Sony’s PlayStation 4 – Initial Thoughts

Eschewing the usual E3 bun fight around who can announce first, Sony took the unusual step of scheduling a NYC briefing yesterday to announce the PS4. The briefing — broadcast live and watched by around half a million people on the official feed that I was tuned into — was the now-familiar mix of roving spotlights, developer testimonials, “simulated” games, and intriguing concept demos. Sony made its next-generation intent pretty clear: this is evolution rather than revolution, with the PS4 still being a powerful game-centric, under-the-TV box with physical controllers and movement-based control. Neither the price nor the geographic release window (beyond “holidays 2013”) was discussed, nor did we get to see what the box will look like. (My guess? Black, oblong, and plastic with some blue LEDs.)

While many of the concrete details were shrouded in meaningless marketing speak*, this initial peek behind the curtain reveals a number of interesting innovations:

  • Cloud and remote play take centre stage. The purchase of Gaikai last year hinted that Sony was seriously looking at game streaming; sure enough, it was David Perry who took the audience through many of the new network features of the PS4. Theoretically, all PS4 games will be available for remote play, and this technology also doubles to manage the backward compatibility, given the shift to x86 hardware. This also allows for full game ‘demos’ via streaming and the ability to start playing a game when its only partially downloaded (essential when you are talking about multi-gigabyte games).
  • A move from box-centric to game-centric experiences across multiple devices. Linked to the remote-play features is an increased focus on supporting play experiences on multiple devices. Sony would obviously like this to be the PSP Vita or Sony-branded tablets and smartphones, but there’s no reason why the device pool couldn’t be larger given the firm’s commitment to Android. Android and iOS support was explicitly mentioned, lets see how the implementations pan out.
  • More “user-friendly” features. The current generation of consoles introduced some complexity and hassle to the gaming experience; suddenly, you couldn’t just flip the off switch in frustration (the game could be in mid-save) and you might have to download game patches and OS updates before you even started playing. This removed a lot of the immediacy from the “console experience” (one of the five core buzzwords!), so the PS4 aims to fix this. Obviously, in a connected world, you never actually get to “switch off” the console, but you will get instant suspend and resume. Actually Sony has confirmed that the box will work when offline – but you’ll lose some functionality.
  • More social features and personalization. The new controller has a “Share” button that allows users to pause games and upload game play (which is constantly buffered to memory). Along with the extension of the PlayStation network as a gaming social network (including the introduction of real names as well as gamer tags), this points to an acknowledgement that today’s gamers demand as much social engagement in their console games as they do when (over)sharing their photos or music taste. Add in extended co-op play and spectating, and the PS4 is well on its way to being a true social gaming experience. Personalization also comes into play here – the console will learn your online, genre and friend preferences and adjust the UI as required.
  • A more PC-like architecture. While the console price point wasn’t announced, speculation is already rife that the price will be much lower than the PS3’s launch price — maybe as low as $400. Aside from acknowledging that gamers now have far more choice in living-room entertainment, including $70 Android consoles, this is facilitated by using more off-the-shelf components like x86 CPUs and a PC-style GPU. There are still expensive components in the box — 8GB of GDDR5 memory isn’t cheap — but we should remember that when the PS3 came out, Blu-ray drives were extremely expensive components.
  • A focus on creation activities. In addition to extended social facilities, it was left to Media Molecule (again!) to add some whimsy and true user-creation opportunities to the proceedings. While still a technical demo, using the Move controller for 3D sculpting looked amazing; if tied in with 3D printing services, this could be huge. And the music-number “Play” using Move controllers showed the direction that tools like Little Big Planet could take.

Sony implicitly glossed over a couple of topics in the 2-hour briefing:

  • Physical media: What’s that? Physical media (i.e., game disks) wasn’t mentioned once in the proceedings, aside from an evolutionary discussion about how far we’ve come. It’s also clear that partnerships with indie developers, Blizzard and Bungie also favour digital distribution. So is the PS4 digital only? Of course not. As Shuhei Yoshida confirmed to Eurogamer, it will have a Blu-ray drive, which will even play second-hand games. A cynic may suggest that this is a deliberate ploy to bait Microsoft, which will probably have to acknowledge the inclusion of Blu-ray in the next Xbox (remember the HD DVD drive!) and may have plans to restrict second-hand game sales.
  • Is this bad news for E3? Why would Sony opt for a mid-February briefing rather than wait three months for a more comprehensive E3 announcement? It does mean that the PS4 gets a solo spotlight for several days and gives Sony better control of the messaging. This increasing trend for standalone, corporate-controlled unveilings (see also Apple, Google, Microsoft) is bad news for those marquee multifirm events like E3. Add to this the online demos, videos, and endless commentary, and waiting for three days in June to get your annual game news splurge suddenly seems increasingly antiquated. Of course, E3 still remains a great place to do business, but we may see a scaling back of the consumer glitz.

