting, but I think the big issue is that there's not much to distract you anyway. Sony only provides a handful of entertainment apps for the console and the game library is of course pretty small at the moment. That's understandable, but the issue is further exacerbated by the fact that the PS4—like the Xbox One—is not compatible with games designed for its predecessor. This means that PlayStation fans will need to keep two consoles around for the time being.
(This situation will make switching between console families at bit easier too, of course. But since both of the new consoles lack backwards compatibility, it's unclear whether this is an advantage for either.)
Of course, PlayStation users will see the PS4 interface as an evolution of what came before and will likely not take issue with it.
Games and entertainment apps
As is so often the case at a console launch, the PS4 comes into this world will very little in the way of original content. The biggest blockbuster games—Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag—are all cross-platform and had shipped before the PS4 was even available. I did check out a couple of PS4 exclusives, however, including Killzone: Shadow Fall (an A-List shooter) and Resogun, which is basically a modern version of Defender.
Killzone multiplayer is nothing special
Sony has a decent online store, and you can of course download all PS4 games, including the A-Listers, directly from the console. This may take a while—Ghosts, for example, was several gigabytes big—but I give Sony some credit for supporting both the old and then new when it comes to software distribution. They also have a revolving selection of available free games. For example, I was able to pick up Resogun, normally $15, for free.
Out of the gate, the PS4 ships with a handful of "TV & Video" apps, like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus and Netflix. Nothing surprising here, though the Netflix interface is gorgeous (and is coming soon to other devices soon, I'm told).
Basically, what we're seeing here is the usual launch time bleakness. The Xbox One will have similar issues, so no harm no foul.
Hardware, bundled and optional
Like other video game consoles, the PS4 console comes bundled with a single controller, in this case the Dual Shock 4, and a power supply. Unexpectedly, it also includes an HDMI cable—nice touch that—and a single ear headset with microphone, which connects to the controller so you can chat during games. It's nothing special, but better than nothing.
That Dual Shock 4 controller is excellent: Check out Xbox vs. PlayStation: A Tale of Two Controllers for the details.
Inside the box, the PS4 is basically a high-end PC: It features an 8-core AMD microprocessor, 8 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive and a Blu-Ray optical drive. Connectivity includes two USB 3.0 ports on the front, HDMI video out, gigabit Ethernet (and 802.11 b/g/n wireless) and Bluetooth 2.1.
The PS4 does not ship with the PlayStation Camera, a $60 add-on that provides ... voice recognition and visual recognition for ... something. I've tested this only a bit, but it's clearly under-utilized and nowhere near as full-featured as Microsoft's Kinect. I don't recommend bothering with this device.
You can also connect your PS Vita to the console and use it as a Remote Play client. I'll be testing this intriguing second screen solution soon, but it sounds promising.
And finally, you can apparently plug keyboards and other devices into the PS4's USB 3.0 ports, but a storage device like a USB memory key or hard drive, inexplicably, does nothing. Since this worked with the PS3, I assume it's coming.
The Sony PlayStation 4 will appeal to current PlayStation fans, who don't need my review to guide them. For the Xbox faithful, there's precious little pull here. The PS4 is solid, powerful and elegant, but it appears to offer only a subset of what Microsoft will deliver soon with the Xbox One. I'll need to review that console to be sure, but my summary on PS4 is that while there are no major issues, there's no major draw either. I don't see Xbox 360 users moving en masse to this device.
But don't take that the wrong way: The PS4 is the best PlayStation yet and it's going to improve over time. I'll be watching to see what develops, and will continue to compare individual PS4 features with what's available on the Xbox One going forward.
Highly recommended, though Xbox fans will probably be better served by the Xbox One.