Sony PS4 Slim full review
No other console generation has seen two rivals so similar in terms of hardware, specifications, software and services, making it surprisingly hard to choose between them. We're going to try to explain everything you need to know in order to make the right choice.
The PS4 is generally seen as the hardcore gamer’s choice. Its hardware is slightly more powerful than the Xbox One, and Sony was smarter in focussing the PS4’s software and interface on games rather than some vision of the console as an entertainment hub.
That was Microsoft’s mistake at launch, where the Xbox One seemed too focused on TV, movies and voice-controlled entertainment, and not enough on playing games. Where Sony pushed to make its console more affordable, Microsoft saddled it with a pricey motion control peripheral that nobody really wanted – the second-generation Kinect.
Right now, the situation’s different. Kinect is now an option rather than the default, and the Xbox One has dropped in price accordingly. More importantly, Microsoft seems to have got the message that people primarily buy consoles to play games.
While the Xbox One was a pricier proposition at launch, both consoles are now available at roughly similar prices.
The re-designed PS4 (a.k.a. the PS4 Slim) is available from Amazon for £224.99/$255 with a 500GB hard drive, and £256.49 with a larger 1TB drive. Both versions are also available in bundles with games, which often represent better value for money.
The Xbox One S (also a re-design from the original Xbox One) is slightly cheaper, available for £209.95 with a 500GB drive. Again, bundles are available, and generally better value - often a game is thrown in for the same price as buying the console on its own.
The comparison is made slightly more complicated by the addition of the more powerful versions of each console. Sony's PS4 Pro costs £349.99/$399.99 with a 1TB hard drive, and offers beefed up performance and quasi-4K video output - widening the existing specs gap between the consoles even further.
Microsoft's Xbox One Scorpio isn't out yet, but the officials specs reveal a console that's even more powerful than the PS4 Pro - and when it goes on sale later in 2017, we expect it to cost even more too.
With both consoles there’s a hidden cost: the annual fee for the subscription service required for online play. An Xbox Live Gold membership costs £40 per year, as does the equivalent PS Plus membership. Both services throw in exclusive trial games, discounts and free games to sweeten the deal.
Connections and ports
To keep things simple, from here on we're going to focus on comparing the main Xbox One and PS4 consoles, including the updated Xbox One S and PS4 Slim. We'll leave the Pro and Scorpio out of it, because they're covered in more detail in our separate PS4 Pro vs Xbox One Scorpio comparison.
The PS4 is the smaller and sleeker of the two consoles, with an angular design in part-gloss, part-matt black plastic. It’s reasonably quiet in operation, though noise levels pick up when you’re playing games, and so far it’s proved as reliable as previous PlayStation consoles.
There are two USB ports at the front, along with well-concealed power and disc eject buttons. At the back you’ll find the power socket, HDMI and Ethernet ports, an optical digital audio output plus an additional USB port for the PlayStation Camera accessory.
The PS4 Slim is very similar, but (unsurprisingly) runs a little smaller. It also loses the gloss finish and rounds off the corners, though there is one small sacrifice for the size: there's no optical audio output.
The Xbox One is larger and chunkier than the PS4, but it still fits in well into the average home entertainment setup. If anything it’s a little quieter than the PS4, and Microsoft seems to have fixed the reliability issues that plagued the early Xbox 360 consoles.
Around the back you’ll find a bewildering array of ports, with two USB ports, Ethernet, an optical output and a specific port for Kinect, plus two HDMI sockets. One of these is an output for your TV, but the other is designed to take a signal from your Freeview/Freesat PVR or Virgin/Sky set-top-box.
The Xbox One S is broadly the same, but drops the dedicated Kinect port - if you want to connect Kinect, you just use one of the standard USB ports.
Hardware and specs
It’s internally that the key differences emerge. Both consoles are based on the same AMD Jaguar processor technology found in its Temash and Kabini APUs. Both have eight CPU cores, with the Xbox One running at 1.75Ghz to the PS4’s 1.6GHz.
Both also have AMD GPUs, but here things differ. Where the Xbox One’s GPU, derived from the Bonaire architecture found in the Radeon HD 7790, has 12 GCN compute units to play with, the PS4’s GPU, based on Pitcairn, has 18. Even given that the Xbox One’s GPU runs at 853MHz (or 914MHz in the Xbox One S) to the PS4's 800MHz, that still gives the PS4 a tangible advantage on the graphics front.
To make things harder for Microsoft, the PS4 can call on 8GB of 5500Mhz GDDR5 RAM, giving it a lot more memory bandwidth than the 2133MHz DDR3 the Xbox One relies on. Microsoft compensates by using a 32MB ESRAM cache to keep data flowing smoothly, but the PS4 hardware is – when all is said and done – that bit more powerful.
How much does this matter? Well, on the one hand we’re seeing key cross-platform games that either run at a full HD resolution on PS4 but at a slightly lower resolution on Xbox One, or simply run more smoothly with more visual effects on PS4.
On the other hand, the differences aren’t always that noticeable when you’re actually playing the games rather than analysing them frame-by-frame, and the best Xbox One games are still pretty astonishing. The extra power is a key point in the PS4’s favour, but it’s not a deciding blow against Xbox One.
