Part Four: The User Interface and Experience
While console gaming should, in theory, be the ‘easy’ and ‘accessible’ way to play games, one of the unfortunate drawbacks of the last generation of video game consoles was that, as the number of things a gaming platform was expected to do increased – starting with the already heavy load of more complex games and online play, before quickly blossoming into multimedia download and streaming hubs – the user interfaces became increasingly cumbersome. The Xbox 360’s firmware was always clunky and imperfect, but has become slow and crowded to the point of frustration in its latter years, while the PS3’s Cross-Media Bar, though always fast, became extremely convoluted and overstuffed (especially by the time users had loaded it up with dozens of hard-to-organize digital games). What Nintendo was thinking with the Wii’s strange ‘tile’ design I shall never know.
Thankfully, the PS4 arrives out of the gate with what is undoubtedly the fastest, smoothest, and most pleasingly intuitive user interface ever presented on a home console. No, it isn’t perfect. There are missing features aplenty, gaps in the user experience that can and should be present, but as a starting point? This is fantastic. When I say the PS4 delivers more than any other system on the fundamental promise of console gaming, it is the user interface and functionality I refer to more than anything else.
The basic interface is incredibly fluid and easy to navigate. The PS4 launches into a simple hub that horizontally displays your most frequently used games and applications, in the order you used them, with an option to access your full digital game library and multimedia apps stored at the end. It sounds like it would be a mess, but it isn’t – as much as game consoles today are multimedia devices, an individual user, for the most part, won’t be using more than a small handful of games or apps at once. Seeing everything you are most likely to use right up front is a godsend, then, because no longer do we have to dive through menus and submenus to find our primary game of the moment; what you last played will be one of the first options you see, and most anything else you are likely to use is right there, up front and incredibly easy to access. Imagine the “Recent” sub-menu from the Xbox 360 – which lists the last 10 or so opened applications – turned into the hub of the user interface, only vastly better organized and quite a bit more powerful. You can access settings, options, and social features for any of your recent apps – including disc-based games, which the PlayStation 4 thankfully treats like any other application – right from the main screen, with a simple press of the down arrow or a tap of the options button.
Yet as streamlined as the central PlayStation 4 experience is, getting down to the nitty-gritty details of console management isn’t difficult in the slightest. One just has to hit the up arrow to be taken to a row of familiar menus taking you to the PSN Store, your profile, your friends, your online parties, and, of course, settings, which is hugely improved from its wildly convoluted counterpart on the PS3 (data management in particular is much easier, but adjusting audio, video, network, or any other setting is a breeze).
In short, every part of the use interface is fast, fluid, and usable, even when playing games. You can bring up the main PS4 menu at any time with a touch of the PlayStation button on the controller; the game is suspended, and you have full access to the entire suite of settings and social features (starting another full game or application will, of course, close the one you are using, though you can access the PSN store without closing the active game or app). You can start downloads, which will continue without any user prompting in the background, access video and photo sharing features and start uploads, and even let other games install or update while you return to the game you were in. When you choose to do so, the game resumes without so much as a hiccup. ‘Effortless’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. You do not even have to turn the console ‘off’ when you are done playing – just put it into low-power mode, where you can let downloads, uploads, and installs continue, and even charge your controllers.
In short, the PS4 just makes gaming easier. The everyday stresses that arise from the clear delineation between active games and applications and the interface itself are now gone, as is any worry or trouble that might come from digital downloads, saved game uploads, game patches, and installs. For the most part, it is as easy as could be, though some improvements are needed. Organizing your digital game library to your liking is effectively impossible right now, and while that’s not a problem when that library only includes a handful of games, it will quickly become more cumbersome. The main recency-based hub certainly alleviates a lot of that concern, but greater organizational tools would nevertheless be welcome, and the same goes for multimedia apps. I immediately installed Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Crunchyroll, and for what the PS4 has, that’s all I need. It would be nice to never have to see the other streaming apps, which I know I will never use, in the applications menu. Similarly, I have little interest in Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited, but they take up two tiles in the main menu, whether I’ve used them recently or not. Sending them away for good would be welcome.
Continue reading on the next page…