iOS 10 preview: Apple’s software takes a big step forward

Rumor has it that Apple isn’t going to reinvent the iPhone this year, but you definitely can’t say the same about its software. iOS 10 was unveiled to the world late in the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, and for good reason — there were many, many new software features to unpack.

And now it’s time to play. Assuming you have the guts to install unfinished software, you’ll be able to grab the iOS 10 public beta soon (as long as you’re part of the Apple Beta Software Program, anyway). As a quick reminder, the preview is compatible with the iPhone 5 and newer, the iPad mini 2 and newer, and the sixth-generation iPod Touch. Before you choose your sacrificial iDevice, though, read on to get a better sense of what works in the beta, what doesn’t and how Apple’s approach to software continues to evolve.

The caveat

I’ve been using the public beta build on an iPhone 6s for two days, and so far it’s been remarkably stable. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already encountered a handful of hiccups and bugs, but I haven’t run into any full-blown showstoppers either. Still, if you’d prefer not to troubleshoot or restart your phone, you’re better off steering clear of the Apple Beta Software Program. But that goes without saying.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind: Not all the features Apple previewed at WWDC are live yet. In fact, some of the most interesting ones aren’t. (Same goes for Apple’s macOS Sierra preview, as a matter of fact.) Most of Siri’s improvements center on linking up with third-party apps to let you send money through Square Cash, for instance, or track runs with MapMyRun just by asking. Sorry! You can’t do that today; it’ll be a few months yet before developers get their SiriKit-enabled apps ready.

Ditto for applications like Skype and WhatsApp: When updated this fall, they’ll display calls on your lock screen as though they were regular phone calls. This version of iOS 10 also doesn’t consistently transcribe your voicemails either, or get lyrics for your songs, or let you use Apple Pay on the web. The list goes on. Suffice to say the software going live today is just a taste of the software Apple plans to ship in the fall.

The look

It’ll likely be a while yet before we see a redesign as thorough as what we got with iOS 7, but hey: iOS 10 still feels like a refreshing change of pace. Apple’s typeface is thicker by default and notifications and widgets are neatly contained in bubbles, all of which goes a long way toward making things feel cleaner. Speaking of notifications, you can use 3D Touch on supported iPhones to take action without even having to jump between apps. Think: giving a Facebook message a thumbs up or archiving emails in Outlook. Alas, you can’t do any of this while the phone is locked.

Those bubbly new widgets appear when you use 3D Touch on supported apps too, and from there it takes one more touch to add it to your Today feed. They can be a little temperamental, though: Only after two days of testing did the weather widget finally decide to display the outside temperature. (The answer: too darn hot.) Naturally, Apple redesigned lots of other bits and bobs for this release. The Control Center you invoke by dragging up from the bottom of the screen has been split into two pages, one of which is reserved for music controls.

Now, back to the big, bold aesthetic Apple is pushing this year: It can be hard to avoid. Perhaps the best example of this is the radically redesigned Music app, which is… divisive, to say the least. It’s all about punchy colors and extreme legibility. I don’t mind it, but others who have seen it are not thrilled. Pro tip: You can change the font size used in the Music app from the device’s settings. This new aesthetic carries over into other redesigned apps like Health (which now also lets you opt-in for organ donation) and the Clock app (which now has a bedtime mode to keep you well-rested).

The fun

Nearly all of the neat features in the updated Messages app work just fine. You can “handwrite” notes by turning the iPhone on its side, send heartbeats with digital touch, leave “tapback” reactions on things people send you, and more. My favorite so far: using bubble effects to basically yell at other people using iOS 10. Quickly sending GIFs with the included #images iMessage app is a close second; in case you forgot, Messages is one of those Apple-made apps that will soon benefit from third-party developer support. For now, though, the only other available iMessage apps let you share your recently played music or share animated images like the ones Apple uses on its Watch.

It’s also now dead simple to share a recent photo since you have a live camera preview as soon as you tap the photo icon. One touch snaps a shot and preps it for sending, though there’s a noticeable delay in this beta build. Oh, word to the wise: If you don’t want to get caught in flagrante delicto, hold off on sending racy messages. If you send a message obscured by invisible ink to someone who doesn’t have iOS 10, the message appears normally with a follow-up that says “sent with invisible ink.” The app sometimes says the secret message hasn’t been delivered to the non-iOS 10 device, but it almost always was.

