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PS4 controller - what's new, what's different, what's the same?

24 February 2013

Sony's PlayStation Meeting and PlayStation 4 reveal was the most exciting event in recent gaming history, and not just for our first glimpse at Sony's next-generation software. Burning questions we had about the controller--now officially dubbed DualShock 4--were almost entirely answered as Sony announced the redesign, showed off new features, and released high-resolution photos.

We've had a few days to sit back and digest, and we're prepared to take a closer look at the PS4 controller. What at first seems like a marked departure becomes a natural evolution of DualShock design at second glance. Let's dig in:

The shape and feeling

Arguably the biggest topic in controller design is actually the field where Sony's DualShock 4 shakes things up the least. One glance at the comparison shot above tells me that Sony felt little need to change what works. I'm happy with that decision. If anything, DualShock 4 looks a smidge larger than PS3's pad, no doubt owing to the addition of a touchpad in the center. Furthermore, the hand grips on the DualShock 4 are more rounded than those of the DualShock 3. Chalk it up to ergonomics, or change for change's sake. Regardless, it looks extremely comfortable, and not only for the textured, rubber gripping material that also makes its debut.

The analog sticks

The positions of the left and right analog sticks haven't changed (which Sony fans will appreciate), but one obvious alteration stands out. The DualShock 4's analog sticks are, like the Xbox 360's sticks, concave (curved inward, not outward). However, unlike the Xbox 360's sticks, the DualShock 4's are not bowl-shaped. Instead, a small descent from the outer rim of each stick quickly hits a convex plateau not unlike the stick surfaces of the DualShock 3. Here's what that looks like up-close:

The implications of this update for longtime PlayStation gamers are twofold. Concave analog sticks are, in general, easier to keep your thumbs planted on and harder to lose control of. With the DualShock 3 (and with previous models), I can profess to an ever-so-slight sliding of my thumbs to one edge of the stick surface over time. With DualShock 4, this simply won't be the case. However, concave sticks are a double-edged sword. Because your thumbs can feel the "break" where the upper stick rim descends toward the center, you're not getting a smooth, uninterrupted surface like with convex sticks. It's hard to say how this will feel in practice; as described above, the DualShock 4's sticks are a hybrid between familiar curvature and foreign concavity. Still, I'm pleased that Sony is looking at subtle ways of improving what works without aping the competition.

 

The D-pad

The D-pad's size and relative location haven't changed, but any frequent PS Vita player can tell you that Sony most definitely drew inspiration from its powerful handheld for this component of the PS4 controller. Like the PS Vita's directional buttons, the DualShock 4's are somewhat bowl-shaped. This should help keep your thumb centered while moving between 8 directions. Unlike the PS Vita, the PS4's D-pad is not a singular unit, but I suspect (and hope) that the "clickiness" of PS Vita's D-pad--universally praised by critics--is retained.

The 'Share' and 'Options' buttons

Start and Select, how we will miss thee. These classic Sony buttons may have been vestiges of gaming's yesteryear, but it's hard to imagine how Sony will circumvent their absence all the same. Thankfully, their replacements are multi-functional wunderkinds that should bring a new dimension of gaming to PlayStation. 'Share' will do this through social integration; as Gaikai CEO David Perry detailed during last week's conference, uploading videos of your gameplay to Facebook or starting a live broadcast of your gaming session is only a button click away. Presumably, developers could overwrite the 'Share' button's function as needed - applications to content sharing with games like LittleBigPlanet come to mind.

Meanwhile, 'Options' remains a bit of a mystery. I envision a set of system settings that are only a click away - stuff like whether friends can spectate your game, muting party chat, a screensaver to hide your porn, and the like. More likely still, 'Options' will replace 'Start' as we know it for most in-game functions, while the things we associate with 'Select'--opening a map, viewing multiplayer stats--will be incorporated elsewhere.

The touch pad

Does it have a name? Frankly, we don't know, but it doesn't really need one. The function of DualShock 4's most obvious addition is... well, obvious. With a touch pad at the controller's center, you can expect to see a more diverse array of gaming experiences on PS4: the kind of stuff formerly relegated to smartphones (and PS Vita!). However, it's important to note that DualShock 4's touch pad is NOT a touch screen; you won't be scrolling and swiping through menus unless those menus and objects are "activated" for it. Therefore, it's hard to pin down how exactly the touch pad will impact your PlayStation experience moving forward. Will the touch pad (and the fact it can be pressed like a button) fall by the wayside? I hope not, since it seems partially responsible for DualShock 4's increased size.

 

L1 and R1, L2 and R2

Like with its analog sticks, the DualShock 4 seems to take a page from the Xbox 360 controller with regards to L2 and R2. The PS3 triggers were praised for their sensitivity and smooth action, but often maligned for the inward curvature that made finger-slippage common. Now, L2 and R2 are concave, pointing outward away from the controller base and forming a natural indentation in which to rest your pointer fingers. This should make everything from first-person-shooters to driving games feel natural and easier to control. Meanwhile, "don't fix what ain't broke" sums up L1 and R1, which have been made bigger, but not much else. It's possible that L1 and R1 now feel more like "bumpers" than analog triggers, but without confirmation, this seems doubtful: the height of each trigger (the space between its surface and the controller base) looks the same as, if not slightly more than, previous iterations.

The light bar

Sony has been pretty vague on the light bar's purpose thus far. Early speculation (on leaked prototype photos) placed the light bar as a replacement for a Move controller. Now, after witnessing Media Molecule's intriguing PS4 Move demo, we know that PlayStation Move is alive and well. So, where does that leave the light bar? According to Sony Worldwide Studios Prez Shuhei Yoshida, the light will change colors to identify players and signal various in-game happenings - for example, when your character takes damage. In addition, the new PlayStation Camera will use it to determine your controller's spatial position, and distance from the console, in three dimensions. Sound familiar?

Yes, the difference and dynamic between the DualShock 4's light bar and your PlayStation Move controller are far from clear, but several months stand between us and PS4's November release - I'm sure Sony will have plenty to share before then.

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Now that you've had a closer look at DualShock 4, give us your thoughts in the comments below and in our forums. Is DualShock 4 a natural evolution you can't wait to hold, or an abomination of everything PlayStation stands for? Are you appalled at my hyperbole? Sound off!


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