The elephant in the sexily lit NYC warehouse

Sony, and undoubtedly Microsoft in the coming weeks, is firmly committed to a powerful new home console — as are traditional publishers and the gaming press — but are these devices still relevant to the mass consumer? Tablet games, social games, and even F2P gaming has transformed the games industry over the past 18 months; most require only moderately powerful devices and small investments in games or micropayments (though these can quickly add up). Why buy a $400 console, $60 game, and $10 DLC to do this — albeit in higher definition and with a deeper, more immersive experience?

Of course, dedicated gamers will adopt the new hardware and seek out new gaming experiences, but the past five years has shown that the big money is with casual console gamers (see the Wii’s success) and the new types of game mentioned above. The question for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo is how many of those dedicated gamers there are: more than there were 10 years ago, half as many as five years ago, as many but split between eight rather than three platforms? I don’t pretend to know the answer (yet!), but there is no doubt that this new generation of consoles will face more competition, media scrutiny, and consumer choice than the three previous generations (at least) faced.

*Having core traits / buzzwords of “simple, immediacy, social, integrated, personalized” barely narrows it down; you could say this about pretty much any technology from the past 20 years!

Is 2013 The Year Of Android-Based Game Consoles?

Along with the Bluetooth forks, waterproof mobile phones, and massive TVs, one unexpected announcement for a product that might actually be useful was Nvidia’s out-of-the-blue Project Shield game console. Looking a bit like a Bluetooth controller accessories strapped to the bottom of a 5-inch touchscreen, it has impressive specs and is designed both as an Android gaming device and for streaming your PC games to an attached TV. Pundits have already started to weigh in on whether this will succeed and completely wreck the traditional game console market or just fizzle out; more interestingly, from a trending perspective, it adds to a number of other devices trying to bring Android gaming to console/portable console platforms. Four other notable examples are:

1)      The OUYO console. The OUYO is a very cute 10-c.m. cube. This $99 box was funded through Kickstarter in August 2012, and development kits are already in developers’ hands, with final units hitting the market in March 2013.

2)      The GameStick. Another Kickstarter project that has just hit its funding goal, this Android console takes a form similar to those “Android on a USB stick”-type devices seen here. It also slots away when not in use into its own retro-style controller — and it’s even cheaper than the OUYO at $79. The Kickstarter campaign doesn’t finish until the end of January, and first-run devices are promised in April 2013.

3)      The Archos GamePad. Surfing another trend — game-centric tablets — the Archos GamePad is a 7-inch Android tablet with additional controls for games. Coming in at $169.99 and available pretty much now, its spec is underwhelming and suffers from several of the usual Archos flaws — looks that only a mother could love and poor displays.

4)      The Wikipad. The Wikipad is a 10-inch Android tablet with gaming controls — like a bigger, less ugly Archos GamePad. Although it was due in October 2012, it was “slightly delayed” and still hasn’t seen the light of day. At $499, it is more similar in price to Project Shield or the even more expensive Razor Project Fiona rather than the cheap and cheerful Kickstarter consoles.

Of course, using an open source OS in a game console device isn’t new; the portable Pandora was announced back in 2009 and runs Linux. In those pre-Kickstater days, however, production was hampered by a bare bones “preorder” crowdsourcing model, which has led to ongoing issues with contract manufacturers. Some units (including a spruced up 1 Ghz model) have shipped, but it has been slow progress; mine has been on order since July 2010!

A more recently announced Linux game platform is the still-mysterious Valve Steam Box console, which is bound to attract a lot of attention as more details emerge.

Why Android?

Why is Android suddenly a go-to option for those looking to get into the (massively loss-generating) console hardware business?

