This review has been updated with the advantage of another six months usage
Sony’s PlayStations need little introduction to anyone even peripherally interested in gaming. The PlayStation 4 was announced in February 2013 and went on to launch in November that year. The latest round of the console wars has turned out to be a competition between it and the Xbox One and coming up on two years in the PS4 has a commanding lead. We have spent the last six months using the PS4 for gaming and other entertainment and it has been a pleasure.
Technically the PS4 uses an integrated CPU and GPU made in conjunction with AMD and has a structure and internal design which is deliberately very similar to that of a PC. This makes it easier for developers by being somewhat familiar on first use and makes porting to the PC and back more straightforward as shown off well by CD Projeckt Red with the Witcher 3.
Like its PS3 predecessor the PS4 has a read only Blu-ray drive which can now read and output video at up to 4k. It will not currently (nor in the near future) allow games to be of that resolution. Internally it has 8GB of RAM and a 500gb user upgradable hard disk drive.
The PS4’s connectivity comes from both wired (ethernet) and wifi (802.11 b/g/n) connectivity as well as built-in Bluetooth and two USB 3.0 ports. It also has a Aux port for the PlayStation Camera. The camera, actually two cameras for depth perception, is interchangeable with the PS3. The PS4 will also work with smart phones via an app to pre-load and setup games and with the PlayStation Vita hand-held gaming system to play games remotely. A separate streaming box called the PlayStation TV can also be purchased which lets you stream PS4 games to a second TV.
DualShock 4 controller
Perhaps the most important part of any console is the controller and the PS4’s controller is called the DualShock4. It connects with the PS4 via bluetooth 2.1 and unusually has a 2 point clickable touch pad on its face. The buttons are well laid out and as well as the normal sticks, action buttons and triggers we get an options button and a dedicated share button.
Internally the controller has a 3 axis gyroscope, accelerometer and rumblepack. It also has a LED on the front (facing away from the player) which can be used by the PlayStation Camera and flashes different colours depending on play. For audio it has a 3.5mm stereo headset and microphone socket allowing you to plug in a headset with mic. The controller also has a small mono-speaker built into it, although this seems to be more for feedback in menus than in-game use. This speaker’s volume can be individually controlled in the menu system and the LED can be dimmed.
The Dualshock4 is powered by an internal and non-removable 1000mAh battery. This is charged via a micro-usb port and the controller can operate directly via the power received on a micro-usb cable even if the battery is totally empty.
Design & Visual Accessibility
There are two sides to the design of the PlayStation 4 – the hardware and the software. The PS4 is a black matt angled box 275 x 53 x 305mm. It keeps the majority of its ports on the back with two slightly hidden USB ports and the DVD slot on the front. It weighs 2.8kg which is light enough to move on the rare occasions you might want to but heavy enough that it is stable.
It has air vents on the side and back but not on the top, front or base. There is a line LED that runs along the front and top middle of the unit that glows when the PS4 is in use or in a rest state. This LED cannot be disabled but could be covered up if there was an issue with it, however, it is subtle and I found it helpful for determining with a glance whether the PS4 is on, off or on standby.
The PS4’s software is by default reasonably accessible. It uses a consistent set of controls and key bindings that are intuitive to any console user and tries to be as helpful as possible. For example, if you put in a game DVD it has not seen before it will automatically install it, check for and install any updates.
Visually the PS4 menu system uses a blue background with medium size white text as part of a theme called Flow. This theme can have its colours changed to one of eight options or you can download one of a number of alternative themes directly from the PlayStation Store.
It is not possible to change text size or font independently. In the longer term it would be very good to see a specific accessible theme written by Sony or a third party with larger text, higher contrast and accessible fonts and there is no reason this cannot be done.
Audio & Accessibility
The main PS4 unit does not have any speakers or microphones built into it and uses the TV’s audio output by default via HDMI. The system music and tones can be individually switched off in the settings and are by default on.
