Having recently celebrated its second birthday, the PlayStation 4 is already well on its way to becoming one of the most successful games consoles of all time.
After selling an incredible one million units in just its first 24 hours on sale in the US, the PS4 has now been snapped up by over 30 million gamers worldwide at last count.
The PS4 is currently enjoying a recent price drop, with the RRP dropping to $479.95. Of course, street value has seen the console hit prices as low as $350, and there are plenty of bundles out there with new games as well.
As a counterpoint, a refurbished Xbox One can be picked up for $399 RRP, though that's without a bundled Kinect. If you want the Xbox One camera in there, you'll need to spend $499, although street prices are going to be lower.
If you do want to get yourself a PlayStation Camera, it can be bought separately for $89.95.
- What should we expect from the PlayStation 5?
For previous Playstation consoles, the two year mark is roughly the time that Sony rolls out its 2nd gen "slim" version. For the PS4 though, the changes have been fairly low key and under the hood of 500GB consoles.
The current 1TB consoles out in the wild are all still running the older CUH-1100 series hardware - something to keep an eye out for if you're looking to pick up a new Playstation 4 this year.
This new CUH-1200 series of consoles has had some pretty major refinements to its build, even if it isn't the anticipated 'slim' version that some were expecting.
There are a few cosmetic changes to the design. For a start the two-tone finish of the original PS4 is gone, replaced by a complete matte black finish.
Something that's going to be more divisive though is the way Sony has replaced the touch-sensitive power and eject buttons with actual physical press-buttons. Being able to register when they've been depressed is sometimes preferable, but I never had a problem with the original's touchy-feely buttons before.
And these slightly wobbly, hollow-sounding buttons definitely feel a little cheaper.
But it's the internal components which have seen the biggest changes.
The actual motherboard itself is smaller and there are fewer memory chips arrayed around the AMD APU at the PS4's heart. That doesn't mean there's any less GDDR5 memory in the new CUH-1200 series consoles, Sony has simply used higher density Samsung 8Gb chips so it doesn't need to use as many of the 4Gb memory chips it previously used.
Sony has also used a re-designed Blu-ray drive inside it. Which probably goes to explain why you get less drive/disc noise from the new unit too.
The drive spins down a lot quicker and doesn't seem to have the same aural note as the original device.
And noise is a key factor in the new design too.
It's subjectively quieter than the original PS4; almost noiseless when sat under your TV. That's also largely down to the fact the new PS4 runs cooler thanks to its lower power draw, which means the fans need to spin up less when the machine is being taxed.
It's really impressive what Sony has managed to do in terms of the power draw of the new CUH-1200 series of consoles, and that has had a knock on effect on the whole device.
At idle the new Playstation 4 uses around 20% less power and around 36% less when running in Rest Mode. When in that state the new machine is now drawing only 9W from the wall.
The most impressive change though is what's going on when the PS4 is running at full tilt in game. I ran a graphically-intensive section of The Last of Us Remastered on both consoles and while the original machine is hitting 151W at peak the new PS4 is only hitting 114W at most.
That's a huge saving in power - around 25% less.
The manufacturing moves haven't affected the console's performance, just made it cooler, quieter and more efficient. And when Sony can do that with likely a cheaper bill of materials (especially given the simplified Blu-ray and less memory silicon) it only helps boost its margins.
Elsewhere it's exactly the same as the original console which has so effectively claimed dominion over the current-generation console war.
The controller hasn't been altered and it runs exactly the same firmware revision as the standard console. There has also been no change in gaming performance - and so no move towards getting 4K gaming anywhere close. But that also means existing PS4 owners shouldn't be too worried.
What it does mean though is that if you're going to be buying a new PS4 this year you absolutely need to make sure it's this updated one. And that, at the moment, means limiting yourself to the 500GB version as the 1TB CUH-1200 series still hasn't found its way out into the wild.
Handy hint - if you are looking to buy a new PS4, check the box before you buy.
Around where it mentions the hard drive capacity it will state the model number. If it says anything like CUH-1200 then you're golden, but if it's CUH-1000 or CUH-1100 then put it back.
If you're worried about the storage don't forget you can always upgrade your PS4 hard drive yourself.
PS4 vs Xbox One
The differences between the PS4 and Xbox One are evident before you even switch them on.
Despite the two consoles both sporting similar half-matte half-gloss finishes and containing very similar internal components, they really couldn't be more different.
For a start, the PS4's parallelogram form is small and sleek in comparison to the enormous VCR-like cuboid of the Xbox One. And this means that the PS4's box is half the size and weight, and with the new PS4 versions arriving later this year they're getting even lighter.
The Sony console can be extracted from its packaging and plugged in and booted up in a couple of minutes.
Xbox One on the other hand comes in a huge, hulking box. It's fiddly to open and unpack, and it's full of little compartments, with loads of cardboard and plastic bits to get in your way.
This is the kind of streamlining that typifies the PlayStation experience with PS4.
