Sony's PS4 reveal a lot of 'tell,' not much 'show'

As expected, Sony Computer Entertainment formally announced the PlayStation 4 on Wednesday night.

Yes, the new console’s name was predictable, but why waste brand recognition?

Over the course of a two-hour presentation, Sony executives and third-party developers revealed important tidbits of information about the PS4, such as its PC-based architecture and Holiday 2013 release. Yet they failed to answer equally vital questions, including price.

Here’s a rundown of what I see as positives, negatives and unanswered questions:
 

The hardware

— PC-based architecture. The PlayStation 4’s innards will include an x86-type CPU, an “enhanced” PC GPU, a local hard drive (size unknown) and 8 GB of GDDR5 unified system memory — as well as a secondary chipset to handle Internet activity in the background.

This architecture should make game development much easier for the industry, as they’ll be programming within a very familiar framework.

Also, 8 GB of memory should help give the system the power to display far more complex imagery than the current generation of consoles can achieve.

The major negative, however, is that because of this new architecture, the PlayStation 4 won’t be backward-compatible. In other words, it won’t play PS3 games.

Now, maybe some PlayStation 3 games will eventually be made playable as downloads — but as I understand it, developers would have to recode them first. The new PC-based system will handle tasks much differently than the PS3’s Cell chip does.

(UPDATE: It now seems it may eventually be possible to play PS3 titles on the PS4 — if they are streamed from the "cloud." In other words, in the same manner as playing games on Gaikai or OnLive. Details about how Sony will handle players' access to software they already own remains sketchy.)

Also, we don’t actually know yet what the console will look like, so we don’t even know what kind of physical media it uses — if any. I’m pretty sure it’ll handle Blu-rays, because Sony has a lot of money invested in pushing the Blu-ray disc format, but that’s just supposition on my part.

Blog Photo— DualShock 4. In many ways, the new controller isn’t much of a departure from the old ones. The layout remains symmetrical, with two analog sticks, a directional pad, the four standard face buttons, and four shoulder buttons (two on the right, two on the left) — and it’ll still have motion-control and rumble capabilities.

But there are quite a few changes, even among the familiar elements. For instance, the R2/L2 shoulder buttons will be more trigger-like. Also, the dual analog sticks are allegedly “fine-tuned for better precision, plus improved surface materials and shape for more delicate manipulation.” That info, by the way, is from the official PlayStation blog, not the news conference.

Blog PhotoAnd say goodbye to “Start” and “Select.” Those buttons are being replaced by “Options,” which will pull double duty in accessing in-game menus.

“Share” is another addition, one that will supposedly allow players to quickly access social media functions, such as streaming their game-play to the Internet for other players to watch in real-time. The PlayStation blog indicates players will be able to post to websites such as Ustream, not just a proprietary Sony site. One feature of the Share button that I will never use allows players to hand control of a game off to a friend — you know, to get past the hard parts. Bleh.

Blog PhotoBlog PhotoThe front of the controller sees two significant changes. First, a touchpad offers another input option. Second, the new LED light bar is supposed to make it easier to differentiate which player is controlling which character. Also, the light will be seen by a new camera peripheral, that can sense “the depth of the environment” and track the controller’s movement in three dimensions. According to the blog, “the new camera incorporates four microphones capable of accurate sound detection and source origination, and it will support the PlayStation Move motion controller with more precision than ever before.”

Those microphones make me wonder why the DualShock 4 will also have a built-in speaker and a headphone jack. But who am I to judge?
 

The social scene

In summer 2012, Sony bought cloud-based gaming service Gaikai for $380 million. On Wednesday night, the “whys” of that deal became very apparent.

Basically, Gaikai’s technology has shaped the future of the PlayStation Network, from how players will interact to how they’ll shop.

According to Wednesday’s presentation, players will be able to be much more social — long a perceived shortcoming of Sony’s system.

They’ll be able to watch each other play in real-time over the Internet; talk to each other, even if they aren’t playing the same game; and interact easily in each other’s games, going so far as to hand control back and forth, if desired.

The secondary chipset I mentioned before is part of what will make this possible, in addition to dedicated video compression and decompression tools. That stuff will do the communicating with the Internet, from streaming video to downloading data in the background, leaving the main CPU and GPU free to render an unadulterated gaming experience. If you’ve ever tried running multiple programs at once on a PC, you’ll understand how easy it would be to tax the PS4’s resources if this architecture wasn’t in place.

Another area of Gaikai’s influence will be in the PlayStation Store. Players will be able to try out almost every PlayStation 4 game in the Store for free. And we aren’t talking the very limited demos that most people are used to; we’re talking the full game, starting from the beginning.

Assuming Sony sticks with the model used by Gaikai (and OnLive), gamers will get to play a title for a set amount of time (usually about a half-hour) before getting kicked out. And if they decide to buy the full game, the player will be able to continue from wherever they left off.

I’ve played around with cloud-based gaming, and I know that it works very well.

But I’ve still got a few concerns. Well, one big one really: All this Internet functionality will chew up a lot of bandwidth. That’ll be a win for Internet service providers, but not for gamers’ pocketbooks.

Most ISPs, such as Mediacom and Comcast, limit how much bandwidth a household can use before the Internet pipeline is choked off — or bill extra for leaving access unrestricted.

I can only hope that I gain affordable access to fiber-optic service here in Champaign in a timely manner.
 

Still unknown

Of course, we’re in the dark about a few more big issues:

— Price. How much will this thing cost? We don’t know, though there’s a lot of speculation. Some say $400 at launch, some say $600. It’ll be months before we get the answer.

— Used games. Because of a Sony patent or two, there’s a fear that the PlayStation 4 won’t allow players to use previously owned games. Honestly, I doubt Sony will actually restrict things this way, as they’ll hurt their market more than they’d help it. Some people won’t risk buying a new game if they know they can’t sell it and get some money back later.

— Actual release date. Holiday 2013 is kind of vague. If Sony sticks with tradition, it’ll be out in mid-November.

— Video capability. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, TV manufacturers began their push toward super high-definition television, called 4K for its four thousand lines of resolution. Will PS4 be capable of displaying a 4K signal? We don’t know.

— Console design. As I indicated before, we don’t know what this thing will look like. We don’t know if it uses disc media. We don’t know about its outputs or its inputs. We don’t know if we can upgrade hard drives on our own.

Anyway, that’s all I can think of at the moment. I’ll address the games Sony and its partners showed off in a separate post.

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