Apple has added plenty to the traditional messaging experience, and it’s all pretty fun, but it sometimes feels like a bit much. Apple is facing stiff competition from Snapchat, Facebook’s Messenger and others, but with all that’s going on here, I can’t help but think the company is just throwing stuff against a wall to see what sticks.

It’s not strictly part of the upgraded Message app, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with the keyboard as well. By default, the keyboard suggests an emoji when it detects a word that matches it. If you switch to the emoji keyboard in that case, all the words that can be emoji-fied glow orange. Tapping any of them replaces the word with the pictograph. Too bad that other keyboard tricks, like free time suggestions based on your calendar, don’t seem to work all the time yet. For now, only specific phrasing (like “I am available at…”) seems to trigger the schedule suggestion.

The helpful

You’d be forgiven for thinking Apple didn’t do much with its Photos app; at first glance, there aren’t many obvious changes. (Your albums are now laid out in a grid instead of a list, so enjoy.) The biggest difference here is that iOS doesn’t just use your photos’ metadata to organize everything; it can organize them based on what’s depicted in them too. It’s a lot like Google Photos, except all of the machine learning magic happens on the phone itself. The downside? If you have a ton of photos like I do, it takes iOS a long time to initially scan them all. Side note: Don’t be shocked if this blows through your battery.

The results are usually great. You can now search for broad categories like “cat” or “drink” or “bikes” in addition to just places, and the results have been almost completely been right on the mark. One search result for “bikes” returned a photo from Barcelona where a moped lay at the bottom of the frame, shrouded in shadows. Not bad, Apple. Your photos automatically get bunched into Memories too, like “Best of the Year” and “Last weekend.” There’s more to memories than just an array of photos; you’ll get to see where the photos were taken and who’s in them.

It’s too bad the auto-created video montages Apple (“memory movies”) have never loaded properly for me. Maybe your luck will be better than mine. On the plus side, you can edit Live Photos now, and all the changes you make apply to the still and the video that surrounds it. Live Photos still aren’t my thing, but this is still a welcome move nonetheless.

Engadget’s parent company might own MapQuest (which is apparently still a thing), but I’m all about Google Maps. My devotion has been more or less unwavering, but Apple Maps in iOS 10 just scored major points with me thanks to the improved (and enlarged) navigation interface. Seriously, it’s so much easier to read at a glance than Google Maps that I can almost see myself switching. There’s also a little weather display in the corner, and the app is better about suggesting places you might want to go to and how to get there. You’ll eventually see other apps like OpenTable hook into listings you find in Maps, but we’ll have to wait a few months before that functionality becomes available.

The overdue

There’s a lot more going on with the Music app than just a new look: The whole flow has changed. By default, you’re dropped off in the Library upon launch, where you can access all the songs you’ve saved or downloaded. Simple enough. It’s the For You section that seems to have gotten the most attention. Instead of just giving you a bunch of random playlists you might like, Apple now does a better job of explaining why its choices might be up your alley. The Connect tab is gone this time, so posts from acts you follow are in For You as well. Thankfully, they’re buried at the bottom and easy to ignore if you find them as utterly pointless as I do. Perhaps the most important interface change is that search gets a tab of its own, making it easier to find your perfect summer jam.

Like Music, Apple News also received a facelift that’s big on bright colors and big text. And again, the biggest change is the For You section, which is to say it now actually works. The Top Stories were the same between devices running iOS 9 and the iOS 10 beta, but the update brings subsections of stories that seem better tuned to your interests. In my case, those subsections included the Middle East, currency markets, startups and technology — all things I dig, and have searched for recently. Throw in notifications for breaking news and we finally have an Apple News that feels like it’s worth using.

The odds and ends

Not everything fits neatly into a box, but here are a few changes to the iOS formula that you should definitely be aware of.

  • Yes, you can remove Apple’s first-party apps, and yes, it is glorious. Technically, it’s just user data that’s deleted; the app itself remains hidden on the device, but I’ll take that symbolic victory.
  • Raise to Wake does exactly what it says, and it works remarkably well for checking the time and your notifications
  • You can swipe left from the lockscreen to launch the camera. (It takes a little getting used to.)
  • I didn’t always love how fast the TouchID sensor worked on the 6s and 6s Plus. Coincidentally, Apple now requires you to push the home button to unlock instead of just laying a finger on it. No more inadvertent unlocks (though you can revert to the old way in settings)!
  • You can access Spotlight search from just about anywhere, since the search bar now appears at the top of the drag-down notifications shade.
  • Apple’s Home app is pretty (there’s that bold aesthetic again), but I couldn’t properly test it since I didn’t have any HomeKit gear on hand. Check back for our impressions in our eventual full review.

