Sony Corporation (NYSE: SNE) is set to release the PlayStation 4, the fourth generation of its popular PlayStation video game console, at midnight on Friday. While Sony has talked about the features of the PS4 since its debut in February, few outside of Sony have gotten to spend hands-on time with the PS4.
IBTimes got a chance to meet with Michael Aragon, the vice president and general manager of the Sony Entertainment Network, to get a first look at completely redesigned user interface and digital entertainment services -- like Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited -- on the PS4.
In case you’re looking for the “too long, don’t read” version: the PS4 interface looks great, is remarkably fast, emphasizes social in a way that is more helpful than obnoxious, and provides awesome integration between its services.
The first thing users will notice is that the PS4 has eliminated the XrossMediaBar (the UI of the PS3) in favor of the new Content Launcher. It’s still a horizontal list of the core categories, including games, music and video, but it is much cleaner and features large images rather than small icons.
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The most noticeable difference is the “What’s New” tab, which loads first when the system boots up. What’s New displays a social feed of friends’ activity on the PSN network, including status updates, trophies, music listened to or videos watched. The What’s New feed will also display in-game screenshots or video captured using the new social button the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller.
What is most noticeable about the What’s New feed is how fast it is. Video clips, movie trailers or music load almost instantly.
The primary focus of What’s New on the PS4 is discovery. If a user owns a particular video, it can load directly from the feed. If not, it will direct the user towards the PlayStation Store. Aragon said the whole thing makes it much easier to know when new content is available, and because it’s based on a user’s friends, that content is more relevant to users.
The PS4 can integrate with a user’s Facebook account to add Facebook friends to the user’s PS4 network. The What’s New feed will only display PSN activity, not everything a person puts on Facebook, and connecting the accounts is strictly an opt-in feature.
The PlayStation Store has also been redesigned to be more graphic-intensive and gamer-focused. Aragon said the PlayStation Store focuses on content that is relevant to PS4 gamers, so think action movies like “Pacific Rim” and Japanese anime.
“Gamer-focused” is a phrase Sony keeps coming back to with the PS4. It’s the same reason Aragon gave for one of the few disappointing facts about PS4: music and movies purchased and rented are stored in the cloud and cannot be downloaded for offline use on the PS4.
“We wanted to focus on saving space for games,” Aragon said, noting that movies and especially entire seasons of a TV show can take up a lot of disk space. For this reason, the PS4 team focused on making video streaming faster, better and, most importantly, buffer-less.
The PS4 accomplishes this by using Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP, or DASH, format to stream high-definition video as seamlessly as possible. In addition to speed, Aragon said the DASH format makes it easier to integrate video into the PS4 platform and even allows for interactive experiences, something the PS4 team is looking to expand in the future.
The PS4 also cannot support MP3 or DLNA files, though a PS4 hardware representative told IB Times that Sony has, “heard the feedback” from the gamer community. On Tuesday, Shuhei Yoshida, Sony’s president of worldwide studios, said that the PS4 team is working on getting these feature added to the PS4.
So while users may not be able to listen to their own tracks on the PS4 right at launch, Sony is quick to remind users that Music Unlimited, a subscription-based music streaming service similar to Spotify and Google Play All Access, has 22 million tracks in its library. PS4 users can stream tracks and albums, create playlists and listen to radio channels directly from the PS4. For $5 per month, users can access Music Unlimited on their PC and PS4 console, and for $10 per month they can access across devices like the PS Vita, Apple iPhone and iPad or Android smartphone and tablet with a PlayStation app. Users that get a PS4 at launch will even get a 30-day free trial of Music Unlimited in addition to 30 days of PlayStation Plus for free and a $10 voucher for the Sony Entertainment Network to purchase games, TV shows or movies.
Again, there is a focus on discovery, and the Music Unlimited tab on the PS4 shows users what’s new and popular, and features curated channels from popular artists. There are even channels based on video games with popular soundtracks, such as “Grand Theft Auto 5.”
What’s most impressive about Music Unlimited is how it’s integrated directly into the PS4 system architecture. Users can stream anything from Music Unlimited during gameplay, which is especially awesome for sports games like “FIFA Soccer 14.” At any time, users can adjust the track or the volume without disrupting gameplay.
Aragon said PS4 will continue working on ways to integrate this feature into games and this his team will work on getting earlier releases and exclusive video content on the PS4.
Gamers that were able to get a pre-order of the PS4 before they sold out should be very happy with the look and feel of the PS4 interface. PS4 is more focused on games than entertainment when compared with its rival, the Microsoft Xbox One, but the the Music Unlimited and Vieo Unlimited services look great, are easy to use, and load extremely fast. Gamers will especially love the ability to stream music during gameplay.
Will you be getting a PS4 at launch? Let us know what you think about the interface, Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services in the comments.