Sony's set its sights on gamers with the PS4 (PlayStation 4), the last of the major eighth generation consoles to hit our shelves. Unlike Microsoft's Xbox One, the PS4 doesn't really try to be a living room multimedia entertainment hub; it concentrates on games. The PS4 has a handful of multimedia features, but not nearly as many as the Xbox One or Sony's own PS3.
Some multimedia options have carried over from the PS3, including a movie/TV show download and rental service, DVD and Blu-ray playback (but no 3D support) and streaming music/video services. The PS4 is missing a few notable functions, like support for CDs, MP3s and DLNA connectivity, but Sony has promised to add some of these features to future updates. Like the Xbox One's online media shops, the Australian PlayStation Store is lacking in content with just three channels available at the time of writing.
A lack of multimedia features is the only major shortcoming of the PS4, because it improves on the PS3 as a games console in several ways. For example, Sony really sets itself apart from the competition with the new SharePlay service, designed to play games with friends over the internet even if you don’t own a copy. If your friend owns the game, they can send you an invitation to play at the same time for a total of 60 minutes before the session expires. They're also trialling a cloud-based game rental service called PlayStation Now, which should include a large number of titles from Sony's pre-PS4 catalogue.
Navigation is similar to the PS3, but much more streamlined, with a home screen that's split into two horizontal menus. The top menu is where you access the store, social content and system settings, and the bottom menu takes you to your games, media and PlayStation-related news. The bottom bar doesn't categorise its content, so you're stuck with a long list of games and movies to dig through. If you get lost, the controller's prominent PlayStation button brings you back to the home screen with a single click.
As you'd expect, the PS4's processors are much more powerful than those in the PS3. Games can handle higher quality graphics with greater detail and more simultaneous action, and loading times are quicker. Apps and games continue in the background when you return to the home screen so you can instantly dive back into the action, but the PS4 can't run programs side-by-side like the Xbox One can.
The days where you could run a game from a disc seem to be behind us. Games must be installed to the hard drive, but you can start playing them before the whole game has finished installing. Even though the 500GB hard drive may seem big, some of the games require nearly 40GB each. You could find your console fills up quickly as more games are released.
Where the PS4 really shines is in sharing your in-game experiences. It constantly records game footage in 15-minute blocks without causing any noticeable drop in performance. You can save and share this footage on the PlayStation Network, Facebook or Twitter. There's also the option to stream your gameplay live for other users to view through the PlayStation Network using third party services. These videos aren't small though, with 10 minutes of Call of Duty footage chewing up 613MB of space. So keep an eye on your internet plan's data allowance.
Online networking isn't compulsory and you can run the PS4 without installing the 300MB day-one update, but without the update you won't be able to access most features including media apps and online games.
Once the update is installed you'll be able to download these apps without subscribing to the paid online service, PlayStation Plus, but you'll need to subscribe if you want to play games online. A PlayStation Plus subscription is $19.95 for three months, or $69.95 for the year. This is slightly cheaper than the Xbox Live service, which costs $10.95 per month or $79.95 a year.
Sony decided to stick with the DualShock controller design used on all PlayStation consoles, but the latest version, the DualShock 4, has been tweaked to improve comfort and versatility over the PS3 version.
The classic Start and Select buttons, which have appeared on PlayStation controllers since the first generation, have been replaced with Options and Share (used to share recorded footage and screenshots). This could annoy old-school gamers who are set in their ways, but the redesign works well in practice. A touch pad is tucked between the buttons, and we found it to be responsive and smooth.
If you own a PlayStation Vita handheld console, you can connect it to the PS4 via a Wi-Fi network and play PS4 games remotely. It works very well, as PS4 games are optimised to suit the Vita's unique controls, and you can turn on remote play without having to quit your game on the PS4 or reset the console. It can also serve as a second screen, which could encourage developers to treat the handheld as an additional touch-screen controller, similar to Nintendo's Wii-U.
Although the PlayStation Eye motion-sensing camera is available as an optional extra, it's not essential unless you want to play motion-sensing games like Just Dance 2014. If you buy one, you'll unlock a few extra features on the PS4 like basic voice navigation and face recognition.
PS4's main competition, the Xbox One, scores well for its capabilities as an all-round entertainment device. But the PS4 earns its stars as a games console and at $550 is a little bit cheaper. Its streamlined approach to sharing, remote play and even the menu layouts suggest that even if Sony adds more multimedia functions later, the PS4 will still appeal primarily to gamers.
Interested in comparing with the Xbox One? Read our review.