Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sony PlayStation TV review

What could've been: The story of the PSTV

Sony PlayStation TV review
"If you're looking for a set-top box, the PlayStation TV isn't it. It works best as a cheap alternative to buying a second PS4 or PS Vita. If you're not in Sony's ecosystem already, this isn't the best place to start, and in most cases does not warrant its $99 price tag."
  • PS4 extension
  • Clean design
  • Small form factor
  • Cheapest entry point for PS Now
  • No Netflix, Hulu or Amazon apps
  • Upscaled Vita games look terrible
  • Borrowed Vita user interface
  • Broken touchscreen controls
  • Scarce content

Ask anyone who's been up on stage at a big press event and they'll tell you: It's easy to over-promise and underdeliver. To promise the moon and deliver a telescope.
When I use the PlayStation TV, a micro-console in the same vein as the Ouya or Mad Catz's M.O.J.O., I can't help but feel like I'm viewing the moon through my new $99 (£84, AU$105) telescope.

At best, the PlayStation TV (or PSTV for short) is a bridge between a second TV in your house and the PS4 in your living room, or, as a cheap console for the kids who aren't quite ready for a full-size system.
At its worst, it's a content-bare, set-top box prototype with a recycled interface from the PS Vita and almost no apps, that may - or may not - be cool in another few years.


The PSTV is unbelievably small - it measures in at just 2.6 x 4.1 x .5 inches (L x W x H), which is about the size of a deck of cards or an average smartphone.
Not only is it small, it's incredibly clean too. The front all-plastic panel is free from any button and blemish, while a simple inlaid PlayStation logo is the only marking on the top of the unit. Spin it around to the right side and you'll find a hidden PS Vita card slot. Turn it all the way around to find the clandestine ports.
PlayStation TV review
From left to right, you'll see a 2mm power button, Memory Stick Micro card slot, USB, HDMI, ethernet ports and a 5V battery connector. Everything here feels vital to the operation of the console and while the overall appearance is a bit cramped, it allows the front and sides of the unit to be clutter-free.


Despite what its 16 x 24 inch quick start user manual may otherwise indicate, setting up the system takes just about five minutes or less if you have your PSN account information on hand.
Syncing up a DualShock 3 or DualShock 4 controller is just as easy. Plug in one end of a mini- or micro-USB into the corresponding controller and the other into the open port on the back of the console. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of the system is that you need a controller and a memory card (that's not sold with the $99 system) for it to work. After you've got a controller connected all you'll need to do is plug in a direct connection to your router or, if a direct line isn't available, connect it to your wireless network.
PlayStation TV review
During the installation you'll be asked to link into an existing PSN account or set up a new one. If you decide to link to an existing account, the PSTV won't necessarily download (or even remember) which games you've bought and installed on a different system, but having one is a necessary evil if you want to download anything on the PlayStation Store.


If the icon-heavy menu looks familiar to you, you're not going crazy or have ESP (sorry), it's an exact one-to-one translation of the PlayStation Vita's user interface.
While seeing the mobile-friendly interface again makes me nostalgic for my PlayStation handheld, it's a bit of a cop-out. Without the touch controls to poke and prod your way from app to app, you'll be forced to use the control stick to move from one part of the desolate interface to the next in search of something to do.
Sometimes a little innovation goes a long way, and in an already lackluster system the recycled screen just adds insult to injury.

Media, games and verdict
There's no avoiding it. Media is not the PlayStation TV's strong suit. If you're willing to get crafty there are games to be found - and even enjoyed - on the device, but if you're comparing the available video streaming apps apples-to-apples against the Roku 3 or Chromecast, the PSTV is a few too many points short of a high score.


When the PlayStation TV was originally unveiled to the world it was pitched as a streaming media set-top box, presumably competitive with products such as Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, and priced to match. What we got instead was wildly different.

At the time of this review there are exactly two ways to stream content on your PSTV: Crunchyroll and Crackle. They are, in very different ways, intended for niche audiences and anyone outside of those spaces will be hard-pressed to find something to watch.
You can of course add media to a Memory Stick Micro or download movies from the PlayStation Store, but if you're looking to link into the services you already pay for - such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video - you're out of luck.
The lack of media streaming apps is one of the biggest weaknesses of the system that, even when you consider the ability to stream games from PlayStation Now and connect the system to the PlayStation 4, it just cannot recover from.


Thankfully, the PlayStation TV doesn't drop the ball quite as hard when it comes to games.
Between renting titles from PlayStation Now, downloading PSX Classics from the PlayStation Store, natively playing retail PlayStation Vita games and connecting to the PS4 for a remote play session, there's more than enough here to keep your thumbs busy until more content fills in the gaps.
Where, then, do you start your gaming odyssey? The first app you'll see when you boot up your system for the first time is the Store - a very intentional message from Sony to inquire within. Not every PlayStation Vita game is available for download here, but there's a good portion of the library and many of them are recent. You won't necessarily find touch-dependent games like Gravity Rush, but if you have them in hard copy the system won't stop you from firing them up.
A note of warning, though. Playing PS Vita games natively may sound like a nice feature but unless you're prepared for severe upscaling issues (960 x 544 to 1080i) and imperfect touch-control translations it's one that's best avoided.
One of the Store's best features is the curated list that displays "optimized" PSTV titles like The Lego Movie videogame and Minecraft for kids, and Killzone Mercenary and Borderlands 2 for adults that will play in native 1080i. If you're in the mood for something more nostalgic, the PSX Classics look good too. (And yes, before you ask, Final Fantasy VII is on there.)
PlayStation TV review
Better than the Classics, however, is the PlayStation TV's ability to play PlayStation Now titles and stream titles from a PS4 on the same network. Because of the non-existent memory and graphical requirements of streaming, games play without nary a hiccup. It's such a well-rounded, flawless experience that it leads me to think that both PlayStation Now and PS4 remote play were deliberately designed solely for this console.Overall, though, gaming on the console is a mixed, inconsistent bag. Some experiences like PlayStation Now, PS4 streaming and PlayStation Classics steal the show while others - like playing Vita games - are decidedly dull.


The PlayStation TV is a half-formulated thought. A concept that looked great on paper, but in practice came off as a contrived ploy to lure consumers further into PlayStation's outstretched arms. However, that doesn't mean it's useless as a whole. As a kid-friendly system that has a fair share of E-rated games, the PlayStation TV succeeds as being a great starter console for young ones. And, at $99 (£84, AU$105) for the basic set and $140 (about £83, AU$149) for a bundle that includes a DualShock 3 controller, an 8GB memory card, and a copy of The Lego Movie Videogame, you won't be hard pressed giving it as a gift.
It stumbles as a system because the vision corporate executives painted for us just four months ago was so grandiose. We were promised a set-top box that could rival market leaders like Roku and Amazon with its ability to stream media, but have the added support of Sony's outstanding game library. The final product fulfilled less than half of that promise.
PlayStation TV is a cost-effective way to extend the range of your PlayStation 4. It's the cheapest point of entry for PlayStation Now and plays older games without a hitch. Ultimately this is not the best system the console-maker has released, nor is it its worst, but a currently failing attempt to make something that seamlessly blended streaming media and games. It may not always be this way, but for now, the PlayStation TV does not get our recommendation.