Over two years ago, I took another look at the PlayStation 4. But a lot has changed since then. How does Sony’s console stack up today, almost five years after I first purchased it?
Pretty well, actually. It is the market leader, after all.
But in reviewing the evolution of both platforms, I’m most struck by how similar Sony’s strategy is to Microsoft’s, from a high level.
Consider the hardware.
As they did with previous-generation consoles, both companies have moved to slimmer, cost-reduced versions since the initial releases. These are the Xbox One S and the PlayStation 4 Slim Edition. And each is notably better looking than their predecessors, though Microsoft had a much bigger challenge to overcome as the original Xbox One was overly large and plain-looking.
Perhaps more intriguingly, both companies have likewise added a second, higher-end model that adds 4K graphics but retains backward compatibility with the original-generation consoles, creating a family of solutions. Here, Microsoft outdid Sony: The Xbox One X is a beast, in a good way, and games tailored for this console attains true 4K resolutions much more frequently than is the case with Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro.
So things have changed quite a bit in two years: In 2016, Sony’s then-current console was quiet and fast, while the Xbox One was hulking and loud. Today, the entry-level Xbox One S, what I once called “the perfect thing,” is subjectively the most beautiful of any of the current-generation consoles. And the Xbox One X is objectively superior to—e.g. more powerful than—the PS4 Pro. That’s a nice turnaround for Microsoft. One that was very sorely needed.
On the services side of the equation, we see a similar push forward by both companies. Each has long had free online services, like PlayStation Network for Sony and Xbox Live for Microsoft. These both come with paid subscription tiers—PlayStation Plus for Sony and Xbox Live Gold for Microsoft—that have evolved, over time, into rewards programs, of sorts for fans and members. For example, each firm likewise offers free games each month to its paid subscribers, like Games with Gold on the Microsoft side.
(The free games you get from Sony will only work while you’re a paying PS Plus subscriber, however. Microsoft lets you keep any games you get from Games with Gold, regardless of the status of your subscription. UPDATE: As a commenter pointed out, you actually do lose Xbox One games if you let your Xbox Live Gold subscription lapse. That said, you can access and play your previously redeemed Games with Gold titles again if you resubscribe.)
Both firms also now offer Spotify-style game subscription services that I think hint at the future of both platforms. Thurrott.com readers are probably familiar with Xbox Game Pass—I think of it as Xbox’s crown jewel—but Sony’s service, PlayStation Now, launched first, and it has many more games.
The two services are similar thematically, in that they offer subscribers access to a library of games for a low monthly fee. But they are implemented very differently: Sony’s is a streaming service, whereas Microsoft’s requires you to download games to your console before you can play. There are pros and cons to each approach, but I feel like both capabilities—streaming and downloading—are important. And I’d be surprised if each service didn’t add the capability it’s currently missing over time.
Regardless of the differences, Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now are both valuable to loyal fans of each platform for the same reasons. That is, in addition to the obvious—the games library—they provide a nice way for owners of the latest consoles to play games that were designed for previous-generation consoles too.
There’s even some PC compatibility here. PlayStation Now works on Windows 10 PCs. And on the Microsoft side of the fence, Xbox Play Anywhere games work on both the Xbox One and Windows 10. And Microsoft has promised a future of true hardware-agnostic gaming. That said, cross-play is a bit limited if not outright problematic. And Sony has been very antagonistic to those who wish to play games across platforms, as any Minecraft or Fortnite fan can tell you.
And then there are the actual games. This is perhaps the most contentious issue to discuss when comparing these platforms.
Many will claim that Sony’s biggest strength is the PlayStation 4’s software library: The firm has more exclusives than Microsoft does. And the platform also supports a VR capability that is never coming to Xbox One. Sure.
But like most, I don’t personally care about VR gaming. And with rare exceptions—Call of Duty DLC content launches first on PlayStation, for example—I’ve never felt like I’m missing out in any way. The Xbox games lineup is excellent. I feel like the two platforms are roughly in the same place, though the subjective nature of which games or which kind of games you like may skew things toward Sony. Or towards Microsoft.
Anyway, I wanted to take another look at the PS4. This is potentially expensive. I own a first-generation PS4, not the Slim Edition or a PS4 Pro. I don’t subscribe to PS Plus, which costs $60 per year. Or to PS Now, which costs $100 per year. I’m just trying to check this thing out, not make an investment in Sony.
So as I did two years ago: I literally dusted off my PlayStation 4, fired it up, and updated it to the latest system software, after suffering through a complaint about it not being shut down properly last time. My immediate observations were familiar: I feel like the dated PS4 user interface is in desperate need of a more modern makeover. And I very much prefer the Xbox One hand controllers.
Neither issue is insurmountable. Indeed, if you accept the fact that the console’s home screen, like that of a smartphone, is really just a thing that stands between you and what you wish to do, then you can stop worrying about what that looks like and just jump into a game. And after just a day of use, I found myself getting used to the PS4 controller layout, in which the left thumbstick and d-pad are “reversed” when compared to Microsoft’s controllers. This is probably a great way to get carpal tunnel syndrome.
(Also, the PS4 controller thumbsticks get slippery, which is an issue I don’t have with the Xbox One controllers.)
Contrary to my comments of two years ago, my first-generation PS4 is no longer quieter than my Xbox One consoles: The Xbox One S and Xbox One X are almost always notably silent. The PS4 emits a low but regular hum. And a more sustained and lower fan sound when playing games. (This is perhaps unfair, since I’m using a console that is literally almost five years old here. But it’s happening.)
For comparison’s sake—I do this stuff for science, folks—I checked out Call of Duty: WWII, which is the game I’m currently playing on Xbox One X. And some older COD games—Ghosts, Black Ops III, and Modern Warfare Remastered—that I already had on the PS4 too. It is literally identical to the Xbox version in every way imaginable—graphics quality, play, performance, etc.—though I find it very irritating that I cannot globally silence the other players; on PS4, you need to do that manually for each player in every game. Sigh.
I’ll keep playing: I figure I can stick to the PS4 for a week or so, at least. And then maybe I’ll move on to the Nintendo Switch. After all, I do have a big trip coming up, and a portable games system is of interest.