We should also note that neither console is significantly more powerful than a fairly basic, mid-range gaming PC. Generally speaking, the manufacturers and third party developers will do more to optimise their graphics engines and build in advanced features for the console platforms, keeping them delivering amazing-looking games in the long-term, but a games PC remains a powerful alternative, and a more flexible one in many respects.
Interface and features
Both consoles have slick user interfaces. The PS4’s is simpler and better at getting you straight to the functions you use most when playing games.
The Xbox One’s software uses Windows 10 as a base, and features an uncomplicated design and integrates search, friends, messages and notifications for much quicker access. Plus if you have the Kinect sensor, you're now able to use Cortana to record game clips and invite friends to chat or play games by simply using your voice. There's also a universal store, which means you'll see some apps and games available on Windows 10 on the Xbox.
Both consoles have their party pieces though. The PS4 has a brilliant Remote Play feature, where you can stream games from your PS4 to a PS Vita handheld, Sony Xperia smartphone or tablet, or PC or Mac and keep playing while someone else hogs the TV - this can be done locally or over the internet. It also has some great game sharing features, where you can virtually hand over your controller to another PS4 owner, and let them stream a game from your console over the web.
More recently, Sony introduced (or should we say re-introduced?) the ability to stream music via a USB drive while you're playing the PS4, along with the ability to appear offline on your friends list for those times where you're feeling a little... unsociable.
The Xbox One, however, can give you a split-screen view to run two apps or one game and one app at once. Both the PS4 and Xbox One feature an 'instant resume' which allows you to put your console in standby, turn it on again, and carry on playing exactly where you left off.
The Xbox One’s second-generation Kinect camera is a big improvement on the first, with more accurate motion tracking that works better across a range of lighting conditions, and can also track your body in more detail, even down to the individual finger joints. Sadly, it’s been grossly under-used so far, with just a handful of games that use it, and precious little sign of more to follow.
The PS4’s PlayStation Camera is a cheaper and less high-tech affair, and works with the same PS Move wand controllers that Sony first launched for the PS3. Again, it’s barely been used so far, and shouldn’t be considered a must-have purchase - unless you want to try out VR.
This is a major difference: if you want to try out virtual reality gaming on a console, you need to get the PlayStation 4. It supports Sony's exclusive PlayStation VR platform, which lets you play a variety of different VR experiences and games.
It's a little expensive at £340/$400 for the headset (and bear in mind you'll probably also want the compatible Move controllers and Camera), but it's still pretty affordable compared to the likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and delivers great VR performance for the price.
By comparison, Microsoft hasn't announced any firm VR plans for the Xbox One. We're expecting some sort of VR support to be confirmed later in 2017 - likely with the Oculus Rift - but for now, PS4 is the go-to platform for console VR gaming.
At first, neither console was backwards compatible, so there wasn't much to compare between them. However, they now each offer some form of backwards compatibility, in very different ways.
The Xbox One is the only console that offers true backwards compatibility, and there are currently more than 300 Xbox 360 games you can play on the new machine - out of a total library of over 1,000.
Sony has handled old games very differently. It launched an on-demand service, PlayStation Now, which lets you stream a range of PS3 games. However, you still have to pay for a subscription to stream games, whether you own them or not, so there’s not a massive advantage if you have a huge PS3 games collection.
The best reason to buy a specific console is to play its exclusive games, and this is an area where the PS4 has arguably built up a slight edge.
The Xbox One has some fantastic racing games in the Forza series, Halo 5, Halo Wars 2, Gears of War 4, and time-stopping shooter Quantum Break. For more, check out our round-up of the Xbox One's best games.
The PS4 has a remastered version of the PS3’s brilliant post-apocalyptic epic The Last of Us, The Order: 1886, the gloomy RPG Bloodborne, space exploration game No Man’s Sky, Uncharted 4, the long-delayed The Last Guardian, and action-RPG NieR: Automata. For more, check out our round-up of the PS4's best games.
Those aside, some of the best games on either console have come from third parties, with Far Cry 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, Destiny, Dragon Age: Inquisition,The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, and an enhanced Grand Theft Auto V. Most of these games look or run slightly better on the PS4, but there’s not much in it.
Microsoft originally sold the Xbox One as the ultimate all-in-one entertainment system, pushing how voice controls and integrated TV would put it right at the heart of the living room. It still has arguably the best set of entertainment features, with apps for all the major catch-up TV services bar ITV Player, plus all the major video streaming services, including Amazon Instant Video, YouTube Netflix, Blinkbox and Now TV.
The Xbox One also has a Blu-ray drive and playback app, and DLNA media streaming both through the console’s own Media Player and an app for Plex. Throw in Microsoft’s own music and video services and its TV features, and it’s the best console for those who want to do more with their console than play games.
The PS4 has been playing catch-up here, not even having YouTube to start with, but it now has apps for Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Now TV, plus iPlayer and Demand 5. There’s currently no DLNA client for the console, so it’s the less capable media player of the two. On the plus side, you can use Sony’s own Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services, which are stronger than their Microsoft equivalents.