Which is better: the PS4 or the Xbox One? It's a question that's already been asked countless times before. And while we won't pretend to have a universal, one-size-fits-all answer, now that we've spent hours on end with both consoles, we have a few things to say about the matter. Join Gizmag, as we take a closer look at the two big next-gen gaming systems: Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4.
The short answer is that the PS4 appears to have more gaming horsepower. It also costs US$100 less ($400 to the Xbox One's $500). So it's a no-brainer, right? Well, maybe. Does the Xbox's Kinect, live TV integration, and ambition as an all-purpose entertainment center make it worth a look, despite that higher price? And should any current or upcoming exclusive games influence your decision? That's where the long answer comes into play.
In my experience, playing both systems on a 60-in 1080p TV, I noticed a graphical advantage for the PS4. In every multi-platform game I played on both consoles, titles like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4, and NBA 2K14, the PS4 games popped a little more. Details looked a tad crisper, resolution was often higher, and it was a slightly more visually stunning experience on the PlayStation.
When you take a step back from sweating the little graphical differences, I think both consoles' games look great, and are noticeably improved over even the best-looking PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Xbox One exclusive Ryse: Son of Rome, for example, is one of the most impressive-looking console games I've seen (though its extremely linear path lends itself to that kind of showcasing).
Consoles' life cycles are long, and developers are just dipping their toes into these new sandboxes. You never know, the advantage could shift to the Xbox as time goes by and devs better learn these new waters. But when all is said and done, if you simply want the more powerful system – with the higher ceiling in terms of pure technical eye candy – then you're probably better off saving $100 and getting the terrific PS4.
Xbox One: the 21st century living room?
So why consider the Xbox One at all? Well, the main reason is if you want it to serve as an all-around entertainment hub – complete with futuristic voice and gesture control. If you've ever dreamed of controlling not just your gaming console, but your entire TV, with waves of the hand and a few voice commands, then the Xbox One delivers ... sort of.
When it works well – and it often does – the Xbox One is the best example I've seen of a 21st century media hub. When you use your body and voice to control your TV (everything from games to video streaming services to your cable channels), then you never have to worry about where your remote control is. You can munch on some greasy pizza or popcorn while catching up on House of Cards without mucking up your game controller. Just pause, fast-forward, and resume with your voice or hand. You are the remote control.
But my biggest problem with the Xbox One's voice and gesture navigation is that it isn't consistent enough. If you're going to charge $100 more for your console because you're bundling a hands-free sensor like Kinect with it, then it had damn well better be rock-solid. If you're trying to claim the throne of Master Innovator in the 21st Century Living Room, then you'd better work out the kinks before it reaches customers. In my experience, that just isn't the case with the Xbox One.
One of the coolest features of Kinect is being able to scroll and select items on the screen with in-air hand gestures. Yet too often I sit in front of my TV, lift my hand to scroll across the Xbox home screen, and ... nothing. Or I sit there like a child waiting for his teacher to call on him, until it finally does recognize my hand. But at that point, the magic is gone. I've already spent longer trying to get it to recognize me than I would have taken to simply pick up the damn remote.
Live TV integration is another core Xbox One feature that feels like it's still in beta. Once you connect your cable or satellite box to the Xbox's HDMI input port, your live TV blends into the Xbox One home entertainment experience. It's a big part of Microsoft's one entertainment center vision, but there are big limits there too.
For example, if you want to watch a specific show, you can't say "Xbox, watch the Warriors game" or "Xbox, watch Conan." Nope, you have to already know what channel it's on, and then hope Xbox recognizes your voice command to change to that channel. And while it's very good at recognizing popular US channels like ESPN and TNT, switching to something like NBA League Pass required me to say "Xbox, watch DirecTV NBA League Pass HD." Hardly an improvement over using my satellite remote.
Of course you can always just pick up your Xbox controller and scroll through your channels. But at that point, again, what's the point? It's just a different version of the same cable remote you've already been using for years.
You wouldn't know it from the last few minutes, but I'm actually a fan of the idea of the Xbox One's Kinect controls and all-purpose entertainment vision. For the roughly 60-80 percent of the time that it works well, it's a fun, easy, and convenient way to control your entertainment. Skype video chat is positively Jetsons-like, and it can be handy to "snap" (side-by-side multitasking), say, a sports game and a web search.
But it's just too hard to ignore the rest of the time, when I'm repeating voice commands, with increasing volume and frustration, as I try to get Kinect to recognize me. Or when I'm flapping my hand around like an injured bird, trying to get the gesture navigation to work. The Xbox One is full of great ideas. If only they didn't feel like they're still in beta.
