Even if you don't know the design consultancy Teague, you know their work—ranging from the original Polaroid camera to the interiors of almost every Boeing plane to date. They were also the firm Microsoft tapped to design their original Xbox, conceptualize controllers for the Xbox brand, and create the Xbox 360 racing wheel. Imagine our delight when they volunteered to apply their expertise in a critique of the Xbox's latest and greatest competitor, the PlayStation 4. —Eds.
Sony’s path to the PS4 reads much like any classic story arc.
Act I, PS1 upstaged its toy-like competitors by targeting a more tech-savvy and mature audience.
Act II, PS2 literally destroys its competition, by bringing guns to a knife fight and becoming the highest selling console platform of all time.
Act III, the point of conflict…PS3 was used as a trojan horse to push Blu-ray and 3-D TV technology platforms, theoretically to bolster additional offerings of the Sony brand. However in doing this, Sony lost sight of its core gaming audience and Microsoft gleefully picked up the mantle as the villain in Sony’s story. Sony did succeed in winning the HD format war—Blu-ray is the successor to DVD—but not without casualties, and it’s taken seven long years to restore gamers' faith in the PlayStation brand.
That brings us, potentially, to the final act. With cloud-based technologies promising a more invisible and integrated world, the PS4 ($399, available now) could be the last flesh-and-bone PlayStation console. So how well did Sony pull off the final act? Sony designed both a beautiful console and a much improved controller, but it's almost as if these two components were designed discretely, and they never combined to create a truly cohesive system.
At least in message it’s loud and clear, this is Sony's return to pushing their console as gaming first, and for this review, we’ll focus on the key industrial design choices that make their view so apparent.
In terms of the PS4’s console design, it’s clear Sony is paying homage to its finest moment, the PS2 Slim—a super svelte, super powerful system that remains the greatest technical marvel of console hardware to this day. The PS4's matte/gloss dissected box is a subtle nod to PlayStation heritage that signals Sony is serious about returning to its gaming roots. It’s nowhere near as small as the Slim, but the PS4 is still compact enough to feel at home in and around the entertainment center.
With respect to configurability, the console has a particularly clever two-faced design philosophy that we loved. When laid horizontal, the forward facing elements are subtle, allowing the console to disappear within its surroundings. Placed vertically, the PlayStation logo jewel and power/state light bar become fully visible, going so far as to graphically play off one another (light bar leading to logo) giving it the desired bold presence as a show-car of the entertainment world. More elegantly than past efforts, the PS4 pulls off either orientation with a serious and refined box form—a significant departure from PS3’s sculptured form falling somewhere between Frank Gehry and grand piano.
The 360-degree approach to the console’s design reveals carefully considered details, and a clear detail hierarchy. The larger horizontal split quietly houses the Blu-ray slot drive and the USB ports. The matte/gloss separation unifies all of the touch points: power, eject and even the rubber feet it stands on. All venting has been moved to the rear of the console which leaves all facing sides clean and bold. There is a nice play between matte and gloss finishes that makes PS4 look more elegant while minimizing the appearance of dust. All in all, theses details work hand in hand to give the PS4 a simple, powerful and refined gesture that we feel is appropriately mature for this generation.
It’s worth mentioning just how well the PS4 light bar is executed; it now provides functional feedback cues through more emotional color hues and behaviors—a major improvement on the schizophrenic LED indicators of previous PlayStation consoles.
While falling in love with Sony’s approach for the finer details, we couldn’t help but notice that less attention was paid to the execution of the PS4’s finishes. Even from across the room you can see the unevenness in the glossy surfaces, and blushing in the injection molded textured surfaces. The net effect: a premium price tag on a (seemingly) less than premium product. Ouch.
There were also quite a few perplexing design choices for this generation, like the slot drive's placement on the left. Visual massing suggests the drive would be on the right (and PlayStation’s slot drives have been right side load since the launch of PS2, making this choice even more curious). This is not just a visual oddity, though, but also a potential functional misstep as it places the capacitive power button directly in line with where user’s hands will be when inserting or removing a disc.