It's a console designed for gamers to play games and in this respect it could be described as more of spiritual successor to the PlayStation 2 – still the best selling games console the observable universe has ever known.
One look at the PS4 and you know you're looking at Sony hardware. It's slim, sleek, available in jet black and shiny white, and amazingly it's roughly the size of a second generation PS3 Slim.
You could also pick it up in PSOne grey for a limited amount of time, but that didn't end so well...
The full measurements are 275 x 53 x 305 mm so it's a lot more compact than an Xbox One, which is longer, taller and squarer.
In a feat of engineering worth tipping your hat to, and in spite of the PlayStation 4's slim stature, Sony has tucked the power supply inside the system, leaving no external power brick to trip over.
The Xbox One on the other hand retains the external power brick of the Xbox 360, leaving you with more mess behind your TV, though without the ol' 360's overheating issues.
The PS4 is meant to lay flat on its belly but, if your media centre can only accommodate a vertical machine, Sony has a plastic stand it sells separately for $27.95 which helps the system stand up straight.
On the front-facing side you'll find a slot-loading Blu-ray disc drive and to its right two powered USB 3.0 ports, which can charge your DualShock 4 controllers even when the system is turned off and are used to sync controllers when taking gamepads from one place to another.
Spin the system around and you'll be met with an HDMI (still only 1.4 m'afraid), Ethernet and a digital optical audio out port, as well as a proprietary auxiliary connection for the PlayStation Camera.
Along the top - or the side if you've opted for the stand - is a light, which glows blue when you boot it up. It breathes some life into the otherwise cold industrial design of the system. Turn it on and it blinks a yawning hello.
Inside, the PS4 is all business, with Sony claiming that the PS4's overall performance is ten times that of the PS3.
It has a custom single-chip processor that combines an eight core x86-64 AMD "Jaguar" CPU with a 1.84 teraflop GPU based on AMD's Radeon tech. That's backed by 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, and a 500GB mechanical hard drive.
You can also remove that 500GB drive and replace it with a larger drive, or an SSD for better performance. Thankfully, Sony says these do-it-yourself upgrades will not void the system's warranty.
The two USB ports are the PS4's only front facing connections, while on the rear you'll find HDMI, Ethernet, a digital optical audio out and a proprietary auxiliary connection for the PlayStation Camera.
For wireless connections, the PS4 uses 802.11 b/g/n for WiFi and Bluetooth 2.1 for its wireless DualShock 4 controllers.
What's in the box?
You're bringing home more than a just a stylish, black or white parallelogram. In addition to the actual system you get a power cord (not a big power brick), an HDMI cable, an earbud microphone combo, one DualShock 4 controller and its charging cable (we charged our DualShock 4 pad using the Xbox One and the world did not end).
Extra controllers don't come with another charging cable, so don't lose that one.
Also, note that we said earbud singular, not earbuds, as in just for one ear. It's cheap but serviceable, but you can actually plug any headphones you already own into the controller's headphone jack, so it's not much of an issue.
If there's a team that works harder than Sony's internal development team, we'd like to meet them. As it is, they roll out monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) updates that drastically change the interface and feature set of the system.
The most recent major firmware update, version 3.0, delivered YouTube games streaming to the console, alongside features like additional online storage, new Events and Communities hubs, Stickers for cutesy messaging Playstation friends and the ability to share video clips straight to Twitter.
The previous update, version 2.5, brought with it suspend and resume functionality, allowing you to put the console to rest and then jump straight back into your game without needing the PS4 to boot up from scratch.
It also delivered simplified parties, backing up to an external hard drive, and find Facebook friends who are also on the PSN.
And perhaps most importantly you can now manually map buttons to what you want, making playing those weird Japanese RPGs much simpler with a western control scheme.
Of course, prior to 2.5, there were plenty of other updates. The Sony-exclusive rental streaming service called PlayStation Now - currently only available in the US – Remote Play, Sharefactory and Share Play all debuted in system firmware 2.0.
And there have been myriad minor changes like the ability to turn off HDCP, play games while they're downloading, upload clips to YouTube and set themes and background images for the home screen in that time as well.
All of these features can be found sporadically throughout the new PlayStation Dynamic Menu, the primary GUI of the PS4. It's capable of delivering games, movies and TV shows into your home at lightning speeds as well as connecting you to your friends and other online gamers through the PlayStation Network.
Remember to use the ability to post to Twitter and Facebook to share your best brag-worthy gaming moments and, if you're feeling outgoing, you can stream to Twitch here too.
Sony has also boosted the PS4's capabilities as a media player too, by releasing a new PS4 Media Centre app. Finally Sony's console has almost the same excellent non-gamey playback as its PS3 forebear.
Yes, you can now play .mkv files, you lucky people.
Setting up the PlayStation 4 is very easy, especially if you have a PS3. You can actually use the same cables from Sony's last system, making for a very easy swap.
