The PS4 is barely out of its box in terms of a console life cycle and looks set for a potential 4K playback upgrade before the end of the year.
Is there one or are we just looking at Sony TVs shipping with a DualShock 4 from here on in rather than a PS5 console?
A PlayStation 5 will land in some form but what's most interesting is whether it'll be the big component packed box we've grown accustomed to heating our living rooms, a palm sized streaming device or an invisible power ever present on our televisions or even iPhones and iPads.
Gazing back 20 years to the original PlayStation and its successors – yes, you're that old – it's fascinating how little really changed until the internet explosion of the last few years.
Into each generation a whirring box under the TV was born, complete with disc support and a whole bundle of the newest components but it's only now, as we Remote Play content live to our PlayStation Vitas and play seamless online multiplayer in games like Destiny, that it really feels like the future has arrived.
When a PS5 comes a calling, this is the time for things to change. Or is it?
Discs are so 20 years ago
Now that PlayStation Now and streaming capabilities should be the norm by Christmas let alone in five years' time, shouldn't we scrap the disc drive already?
We can hear it from here. Despite the magazine dropping the legendary demo disc in the middle of last year, ex editor of Official PlayStation Magazine, Ben Wilson disagrees.
"Steam on PC has taught us that disc drives are becoming less and less necessary, but I can't see them being phased out completely for a while yet," he says.
"People love their boxed products, and 'experts' have been predicting the 'imminent' demise of the CD for more than 20 years. Remind me how that one has turned out? There will always be those who prefer special editions and sexy packaging to invisible downloads, and it's those guys and girls who'll ensure disc drives live on within gaming in some form."
Looking at the ages of the people investing in technology (that's us remember, and let's be honest, we're not getting any younger) we do still have the desire to buy physical products despite their ready availability online.
But it's not just PlayStation (and better pricing on the PlayStation Store) that needs to evolve here. Our broadband speeds largely still leave much to be desired and a solid online infrastructure will have to be implemented before we depend solely on fibre-optic wires to get our gaming fix.
Adding an extra hurdle to a disc-less world, there's yet another reason why the upcoming preloading feature will be like a gift from the PlayStation gods. Size.
"I'd argue that the ever-expanding size of games would cause significant issues for a digital-only machine," says Matt Pellett, current editor of Official PlayStation Magazine.
"Both in terms of download times and the number of games people could store on their hard drive at any one time."
With the launch of Ultra HD Blu-ray, towards the end of the year, and their 50-100GB capacity, that's the sort of media we'll need our next next-gen games to be shipped on. With such huge game sizes it would be a struggle for all but the most advanced broadband connections to cope with.
Sony is quite likely to want to keep momentum going with the new disc format too and so it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see it wanting to do that with a UHD Blu-ray drive in the next version of the PlayStation.
Whether that's in a PS5 or a 4K update to the PS4 though is still up in the air.
PlayStation Now is the time
- PlayStation: 1994
- PlayStation 2: 2000
- PlayStation 3: 2006
- PlayStation 4: 2013
- PlayStation 5: ?
In swaggers PlayStation Now to fix all these problems. Game size? No problem. It's all in the cloud.
Choice? In five years or so, Sony could have filled it with every game on their back catalogue. Is this enough? Or could this pose even more problems for the future of PlayStation?
"If we end up in a place where streaming games is the norm, like it has become in the movie/box-set rental market, then the console itself is under threat," says PC Gamer's resident tech expert Dave James. "And if there's no actual console, what do the developers target and what do they develop on and how does Sony make its money?"
So a physical console still seems the most attractive prospect here for Sony. PlayStation Now seems an excellent solution as an additional feature, especially for accessing games from previous generations, saving you blowing the dust off that enormous original PS2 you've not been able to say goodbye to.
Another matter is the thorny issue of cost. If we've shelled out for the newest console, what's the sting for the back catalogue?
"The big talking point of the PlayStation Now Beta has been the price-point," says Pellett.
"Sony needs to get this right in order to be as competitive in the streaming market as it is in the console hardware market. With Sony's library of games and the ability for people to revisit the games they can't play on PS4 – and in some cases can't buy these days – it could become a hugely important part of the PlayStation family."
The suggestion of the PlayStation family here is important. As we know, Sony will be shipping Sony Bravia TVs with PlayStation Now built in but this won't be a replacement for the PS4 or any future consoles.
Too much rests on the power from our home consoles as new tech appears on the horizon. Yes, we're looking at you Project Morpheus.
4K and the VR revolution
Project Morpheus looks like the future. No, really.
The baying for an Oculus Rift consumer version has proved that virtual reality might just have a place in our living rooms after all and Sony's Morpheus announcement came just at the right time. Is the future of PlayStation inside a headset?
"Between PS Now and Project Morpheus, PlayStation 4 is well-placed to evolve dramatically in the years ahead," considers Pellett. "In five years we may well not only be buying our games in a different way, but the types of games we'll be playing in the first place could very well be different to what we're experiencing now."
So more shark based diving experiences then.
It seems clear that, like PlayStation Now, Morpheus is a strong addition to the PlayStation brand but an add-on to the main event which still happens to be that whirring console we can't get rid of. Yet as 4K televisions raise their ugly but oh-so-pretty heads, how can the PlayStation 4 cope with the extra processing power necessary for extra pixel production?
