Today is launch day for Sony's latest weapon in the war to win living rooms, the PlayStation 4. Microsoft will return fire next Friday with the Xbox One and its improved Kinect camera. Both companies are offering powerful machines that can play graphically impressive games, but what else can they do? What is the newness that makes spending hundreds of dollars worth it?
Compared to their predecessors, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 move quickly. It takes less than a minute to boot up and get into a game. And what about new games? Both systems have a handy feature for those who are downloading games: You can start playing the game in the middle of the download, once a certain threshold of data is met. This number will differ from game to game, but it could be anywhere from 10% and up.
"One of the things that we noticed as we developed the PlayStation 4 was that the console portion of the game industry needed to reconcile the immediacy issue of tablets and mobile," John Koller, PlayStation's VP of Marketing for Home Consoles and Handheld Platforms, said. "They have gotten a lot quicker with the time to start a game and the console world did not. We set out to solve that and get people into gaming quicker." On the PS4, you can even decide if you want to download the single player campaign or the multiplayer mode first. Likewise, when a game is being installed to the system, you can start playing before the entire thing is installed, with the rest of the installation happening in the background.
You are home alone playing through the latest Assassin's Creed, hunting your next target through Havana. Then your spouse comes home and wants to go out to eat right at that moment. With the Xbox One, you can pause the game right in the middle of combat and put the system on a low-power standby mode. Then you can come back hours later and continue the moment you left off within a few seconds. Sony has announced that the PS4 will have a similar suspend mode when it is in standby, but it will not be available at launch.
"The game can stay in the paused state because we have three operating systems," Xbox marketing director Jose Pinero says. "That means you can sign off if you want to, you can go and do other things or watch other types of entertainment, and then you can go back. You can go back instantly and start playing in a matter of seconds. I think that the future, being able to instantly go from one thing to another, is going to be key for gamers."
Millions stream Netflix through their current game consoles. You have to quit your game, go back to the system's dashboard, and then launch the Netflix app. This wait will be endured no longer. Both of the new consoles allow you to suspend the game and go to Netflix or Amazon or whatever and stream some video, and then jump back to the game without any delay. This multitasking functionality applies to any apps on either console, from Internet browsing to listening to music.
Xbox One takes it one step further by allowing you to "snap" apps into a sidebar to the left that takes up a quarter of the screen. So why not listen to music while you play game, or stream Hulu and Amazon Instant at the same time? And with Kinect's voice controls you can simply say, "Xbox Snap Hulu" and it happens. "You could be playing Madden football on three-quarters of the screen and then have the snap window watching a game in real time, or you could be watching a live NFL game and have the NFL app showing you how your fantasy league is updating the scores in real time," Pinero says.
Xbox One takes that mulitasking one step further with management of television. When you hook the console up to your TV, you can plug your cable or satellite box into the Xbox via HDMI. This allows you to watch television via an app, which working with the multitasking as described above, allows you to play games and watch TV at the same time, or watch TV and browse the Internet in the sidebar. Coupled with the Kinect voice commands, you can simply say, "Xbox Watch Discovery Channel" and then you will be.
There's even a OneGuide, which works like a cable channel guide with a grid showing what shows are on, except Xbox One also pulls in content from video-streaming services like Hulu or Netflix. "When we started to approach the next-generation console, we thought it would be great to bring together all the things that gamers would love to do on their TV into one system. So we thought to create a console that delivers great games and also delivers TV experiences and other forms of entertainment," Pinero says. "The beauty is that you could be watching live TV and you can get a multiplayer invite. Gamers don't have to switch inputs and they can stay connected to their gaming community."
Both consoles have the nifty feature of automatically saving your gameplay into a video buffer—PS4 does so for the last 15 minutes and Xbox for the last 5 minutes—and then letting you go into that video and edit a clip together. You can then share that online, through your friends list with either system, or on Facebook with the PlayStation (Xbox will add support for Facebook and YouTube in 2014). Furthermore, both systems let you broadcast your gameplay live, with optional voice commentary through the PS4's headset or the Xbox One's Kinect, using Twitch (PS4 also supports Ustream). Sony even put a Share button on the PS4's controller to emphasis this capability.
"This idea was born of watching some gamers play on Twitch and they were being followed by absolutely tons of people, watching two people play a shooter game. At that time, we didn't realize there were these celebraty gamers people were following for advice or just to enjoy watching them go through a game," Koller says. "People want to show their greatness, show how epic they are. What better way to do that than to show the game-winning touchdown pass or headshot and be able to share that with your friends?"
This time around, both companies have made their systems be fully accessible through companion apps, with Microsoft's SmartGlass (for iOS, Android, and Windows mobile devices ) or Sony's PlayStation App (for iOS or Android devices). Both will allow you to control the consoles, initiate downloads remotely, or interact with those on your respective friends lists. These companion apps can also be used to interact with games: PS4's game Playroom lets you interact with little robots via the optional PlayStation camera, but you can create your objects to give the robots on the PlayStation App and then just flick them from your tablet to your screen.
"The PlayStation App is designed to allow you to interact with your gaming community wherever you are," Koller says. "That's something that was born out of looking at the way gamers interact with each other. During the PS3 generation, it was done while they were engaged in the living room on the big screen. There were very few offline experiences outside the home and we wanted to change that."
Sony also uses another second screen, but in a very different way. Sony's portable gaming machine, the PlayStation Vita, can interact with PS4 in several ways. First, there are games that you can buy for the PS4 that you will get for free on the Vita. Then when you play the game, you can jump from one machine to the other, so you continue right where you left off when you leave your house for your train commute.
Sony has also set it up so that most PS4 games support Remote Play, the ability to actually play a PS4 game on the Vita screen, connecting over the same Wi-Fi network. "We designed the Vita and the PS4 to work together. It allows the Vita to play PlayStation 4 games via Wi-Fi," Koller says. "This fits another reality we saw while developing the PS4, that you don't always have control of that central TV in your house and you may want to be able to play the PlayStation 4 mobilely. "
When Microsoft released the Kinect motion control camera for Xbox 360, it allowed new kinds of games and functionality, albeit with some degree of error and lag in response. The new Kinect is improved in just about every way, but of particular note is the body tracking. The Kinect now tracks people's skeletons, their balance, their facial expressions, even their heartbeat.
Also, the new Kinect is no longer limited to just tracking one or two people. Now, the system can track six people before it, allowing for some true party games, or loading up six different people's customized profiles onto the system via face recognition, or even tracking six people during Skype calls and adjusting the picture to keep them all in the center.
Pinero adds, "This Kinect was particularly made for the next generation console. Last time, for Xbox 360, we had a Kinect that came out after the console had been out for five years. This time, the Kinect is so powerful: 1080p video, wider field of view, better sound capture, better noise canceling, you can be at half the distance of the previous Kinect and will still capture the image."
PlayStation 4 launches 11/15 for $399 and Xbox One launches 11/22 for $499.
[Images courtesy of Sony & Microsoft]