PlayStation 4 Review: The User Interface

PlayStation 4 is here, and our five-part review of the console continues.

All this week, we’re covering different aspects of Sony’s new gaming console. We’ve covered the hardware, and today, we discuss the user interface, but look forward to our reviews of the features and the experiece before we compile our opinions into the final PlayStation 4 review on Friday, December 6.

The articles will be written by different PSU editors, and our complete PS4 review, coming Friday, will feature numerical scores out of 10 from each of the three editors–Kyle Prahl, myself (Ernest Lin), and Tim Nunes. These three numbers will be personal scores, reflecting the attitudes and opinions of the individual. These three scores will be averaged and, if necessary, rounded off to the nearest interval of 0.5. The result will be PSU’s final review score for Sony’s next-generation console.

Tonight, enjoy my review of the PlayStation 4 user interface.

The User Interface

As video game consoles have become more complex devices, taking upon a greater variety of options and non-gaming entertainment, they need a user interface that allows us to smoothly navigate through everything. No longer is it sufficient enough to let people pop in a game and power on to play. We come to expect a way to choose whether to start a game, message our friends, or play music or movies. To some, the design of the user interface is just as important as the physical appearance of a piece of technology. That’s why now, more than ever before, it’s important for the PlayStation 4 to have a usable and intuitive user interface. Has Sony created the perfect one? I wouldn’t say so, but it’s a solid start with visible room to grow.

PS4’s UI attempts simplicity as a priority, unlike the XrossMediaBar (XMB) used on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable. The XMB was a maze to figure out at times, with the possibility of having an overwhelming number of objects and branching menu paths. On the PS4, the main place for your entertainment options, the Content area, is prominently displayed with large square icons on a horizontal line arranged by the most recently used. The exception is “What’s New,” which is always the first one on the line, allowing you to see a few recent activities of your PlayStation Network friends when selected. Press Down and you can scroll through this gamer newsfeed in an alternating, brick-like formation reminiscent of social media site Pinterest. Many other main objects will display additional information when having the cursor selected on them. A game may have news updates or advertisements for its downloadable content. TV & Video shows the miscellaneous streaming apps like Netflix or Crunchyroll below.

Moving down the Content area, whatever games you have played receives a tile along with a number of mandatory items: Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited, TV & Video, The Playroom, Live from PlayStation, Internet Browser, and Library. Therein lies a problem with the configuration–it limits customization that would otherwise allow you to cater the area to your taste. There will be many who never use Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited. The icon to select a video application you use more often, say Netflix, is stuck under the TV & Video icon. Will the main line of icons grow to an unwieldy number as you play more and more games? A place to put applications and games you no longer use to avoid clutter should be offered in the future.

Above Content icons is the Function area where you’ll find the PlayStation Store, Notifications, Friends, Messages, Party, Profile, Trophies, Settings, and Power. Like the Content area, when an item is hovered over but not fully clicked on, a brief preview or content will be displayed, except above the icon line instead of below. The PlayStation Store carries over the existing block style of the PS3’s store. Notifications is where you’ll find alerts, downloads, uploads, friend requests, and other invitations. Selecting Profile brings up your profile page as how your friends see it and allows you to edit it. The rest of the Function area is self-explanatory and should take even a casual gamer very little time to become accustomed to it.

Regardless of how pretty or intuitive a UI is, how it feels can make or break people’s initial opinion. Snappy is the word that immediately comes to mind when I try to describe the feeling of the PS4 UI. Animations and transitions waste no time getting your screen to whatever you selected. I never found myself waiting for an icon to load for display. The crispy, quick responsiveness really covers the shortcomings of the UI. While not revolutionary in design, it feels new and fast compared to the PS3.

All in all, the PlayStation 4 UI is usable and responsive, yet lacks a wow factor in intuition or visual design departments. While you’ll find everything you want to play in the Content area, there is plenty on display you may never ever touch. Content icon customization and options on how to sort them would give players a way to mold the display to better suit their needs. Lightning speed can only carry the PS4 UI so far, so I hope Sony keeps its improvement a goal moving forward.


Kyle Prahl – Response

The PS4 Dynamic Menu is a streamlined wonder in some areas and a bit messy in others. With chronological ordering of most recently used games and apps, the interface’s most important horizontal row–Content–is catered to your interests, but it can be difficult to know exactly where to land when looking for things you haven’t used in a little while. In just about everything else, placement is consistent. This familiarity is especially evident in the Function area–with Trophies, Friends, Party, and the like–above the large tiles. It’s reminiscent of the XMB, which eased my transition to the new setup. Some confusion results from the Options button, which is usable on a variety of menu items and tiles. The settings within are context-sensitive, so it will take some time to reach maximum efficiency with console navigation.

But, in general, the user interface is well-organized and mercifully fast. The new PlayStation Store is a perfect example. What’s "new" isn’t the GUI, which still follows the sensible design and frequently updated categories of its PS3 incarnation, but how fast you can now move between selections with minimal input lag. I’m disappointed that PS Camera voice commands for menu navigation aren’t more extensive (check out my Hardware review for more thoughts on the camera), but D-pad selection works just as well. All told, I’m impressed with the PS4 user interface, and I look forward to increased customization and usability to come in firmware updates as the PlayStation nation’s feedback comes forth. For now, it’s fast, attractive, and functional–a hearty point in favor of the console.

Tim Nunes – Response

The Function menu for settings, trophies, notifications, and the like is in reach with the touch of the Up button on the D-Pad, so gone are the days of the XMB, where searching took more time than actually doing what needed to be done. The PlayStation 4 user interface is clean, but it’s not minimal. Having more than six games installed on the PS4 fills the content area, and the side scrolling of them all makes the television screen look more like a game shelf instead of a digital game collection. Every game has a convenient drop down menu that includes more information and quick access to add-ons and extra content for that game, which makes finding new map and content packs a breeze. Recently played games take precedence right next to "What’s New" in Content, and everything else slides to the right to make room, but there’s no changing the PS4’s schemes.

Still, hopping between Functions and the Content area overcompensates for the sporadic display that Content ebbs. Like "What’s New," the "TV & Video" area works as a folder for programs like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, which raises the point that having the ability to organize the main page seems like a great addition in the next software update.

A lot of negatives have been said regarding the UI, but having one screen show everything at once does have its conveniences. Across the very top, much like a pulldown bar on mobile devices, notifications are shown, like how many friends are online, if you’re in a chat, your trophy rank, and the time. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and interacting with the main menu, and I cannot help but see what would make this sleek, responsive experience more organized and personalized. The best part about these issues is that they aren’t necessarily permanent. I expect improvements to the system’s busy-ness and Content area organization soon.

Do you agree or disagree with our thoughts on the PlayStation 4 user interface? Any opinions to share not covered here? Sound off in the comments below to join the PS4 conversation, read our PS4 hardware review, and stay tuned this week for our reviews of the PlayStation 4 features and experience before our final, scored review is published on Friday.