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PlayStation 4: What we expect, what it needs, and why

Sony's upcoming PlayStation 4 event opens the floodgates for questions about the hardware and forces us to consider what must be included this go-around.

A very cool, but not real PS4 controller mock-up NeoGAF user kairu

CNET's live coverage of Sony's event on Wednesday

Sony's February 20 event in New York City will likely mark the announcement of the PlayStation 4 and simultaneously usher in the next generation of console gaming. (Sorry, Wii U, but you're more last-gen than next-gen.)

Rumors mills are also churning out details confidently declaring that the Xbox 360 successor will also see the light of day before June's big E3 gaming show in Los Angeles.

Perhaps the biggest news? Both consoles could make their debuts -- gasp -- this year. That's a hyperspeed acceleration in the gaming world, where a console's release is often 12 to 15 months after its initial coming out party.

You'll remember about six-and-a-half years ago Microsoft beat Sony to the punch by pushing out the albeit dead-on-arrival (see: red ring of death) Xbox 360 in November of 2005, while Sony followed suit a year later with the PlayStation 3. In a move akin to posting "first!" in the comments section of a new YouTube video, Sony has made sure the PlayStation 4 gets first crack in 2013.

Whether or not the gaming public is ready to embrace them, these next-generation consoles are coming. On February 20, Sony will cast the first stone in New York City, with an event that most likely give the world its very first glimpse of the next PlayStation.

So what do we already know?
Surprisingly, not a whole lot. Most recent reports point out that the PlayStation 4 will focus on "new playing options." What does that mean? Look for Sony to reinforce the idea of a multiscreen experience, be it through the PlayStation Vita or your tablet and mobile phone. The company has a history of struggling to implement that kind of device relationship -- PlayStation Certified, anyone? -- so it makes sense that the PlayStation 4 might provide a new chance to repair that bond.

Sony has also expressed a desire to instill the PS4 as the living room "nerve center" (stop me if you've heard that before), which opens the door for any number of possibilities. Could the PS4 be the beachhead of Sony's rumored online TV service, or possibly double as a DVR? With the addition of a long list of media apps -- Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Amazon Instant -- PlayStation 3 (and Xbox 360 for that matter) have done an impressive job at gradually monopolizing the living room's attention, so it'll be interesting to see how Sony plans to build upon that.

There's no doubt this next-gen machine will be able to pump out more beautifully rendered textures, calculate complex lighting situations, decipher chaotic physics, and other drool-worthy eye-candy, but will the jump in graphics be as dramatic as the last generation? Maybe not.

Of course it's silly to assume next generation graphics won't impress, but maybe it's a better idea not to put so much stock in the specs of these machines. Even though PlayStation 3 had an entire year of development in hand against Xbox 360, in addition to a clear advantage on paper, even the most discerning eyes couldn't tell much difference between the two systems side by side. In fact, there have been many instances from this generation where Xbox 360 has provided a superior graphical experience on a multiplatform title.

Will PlayStation 4 come with a Blu-ray drive? The safe bet is yes, simply because any desire to abandon physical media has been muddled by the fact that quick and reliable download times are not yet a reality everywhere in the world -- let alone in some areas of the U.S. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal's February 1 story more or less confirmed that going "all cloud" was just too premature for the marketplace. That said, I still think some sort of digital distribution of full games will be available on day one. Also look for a much heavier cloud integration (game saves and other data) as a main focus of the PS4 experience. (Editor's note: Streaming of games might also come into play. See the update at the end of this story.)

There has also been a healthy amount of speculation regarding what we can expect from the PS4's controller. The basic construction of the DualShock controller has been with us for three generations now, so don't be surprised to see some sort of alteration. Touch control dominated the Vita, so will we see touch implementation on the next DualShock? Some have hypothesized the removal of analog sticks altogether, while a few talented members of the gamer enthusiast NeoGAF forums have put together some impressive mock designs that feature a Vita-esque touch screen on the front of a controller. It's not too far fetched -- GameSpot has a story saying the next controller might include an LCD touch screen and biometric sensors. The most recent alleged leak -- and, amazingly, the first one to include any sort of credible photo -- seems to be an evolution of the DualShock with a touch pad on the front.

Then there's the notion of a date and price, which is really anyone's guess at this point. One would have to imagine a tough lesson was learned with the PS3's release and its jaw-dropping launch price of $600 for the 60GB model. I'd guess that Sony will keep the PS4's initial price as close to $400 as possible. Love it or hate it, there's also a chance for a tiered pricing model if there's a plan to release the PS4 in more than one flavor. All signs continue to point to a holiday 2013 release.

We can speculate all week until the big Sony event on February 20, but I think there's a definitive list of features that must be included in the PlayStation 4.

What must the PlayStation 4 do?
The PlayStation 3 has matured into a fantastic gaming system. At first, there weren't many exclusive titles for the system to brag about, but fast-forward nearly six years and it's the PS3 that's the one to beat. Sony must maintain this luxury into the next generation. For all the extracurricular bells and whistles this system will boast, gamers still want to play great games that you can't experience anywhere else. Exclusive games sell systems first.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a handful of yet-to-be released PS3 titles that don't even have definitive ship dates. Sure, some of these games may evolve into PS4 software, but there needs to be a seamless and smooth transition into the next generation. If the Vita's migration experience is any indication of what the PS4's will be, we all might be in for a bumpy honeymoon period. It should go without saying, but this PS3 release schedule almost makes backward compatibility an absolute necessity.

Game and system patches need to be streamlined for PlayStation 4. No one should have to wait 25 minutes to play a game. This also brings up the notion of installation the first time a game boots up. Some technological limitations force the need for the caching of data for games to operate appropriately, but I'd love to see this issue addressed in some capacity by the PS4.

It may sound trivial, but the PlayStation 4 is in dire need of an IR port. That's right, a simple infrared port located somewhere on the front of this box so that we can all program our universal remote controls. The $1.09 that this would cost to implement is surely worth the hours of headaches that would otherwise result from having to MacGyver some kind of wonky workaround.

With the price of solid state drives plummeting, I'd love to see a high-capacity SSD jammed inside each PS4. Let's not make it an issue of needing to upgrade every three years. Just include a massive drive out of the gate and be done with it. Or, better yet, sell a "driveless" model for less and let me bring my own SSD. If this console is going to offer fully downloadable games, we're going to need bigtime capacity. If solid state is still too expensive, throw in a 2TB hard disk drive. And please, let's keep the ability for the user to manually upgrade the drives.

What happened to the PS3's USB ports? At launch there were four, now we're left with two (in the PS3 Slim models). Far be it from me to prolong the use of wired accessories, but I think it's fair to request at least four USB 3.0 connections.

The PlayStation 3 has become a solid all-around multimedia player. I use mine to play content off my NAS. The PS4 could benefit by having an even more robust set of playback compatibility including -- dare I say it -- the MKV file format.

Perhaps it's also time for Sony to abandon PlayStation Plus, the "premium" subscription service that gives access to discounted and occasionally free games as well as automated system updates. (Yes, that's actually a feature.) Sony has always held the notion of free online gaming in high regard, so it's best to stick with that model moving forward. If that's not the path the company wants to go down, make the incentive of being a PlayStation Plus member something we can't live without. You know, the way Xbox Live does it.

CNET will be live at the Sony event in midtown Manhattan next week. Be sure to follow along with our live blog to get the very latest on all the announcements.

Update, February 16 at 1:29 p.m. PT: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the PS4 will stream games in real time over the Internet. Read more about that here.