We can’t issue a verdict on iOS 10 until it launches this fall, but Apple has taken some significant steps forward here. iOS 9 built the foundation for a lot of these features, and with iOS 10 we’re seeing Apple try to figure out how they best work together. Sometimes that means rewriting the rules, and other times that means letting other people build on top of the existing platform. How well that will all work is the big question, and we should have our answer in a few months.

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Samsung’s highest profit in two years comes thanks to the S7

Samsung just had a great quarter, and it’s all because people are snapping up Galaxy S7s. The Korean chaebol has revealed that it’s expecting its second quarter operating profit to reach 8.1 trillion won ($ 7 billion), thanks to its smartphone business. That might be far from the 8.84 trillion won ($ 7.6 billion) operating profit it posted in January 2013, but it’s still around 17 percent higher than last year’s. It’s also the highest in two years since it notched a profit of 8.5 trillion won ($ 7.4 billion) back in the first quarter of 2014. The company expects its revenue to be up by three percent, from 48.5 trillion won ($ 42 billion) to 50 trillion ($ 43 billion), as well.

While Samsung won’t be releasing its detailed earnings until the end of July, Reuters believes the top earner this quarter is none other than the mobile division, which also topped the last one. The news source says the division’s profit could be up 54.5 percent from the same period last year. According to Yonhap News, Samsung shipped out around 15 million S7 and S7 edge units from April to June, with the latter beating out the basic S7 despite being more expensive.

The company hasn’t revealed the total number of phones it sold from April to June yet. Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Mehdi Hosseini told The Wall Street Journal, however, that Samsung might have shipped out around 78 million units. To note, it sold 81.18 million phones in all in the first quarter, mostly because it released the S7 in late March. Clearly, Samsung’s latest flagship device got its smartphone business out of the slump it experienced last year brought about by the iPhone 6. This time around, it’s Cupertino that’s hit a bump on the road, announcing the first ever year-over-year iPhone sales decline in April.

Source: Reuters, Yonhap News, The Wall Street Journal, Samsung

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‘Pokémon Go’ rolls out on Android and iOS

With all the news surrounding Pokémon Go‘s beta test and wearable, you’d be forgiven for thinking the full game was already out. Until recently, it wasn’t, but that’s changing if you live in the United States and have an Android device, as spotted by 9to5 Google. Rocking a handset designed in Cupertino? Well, only iPhone owners in Australia have access at the moment so a measure of patience is in order.

The game that brings Pokémon collecting into the real world via developer Niantic Labs’ augmented reality and GPS tech has been gestating for quite a bit. The intent, Niantic CEP John Hanke told us back in June, is to make you feel like you’re venturing out into the world and capturing the pocket monsters for yourself. “You can live the story of being a Pokemon trainer,” he said. Now it’s time to discover how quickly can you catch ’em all.

Via: 9to5 Google

Source: iTunes (Australia), Google Play

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Android malware from Chinese ad firm infects 10 million devices

The Android malware Hummingbad has infected 10 million devices so far, but what’s most interesting is where it comes from. First discovered by the security firm Check Point in February, the researchers have tied it to Yingmob, a highly organized Chinese advertising and analytics company that looks like your typical hum-drum ad firm. Once it successfully infects and sets up a rootkit on Android devices (giving it full administrative control), Hummingbad generates as much as $ 300,000 a month through fraudulent app installs and ad clicks. As Check Point describes it, Hummingbad is an example of how malware companies can support themselves independently.

“Emboldened by this independence, Yingmob and groups like it can focus on honing their skill sets to take malware campaigns in entirely new directions, a trend Check Point researchers believe will escalate,” the researchers say. “For example, groups can pool device resources to create powerful botnets, they can create databases of devices to conduct highly-targeted attacks, or they can build new streams of revenue by selling access to devices under their control to the highest bidder.”

On top of its Hummingbad victims, Yingmob controls around 85 million devices globally. Naturally, the company is also able to sell access to the infected devices, along with sensitive information. And while its attack is global, most victims are in China and India, with 1.6 million and 1.3 million infected users, respectively. iPhone users aren’t safe from Yingmob either — researchers have also found that the group is behind the Yispecter iOS malware.