  • It is free to use with a ready library of tools and functionality. Small startups don’t have the time, money, or expertise to build an OS from the ground up. Android is there for the taking and has already proven capable of simple smartphone games given adequate hardware.
  • It benefits from the Google Play and multidevice synergy. Similarly. Google Play offers a mature and varied marketplace for apps for Android devices (usually…see the downside below). If you are a game developer, the ability to target the OUYO, GameStick, GamePad, and Project Shield as well as all the non-game-focused Android tablets and phones via one store and one build is a big incentive. You also don’t need to jump through the fiscal and judgemental hoops that Apple, Sony, and Microsoft impose before getting on to their platforms — though this often leads to the Google store feeling more like the Wild West!
  • It’s optimized for ARM architectures. A key consideration for new hardware builders is how cheaply you can source decently performing components. The high volume of ARM CPUs shipping for tablets and phones — along with firms like Nvidia and Qualcomm continually pushing the price/performance envelope —means it is an obvious choice. Once you have ARM chips, what are you going to run on them? Well, it isn’t going to be Windows RT!
  • It has XBMC compatibility out of the box. XBMC is pretty much established as the media player solution across most platforms, particularly open source ones. It gives the user access to a host of media playback options along with network awareness — a nice extra to add to games on Android platforms.

There are downsides, too, of course. We already have a massively fragmented Android phone market; different OS versions, OEM tweaks, and varying hardware specs make development and deployment of game applications much more tricky than for the carefully controlled iOS ecosystem, for example. This could potentially undo all the synergy that being able to sell to multiple device owners can bring.

What does it mean for the wider videogaming market?

  • It puts price/functionality pressure on next-generation consoles. Sony and Microsoft are expected to announce their new home consoles this year, probably at E3 in June. These will doubtless offer more power and additional network capabilities, but what else — and at what price? Traditional console launch prices have been going up since the original PlayStation landed in 1994 for $299. Increased functionality, networking, and hard disk storage have created bloated devices more akin to a PC, with only Nintendo sometimes bucking this trend (see this great analysis by Gamasutra). It’s reasonable to assume that new consoles will be at least $400 to $500. Does that still stack up compared with an $80 Android console?
  • It furthers the cause of the free-to-play (F2P) market. Game developers have learnt from the Apple App Store and Facebook game development that giving your game away and charging for add-ons can be a great strategy when gamers are looking for entertainment for $0.99 or less. However, this can also go staggeringly wrong: see Punch Quest) as an example. Android consoles and Google Play will form a natural console home for F2P and casual games. Will Sony and Microsoft aim to compete in this space? We’ll see.
  • Sony has a stealth “in” here but doesn’t seem to care yet. Interestingly, Sony already has half a foot in this camp. Its PlayStation Mobile Android app supports a range of simple twitch and puzzle games, and it even used to have older original PlayStation games like Crash Bandicoot until Sony inexplicably dropped these last August. While graphically rudimentary, it may still offer better game play than Google Play shovel-ware clones. Better ARM processing power may also mean that PlayStation2 classics could appear on the platform — but only if Sony gets its act together and increases its support for more complex PlayStation mobile games. Surely these aren’t seen as being in competition with the (failing) Vita?

Acer And Lenovo Price Their Windows Tablets: Not A Bad Start, But It Looks Expensive For Consumers

In what is likely to become a trend in the next month, two OEMs announce their Windows tablet pricing pretty much at the same time. Acer has bagged the “first!” title for announcing and getting journalist/blogger hands on its Windows 8 tablets; (I’m assuming, of course, that those leaked ASUS prices were simply a joke/placeholder). Shortly after, Lenovo unveiled the pricing for its raft of tablets. My initial impressions: not bad, some interesting innovation, still a bit pricey for consumers (particularly for an Acer), and it throws Microsoft Surface pricing into even more doubt.


As of November 9, you will be able to buy a Windows 8 tablet for less than $500. That price will get you the 10.1-inch, 32 Gb Acer Iconia W510, fully $100 cheaper than the equivalent iPad (although the screen resolution is much lower). But, disappointingly, to get a keyboard dock included, you need to get the more expensive 64 Gb version with a $750 sticker price; as yet, there’s no price for buying the keyboard dock separately.

Interestingly, Acer also plans to sell the Iconia W700 for $799 to $999. Wait, what? An 11.6-inch tablet using a “proper” Intel CPU, with a better resolution screen, twice the storage, a dock, and a Bluetooth keyboard will be within $50 of the keyboard version of the W510?


