Playstation 4: Greatness yet to come?

Everything was going so well for Sony. Their competitors had flubbed a crucial conference performance in addition to promising a product with lesser performance at a higher financial cost; Sony’s own console was in full factory production while the competitor was still finalizing their hardware; pre-sales were lining up in record breaking numbers; and some of the more vocal critics of the company under Howard Stringer were warming to the new management. Then, as launch date got closer, cracks started to show. Full Disclosure, I did ask Sony if I could get access to a Playstation 4 before launch in order to have a Day Zero review ready. I’ve yet to see a response from Sony, and well, this review might be why they weren’t keen to let me have a crack at the console before launch day.

So, let’s get started. For openers, because it’s such the rage these days, the unboxing of the console. As a note, my console came from Yes, I did preform a quick check of the HDMI port but there was no sign of the pin error known to affect other consoles.

Just for perspective I tossed my WiiU gamepad on-top of the packaged PS4 and compared the size of the controllers

Quick notes on the controllers, the WiiU Pro Controller’s D-pad feels tighter and more precise compared to the PS4 pad. I think Nintendo’s analog sticks have slightly better response and feel; the PS4 sticks keep feeling like they are sticking. However, the PS4′s buttons feel more solid to press; my WiiU Gamepad already has really loose face buttons that rattle when the controller is shaken. I also simply adore the rubber lipping on the PS4′s game pad. I’m also a huge fan of placing a standard headset jack on the PS4 controller, something the WiiU Gamepad has, but the WiiU Pro Controller lacks.

Moving back to the console itself, the PS4 was slipped into place next to my PS3. Rare shot of my “rats nest” for consoles follows:

This is about when things started to take a turn for the worse. The Playstation 3 pictured there is one of the original 60gb models with Playstation 2 support, packing 4 usb ports, an SD card reader, a Compact flash reader, and a slot for Sony’s Memory Stick. It’s held up quite well as an entertainment console since I first laid hands on with one. Nintendo’s WiiU, while hardly being a media-centric system, also managed to pack in a slightly useless SD card slot along with 4 USB ports; two on the back and two up front. So it was with some surprise, despite having looked over lots of pictures of the Playstation 4 and read the specs sheet countless times, that I realized there were no memory card slots at all on the PS4. I also then realized that the only two USB ports were on the front of the console. For a system that came after the WiiU, the PS4 is a staggering leap backwards in practical functionality. In Sony’s favor the Playstation 4 does do better than the Playstation 3 on the practical functionality bit in one important area. The hard-drive bay is far more readily accessible; which I’ll get back to later on.

Although the console’s ports configuration left me feeling a bit cold, I haven’t really been relying on the usage of memory cards to transport movies, pictures, or music. I have a media server, stocked full with my own DVD’s, CD’s, and Blu-Ray’s that I’ve ripped; and up to a certain point I was using my PS3 to play that content back. Then a PS3 patch went out that rendered a significant chunk of my collection unplayable, with only a single note from the PS3 software that the media was corrupted. Back when this event happened I followed up with Sony support and said support basically replied with a message indicating that Sony possessed no intention of fixing the code-level error. So, here comes the PS4, hopefully all of my content will play again… Nope. Digital Living Network Alliance, also known as DLNA, is completely missing on the Playstation 4 as of the 1.50 firmware.

Admittedly, the PS4 does ship with a significantly large hard-drive, 400gb free space to be exact, so perhaps it was time to just copy some files over and play them directly. So I grabbed a USB drive, copied some Hogan’s Hero’s episodes, and checked to make sure the device worked on the PS3. I think the resulting two pictures probably says it all:

The PS3 knew how to handle the drive. In fact, the very same Hogan’s Hero’s episodes that the PS3 pitches a fit about playing over DLNA; worked perfectly from the USB drive. The PS4, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue. I didn’t even get so much as a pop-up telling me that I had plugged a USB drive in; much less an option to playback the video content. Rather, when I was playing around with a Rockbox converted Ipod, the PS4 kept insisting that I had plugged in a USB Mouse or USB keyboard.