Via: CNET

Source: Check Point (1), (2)

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Walmart Pay arrives in 14 more states

When Walmart talked about a wide national release of its mobile payment service before the start of July, it wasn’t kidding around. Walmart Pay has launched in 14 more states on top of a slew of rollouts earlier in the month — it’s not quite ubiquitous (we count 33 states plus Washington, DC), but it’s close. This latest deployment includes heavily populated states like California, New York and Washington, so you’re far more likely to use your Android phone or iPhone to shop at the big-box retail chain.

As a reminder, Walmart Pay isn’t strictly a competitor for tap-to-pay options like Android Pay or Apple Pay. It’s more intended to streamline the checkout process using QR codes. With that said, it’s far too soon to tell how well it works in practice. Walmart’s service has only been available for about a month and a half in any state, and there just isn’t enough data to know whether or not customers will embrace it in earnest.

Source: Enhanced Online Newa

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US Senate finally dumps BlackBerry

The US Senate’s Sergeant at Arms (SAA) announced earlier this week that staffers would no longer be able to request new BlackBerry OS 10 devices for official work. That includes the Q10, Z10, Z30, Passport and Classic. In their place, the SAA is offering use of the Samsung Galaxy S6 on Android or the 16GB iPhone SE.

Existing BlackBerry users won’t be left high and dry, should they decline to transition to another OS. BlackBerry support will continue for the foreseeable future and replacement devices will be available for however the SAA’s current stock of 610 mobile devices last.

This is a significant moment in BlackBerry’s history. I mean, the company used to utterly dominate the mobile device market thanks to its focus on security, email (remember, this was before messaging and social media took off) and a physical keyboard (again, this was the era before Swiftkey).
iOS and Android did manage to catch up to the BlackBerry OS within a matter of years, resulting in the company’s precipitous decline and subsequent flirtations with bankruptcy.

But the wheels of government turn slowly — especially when it comes to the adoption of new technologies. Even after the general public — and the President himself — abandoned BBOS for competing systems, BlackBerry handsets persisted on Capitol Hill for more than a decade. But not anymore.

Source: Bomble

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US wiretap operations encountering encryption fell in 2015

The US government has been very vocal recently about how the increase in encryption on user devices is hampering their investigations. The reality is that according to a report from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, law enforcement with court-ordered wiretaps encountered fewer encrypted devices in 2015 than in 2014.

In regards to encrypted devices, the reports states: “The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered decreased from 22 in 2014 to seven in 2015. In all of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. Six federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2015, of which four could not be decrypted.”

This is out of 2,745 state and 1,403 federal for a grand total of 4,148 wiretaps, an increase of 17 percent over 2014. So while surveillance increased, the amount of times law enforcement encountered encryption decreased.

Earlier this year the Department of Justice and FBI were locked in a court battle with Apple over an encrypted iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The government eventually dropped the case after finding a third party to help it bypass the phone’s security.

But it started a national debate about personal devices and encryption. Tech companies want their customers to be secure while law enforcement want backdoors or keys to encrypted devices for investigations. But it looks like when it comes to wiretaps, encryption isn’t as big a problem as many would suspect.

Via: The Intercept

Source: Administrative Office of US Courts

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Spotify: Apple is holding up app approval to squash competition

How do you catch up with the biggest music streaming service? Well, not approving app updates is one tactic, and Spotify says Apple is doing just that. The streaming service sent a letter to Apple’s legal counsel this week claiming that the company is rejecting an update to Spotify’s iOS app and it’s “causing grave harm” to users by doing so. The letter explains that Apple won’t approve the new version because Spotify doesn’t use the company’s billing method for in-app purchases and subscription services. Apple announced an changes to app subscriptions in iTunes just before this month’s WWDC.

Like other apps, Spotify had been getting customers to foot the bill for Apple’s App Store billing fees by charging an extra $ 3 a month. It recently launched a promotion for the second time that gave new users three months of service for a dollar, if they signed up on the web. As you can imagine, that didn’t make Apple too happy, and the company reportedly threatened to pull the app entirely unless Spotify stopped pushing the deal for iPhone owners. It complied with the request, but it also nixed the iTunes billing option in the iOS version which lead to the current dispute.

Sure, Spotify users can still sign up through its website to avoid paying the extra money every month. However, charging extra to pay through iTunes puts the streaming service at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with Apple Music. Spotify still has double the paying customers as Apple, but with exclusives and things like Beats1, the iPhone maker continues to gain ground. We’ve reached out to both Apple and Spotify on the matter and we’ll update this post when and if we hear back.

