The PlayStation 4, which is released today, is an odd proposition. On the one hand, it only costs $ 400 — but on the other, you really don’t get a whole lot for your money. The launch games for the PS4 are a mixed bag, with the PS4-exclusives Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack really not strong enough to justify the $ 400 price tag. Yes, games like NBA 2K14 and Battlefield 4 are excellent — but they’re also available on the Xbox 360 and PS3, which you probably already own. But there are never any good games at launch, you say — and you’re right. It’s not that I even expect a new console like the PS4 to launch with good games — that’s simply not how it goes.
What does irk me, however, is that Sony went so far with the “pure gaming machine” thing that it removed some very useful, non-gaming features, such as local and LAN media playback. With the PS4, you basically have the choice of playing games, downloading content from PSN, or streaming content from Netflix or Hulu — and that’s it. The PS3, on the other hand, was basically a home theater PC that would play anything you threw at it, from photos and videos and MP3s on a USB stick, to streaming DLNA over the network, to playing TV shows and movies from a shared network folder. You could even use the PS3 to browse your holiday snaps on the biggest and best screen in the house.
A very expensive and attractive brick
The PS4 is a big tease. From the outset, we are told that the PS4 is very similar to a PC — and we know, from our low-level analysis, that the PS4 really is close to being a PC. There are no less than four USB sockets — two on the front and two on the back — but don’t get too excited: they only work with a limited number of peripherals. You charge the DualShock 4 controller via the USB sockets, and if you had a USB keyboard you could plug that in as well. These USB sockets do not support external storage. When I plugged in a USB thumb drive, absolutely nothing happened — not even an on-screen prompt telling me that the PS4 is incompatible with external storage.
The USB stick had a range of files on it — JPEGs, PNGs, an MP4 video file — but try as I might, I couldn’t get the PS4 to recognize it. On the PS3, if you browsed to the Video menu on the XrossMediaBar, all you had to do was plug the external USB drive in and start watching local videos instantly. On the PS4, there is a TV & Video section in the main menu, but all it lets you do is launch Netflix and other streaming services. There is a Video Playback area in the Settings menu, but it’s just a tease: There’s nothing exciting in there.
When it comes to DLNA or playing files over the network (via a samba share or similar), the PS4 again draws a blank. The PS4 only seems to connect to local peripherals (controllers), and Remote Play/second screen devices (PS Vita, smartphones with the PlayStation app). We hoped that you’d be able to stream photos and videos from your smartphone or PS Vita to the PS4 — but that doesn’t seem to be possible either. Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be any way to view still photos on your PS4. It’s possible that Sony cameras will have some magical way to interface with the PS4, but we didn’t try it.
What amazes us is that you don’t get any feedback at all from the console when you try to use a USB drive. Imagine the frustration for someone upgrading from a PS3, only to find out that the PS4 doesn’t support a (very) rudimentary feature that was previously available. There’s no mention of the lack of support for external storage on the PS4 box, incidentally.
Welcome to Sony’s walled garden, please enjoy your stay
In short, the PS4 now only allows you to play content that is approved by Sony. You can play games, you can purchase TV/movies/music from the PlayStation store, and you can stream Netflix and other premium services. If you want to watch a TV show, movie, MP3, or family photo album that you’ve acquired through non-Sony channels you cannot do so on your PS4.
As for why Sony has crippled the PS4′s home theater functionality, there are three likely reasons: Preventing piracy (Sony has significant interests in TV and cinema); increasing the amount of revenue generated from digital downloads; or maybe it was just that Sony ran out of time and had to ship without home theater functionality. It’s entirely possible — if the USB sockets themselves haven’t been crippled in some way to prevent external storage — that Sony could add local and network media playback with a software update.
It will be interesting to see if the Xbox One has local and LAN media playback, or if Microsoft also takes the draconian, DRM-content-only approach. Given how good Netflix is, and how easy it is to legally acquire most TV shows, movies, and albums (in the US!), we wouldn’t be surprised if both the PS4 and Xbox One make it very, very hard to play local content. This could be a rather big issue if you previously used your PS3 or Xbox 360 as a media center, or if you live in a country that doesn’t have easy access to digital distribution and media streaming — i.e. anywhere outside the US and some parts of western Europe.