Not good; as a drop-in replacement for the PS3 the PS4 pretty much shot itself in the rump with a howitzer. I can not use the console to perform basic media tasks.

Alright, fine, I have an Amazon Prime account… which works. However, that promptly brought me right into conflict with some serious problems with the Playstation 4′s User Interface.

To set some background here, I’m a huge fan of Sony’s XrossMediaBar. I thought it was one of the best 10ft user-interfaces ever created for a home console. It was easy to see at a distance, easy to understand, and the linear behavior made telling somebody else how to use the console easier than installing a modern day Linux. I’d link to LinuxMint right about now, but thier KDE version of LinuxMint Debian edition is a tad-bit out of date.

There were, admittedly, some problems with the XrossMediaBar, at least on the PS3. If you had a large number of games, music, movies, or photos stored on the hard-drive; scrolling through all of the menu items could get a bit tiresome. To some extent this problem was eventually rectified in respect to the games Library with basic folder support that grouped various types of games. I honestly haven’t played around with the PS3′s UI enough to comment with authority on how flexible these changes are, but again, media server. Outside of games I didn’t have a lot stored on the PS3.

One of the larger problems though is the inclusion of software that a user doesn’t want, or doesn’t need. Eventually support was added that allowed a user to clearly delete items like Netflix or Amazon Prime. However, getting rid of services like Redbox Instant… not so easy. The PS3 doesn’t even offer an option to hide menu items that cannot be deleted. So, with the PS4 on the way, there was significant hope that these sticky-item issues would be dealt with.

Not made worse.

And oh boy, is it worse.

To put this into perspective a quick comparison with the WiiU is in order. The original Wii also launched with software that users could not get rid of; at least not without modifying the console’s firmware. However, even as far back as the launch of the Wii, Nintendo realized that giving users the ability to at least move non-removable software out of sight… was a good thing. This trend continued with the WiiU. A quick couple of photos demonstrates how my own WiiU is currently configured:

Given that the WiiU launched a year before the Playstation 4 it was an obviously forgone conclusion that Sony would at least enable this level of UI customization; at least allowing users to at least hide or move UI elements that the user could not delete outright. Yeah… about that… Sony apparently didn’t get the memo on UI customization… and decided to walk away from the clean XMB design. For starters, major functions of the console are now split into two different vertical layers: System Utilities up top and User Content down below.

Now, I’m not going to directly comment over how this arrangement works in the long run, but the XMB worked really well on the PS3 because of the horizontal nature of wide-screen displays. It made logical sense to have all of the main functions on a largely horizontal basis, design concepts that have been echoed in other 10ft designs like Valve’s Big Picture Mode. I’m not too entirely convinced on the long-term usability impact of a vertical separation; and I’m a little surprised nobody in Sony’s UI team didn’t suggest that maybe it was a bad idea. Where things have taken a direct step backward is the functionality pop-ups. One of the usability functions of the PS3 placed a small triangle in the lower right-hand corner that would bring up the information bar seen earlier in the usb-drive snapshot. On the PS4, triangle no longer functions in this manner. Rather, a new horizontal bar pops up after hovering on a selected item for a few seconds. In some cases this bar gives us the ability to access options using the dedicated options-button on the PS4 controller:

On other items in the new content bar… no options may be visible at all:

So, straight out of the box the Playstation 4 is already setting up to have one mother of a trainwreck on the content bar. Then, it got worse. The pictures themselves say more than anything else.

The PS4 comes loaded with a whopping 11 different video services; none of which have any exposed methods of removing, deleting, or hiding.

Okay, so, to recap. The PS4 took a flying leap backwards on USB port support; took a flying leap backwards in total media support; took a flying leap backwards in UI design; and comes pre-loaded with enough junk software to make AT&T wet their pants in excitement. What else could go wrong?