Source: Recode

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Global internet speeds are on the rise again

Yes, South Korea still has the fastest internet in the world. But, according to content delivery network Akamai, average global speeds are up overall from late last year, jumping to 6.3 Mbps. More than that, we’re seeing increases in increases in IPv6 adoption with Belgium leading the way and the older IPv4 slowly dropping off on a global scale. And if you were wondering what mobile speeds are looking like lately, guess no more: average connections were at 27.9 Mbps in the UK and dipped to 2.2 Mbps in Algeria.

Further on that note, Android’s stock browser and Chrome Mobile make up 58 percent of smart device traffic, with Safari on iOS lagging behind at 33 percent. A likely cause of that is just how widespread Android devices are versus those running Apple’s mobile OS, especially in developing countries where the price of admission for an iPhone is so high.

Via: TechCrunch

Source: Akamai

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The PlayStation 4 revisited: small improvements for a solid system

Engadget is re-reviewing the current generation of game consoles, each of which has benefited from major firmware updates, price drops and an improved selection of games. We’ve already revisited the Xbox One, and now it’s the PlayStation 4’s turn. Though we’ve raised the score from 83 to 86, you can still find our original PS4 review here, if you’re curious to read what we said at launch.

The PlayStation 4 has outsold its closest competition, the Xbox One, for most of the time since the two systems launched in Nov. 2013. In fact, according to recently released sales figures, Sony has moved some 40 million units over the past two years. Based on the company’s earnings reports, those sales have helped keep Sony afloat — even after the console’s price dropped from $ 400 to $ 350.

Similar to the Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 has received a steady stream of post-launch updates, along with a ton of new features. But unlike the Xbox, the PS4 hasn’t seen any patches that fundamentally change how the console operates. Instead, features like a dedicated Twitch app, Spotify integration, rapid resume from low-power mode and game streaming to a PC or Mac have improved upon how the system already worked.

With time, however, fresh issues appeared that we couldn’t have possibly predicted when we originally reviewed the console in 2013. Some are even the result of new features Sony has added since then.

Hardware

Sony has confirmed the existence of a newer console, the so-called PS4.5, but hasn’t said when you’ll actually be able to buy it. For now, then, the model that launched over two and a half years ago is the one we have. The system’s overall design hasn’t changed either. Aside from a nostalgic, ultra-limited-edition console released in honor of PlayStation’s 20th anniversary, the standard version remains a coal-black obelisk. Except now you can swap in game-themed or different-colored faceplates if you’d rather the console not blend in with the rest of the black A/V gear in your living room.

Up front there’s a slot-loading Blu-ray drive, a pair of USB 3.0 ports and two touch-sensitive buttons for powering the system on and ejecting a disc. If you’re still mixing up which button does what (it’s OK, I do it myself occasionally), the top turns it on and the bottom spits your discs out. Finding them in the dark is a pain, but they’re directly in line with the LED strip that runs from front to back. It glows orange when the system is in low-power mode, making it easy to find the buttons by feel. Meanwhile around back you’ll find an HDMI socket, digital audio output, Ethernet jack and dedicated PlayStation Camera port.

The system is also surprisingly portable. Because the PS4 uses the same style power cable as the PlayStation 3 Slim (and many other electronics) along with a standard HDMI cable, there’s no need to unwire your entire A/V setup just because you’re housesitting and don’t want to be away from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End for a weekend. There’s no bulky external power supply to carry around, and the console itself is small enough to easily fit into a backpack or messenger bag.

The disadvantage here compared to Microsoft’s console is the PS4’s lethargic 802.11b/g/n wireless card. If you take multiplayer seriously or want the fastest downloads possible, you should always run a hard connection to any gaming device, but sometimes being close enough to a router to do so isn’t possible.

Doing anything on the PS4 over WiFi is a time-consuming process, be it downloading a game from the PlayStation Network Store or an update for a game or the system itself. Indeed, some Engadget staffers have seen downloads almost three times slower on WiFi versus a wired connection. Over Ethernet, the system’s built-in speed test reports 79Mbps downloads and 4.4Mbps uploads on my home network. With WiFi that number dropped to 32Mbps down. That said, our gaming reporter Jessica Conditt has never experienced such issues on her PS4.

