PS4 review - Is Sony winning the console war?
CPU: 8-core AMD Jaguar CPU, Graphics: 800MHz Radeon GPU with 18 Compute Units Memory: 8GB GDDR5, Storage: 500GB hard disk, Blu-ray drive
The PlayStation 4 was now launched two years ago this month. With a raft of exciting new PS4 games just released, including The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Project Cars, and a tasty price cut finally making its way across the Atlantic to the UK and Europe, we thought it was a good time to give our review a thorough overhaul. The console has come a long way since launch, with numerous system updates smoothing out most of its rough edges.
If you're reading this you may well have already decided which console you want, but we'll be pointing out some of the lesser-known features on offer. If you're still undecided whether to buy a PS4 or an Xbox One, then it's well worth exploring the differences between the two as well, so see our PS4 vs Xbox One article too.
Sony has positioned the angular PS4 as a purebred gaming machine with a powerful hardware specification. Open the box and it's clear that the vast majority of your money has been spent inside the casing. There's no bundled camera peripheral, only the bare minimum of ports on the back, and even the power brick has been integrated inside the chassis. It's neat, compact and powerful-looking. But has its lived up to the early hype and expectations?
The PS4 might have started out life as a rather expensive upgrade, but prices have plummeted since launch and the console is now more affordable than ever. Sony officially knocked the price down to £300 in the UK in November 2015, bringing it in line with Microsoft's Xbox One, which had been discounted several months earlier. Sony's console was good value against the Xbox even when it cost £50 more, so now that the two consoles are even again it's an absolute blinder of a deal. Better yet, many retailers have slashed prices further, meaning you can pick a console up for as little as £250 in the run-up to Christmas.
The PS4 is an pretty sleek piece of kit. It's raked angles plus a mix of matt and gloss finishes look far classier than you might expect for a plastic-shelled games console. A recessed central gully contains the slot-loading disc drive and twin front USB3 ports, while a line bisecting the console the other way integrates the power and eject controls and a strip light that lets you know the console's power and notification status.
We really like the look, but we'd prefer proper buttons that click in when you touch them, rather than the touch-sensitive controls. Even after 18 months we still get confused about which is which sometime and eject a disc instead of just turning on the console.
^ The PS4 is a smart-looking piece of kit and, despite it having PC-related components inside, it looks nothing like a PC
Around the back is the HDMI output, Ethernet port, S/PDIF output and an AUX port for the PlayStation Camera peripheral. Power is provided by plugging in a typical figure-eight power lead and it draws from 80W idling, up to 140W in-game, but just 3W when in its Rest Mode.
Rest Mode is essentially a very clever standby mode for the console, during which it can charge controllers, download system and game updates, and even keep your games in a Suspend mode. This means you be playing a game, pause it, put the console in Rest Mode and it will save your game state. Then when you power it back up, you can start playing just where you left off almost instantaneously. It's a brilliant feature (also available on Xbox One) that works with any game that doesn't require you be online, such as Destiny.
^ There's not much in the way of ports at the back, but there's plenty of venting
Placed horizontally it's practically silent when idling, which is good for Blu-ray playback or streaming TV. However, it does pick up considerably when playing a game, and even more so when navigating the main menu while a game ran in the background. It's notably louder than the Xbox One and you'll want to keep it as far away from you as possible when gaming. Position it upright and the fan noise increases further still, so best to keep it lying down somewhere with good air flow.
Inside the console Sony has used similar components to Microsoft, with a powerful AMD chip at its heart. For the PS4 this single integrated chip contains both an eight-core CPU and a GPU with 18 compute units. That's 50% more compute units than the Xbox One, providing a significant advantage in graphical horsepower, which can also be turned to use in special effects and advanced physics simulation if preferred.
The PS4's memory system consists of a single large pool of 8GB of super-fast GDDR5 memory - more than we've seen on even the most expensive PC graphics cards. The Xbox One by comparison uses the same amount of slower DDR3 memory, with a super-fast 32MB cache to help make up the difference.
18 months in, we're confident in saying that the PS4's simpler memory architecture and superior GPU has proved the better choice. In multiplatform games, the PS4 consistently outperforms the Xbox One, with either smoother frame rates or higher resolutions onscreen. Most commonly PS4 games run at a Full HD 1,920x1,080, while Xbox One games go for a 1,600x900 resolution. It's not a huge visual disparity but you can see it, and we're now confident it's an advantage that the Xbox One won't close.
The DualShock 4 is a huge improvement over its predecessor, and it needed to be. Though still recognisably a PlayStation controller, the new controller is larger and more comfortably rounded. The back has a non-slip micro-texture and the front is dominated by a light that reacts to in-game events, identify players by colour, and allows the PS4 camera peripheral to track its movements accurately.
The light is a little too bright for our tastes at its default setting, reflecting off our TV screen in the dark; thankfully, you can change it from the original Bright setting, down to Medium or Dim by simply holding down the PS button on the controller and select Adjust Devices.
It has a built-in 800mAh battery that charges over a micro USB connection. It's very convenient but it's limited battery life of around eight hours means you'll want to leave on charge whenever you're not playing. Thankfully you can set the PS4's USB port to output power for 3 hours after the console goes into its Rest Mode, which is enough to get your controllers fully charged.
^ The new controller is more comfortable to hold, has more precise controls and a couple of next-gen features too - it's a fantastic evolution of previous DualShock controllers
The analogue sticks have more resistance and very little deadzone before they react to your inputs; they're also further apart, so you thumbs never touch, and are very precise. The d-pad is responsive with good feedback, though the face buttons could have clicked a little more positively. The triggers are good too, though they lack the vibration feedback of the Xbox One's.
The new gamepad also adds a touchpad, so you can execute swipes and other gesture-based commands. This also clicks in to provide a way to select options from onscreen menus. Less obvious is the built-in motion controls which are beautifully refined, giving you instinctive input in supporting games. We're still yet to see much integration of these features in big games, though.
^ You can hook up any headphones to the controller for late-night gaming sessions
One feature we love on the DualShock 4 is its microphone port. As well as being used to add a chat headset for multiplayer games (a basic one comes bundled), you can also output full stereo audio from the PS4 (game, movie, TV catch-up, anything) through it. It's brilliant for late night sessions with headphones without disturbing anyone else or running cables across your living room. There's a crisp mono speaker too for up-close sound effects and you can talk back thanks to a microphone.