(CNNMoney) — When Sony first unveiled the PlayStation 4 in March, it made one thing very clear: It was building the ultimate system for gamers.
Sony definitely accomplished that, making for a better console experience over its predecessor. But unlike the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One, the PS4 is not built to be a do-it-all entertainment box, and won’t appeal quite as much to a casual gaming audience.
Design: Unlike the clunky and ugly PlayStation 3, the PlayStation 4 is slim and stylish, adding some life to what would otherwise be an ordinary black box.
Sony’s design allows you to stand the PlayStation 4 up on its side or lay it flat, which adds a nice bit of versatility over the Xbox One. And for the most part, the PlayStation runs cool and quiet, though it’s not unusual to hear the fans and disc drive if you’re in the middle of a graphically intense game.
Controller: The DualShock 4 represents the biggest change ever to the PlayStation controller in both form and function. And thankfully all of these changes are for the better. Longtime gamers will still recognize it as a PlayStation controller, but the ergonomic shift towards grips that are longer and less-angular than before make this a much more comfortable controller to hold.
The joysticks have also been redesigned, which are spaced out a little further than before and have a lip around the top which makes makes it all the easier to accurately pull off complex moves. Same goes for the shoulder buttons, with the front pair being made larger, and the rear pair being refashioned into a pair of springy triggers more like the Xbox’s lineage of gamepads.
Sony’s also added in a handful of other neat features to the controller, including the LED bar and a speaker. “Killzone: Shadow Fall” uses the speaker to deliver an in-game radio broadcast, and the color-changing LED bar to indicate your health status (which you notice once your fingers start glowing).
Performance: Like the Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 is built on an 8-core AMD processor, which should make the console easier to develop for than its predecessor. And like the Xbox One, that also means that the PS4 is not backwards-compatible with any of the old PlayStation titles. Sony promises to launch its game streaming service next year, which will instantly bring a mountain of old games to the PS4. But until then, new owners are stuck waiting.
The PS4 will let games access as much of the processor as they want. Few, if any, launch titles ever really take advantage of a console’s full power, but that could lead to the PS4 having the better-looking games than the Xbox One in the future. The Xbox One sealed off a chunk of the processor’s power strictly for apps.
For now, the PS4’s graphics aren’t overwhelmingly superior to the games on the Xbox One, though there is a noticeable improvement over the PS3. Games like “Knack” and “Killzone” are early standouts, with “Knack” showing off some impressive lighting and particle effects.
Software and apps: The PlayStation 4 system software is a mixed bag of sorts. While it’s definitely an improvement over the PS3, the user interface feels a bit dated.
Updating games is a pain. If you pop a game disc in and an update is required, you cannot trigger the update from within the game. You have to exit the game, navigate to the notifications menu, and launch the update from there. If you don’t remember to fully quit the game, the PS4 won’t do it for you, which means you have to navigate back to the home screen before you can update. Figuring that out is very unintuitive.
App support is currently pretty sparse, aside from a handful of streaming video apps that include Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vudu and a few others. Sony’s own streaming music service and video store also come loaded on the PS4, but Sony made the peculiar and disappointing decision to not allow users to play or stream their own video and music files.
Camera: The Sony Camera isn’t terribly different from the Microsoft Kinect in concept, employing a dual camera and multi-microphone array to track your movement in 3-D space. But Sony opted against packaging the camera with the console, making it a $60 accessory instead.
That means outside of a tech demo that comes with the console and some rudimentary voice controls, there’s currently not much you can do with the camera.
PS Vita Remote Play: The ability to stream games from the PlayStation to Sony’s portable PS Vita was something that was introduced last generation with the PS3. It’s back again on the PS4. Though it’s appeal and utility is limited by the number of available games, it’s still packing improvements and promise.
One of the best implementations is the fact that Electronic Arts created a custom control scheme for “Battlefield 4” when you’re using the PS Vita, ensuring you have access to all the game’s functions. It’s a small detail for a niche group of PS4 owners, but it’s one that makes the feature all the more appealing.
Sony also made many improvements to the online experience of its PlayStation Network. One of the first things you see when you turn the system on is a feed of everything your PSN friends are up to. Launching a party chat is only a few clicks away, and sharing game footage on Facebook, Ustream or Twitch is as simple as hitting one dedicated button on the controller.
Sony has built an entire experience around the live-streaming of game footage, called Live from PlayStation. You’re free to drop in and comment on someone’s gaming session, which is a surprisingly engaging experience. Watching someone attempt a comeback in FIFA ’14 can evoke some of the same anxiety and excitement you get while watching an actual soccer match. And you can post footage to prove you actually accomplished something unbelievable in “Battlefield 4.”
While it’s not a feature for the more casual set, it’s something that is destined to be embraced by those firmly footed in gaming culture.
Conclusion: Ultimately, the PlayStation 4 is a very good gaming machine that is just now waiting for the games to arrive. Sony made an effort to understand what a hardcore gamer wants out of a console and single-mindedly delivered that experience.
But that also means that this is little else than a gaming machine. It will take some time to see how the app situation shakes out, but as it stands now, the PS4 can’t replace the other boxes in your living room. It would be nice to see Sony provide some of media hub functionality to the PS4 in the future.
But if all the PlayStation 4 ever amounts to is a very good gaming machine, it will still be a very satisfying console.
CNN International Senior Producer Ravi Hiranand contributed to this review