In 2013 the iPhone 5s supported 5GHz wireless, and Microsoft also packed dual-band capabilities into the Xbox One, which came out that year. This was a weird omission on Sony’s part, then, and it’s become all the more noticeable considering how many people buy their games digitally these days and how large these files are. Uncharted 4 comes in at over 50GB, for instance. A faster WiFi card would also make streaming a game to another device via Remote Play a better experience.

Unlike the Xbox One, the PS4 doesn’t support external hard drives, which would augment the system storage. That’s partly because it doesn’t need to: You can swap in a new internal hard drive as large as 4TB, a step up from the base model’s paltry 500GB of storage. The dearth of USB connections is a bit of a problem, though. If you’re using the PlayStation Gold wireless headset, for instance, that eats up half of what’s available. Listening to music via a thumb drive and your DualShock 4 controller’s battery dies? It’s time to decide which is more important, unless you have another device with unused USB ports nearby to charge the gamepad.

DualShock 4 controller

Speaking of which, the DualShock 4’s battery life is still awful. System updates have added the ability to change the brightness of the controller’s lightbar (a likely culprit for battery drain), but I’m still lucky if I can go more than two play sessions, totaling about eight hours, before having to charge it again. In contrast, I only need to replace the batteries in my Xbox One controllers every few months. Maybe Sony could address these issues the way that Microsoft did and release a premium-priced controller with higher-quality components and improved battery life. I’d buy one.

In other gamepad-related woes, the concave thumbsticks that original reviewer Ben Gilbert raved about have an inherent flaw: Their grippy, rubber covering is susceptible to tearing with normal use, revealing sharp plastic underneath. You can hit Amazon for a variety of inexpensive replacement sticks, but that requires tearing open the gamepad to install them: not an easy feat for most. The better solution is opting for silicone caps that stick on your stock thumbsticks. But this honestly shouldn’t be an issue in the first place, especially considering how comfortable and well-designed the rest of the controller is.

The inclusion of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on every paddle means that you don’t need to shell out for a gaming headset if you already have stereo earphones. That said, aside from a handful of games like the excellent Sony-developed Tearaway Unfolded, the onboard speaker goes mostly unused.

Same with the clickable touchpad that dominates the gamepad’s face. A vast majority of the time its touch-sensitive surface is neglected in favor of developers just treating it as an extra button. When developers do make use of these novel features, they tend to be well implemented. It’s a shame more don’t take the time to. What isn’t a gimmick, though, is the “share” button to the immediate left of the touchpad, but more on that later.

PlayStation camera

Next we have the PlayStation Camera, an accessory that has been mostly forgotten by game developers. Like the touchpad, speaker and color-changing lightbar on the DualShock 4, few devs have taken advantage of this accessory. Until Dawn uses it to record video of who’s playing during scary moments, and Tearaway Unfolded took advantage of it to occasionally break the fourth wall, but until PlayStation VR launches it’s not necessary. Sure, logging into my PS4 profile with my face is novel, but I couldn’t tell you what triggers the facial ID system to launch on start-up; I still regularly have to log in the old-fashioned way, choosing my profile with a controller. There’s no compelling reason to own one right now.

UI

For the most part, zipping around the PS4 interface is fast. It’s an iteration of Sony’s Xross Media Bar UI from the PS3 (yeah, substituting an “X” for a “C” is still awkward), with a horizontal row of tiles for recently used items like games, apps and streaming services. Each game offers patch notes, and each tile has a drop-down menu featuring additional content. You’ll also see your saved screenshots and videos, along with recent activities from friends like trophies that have been unlocked. It’s a lot like the social feed from the Windows 10 patch on Xbox One but integrated on a per-game basis rather than one river of everything. Even with a speedy wired connection, though, the drop-downs (which rely on data from PlayStation Network) are slower to load and navigate compared to the main UI.

The PlayStation Store, where you access streaming applications and game downloads, sits at the far left; on the opposite side is the library. The library was added after launch, and it’s where your entire collection of games and applications resides. Anything you’ve downloaded or installed lives here in a grid. The problem is, it’s a pain to navigate, because even if you’ve uninstalled something, it still stays on the list. That means the Destiny First Look Alpha I was part of two years ago is there alongside Doki-Doki Universe, a demo I grabbed but never played. This means sifting through a lot of clutter just to get to the stuff you own.

The library was supposed to help streamline the main UI, but in practice it’s about as effective as shoving your laundry in a closet before company comes over to give the illusion that you actually cleaned your house. Your most recently used items stay on the main screen, but with time, unused ones will migrate here too. What’d be really nice is the option to customize the main UI or at least pin specific apps and games to the home screen, similar to what the Xbox One has offered since 2013.