Next in line—the slanted, angular body. On its own we liked the effect—it adds visual interest and energy to the form—but is that really the best choice for a box that will likely live side-by-side with the rectangular boxes that fill most of our living rooms? Probably not. On a functional note, we found the angle makes installation unnecessarily difficult as it obscures visibility for cable connection in the back. We’ll side with Louis Sullivan on this one—as a general rule form should follow function, or at least not get in the way.
The PS4 is a good-looking, nicely proportioned console that fits well into the modern living room. Luckily for Sony, fit and finish aren’t typically deal breakers. A lot can be forgiven if the on-screen gaming experience is delivered as promised. And for hard-core gamers, this delivery is all about the controller.
For the first time ever Sony has redesigned the workhorse controller. Sony has evolved the PlayStation controller over the past 18 years based on new technologies and game demands, but they haven’t completely overhauled it until now.
Overall, the new controller feels solid, not light and toy-like like the previous generation. While the footprint doesn't deviate far from the original, a subtle increase in scale makes the redesign feel just right. A unique texture on the bottom improves grip and gives the controller a high-end feel. Parting lines are super minimal and tight which again helps improve the way it feels in the hand, but also makes it look more refined and high-end.
The joysticks have been spread out, making them far more usable for those with larger hands. More importantly, they've added a lip around the edge, curving inwards to improve thumb grip and precision in use.
Much like the joysticks, the triggers have been shown some much-needed love. Scooping rather than curving in form means fingers will no longer slip in the heat of battle. We think they could stand to be a little bit larger, offering more comfortable surface area to connect with thumb tips, but as is they are incredibly improved from previous iterations. And finally—a small detail but one that has irked us as designers for quite some time—the text on the triggers and bumpers has finally been rotated so that they are legible while the controller is in use (function first, looks second).
We could go on about how they’ve integrated the six-axis motion controller, a speaker, microphone, and headset jack, but the most prominent addition to the PlayStation controller is the touchpad, which dominates the center of the device. It’ll be some time before we can determine how useful this feature will really be (in our team critique, designer Clement Gallois thought it looked more like a flip-up door than a useful touchpad). But in general we really like the new controller for how it feels and how it performs.
How it looks is a different story. We couldn’t help but notice a fundamental design disconnect between the controller and the PS4 console; so extreme in some cases that it was almost as though they were designed separately.
Some examples of this disconnect include: the consoles use of square grid-like patterns for venting, while the patterns and textures on the controller use circles. It’s an odd break in the design language, but minor. The choice of color is maybe the biggest question mark for us: The console is black-on-black. But texturing the controller introduces gray into the mix, muddling their visual relationship, for reasons that may forever be unknown.
There are attempts to pull the console and controller together, the matte surface is sliced open at the point of the d-pad and buttons to reveal the gloss piano black of the console, but even this execution prompts questions as to why the joystick islands didn’t follow suit.
At best, these are puzzling design choices. At worst, they’re complete oversights. But truth be told, they’ve got a much bigger issue to contend with: The controller has lost its iconic look. It feels like they tried so hard to improve the feel and play of the controller that they forgot to step back and look at their creation. As Creative Director David Wykes said, “It looks like a piece of clay that’s been worked with too much.”
It’s always a challenge to design two functionally apposed objects to look like they’ve been born from the same creator; one a box to be quietly placed, admired, and left alone, the other a controller to be held and beaten into submission. But the controller is the main touch point for the console; and in the future, we believe it will have to do all the talking as consoles disappear into the cloud. Getting the ergonomics right is only half the battle, the other half is to make this handheld device the icon of the brand. Ironically Sony had achieved that with their original controller; although not everyone loved it, it still said “PlayStation."
If this is in fact the final act for home consoles boxes, Sony may have just missed the mark on creating a truly climactic finish. Our thought is that they should have put everything into the new controller. This should be the face of the PS4. The console needs to be supportive, not central to the gaming experience.