PlayStation 4 review: A great game console for early adopters

The L1, L2, R1, and R2 buttons have all received redesigns as well, but no button on the pad seems to have benefited more than the L2 and R2 triggers. These now extend out and feel much more comfortable to pull. The DualShock 4 also has two rumble motors so developers can localize the vibration feedback contextually within a game.

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Like the DS3, the DS4 has a six-axis motion-sensing system, which encompasses a three-axis gyroscope and a three-axis accelerometer. A fun little note here: you can click the right stick during text entry to get a tiltable keyboard that's slightly quicker than entering letters manually.

You'll likely notice the glowing light emanating from the DS4's back. It's designed to work with the PlayStation Camera accessory and will change colors if there's more than one controller connected to the system. Below it sits a Micro-USB port for charging the controller's built-in rechargeable battery.

Additional DualShock 4 controllers will cost you $60 each. The console supports up to four.

The interface
Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have made substantial efforts in streamlining the user interface. The PlayStation 3's cross-media-bar has evolved into the PlayStation 4's "Dynamic Menu" that casts a blanket of simplicity throughout the operating system, logically grouping like-minded items together.

It basically consists of two horizontal rows, the top filled with icons for various functionalities like Friends, Trophies, and Settings, and a thumbnail lower row that is populated by recent activities like the last game you've played, shared game DVR clips, downloaded titles, Web access, other media, and more.

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When you highlight an item in the Dynamic Menu, "live" items from the PlayStation Network (PSN) will populate with relevant content for you to browse. (For the first wave on PS4s that were sold in late 2013, signing up on the PlayStation Network for the first time required a 323MB day 1 download that unlocked most of the console's connected features. Consoles purchased after launch will likely have these updates already baked in.)

Those who own a PlayStation Vita can connect the portable to the PS4 to activate remote play. Setup is fairly simple and it actually works well, but performance all depends on the strength of your home network. The concept is similar to what Wii U owners can do with that console's GamePad controller except for the fact that PS4 remote play uses your home. It's a godsend when your PS4 TV is being used up, but it's not a bulletproof work around because of its reliance on an ever-changing connection speed. While it's entirely possible down the line, you won't be able to play your PS4 outside of your home network.

Entertainment options
Streaming-media: The PS4 currently offers major streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Redbox Instant and Crackle. (We've compiled a full list of apps, directly compared with the Xbox One's, if you're interested.) It's a decent collection of apps, but it's not quite as robust as the offerings on Xbox One. Among the major omissions are YouTube (which, curiously, is on the PS3) and HBO Go -- though Sony has already pledged that HBO will be coming soon.

The PS4 also supports Sony's own streaming-media platforms, Sony Music Unlimited (a $5-10/month Spotify-like service), and Sony Video Unlimited (rent or buy movies and TV shows for viewing on the PS4 and elsewhere). Those services are more front-and-center than ever before. The main PS4 interface will be regularly recommending movies and music from Sony's stores, based on what you've streamed in the past and what's popular. One change from the PS3 is that movies and TV shows from Sony will be stream-only, with no option to download. Sony says that's to ensure you don't fill up your hard drive with large HD video files, but those with less reliable broadband connections may miss the option to fully download a title before watching.

Perhaps the neatest feature is the ability to play Sony Music Unlimited tracks in the background while playing a game, but you'll need to be a Music Unlimited subscriber to take advantage of it. Conversely, the Xbox One can play nearly any app in the background using its "snap" feature, although at launch the audio between the two sources will be mixed together, so you'll always hear both at the same time. The PS4 lets you pick (or mix) which audio stream you'd like to listen to.

No live TV integration now -- but a streaming TV service on the way: At first glance, the PS4 falls short of the ambitious TV integration of the Xbox One, which lets you view your cable or satellite box through the Microsoft console, complete with limited voice control, an on-screen program guide, and the ability to watch TV and play games at the same time via a picture-in-picture window. That said, the Xbox experience can be buggy and leaves a lot to be desired, including no integrated support for DVR control.

Instead of integrating your existing TV service, Sony is opting to give you an alternative. The company announced it will be offering a streaming TV service on the PS4 and other Sony products before the end of 2014. Few details were announced, but we expect an app-based service that will offer a collection of existing TV channels -- for an additional fee, of course.