Pressing up on the D-pad reveals tabs for the PlayStation Plus premium service, notifications, your friends list, an event calendar, messages, party chat, user profile, trophies, system settings and power options. With the exception of the PlayStation Plus tab, everything loads almost instantaneously and is logically sorted. In the system settings, for example, Sony removed some of the arcane video settings that were on the PlayStation 3 and opted for a more streamlined setup. That simplicity extends to options for adjusting audio output and connecting social accounts, among other things.

My biggest gripe with the PS4 is how it handles system storage. Countless times, I’ve gone to either download or install a game and the console has given me an error message saying there isn’t enough free space on the hard drive. Except there is. The most recent offense was with Doom. My PS4 currently has over 60GB of free space, and Doom is a 47GB download. Entering my redemption code, I received an error message and was transported to the system storage screen to clear up some space. Deleting 86GB of games I wasn’t playing anymore should’ve solved the problem but didn’t. I’ve since power-cycled the console and rebuilt the system database from safe mode. Forty-five minutes after the initial attempt, I was finally able to start downloading the game.

And that’s the best-case scenario. On previous occasions, rebuilding the database and deleting over 100GB of installed games didn’t fix the error. I’m not even sure what I did to eventually fix it those times, now that I think about it. When I asked a Sony engineer about this, he didn’t have a clear answer for me. One response was that game files need more space to uncompress than their download size suggests, hence the error about not having enough storage space. But the engineer I spoke with couldn’t explain why, even after deleting and rebooting, that sometimes didn’t address the error message.

Social

The heart of the social experience on PS4 is located right on the gamepad, where you’ll find the “share” button. Pressing it takes screenshots, records video and starts a game-sharing session or a broadcast on Twitch or YouTube. Depending on your preference, you can configure the button a few ways. You can also configure what happens when you press it. Personally, I have the button set up so that a single press grabs a screenshot and a double tap starts recording a video clip.

This saved media can be shared in a variety of ways, including as a message or to Facebook and Twitter. That will post the screenshot or video clip to the “What’s New” activity feed on the home screen. Unlike the Xbox One’s “community” tab that sorts everything into a reverse-chronological river, What’s New is three tiles wide, pushing game broadcasts from the community, not your friends list, notices of trophies unlocked by friends, suggested friends and PSN Store advertisements into one feed. It’s a mess to navigate and I rarely use it.

What I constantly take advantage of is how easy it is to take and share screenshots on PS4. Sharing them via social media is seamless and takes five button presses and I’m back to whatever I was playing prior. The annoying thing here is the inability to simultaneously share to Facebook and Twitter. Being able to take screenshots almost anywhere (and save them as PNG files instead of just JPEGs) almost makes up for it. Aside from the Twitch app, all the screenshots taken for this review were captured without using external methods. Even better? You can save them to a USB stick and do what you want with them; no need to upload to OneDrive and then download to a computer like on the Xbox One.

Another destination for your screenshots is the Communities feature introduced in the last big firmware update, version 3.5. Communities are what you make of them, and can be used to organize clan games, share screenshots to the discussion board and, well, that’s about it.

Game broadcasting

When the PlayStation 4 debuted, there wasn’t a fully dedicated Twitch app. You could watch streams originating from PlayStation via the Live From PlayStation application, but if you wanted to check out a stream of, say, the Dota 2 International you’d have to load Twitch on the system’s web browser. It was incredibly janky. Live With PlayStation broadcasts aren’t just favored; they’re the only ones that are picked up by the homescreen drop-down menus and the “What’s New” tab. But at least now there’s an official Twitch app for watching broadcasts. It works like the Xbox One version does, with a main grid of channels to choose from on the home screen, video and chat taking center stage on a given broadcast, and past streams and channel info off to the right.

While the streaming options started out limited, today they’re pretty robust. You can stream to YouTube, Twitch or even Dailymotion. You can also customize your stream with camera effects and a green screen (to remove any background from what the PlayStation Camera picks up). It offers more flexibility than broadcasting from Xbox One does, but you’re still better off launching your pro-streaming career with a PC and capture device.

PlayStation services

Sony really likes the “PlayStation” name: It’s put it on a number of services accessible from the PS4. PlayStation Now is the company’s quasi-Netflix-for-games streaming service; PlayStation Vue is its TV app for cord-cutters; and PlayStation Plus is its monthly premium service, granting access to online multiplayer and three free game downloads per month.

