Reassessing the Sony PlayStation 4

Posted on March 20, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Xbox, Xbox One with 0 Comments

Reassessing the Sony PlayStation 4

Two and a half years after I first purchased the PlayStation 4, I’ve dusted off Sony’s flagship console, renewed my PlayStation Network subscription, and purchased some games. And while I’m a long-time Xbox fan, I can understand the allure of a console that just works and performs better than the Xbox One.

I actually do this kind of reassessment regularly, and across a wide swath of products and services that compete with Microsoft’s offerings. What I don’t do that often is write about it: Instead, I use these experiences as background so I can more accurately determine how and where Microsoft beats the competition or falls short.

But as you may realize, sometimes this experience leads to a usage change: Witness my mid-2015 conversion to Dropbox as an obvious example. And my ongoing examination of iPhone and various Android handsets has certainly colored my view of the Windows phone platform, which has become comparatively lackluster, especially in the past year.

I’m not switching to the PS4, at least I don’t think so. But I literally use the Xbox One every single day, at least when I’m not traveling, and I’ve been very interested in Microsoft’s renewed PC push in recent months. But this is exactly why now was the right time to reevaluate PS4: How can I speak accurately to Microsoft’s new strategy if I’m not up to date on the market leader?

console

Looking back at my original review of PlayStation 4, I am somewhat surprised, in retrospect, by how much I liked it. (I must have moved onto the Xbox One shortly thereafter and never looked back.)

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.

Coming from the Xbox 360, which single-tasked like a Commodore 64, this multitasking functionality was eye-opening when I first experienced it. You can jump back to the home screen from within a game, instantly, and then jump right back into the game. The console manages apps and games like a mobile device, with system and game/app updates downloading in the background.

Now, the Xbox One provides this same sort of functionality, of course. But one of the biggest disappointments in Microsoft’s latest console—and, yes, this is still very much an issue with the recent New Xbox Experience update—is general system performance. When you bring the Xbox Guide up, for example, you … really … have … to … wait … for … it. It’s slow. But on the PS4, when you press the PlayStation button, the home screen comes up instantly.

That said, the home screen UI isn’t particularly elegant, and it has the same basic look that PlayStation consoles and handhelds have had for years. This is one area where I think Xbox One wins out, though I suppose you could argue that the iPhone-like simplicity of the PS4 UI works fine if you don’t have too many apps or games installed. (Microsoft also wins points for making it easier to access needed features on the fly with the Xbox Guide.)

The PS4 also doesn’t solve a problem I have—and admittedly, this won’t be a common issue—whereby I have no elegant way to access Microsoft’s media services, meaning Groove Music and Microsoft Movies & TV, in the living room. I actually purchased a (refurbished) Xbox One recently to test using the console in my living room, but the UI performance is so bad it’s almost unbearable. How a two-year old $99 Roku can outperform a console that originally sold for $500 is unclear to me.

(Sony’s media apps are not at all interesting to me, but the PS4 does off course support all the heavy-hitters—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and so on—and its PlayStation Music app “features” Spotify, whatever that means.)

One of the big reasons gamers stick with a particular platform is games, though of course both consoles have their share of high-quality game exclusives. I’ve always wanted to play the “Uncharted” series of games, and back in the PS3 days I was a big fan of the “Resistance: Fall of Man” titles, which I found in many ways to be better than “Gears of War” on the Xbox. (Plus you gotta love the combination of the “Call of Duty”-like, World War II-era with aliens.)

So I did pick up the “Uncharted Collection” and, for a better head-to-head comparison, “Call of Duty: Black Ops III,” which I’ve been playing pretty much non-stop on Xbox One since its November release.

Long story short, COD:BO3 is identical on PS4, at least in the multiplayer experience I stick with, and while I’ve seen a lot of smack talk about higher resolutions and frame rates on PS4, there is no evidence of that in BO3. (At least not in multiplayer.) It looks and plays identically.

(I think it’s fair to say that some PS4-specific games will take better advantages of the console’s superior performance, and that single-player games will generally offer better graphics and frame rates overall. That said, neither console is a candidate for 4K gaming, unlike high-end PCs.)

Of course, you will need to adjust to the controller. The PS4’s DualShock 4 controller is smallish and lighter compared to the Xbox One controller. But it’s workable, and once you get over the different button placements—the most obviously being that the left stick and d-pad positions are reversed—it’s not so bad. The PS4 controller also has a speaker, and in BO3, some game audio actually comes through the controller instead of the speakers, which I find very odd. (I turned this off.)

controller

Aside from performance, the biggest difference between the PS4 and the Xbox One is that Sony’s console is nearly silent, whereas the Microsoft box sounds like a 1972 Super Beetle, with a weirdly mechanical HDD ticking sounds that I don’t like. The PS4 emits a faint hum, yes, but it just seems—and sounds—more elegant than the hulking Xbox One. My kingdom for a fully SSD-based system.

Looking ahead, Sony has of course announced a PlayStation VR solution that looks a bit interesting, though I don’t feel the need to be on the leading edge of that. But I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t announced VR plans for Xbox One: It seems that VR is all the rage these days, and while this could go the way of Kinect—initially exciting, but then quickly found to be unimportant—Microsoft could find itself on the losing end of a big trend if they don’t figure this out. HoloLens isn’t an answer.

Ultimately, the big takeaway for me is that the PS4 is quiet and fast, while the Xbox One is slow and can be loud. (I am already imagining the feedback from people claiming to own silent Xbox One consoles.) And while both consoles are already benefiting from improved developer understanding of the respective platforms, the PS4’s technical and aesthetic leads are going to be problematic for this entire console generation. (I think this explains the Xbox strategy shift.)

Anyway, I’ll keep playing on the PS4 for the short term and see how it goes. But I can’t help but think that Sony’s console was an “oh shit” moment for Microsoft. And it’s been kind of scrambling ever since.

 

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