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Disc player: In addition to PS4 games, the PS4's disc drive is capable of playing back Blu-ray and DVD discs, but it can't play audio CDs or SACDs. It's hard to believe that the PS4 can't play a CD, but if you stick one in the drive you'll get a message that says "disc unsupported." In a sense, the PS4 is a step back from the "plays everything" nature of the PS3, although that could change with a future firmware update.

Digital media player: If you're willing to give the PS4 a pass by not supporting the 30-year-old compact-disc format, it's harder to explain away the fact that it's not DLNA-compliant and can't play MP3s. Again, that may just be a launch-day limitation, with more features added in a future firmware update, but at least for now, the PS4 isn't nearly as capable as the PS3 is on the digital media side.

No compatibility with infrared remotes: Furthermore, unlike the Xbox One, the PS4 can't control the rest of your home theater equipment, nor can it be controlled via a typical IR-based universal remote. And it doesn't have Kinect's extensive voice control capabilities, although the optional PlayStation camera, as mentioned above, does support a surprising amount of voice control.

PlayStation Network, PlayStation Plus, and social
PlayStation Network provides a huge portion of the PlayStation 4's functionality. You'll need to be logged in to an account to activate almost all of the PS4's extra features.

PlayStation Plus subscriptions ($50 for a year) can carry over from the PS3 to PS4 and are now required for online multiplayer gaming. (Notably, unlike Xbox consoles, you do not need a PS Plus membership for using the media apps.) PS Plus members will also get automated game updates (the PS4 can download updates by itself while in standby mode) so you won't need to wait when starting a game just to find out it needs updating. For system firmware updates, both PS Plus and non-PS Plus members will receive automatic downloads for updates.

PlayStation Plus members have access to 1GB of cloud game saves, free and discounted games across all Sony platforms, automatic game updates, access to game demos, online multiplayer and some beta invites. To be clear, "free" comes with a catch. Everything you download for free is accessible only while you still have a PS+ account. If your membership expires or you cancel, you'll lose those titles.

A PSN member must make one PS4 their "primary" console, but once that's situated up to 16 people can log in to it. That primary account holder can also log in to any PS4 and have access to games and saves. Again, it's important to note PS+ is required for cloud game saves.

The PlayStation Store is doing away with downloaded content. Starting with the PS4, everything will now be streamed directly through the Sony Entertainment Network service or content portal of your choice.

That said, you will need to download games directly to the PS4's hard drive. All "large file" games will support play-as-you-download capabilities, and some titles -- if the developer wishes to do so -- can support downloading of a certain part of a game and not the other. For example, downloading Call of Duty: Ghosts on the PS4 gives you the option to only install the campaign or multiplayer component separately.

Since a PS4 in standby mode can now be remotely turned on, a purchase made through the Sony Entertainment Network site can be downloaded to a PS4 without having to be in front of the physical console. Essentially you could make a purchase at work and have it ready to play by the time you get home.

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The PSN experience and store is deeply woven into the fabric of the Dynamic Menu. Live items are built in everywhere you look, and social features are present at every corner, especially when it comes to your friends list. Your account can be tied to your Facebook and Twitter profiles and have the option of posting on your behalf depending on your settings. Your friends list will actually be made up of your friends' real names if they approve your friend request.

The PS4 has a game DVR feature that's constantly recording so that you won't miss any sequence you'd like to share. With the touch of a button, you can stream to Twitch or Ustream and send a link to social networks, though recorded video sharing will only be offered on Facebook to start. You can also view a live feed of a friend's gameplay directly from the PS4, and you can add comments, too. Screenshots can be uploaded to Facebook and Twitter as well.

Built into the Dynamic Menu is a section called "Live from PlayStation" that gives you access to watch various video streams. From here you can watch Twitch and Ustream live broadcasts, search for specific feeds and comment on content as well. If you own a game that you're watching, you can start the game from the video screen or even get linked out to the PS Store to buy it.

Facebook integration appears to be more closely interwoven into the PS4 experience, whereas Twitter only seems to crossover for screenshot uploads. In fact, when you run the initial PS4 setup you'll have the chance to connect your Facebook account and even use your profile photo on PSN.

