The last two years have zoomed by, mostly because of being extremely busy at work. I might come back to work stuff in a later entry, but this post is focused on my recent experience buying and using the new PlayStation 4 – or PS4 – video game console.

New game consoles seem to arrive every eight years or so. In the previous generation I bought both a Nintendo Wii and an Xbox 360. I don’t remember playing either very much, though like many families with young kids, I’m fairly certain we played a good amount of Wii Sports in the early days. I played the 360 again for a spell after I built a nice home theater, but mostly they both just collected dust.

In the same timeframe, Apple released the iPhone and the iPad and I did the majority of my game playing on them – still a small amount, probably a few hours a month – but greater than on the Wii and Xbox, where each time we’d play, we’d have to replace dead batteries.

Because of this general disinterest in consoles, I was only vaguely aware that nextgen consoles were arriving. For instance, I didn’t even realize the Wii U was a nextgen console until maybe six months after its release – I thought it was just some Wii add-on. I heard about the new Xbox One and PS4 via offhand comments in tech podcasts focused on other topics.

As 2013 wore on, the only real awareness I had of either console was that they were in short supply, which is pretty standard for new consoles, especially around holiday time. So I was surprised one Saturday morning in mid-Decemember when I walked into the local Target at 8:10 AM, planning to get something else and asked the guy in the video game area “So when will it be easy to get an Xbox One or PS4?” He said in a very serious voice “The time is now!” and told me that they had received about a dozen Xbox Ones and half a dozen PS4s that morning. I asked him which one he recommended and he said the Xbox One if you want a general purpose home media device and the PS4 if you were focused on great games.

I already use the Apple TV for home media and have bought far too many movies to ever consider switching, so I said “I’ll take a PS4!”. I got the second to last one, 90 seconds later, another 30-something guy showed up and picked up the last one. I bought an extra controller and a game called “Knack”, and I brought the PS4 home and hid it in the garage so I could surprise everyone for Christmas.

A week later my wife told me that Target had suffered a major security breach and that she needed to review transactions. Disappointed, I told her the secret about the PS4 which I had hoped would be a surprise. She was kind of indifferent since she’s not into video games but she was also supportive because she knows I enjoy them.

After that I read some PS4 game reviews. Most of the reviews for Knack were extremely negative, so I decided to return it. I brought it back to Target and asked the video game guys about other games. During this conversation I learned that on the PS4, you don’t actually need to buy discs – you can download the same games, AppStore style. So I returned Knack and didn’t buy any other games.

My last day of work in 2013 was Friday December 20th, so the next day I woke up at 5am and disconnected the Xbox 360 for good. It took me approximately 2 1/2 hours to disconnect the Xbox 360, find the original box, and put all of the original parts back into the box in a somewhat reasonable way. It then took me about 15 minutes to unbox and connect the PS4 to my home theater.

This unboxing and connection process was my first clue that the PS4 was way better than the Xbox 360:

  • The contents of the box were well-organized and easy to remove
  • The connectors were much simpler:
    • A single HDMI cable (PS4) vs. a proprietary component video cable and optical audio cable (Xbox 360)
    • A simple power cable rather than the massive Xbox 360 power brick
    • An ethernet cable, for improved connection stability and bandwidth
  • The system software setup was fast and intuitive, much like setting up a new iPad

Buying games was a bit more challenging. I tried to buy a couple of games from the Sony Entertainment Network site, but my credit card always failed. Luckily I had some time since Christmas was a few days away. After a couple of days of trying and failing, I trolled some Sony forums and it sounded like a common problem – something about Sony not being able to program ecommerce or something, which wasn’t too surprising when I recalled reading about their incompetence that lead to their own massive hack a few years ago. So I called the support number, and after providing a bogus quasi-explanation about something possibly being wrong with my credit card, the support person recommended paying with my credit card indirectly by using Paypal. I tried this and – voilà! – it worked. I bought Need for Speed: Rivals and Assassin’s Creed 4.

I thought I would hold out until at least Christmas Eve, but after getting the system all set up and managing to buy some games, I couldn’t wait. So Saturday after my kids finished their Chinese school exam, I invited them to the home theater antechamber, where all the components live. I asked them “What’s different in here today?” Neither one of them noticed the missing Xbox 360 at first, so I asked them “Where’s the Xbox 360?” Neither of them got it at first, but finally my son noticed the new big black component on the middle of the entertainment center. He said “What’s that?” and I said “Read it”. He looked at it and said “PS4?!” By now he’d heard how hard they are to find.

So we played that day and every day since. I’ve bought several more games and I’ve been waking up early to play Assassin’s Creed 4, as I decompress from a tough work year.

A couple of other nice features I’ve discovered since day one:

  • The PS4 plays blu-ray disks and an Amazon Prime Video app; this means I can get rid of my hated slow blu-ray player. I generally use Apple TV to watch purchased movies, but for some reason the six Star Wars still aren’t available on iTunes, despite many emails to Tim Cook on this topic
  • The PS4 has an option that allows you to play the audio via headphones connected to the controller. I’ve been using this for my early morning games of Assassin’s Creed, so the sound from the home theater doesn’t wake everyone.
  • I really like the size and feel of the PS4 controllers much better than the bulkier Xbox 360 controllers. Also, the PS4 controllers use a rechargeable battery, which is much nicer than worrying about changing AA batteries when they die.
  • The PS4 controllers charge via a mini-USB connection, which really makes me appreciate the design of the Apple Lightening connector even more than I did before.

Now it’s time to take the kids for a walk around the neighborhood.