"Given the rapid price drops of 4K TVs, and the likelihood of increased adoption, I think Sony is going to need to produce a PS4K hardware update in the next couple of years to increase the GPU horsepower," says Dave James.
"With both latest-gen consoles battling to play native games at just 1080p there is no chance of them ever being capable of running at a native 4K resolution without a serious change in components.
"Given the processor manufacturer supplying the silicon design for both consoles is constantly iterating on that technology it should be relatively simple for Sony to upgrade the components, and as it will still be an x86-based platform it would be backwards compatible. But whether Sony would want to do that, creating a two-tier PlayStation 4 ecosystem, is tough to say."
A PlayStation 4.5, rather than a 5 almost makes sense, given Sony's clear investment in the development side of things.
"Speaking with different developers it's clear that PS4 has been designed with external studios at heart," explains Pellett.
"I've been assured it's the easiest console to develop for in PlayStation history, which is as good as an open-door invitation for teams to make games for PS4."
This strong investment in the development side of things means Sony clearly doesn't think their box is going anywhere anytime soon. Any successor is going to follow in this parallelogram's footprint.
The evolution of PlayStation
The PS Vita's Remote Play feature already hints at the miracles of new ways we can play but can features such as PlayStation Mobile extend the console experience even further?
And can future PlayStation updates deliver that?
"The thing I most want is to see PlayStation Mobile on iOS," says Ben Wilson. "The issue, of course, is that it would require Sony and Apple to clamber into bed together, which isn't going to occur anytime soon.
"But perhaps by the time PS5 rolls around, and there's even more scope for cross-platform sharing, we will see a way in which you can start a Call Of Duty 21: Robots vs Zombies campaign on console in the morning, continue it on iPad in the afternoon, and compete it on your phone at 2am while the rest of the household snores in unison."
It appears that we can't escape this idea of a home console. As a processing hub, an independent gaming power not necessarily dependent on the internet, a unit to centre our experiences around and plug extra peripherals into and a centre of the PlayStation universe.
Why the PS5 could be the cheapest console ever
First published January 2014
The PlayStation 5, whether you like it or not, will exist in some form or another and chances are it will look less like the future and more like what we already know.
"Look at the evolution of PS3 from launch day to now, and then consider that the PS4 was designed from the ground up to evolve in the years after its release," considers Pellett. "Even with simple updates, the PS4 under my TV today is going to be unrecognisable to the PS4 under my telly in 2019 – despite being the same box."
It's not only an exciting new gaming service, but also a mesmerising hint at the destiny of the PlayStation brand and the future of gaming in general. This is the beginning of a cosmic shift in the paradigm of gaming, and it's happening right here, right now. Be excited.
You'll be able to select a game and begin streaming it immediately, meaning absolutely no delay in getting the game up and running. Instantaneous PS3 gaming, no loading times at all. Awesome!
But there's more. Lots more.
Game streaming functionality will later arrive on the PS Vita and, far more excitingly, Bravia TVs. Yep, using a DualShock 3 pad, you'll be able to play full-blown PS3 games, in HD, on your big TV, without the need to own a PlayStation console. Incredible!
But wait. There's still more.
Eventually, PS Now will offer not only PS3 games, but PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games - not only on the PS3, PS4, PS Vita and Bravia TVs, but also on third-party TVs, smartphones and tablets as well. All without needing to own a games console. Wow.
Games will be available to rent on a one-off basis, with unlimited Netflix-style monthly PSN subscriptions a payment model Sony is likely to pursue aggressively.
That's right, the future of gaming lays entirely in software, services and super-fast internet connections and not in expensive black boxes.
What it means for gaming
Play any PlayStation game on any device with a screen. All you need is an internet connection. Amazing.
What this essentially means is that the days of paying $400 for PlayStation hardware are numbered. In fact, it's very possible that the PlayStation 5 (make no mistake, there will still be a PS5) will be a cheap-as-chips $50 set-top box that will do nothing other than stream content from the great PlayStation publishing cloud in the sky.
After all, who would pay excessive prices for a console that does nothing you can't do on your existing tech? Sony has never been able to make money from PlayStation hardware anyway, in fact it generally makes a loss. Woohoo cheap gaming for everyone!
Of course, this has long been mooted as a likely solution for gamers of the future. OnLive has already been streaming games for some time, and when Sony purchased Gaikai and it's game streaming technology in the summer of 2012, the writing was on the wall. But no one really knew what the plan was. Now we do.
So here we are, at the start of 2014 walking into a world where all Sony Bravia TVs could ship with a DualShock controller by default and offer access to every PlayStation game ever made. All you need is a robust connection, and that will certainly be the biggest obstacle to this tech becoming mainstream. That and the fact that PlayStation Now is initially only launching in a closed US trial with no worldwide launch date even hinted at. But it's coming...
The future of gaming
This news might miff some who've has just splurged a wad of cash on a PS4 or Xbox One, but don't worry - this cloud-based future is a way off yet. But it means the audience for games in the near future will be far, far bigger. It means graphics in games will no longer be bottlenecked by years-old console components.
It means more and better PlayStation games. Possibly even cheaper games as developers battle for your game-hours. The possibilities of this future really are endless and they're up for discussion right now. What's certain is that it's great news for gamers like you and me.
The games console is dead. Long live PlayStation.
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