The PlayStation App on iOS and Android complements the PS4 experience with games that support second-screen functionality. It can also act as a navigational screen for the PS4 as well act as a keyboard when a text entry box pops up. Connecting the app to my PS4 was very easy (as long as they're on the same network) and the keyboard option comes in very handy when entering codes, tweeting screenshots, or commenting on videos.

PS4 vs. Xbox One
The Xbox One and the PS4 were released just days apart, leading gaming fans to the torturous question: "Which one should I get?" Unfortunately the answer isn't that simple. While both consoles offer next-generation visuals and gameplay, they each have some relative strengths and weaknesses.

The PS4's first big advantage is cost: it's $100 cheaper than the Xbox One. Yes, that's partially because it omits a camera accessory, charging $60 for it as an add-on. But while the PlayStation Camera experience is certainly stitched into the PS4's operating system, it isn't vital to the console's functionality -- you can absolutely get by without it. On the other hand, the Xbox One's Kinect is included in the box and is more baked in to that system's experience. While Microsoft has indicated that Kinect can be deactivated, it will be needed to take full advantage of the Xbox's voice and gesture controls.

But compare the add-on services -- PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold -- and PS4 comes out ahead again. Both cost about $50 annually, but Xbox Live Gold is all but required to do nearly anything on the Xbox One, including things as mundane as watching Netflix or using the built-in channel guide. PlayStation Plus, meanwhile, is only required for online multiplayer gaming on the PS4 -- and it offers members a growing library of "free" games with that subscription across all Sony consoles on the account. Advantage: PS4.

Both consoles offer a good amount of content-streaming services, but neither has yet reached the full number of media apps their predecessors (PS3 and Xbox 360) currently offer. Xbox One has a slight edge here for now, but the fact you need the aforementioned Xbox Live Gold account to access those services makes it something of a wash.

On the social front, from what I've seen early on, it appears that the PS4 has a better integration of Facebook and Twitter, though of course all of that is subject to change. In this time of constant firmware tweaking, it's almost guaranteed.

Placing media functionality and social to the side, a lot of the decision-making about next-generation console purchases is tethered to exclusive games. The PS3 has had a wonderful few years of exclusive games, and for the most part that trend will continue into the next generation. Right now (early 2014), the Xbox One may have a bit of an edge, with Forza Motorsport 5, Dead Rising 3, and Ryse: Son of Rome, compared with the PS4's Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack -- though PS4 also has a good range of digital-only titles. Over the next few months, game lineups continue to be competitive, with the Xbox One getting Titanfall (also available on PC and Xbox 360), and the PS4 getting inFamous: Second Son. But taste in games is always somewhat subjective; either those games will appeal to you, or they won't.

You might read about the PS4's specs trumping that of the Xbox One's, but it's important to keep in mind how that translates into actual results. You'll remember that the PS3 was originally poised to be a massive powerhouse that would leap passed the Xbox 360, but in reality didn't perform much better. You could even make the argument that most multiplatform games played smoother and looked better on the Xbox 360. That said, at the time of this writing (and having considered all the multiplatform games currently available), the PS4 does seem to perform slightly better than Xbox One.

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Conclusion

2014 is looking good for the PlayStation 4. The combination of the newly announced PlayStation Now game streaming service, and the forthcoming Sony streaming TV app -- both due by the end of the year -- bode well. Now we just need Sony and its partners to begin to deliver on a list of must-have games. Thankfully, Sony seems to have a promising road map worked out. inFamous: Second Son is the first big PS4 exclusive (due in March), and the PS4 will likely eventually see Sony franchise staples like God of War, and games from the Naughty Dog team (Uncharted, The Last of Us), among others. Expect more details at the E3 show in June.

It's still early days, but -- for now, at least -- the PS4 is a strong contender to be your one and only game console for the next generation.

CNET Editor Matthew Moskovciak contributed to this review.

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    Sony PlayStation 4

    Part Number: CUH-1000A Released: 16 Nov 2013
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    • Release date 16 Nov 2013
    • Colour jet black
    • Media Type Blu-ray
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