Rather than offer true backward compatibility for older games via software emulation a la Xbox One, if you want to play a bulk of Sony’s legacy titles on your PS4 you’ll have to pony up $ 100 for a yearly PS Now subscription, $ 45 for three months or $ 20 per month. Is it worth it? Not really. Even with a solid internet connection, game streams cap out at 720p, audio quality isn’t on par with a disc-based game and there’s lag stemming from streaming gameplay off Sony’s servers, to your PS4 and then returning your controller input to the server. Taking the price and user experience into account, it’s a far better idea to pull your PS3 out of the closet. If you have a hankering for an even older game, downloading a PlayStation or PlayStation 2 game from the PSN Store and playing it on a PS Vita is a much better idea.

Microsoft wanted to control your TV’s main HDMI input with its plan to make the Xbox One into the ultimate set-top box, but it’s Sony that’s come closest in that regard, thanks to PlayStation Vue. Even then, using the app (up to $ 50 per month depending on the package) that wants to be your stand-in for a cable subscription is still a rough experience.

I rarely play multiplayer games online, so paying for access to do so isn’t my cup of tea. But PlayStation Plus is so much more than that. It gives me three free games per month, the occasional option to vote on what games will be free and discounts for digital purchases. A majority of the games are from indie developers, and while the quality of said games may have dipped as of late (not everything can be the killer survival horror game Outlast or local co-op adventure Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris), they still regularly best what Microsoft gives away with its Xbox Live Gold promotions.

Different ways to play

In one form or another, Sony’s Remote Play feature has been around since at least 2010. But using the company’s PlayStation Portable handheld to access a PS3 and playing games from it always felt kludgy. Using a PS Vita handheld to do the same with the PS4 is dramatically better, but my giant mitts aren’t ready to trade a DualShock 4 for the Vita’s comparatively cramped confines just so I can play Destiny from my bedroom.

More than that, the Vita is missing a few buttons that the DualShock has, so you need to remap them to the handheld’s rear touchpad. Streaming to a Sony tablet and connecting the gamepad via Bluetooth works like a dream. If you’re after precision, though, and the game you’re playing requires lightning-fast responses, like streaming with PS Now, you’re going to be disappointed. Remote Play is an interesting feature, but unless you have the perfect setup for your network (home or otherwise), the tradeoffs might not be worth playing PS4 games away from your TV.

It’s the same with Share Play, the futuristic PS4 feature that lets you virtually pass a controller to someone else via the internet. The ability to have a friend across the country help you get past a tricky spot is pretty nuts. When it works, anyway. Same goes for playing couch co-op with a friend who isn’t in the same room with you. The problem is that Share Play requires an extremely fast connection between both people to provide the best experience. My modest 85 Mbps connection floated between “low” and just a few notches into the “good” rating. Even starting a session is dicey.

But when it works — and, more importantly, when the game you’re playing doesn’t block the feature — it feels crazy. The initial setup is really unintuitive, and the amount of lag will make or break whatever you’re playing. The X-Wing training mission in Star Wars: Battlefront is okay because it doesn’t require twitch reflexes for your co-op partner, but dipping into the game’s first-person shooter survival mode can be unplayable because of lag. Simply watching a friend play a game works pretty well, though, because it’s a passive experience and doesn’t rely on transmitting gameplay data from your console to your buddy’s.

Game selection

The list of fresh exclusives on PS4 keeps growing. Last year alone saw the ultra-tough Bloodborne, the perennial MLB: The Show and the interactive horror flick Until Dawn. That’s in addition to all of the indies that hit Sony’s latest console before Xbox One, like Rocket League. This year we’ve seen Ratchet and Clank, The Witness (a console exclusive), Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and another edition of Sony’s gorgeous baseball franchise, The Show ’16. There’s still No Man’s Sky, The Last Guardian and all of the upcoming PlayStation VR games as well. Simply put, there are lots of reasons to own a PS4, with even more to come.

Wrap-up

It’s easy to see how Sony has moved over 40 million PS4s. After getting kicked in the teeth for most of the last hardware cycle, Sony wasn’t about to let that happen again. The PS4’s focus has always been on games, not replacing your cable box. By focusing on that first and then augmenting the device with services like game streaming, Sony has built an excellent — in fact, the best — game console. It isn’t perfect, to be sure, but it keeps improving on a formula that already works well.

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