Lenovo seems keen to cover every conceivable base with its Windows tablet offerings:

  1. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 is broadly similar to the Acer Iconia W510 and starts at $649 ($799 with a keyboard dock). The ThinkPad name clearly indicates that this is a business-focused device.
  2. The ThinkPad Twist is another business-focused machine and is really a convertible laptop rather than a true tablet. It starts at $849 — a fairly aggressive price for a true laptop replacement.
  3. Similarly, the IdeaPad Yoga 13 is a convertible 13-inch that starts at $1,099 (yikes!). There is also an 11-inch IdeaPad Yoga 11 that — most interestingly — is a Tegra-based Windows RT device starting at $799.
  4. Finally, the IdeaTab Lynx is the consumer tablet (and a close relative to the Acer Iconia W700). It has an 11.6-inch display with a Clover Trail processor and starts at $599 (plus $150 for the keyboard dock).

What this means:

  • We’re unlikely to see x86-based OEM Windows 8 tablets for less than $500 — or $750 for keyboard versions. While it is trying its utmost to shed its cheap-and-cheerful image, Acer still tends to come in at the low end of the OEM pricing spectrum. Similarly, Lenovo’s consumer PCs tend to emphasize value, while the ThinkPad business range focuses on solid reliability. Here, we can see the two OEMs with probably the lowest prices. Sony, HP, Samsung, and ASUS will almost certainly charge more for their equivalent tablets, and even Dell is likely to be on par at best.
  • The low-end Windows tablets aren’t a great replacement for laptops. We must also remember that the Clover Trail-based tablets are basically rocking an optimized netbook processor. While this should guarantee good battery life and a cooler running temperature, we’ve yet to see how well this tablet configuration performs in real-world, multitasking use; it’s likely to be as good as other tablets, but it certainly isn’t a replacement for a decent laptop. True PC replacements will probably need: 1) Intel Core i3/i5/i7-based CPUs, which will likely be markedly more expensive (I did mention what a bargain the Surface Pro is looking to be!), and 2) systems based on the newly announced AMD Z-60, which will carve out a middle ground between the two Intel platforms.
  • Is the Windows Surface Pro really “only” $800? This pricing also makes Ballmer’s $300 to $800 price range for Microsoft Surface devices look shaky. The x86-based Surface Pro will be at the top of that super-wide range — but has a high-resolution display, 64 Gb or 128 Gb of storage, keyboard / cover and a Core i5 processor instead of the weedy Clover Trail Atom processor that’s in both the Iconia W510 and IdeaTab Lynx (warning: don’t use it on your lap!). That starts to look like a comparative bargain if it really is only $800. With an extended warranty, the Acer Iconia W700 already runs up to $1,049.
  • The $199 Windows Surface RT really was just wishful thinking. ARM-based Windows 8 tablets should be cheaper than x86 tablets, but how much cheaper? $299 to $399 or $399 to $499 seem to be the current bets (without keyboards), but we haven’t seen any offerings as cheap as this yet. Lenovo is obviously hoping that the innovative design of the IdeaPad Yoga 11 will command a massive premium! Let’s face it, a $499 Windows RT tablet isn’t going to fly with consumers, particularly when an x86 is the same price (for a lower spec potentially) — thats even assuming consumers can be dragged away from the Apple aisle. Even $350 to $399 is beyond the “impulse buy” price range that might help them fly off of the shelf. I’m not sure Microsoft will need those midnight openings to satisfy pent-up demand.
  • Obviously BOM (Bill of materials) is restricting how low prices can go. There is already some excellent analysis putting the cost of building a Microsoft Surface RT tablet at $300+, an x86 version would be slightly more. As Android tablet makers discovered, the display & touchscreen elements don’t come cheap – and that was when they didn’t have to pay for an OS! For a new product category without volume supply / manufacturing economies (like Apple has) there is precious little margin to be had if the retail price is to be attractive to consumers.

To be fair, it’s still early days. The Surface Pro isn’t scheduled to be released until early 2013, and Acer or Lenovo could adjust prices down as other OEMs lift the veil on their hardware. The most promising devices so far (that we know the price of) are those PC-replacement convertibles; they match the price of Ultrabooks and offer the best of both worlds, albeit in a more bulky package.

My guess is that by the end of the year, Clover Trail Windows 8 tablets (without keyboard) will be available from $399; “PC-replacement” tablets will be around the $799 mark; and Microsoft will still choose to price the Surface Pro at more than $800 ($899 or $999 seem most likely) to appease its OEM partners.