As mentioned in the introduction the PS4 is super easy to extract from its box and set up, leaving minimal mess and very little environment-killing packaging.
After it's all plugged in and booted up, your new PS4 will ask to connect to internet. It wants that 300MB day-one patch, but it doesn't need it for offline play. You are able to skip WiFi or ethernet altogether and just pop in a game. Unlike the Xbox One, you can get to the homescreen without initially connecting to the web and patching.
Once you do connect to the internet, you'll need to let the PS4 update before you can make purchases from the store or play online.
The PlayStation Store is your portal to every shred of content Sony has available on its system. You'll use it to shop for the latest games, movies and featured content that the Big Blue thinks you ought to know about.
Of course featured games have come and gone over the course of the past year, but one new feature that's stuck around is the ability to buy a digital copy of a game and have it install days before its retail launch.
You won't be able to start it until the midnight of its launch-day, but just having a game the second the clock strikes 12 is convenient.
If you're not buying a game the minute it comes out, you can even start playing part of the game before the download completes.
When purchasing a game like Killzone: Shadow Fall, you'll be asked which portion of the game should be prioritised, single player or multiplayer, essentially letting you choose which part of the game you want to hop into first.
In a little less than an hour, you'll be able to start playing a title. It may seem like something only the truly impatient would enjoy, but when you consider that many releases weigh in excess of 35GB, it's real luxury feature, and another impressive bit of engineering.
Then there's the PlayStation app for iOS and Android. With just the stroke of a touchscreen, you can remotely purchase games and get the download going on your PS4 so it's ready and waiting when you get home (the console will turn on, download and switch off on its own).
PS Vita and Xperia Remote Play
When Remote Play for the PS Vita and Xperia smartphones was announced, everyone chirped that the PS4 would be the best thing ever to happen to Sony's struggling handheld.
In short, a WiFi connected PS4 can stream gameplay to a Vita or recent Xperia handset, much like a gaming PC streaming Borderlands 2 to the Nvidia Shield, or the Windows to Linux streaming of Valve's Steam Box.
We used the PS4 and Vita over our home WiFi and the connection to the PS4 was lag free so you can actually use it as an additional control pad, as well as a second screen. It's a great way to avoid using the on screen keyboard, if nothing else.
For those wondering whether the lack of an L2/R2 and L3/R3 buttons make the experience terrible, it all depends on the game. For a title like Infamous: Second Son, the L2/R2 buttons are mapped to the bottom corners of the touchscreen, and are actually super convenient to use.
Remote Play on an Xperia device is even easier, using a standard DualShock 4 controller and a special cradle to control the game.
Outside of the same Wi-Fi network as your PS4, Remote Play is not an option. At the office we couldn't get it to connect to our PS4 at home, and it simply isn't an available over a 3G data connection. In regards to this, Sony's official statement is:
"We strongly recommend that Remote Play be used within the same WiFi network where the PS4 system is connected. Remote Play may or may not work over a wide area network. For Remote Play to function over a wide area network, a robust and stable WiFi connection and broadband Internet connection is required, and the local area network where the PS4 system is connected must be configured to permit the PS Vita system to access the PS4 system."
Sony's statement holds true, so Vita Remote Play is really more like a Wii U Gamepad, letting you play in bed or get a game in while someone else is using the TV. It's not a strong reason to go out and buy a Vita, but if you already own, it's an impressive novelty at the very least.
Sharing Gameplay Videos
When Sony pulled the PS4 out of the shadows and started rattling off features, it mentioned one truly original and intriguing feature: saving and sharing gameplay videos with the press of the Share button on the DualShock 4.
At all times when playing a game, your last fifteen minutes of action is being recorded. This can be disabled, if you find it creepy or want to save on hard drive space, but it's switched on by default. There are also places where recording or screen grabs are locked out by developers. It's usually during cinematics or in certain menus.
Right on the console you can manipulate the video to a limited degree, more like trimming than true editing, and then share it to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Dailymotion or on the PSN. You can also take a screenshot by holding the Share button, and then attach it to a PSN message, Facebook or tweet it.
Software updates have improved the sharability of gameplay videos as well. It is as easy to save a clip, trim it to your liking and upload to YouTube as it is to copy the file to an external USB drive.
You can also stream live gameplay for others to watch over Twitch, Ustream and YouTube gaming, something PC gamers have enjoyed for a while now. It's quite painless to set up, especially compared to the third-party mechanics needed to employ this on a last-gen system.
Share Play allows players to let friends take control of the game they're playing, watch their in-game progress, and even lets them invite friends to play with them co-operatively or competitively (depending on the game).
The most interesting aspect about this is that both players don't need to own the game in order to have a shared session. It's pretty simple to use; simply hit the Share button on the control pad and a menu pops up in which players can select the Share Play feature.
Then it's all a matter of sending out an invitation to a player in their friend list. You can read more about Share Play on the Network page of this review.