Of course the Xbox One's Kinect isn't just about UI navigation. There are a few motion based fitness games available for the console (Just Dance 2014, Zumba Fitness World Party) and you also get a stacked series of Xbox Fitness workouts along with an Xbox Live Gold subscription. They're basically ported workout DVDs with scored feedback based on how well you're following the instructor. If any of these kinds of activities float your boat, then that could be another reason to look at the Xbox.
It's also possible we'll see more developers work voice and body control into more traditional games. We see a little bit of that in Ryse, with the option of sending a few voice commands to your army. But it very much has the feel of a feature tacked on to showcase the hardware's potential, rather than something that actually improves the game. I'm not sure if Kinect integration in regular games will ever go beyond that.
A brief word about controllers
Both systems' controllers feel great in hand, and are much improved over – while retaining the general aesthetic of – their respective predecessors. I wouldn't give a huge advantage to one over the other. I think the Xbox's remote might feel a hair more comfortable to hold, but Sony's DualShock 4 feels very smooth as well.
The PS4 controller does have a couple of nice perks, like a touchpad (which has been woefully ignored by developers so far) and a light bar on top that lets you know which player each remote belongs to (blue for Player 1, red for Player 2). It also gives you a built-in speaker, and some games play the occasional audio cue through the controller. I've read about some gamers complaining that the lights lead to distracting reflections on their TVs, but I never ran into that.
Of course any given console is nothing without games. Right now it's still slim pickings, with the usual blend of launch titles: current-gen games upscaled for the new hardware, peppered with a few exclusives designed to showcase the new systems. PS4 exclusive highlights include sci-fi shooter Killzone: Shadow Fall and the repetitive but charming family game Knack. On the Xbox One you have Ryse, an uneven but visually-stunning hack-and-slash game that blends Batman: Arkham-like combat with Uncharted-esque cinematic action/adventure, and the gorgeous racer Forza Motorsport 5.
The wild card is Respawn's upcoming Titanfall (below), which will only be available on Microsoft platforms. I played it for hours on end during last week's open beta, and the online shooter appears to be the rare ridiculously hyped game that actually lives up to it. The combination of fleet-footed parkour-trained pilots and giant bad-ass mechs makes for a unique – and insanely fun – first-person shooter experience. It looks terrific on the Xbox One, and I imagine it will help Microsoft move more than a few systems. Of course you'll also be able to play it on a Windows PC and, though it won't be as visually dazzling, Xbox 360. So while it could very well be the Xbox One's first killer title, the Xbox One isn't the only way to get in on the Titanfall action.
Of course a game system is a long-term investment, and we just don't know much about the games that will be launching beyond the next few months (we'll certainly hear much more at E3 2014). We do know that an Uncharted game is in development for the PS4, along with a new Halo title for the Xbox One. And if past is prologue, then you can take a look at the recent histories of both platforms to see if you prefer one over the other.
The PS3 gave us exclusive franchises like Uncharted, God of War, Infamous, LittleBigPlanet, and Ratchet & Clank. The Xbox 360 had its own locked-down series like Halo, Fable, Gears of War, and Forza. During the current-generation (or is it now last-gen?) of consoles, I owned both systems but consistently gravitated much more towards the PS3's exclusives. With that said, Titanfall already has me questioning whether that will be different this time around.
Xbox One or PS4?
So which system do you go with? Which should you buy? Well, I've made no secret that I have quite a few reservations about the Xbox One, and basically none about the PS4. Sony's console doesn't swing for the fence like the Xbox does. At its core, it's basically a PS3 with next-generation hardware and a few subtle tweaks. It focuses on its bread and butter, gaming, and doesn't try to add too many new features. It's a simpler and more focused experience.
The Xbox One has lofty ambitions, and when everything is cooking, it can add up to something that's pretty awesome. Unfortunately, in order to be worth that extra $100, those new features need to be rock-solid.
If you're going to talk to your game console, I'd say it needs to understand you at least 90 percent of the time. If you're going to wave your hand at your game console, it needs to respond damn near all the time. But in my experience – even with plenty of lighting, no excess of background noise, multiple recalibrations, and a healthy recommended distance from the TV – I'd say everything purrs about 60-80 percent of the time. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but from others I've talked to, and other reactions I've read from around the internet, I know that I'm certainly not alone in this assessment.
So if you're looking for the best pure gaming console around, and exclusives like Titanfall and Halo aren't a factor, then I'd say you're probably better off with the PS4. I really wanted to fall in love with the Xbox One's attempts at innovation, and there were times that, for brief periods, I did. But that frustrating inconsistency with Kinect, paired with at least somewhat inferior raw power, makes it really hard to recommend forking over that extra $100 for Microsoft's console.
For more, you can check out Gizmag's Xbox One review from launch weekend, along with our specs and features comparison from back in June and our early analysis of the two systems' performance from November.
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