Well, there was that Android Application, the long-awaited Playstation Suite, which was finally released! That also quickly turned into trainwreck. While it was fairly simple to link an Android device to the Playstation 4, I quickly found out that the list of things I could do on the Android Device consisted of negligible entries. There was no option to stream movies or content from the PS4; which granted was a factor of the PS4′s inability to access a DLNA server in the first place. There was no option to issue control commands to the PS4 remotely; nor an option to use my Android Device to mirror the PS4′s main display. Rather, the only working functionality so far has been the ability to use the Android Device as a keyboard when the PS4 asks for a keyboard. Whoopity Doo.

Then, things got worse!

I know, common refrain by this point. When I moved to a different access point on the same network; notably using the same Wireless SSID and exact same end-point IP address; the Android device would not connect to the PS4. I had to be in the same room, on the same exact access point, in order to make a connection. If you guessed that this means that your Android Device won’t connect to your PS4 while on a cellular connection and making an inbound connection from the Internet, you’d be correct. So… I was left wondering… just… what is the point of linking my Android Device to my PS4? When I had a PSP I at least had some kind of functionality when linking it to my PS3.

What really strikes me as funny is that I also nailed Nintendo for user-interface issues, but those issues largely seemed to be caused by trying to keep the WiiU and Wii system functionality separate. Nintendo is pretty much brand new to the whole Multifunction device concept, so it was almost forgivable for the WiiU to have the problems it did. The problems with the Playstation 4? I’m not sure Sony has a excuse for. The hardware is fine, don’t get me wrong on that, but the software loadout is just so ill-conceived and mis-implemented that it ruins all of the cool social tricks the Playstation 4 is capable of. I don’t really care that I can look in and see a live stream of what my friends are playing… if my new console can’t match my old console’s functionality out of the box.

Speaking of social tricks, there’s no Google Plus integration. Oh sure, you can integrate the PS4 with Twitter or Facebook, but that’s a bit like bragging about being to integrate with a spastic chihuahua or a leaky sewer pipe. I leave it up to your imagination to figure out which is which. Admittedly there is some known friction between Google and Sony given the lack of Youtube support for uploaded or streamed gameplay videos. Fair enough, I realize there are some larger issues at play between Sony and Google, but not having those issues dealt with or reaching a detente before product launch in order to assure broadest client-base support possible… is a sticking point I’m not so sure I can quite get around.

I think it what it comes down to is this: I was expecting the PS4 to be a true successor to the Playstation 3… but the launch version is anything but a successor. However, like the WiiU a lot of problems are located in the software stack, not the hardware stack.

Even so, I can’t help but feel that Sony wanted reviewers to focus more on the games, and less on the actual console experience. Yet, that console experience is what matters more than anything else. Case in point, the WiiU Pro Gamepad and the PS4′s native Dualshock are eerily similar in how they are to hold. I have little doubt that in a classic controller-style game, there would be little to separate the experience of the two. We actually saw “Common Play Experience” in most of the recent third party games across the 360 and the PS3. Outside of developers having to squirm around the 360′s storage limitations, control and feel between different 3rd party games was remarkably similar. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m not too terribly interested in the latest Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty because, well, I’ve already played that kind of game before and I don’t think the third party developers behind those games have the imagination to really make a console specific port stand out. Not to take a sledgehammer to that point, the WiiU is pretty much prime-example of third party developers not having either not having the talent or the capability to handle optimizing for specific features exclusive to a console.

In the case of the Playstation 4, that console experience is atrociously bad. Given the amount of time I’ve put in on UI support over the years, I really don’t see how Sony is going to make up for the major shortfalls of the PS4 without re-addressing some of their basic configuration assumptions. Given that the console managed to make it to launch with so much simply not done, or even worse, not even planned for implementation, I’m left more than a little concerned. Sony’s slogan this go around is a simple statement: Greatness Awaits.

Well, that’s actually pretty apt for the PS4. It’s not great, but it could be great.

Can I wait for the PS4 to be great?

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One more note. I found this more than slightly funny when I was stacking hardware all around and trying to figure out how to get into the PS4′s hard-drive bay.

The WiiU… is just about exactly the same size as the non-shiney top of the PS4. That can not be a coincidence.