In operation the base unit has a slight hum and a distinct whirring when the DVD drive is in use. This is relatively quiet and on a par or slightly better than most systems that have an optical drive built into them. It is significantly quieter than the previous generation of consoles. There is a certain amount of fan noise, particularly when it is being put under strain of doing multiple things but again this is quieter than the last generation and is dynamic – when the system is not in heavy use the fan noise fades to nearly nothing. When running high It is an accessible product for anyone who suffers from hyperacusis and is sensitive to noise.
The Dualshock4 controller has a mono speaker built into it for menu feedback but this is not particularly loud – to the degree that it took me a while to notice it with the TV noise. Headphones can be plugged into the controller and Sony has used the industry standard 3.5mm jack socket so almost any pair of headphones that you have and like can be used. If you are using specialist headphones for a mild to moderate hearing impairment, this can either be plugged into the controller if it has a 3.5mm jack or if it is paired with the TV, it will also be integrated with the PS4 as it uses the TV’s audio output.
Individual games have differing audio requirements and accessibility but Sony’s operating system and menu’s do not have any required audio component and can be used muted with no difficulty. In addition the menu system has no particularly disturbing or high-pitched sounds of any type.
Input and Touch
By default the PS4 uses the bundled Dualshock4 controller for all system and in game commands. It is clearly an evolution of the PS3’s controller and feels nice, very responsive and is straightforward to use. The addition of the touch pad is interesting, but I don’t think that we have seen the killer application for it yet. It would be nice to be able to use it in the web-browser for example and gestures on it would be a bonus. As with all controllers you need to check if it will work well for you but the Dualshock4 does feel like a quality device that is ergonomic and comfortable to use.
The PS4 supports alternative control arrangements, including USB keyboards and mice (or trackball) with no more complexity than simply plugging them in. This also includes at least some USB wireless keyboards and mice and I found its particularly useful when using the browser built into the system on the web.
Voice control is also supported, although with the exception of the bundled headset it does not have a microphone out of the box. The voice control will work both with the PlayStation Camera or using a 3.5mm microphone headset plugged into the Dualshock4. Commands are given by saying “Playstation” followed by the command. There is a complete list of commands available in settings although some are situational working in the menu system but not in game for example.
Ease of Use
When you unpack the PS4 from its box the first thing you find is a simple set of instructions on how to plug it in. All the cables required (including HDMI and USB charging cable) are included and are as straightforward as they could be. Once I had it all plugged in I hit an unexpected problem – finding the on switch. I am fairly tech savy but I had to resort to Googling to find where it was. It is beautifully hidden and seamless, but it would have been good to have its location mentioned in the quick start instructions.
The first time you switch it on you will need to connect the controller via the included USB cable to pair it, choose your country, get onto wifi (if you choose to), set-up your camera if you have one and then log into your PlayStation Network account. Once this is done and you have allowed it to update (update is possible via a USB memory stick if you do not have an internet connection) then your PlayStation 4 is ready to go.
Regular use after set-up is easy. Each time you subsequently turn on the PS4 it will first ask you to select your user account. The start-up menu is customized to your profile and highlights what has been recently used and what has been recently installed or updated. Move right from and a series of screens offers games, media, a browser and social options. These are ordered depending on recent use. Move up to see notifications, online friends, in-game mail and invitations, chat, your profile, achievements, settings and power. All of these options are given as a clear icon with a written label.
It can take a little while to become familiar with the menu screen, but due to the use of images and icons as well as text within a simple layout, it quickly becomes a natural process to find your way around to your favourite items and activities.
The PlayStation 4 is a beautiful console in a physical sense and the most accessible console I have ever used. It tries to help and automate as much as possible of the tasks involved in the background of running and using a console. It has many inherent built-in accessible features. The ability to plug in and use most USB keyboard and mice as well as built in voice control provides flexible options on how it can be controlled, it has the potential to be even more visually accessible with the correct theme and it the software makes it easy to use and navigate the system.
Ultimately the choice of game console can hinge on the games and apps available for it and the PS4 is well positioned with a few exclusives and missing out on only a small percentage of games. It has most (if not quite all) the media apps that consumers demand with Plex’s recent addition ticking another major box and would have a good place in anyones living room. Highly recommended.
The Sony PS4 was released in November 2014.