The Xbox One looks like it might have something of an identity problem, wanting to rule the living room and be a hardcore gaming console at the same time. But the PlayStation 4 has no such dilemma; it's a machine for playing video games. That's really all it is. And that's totally OK.
Sure, the PS4 has some entertainment apps, like Hulu, Netflix and Crackle. And it's sure to get many more over its lifespan. It has an internet browser too, of course. But you won't be plugging your cable box into the back of the PS4, or calling out the names of Skype contacts. On PS4, you'll be playing video games.
The PS4 is a sleek if oddly proportioned little black box. Unlike the PS3, Sony's new console was clearly designed to blend nicely with the rest of your living room electronics (from a hardware perspective, at least).
Its odd angles and lines feel strange when you're holding it, but on a shelf under a TV the quirkiness of the console's design disappears. Its slanted facade looks great lying flat facing forward, though standing it up feels a bit too wobbly, even with a stand.
In an effort to keep that facade clean-looking, Sony made the eject and power buttons all but invisible. They're tiny! That's OK, because for the most part you'll be doing those things with the controller anyway.
The PS4 controller is a massive improvement over the PS3's gamepad. The handles are longer and the sticks are no longer convex, so your thumbs won't slip off of them so easily. The new touchpad nestled in its center presents some interesting opportunities, though few games really use it at this point. And the bright color-changing light bar lets the PlayStation Camera easily track it (if you have one) and flashes red when the battery is low.
The PS4 runs quiet and is clearly capable of producing insane graphics. It also comes with a nifty little single-earbud headset for voice communications.
If there's one thing you can say about the PS4's user interface and operating system, it's that it's simple. But this early in the console's life you're bound to run into some problems.
As of launch, you can't change the theme or background, so you're stuck with blue for now. And unlike the Xbox's smart multi-page system, which shows recently used items but also lets you pin up to 25 items to the home screen, there's zero customization in the PS4's UI. In one long, horizontal line of tiles, it shows recently used apps, Sony services like Music and Video Unlimited (whether you've signed up for them or not), and a single folder containing all of your apps and games.
The interface's single other layer is accessed by moving up from the home screen, and it contains notifications, settings, trophies, etc. This system actually works fine for now, but once you've downloaded dozens of games it's not going to be fun to dig them out of that folder. Hopefully there will be a significant redesign by then, because for now the PS4's UI is far too simple.
It's great that you can begin playing games while they download or install (inserting a disc causes the game to begin installing immediately—you'll still need the disc, but at least it's much faster than on PS3). Loading times overall range from surprisingly quick to agonizingly slow, depending on the game and how many things the system is doing at once. There are some more serious issues—attempting to sign in to Netflix might cause your system to become a brick, for example, requiring you to unplug its power cord to reset it.
At least pressing the PS button brings you back to the home screen very quickly, and pressing it again sends you back to whatever you were doing. It's convenient and far better than the PS3's clunky navigation. And the controller's new "Share" button lets you clip gameplay footage or take screenshots on the fly, any time.