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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 13, 2013 at 6:27 PM

Blue light special: First impressions of Sony’s PlayStation 4

Normally I’m not a fan of flashing lights on a box below the TV set, but I love the LED light bar on top of Sony’s sleek new PlayStation 4 console.

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The bar bisects the black plastic case and glows a soft white when the $399 machine wakes up. Once the potent hardware inside is up and running, it glows a deep blue. Looking down at the box is like peering through the gap in a deck to the ocean below.

Or the light could be seen as a health indicator for the $63 billion video-game industry, which has been flickering red over the past two years, the tail end of the last generation of game hardware.

In the seven years that Sony has been selling the PlayStation 3 and eight years that Microsoft has had the Xbox 360, the two companies’ consoles have saturated the market, with about 160 million units sold.

Now their battle royale starts all over again Friday, when the PS4 goes on sale, one week before Microsoft releases the successor to the 360, the $499 Xbox One.

Hardcore gamers are expected to buy most of the first batch, but both companies believe they’re offering enough exciting games and entertainment features to draw mainstream consumers to their platforms for perhaps another decade.

Jack Tretton, chief executive of  Sony Computer Entertainment of America, said it will take a while to figure out which new console will be the winner. The key measurement will be how much entertainment is consumed on each platform in the years to come.

In an interview with Microsoft’s local newspaper, Tretton was conciliatory, praising his competition and saying that the dual-shock of two consoles launching simultaneously will benefit the entire industry.

“I’m a big believer in ‘rising tide lifts all boats,’ ” he said.

“Microsoft and Xbox [are] a great brand; they’ve got a lot of fans,” he continued. “People are going to buy Xbox One; they’re going to buy PlayStation 4. I think both platforms will be successful.”

I’ll be posting a review of the PS4 soon. For now here are some top 10 first impressions of the system, which just became fully usable last night when Sony delivered a software update that activated its online capabilities.

10. If you’re not an aficionado, you may need a manual to figure out how to turn the PS4 on and eject a disc. There is nothing that looks like a traditional button on the case. Below the LED light are two thin, vertical strips of plastic that are actually touch-sensitive switches. The upper one is power and the lower one is eject.

9. Sony blessedly doesn’t use a bulky power “brick” like some previous generation consoles (Xbox but not PlayStation 3) and instead uses just a cord that runs from the outlet to the back of the PS4.

8. Its beveled design makes the case feel smaller than it is, and it’s already thinner than a cable box or Xbox 360. The glossy black portions of the case are a dust magnet, though.

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7. Sony’s software interface is fluid, fast and fairly easy to navigate. Most of the TV display is a blue field, over which float white icons and typography and square panels representing apps and content. It’s fine but less polished and refined than the lush Xbox One interface that Microsoft has showed in previews.

6. Third-party apps are relatively scarce for now on the PS4, which so far has 12 available. Facebook and Twitter sharing is integrated into the system. Netflix, Redbox and Amazon.com video services are available, along with NHL and NBA apps. Sony’s own video store is there, but it’s not as polished. An icon for TV shows on the menu takes you to a store with a limited selections of shows that you can buy for $1.99 per episode.

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5. Sony is giving PS4 buyers a free digital copy of its wonderful “Flower” game for the PS3. It’s a nice bonus but PS3 owners will still be frustrated that they can’t play their library of games on the new console. Tretton said the plan is to offer previous generation games on the PS4 via a streaming service in 2014.

4. Launch title “Killzone: Shadow Fall” does a great job showcasing the graphics capability of the platform, which has a graphics processor 18 “compute units” and 1.84 teraflops of oomph. Mist rises off the gorgeous river and waterfall passing through realistic woods where you play during parts of the game, but if you stop to look around you’ll be obliterated by alien soldiers.

3. The PS4’s new Dualshock 4 controllers are a big improvement, with better-feeling joysticks and buttons and larger handles that are easier to hold for an extended period. A touchpad spanning the center portion of the controller was put to good use in “Killzone” to activate different drone capabilities with swipe gestures. Rapid pausing and resumption of games is done with the “options” button.

2. Synchronizing a PS4 with Sony’s handheld Vita game is a breeze and worked surprisingly well, even though I didn’t have the console connected to my home network via Ethernet, as Sony suggests for this application. Once the devices were paired, the PS4 screen was mirrored on the Vita, which then functioned like a miniature, portable version of the big console.

1. Sony improved the sign-in and authentication process with the PS4. It also encourages players to enter and share more information about themselves via the PS4, asking if they’d like to provide their real name and Facebook photo to other players online, for instance. One default setting is to automatically share game trophies and videos you watch with friends, and friends of friends, on the PlayStation Network. Fortunately, there are clear and simple menus that make it easy to adjust these settings.

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Comments | Topics: Amazon.com, consoles, Digital media

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