To understand the PlayStation 4, you need to know that it was built by a focus group—and not the bad kind that tries to water everything down to please the mythical center, but one comprised entirely of hardcore gamers and game developers. When designing the PS4, Sony took its marching orders from this notoriously uncompromising niche who wanted the new machine to do everything under the sun: produce 1080p graphics at 60 frames per second, download games while you play them, share gameplay clips with friends on Facebook, stream a gameplay broadcast on Twitch, and incorporate motion controls, touch controls, and voice activation in the least obtrusive way possible. And, oh yeah, it needed to come in at a launch price that was way, way less than the PS3’s initial $600 tag.

Sony did all of that and more with the PlayStation 4, knocking its latest hardware launch out of the park and delivering an experience that will please hardcore and casual gamers—and anyone in between—for only $400. But do you need one right now? History, after all, hasn’t favored the early adopter. Remember that the first Xbox 360s didn’t pack wi-fi and were plagued by the red ring of death, and the first PS3s were bulky dinosaurs compared to the sleek, slim versions that supplanted them later on.

Never fear. We’re here to walk you through everything you need to know about the PS4.

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The Hardware

The console itself looks like a work of modern art for your living room—a thin black trapezoid with sharp edges, angled in the back to hide wires with a deep gutter that runs through center to hide the USB ports and the disc slot. About one-third of it is housed in glossy black plastic, the other two-thirds in matte, with a razor-thin light bar that glows white when in use, yellow when in standby, or blue if it’s powering up or down. The power and eject buttons operate on a light touch. The unit itself can lie horizontally or stand vertically—which arguably makes it look even cooler—with a stand sold separately.

The new user interface is totally seamless, and much simpler than the PS3’s UI. Fewer tabs to scroll through means the content you want is easier to access. Firing up the PlayStation Store is also a cinch—the connect time is practically instantaneous—and HD video streaming is nearly flawless. Over standard wi-fi connections, hiccups on the PS3’s video stream were fairly common, necessitating time-consuming hard drive downloads to ensure crisp viewing. With the PS4’s beefed up processing power, that’s no longer the case.

To be precise, the PS4 has 10x the processing power of the PS3. It packs 8GB of high-speed GDDRS RAM, an eight core X86 CPU, plus 8GB of unified system memory. That might all be Greek to you, but what it really means is that in addition to paving the way for giant graphical leaps and more realistic gameplay physics over the previous console generation, there’s no amount of multitasking that can bog the thing down. For example, it’s now possible to pause a game, switch over to HD video streaming, watch a half a movie, then instantaneously switch back to the game and pick up right where you left off. Downloading a game from the PlayStation Store is also a piece of cake. If you select the option to download while you play, the PS4 will simply download the first part of the game initially so you can jump right in. While you play the first level of a game, the rest of it downloads in the background. You can also say good-bye updates that block you from jumping right into a game when you fire up the console: These now download automatically in the background.

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The Controller and Accessories

One of the biggest improvements the PS4 makes over the PS3 is with its new controller, the Dualshock 4. The analog sticks have a slight convex dip in the center, making them easier to handle. The ergonomics of the grip are greatly improved, too; with the Dualshock 3, the ring and pinkie fingers would dangle off the bottom, but with Sony’s new design they now have a comfortable home. The new shoulder buttons are a response to the popularity of the shooter genre; R2 and L2 now resemble contoured triggers. Start and Select buttons have been changed to Options and Share buttons, respectively. The Options button serves pretty much the same function as the old Start button, and pauses the game to bring you to an options menu. The Share button, though, opens up a whole new bag of tricks. Since the PS4’s hard drive is always recording game footage while you play, the Share button will bring up your latest gameplay clip in a simple editing suite that will allow you to upload gameplay video and screenshots to Facebook, and screenshots to Twitter. You can also live stream gameplay through Ustream or Twitch, and even add your own voiceover (with the PlayStation camera). Lastly, the dead space in the center of the old Dualshock 3 has been replaced with a touchpad. And while this might seem like a gimmick at first glance, it’s actually a brilliant move on Sony’s part, making the PS4 a home not just for deep, involved game experiences, but also more casual offerings like Angry Birds Star Wars, which control the way they were meant to.

If you have a PS Vita, it can be used to remotely stream games, though you should be aware that this won’t be possible if the wi-fi connection you’re on fails the stability test. But if the Vita and PS4 are on the same network (which Sony strongly recommends), you should be good to go. This means that the best feature of the Wii U—being able to play your console on a handheld device when your girl co-opts the TV for the newest episode of The Real Housewives—is no longer a Nintendo exclusive. You can now remotely play just about any PS4 game on the Vita.

The PlayStation camera is an optional accessory, but can enhance your experience in a few ways, enabling motion controls in certain games, allow a few simple voice commands to navigate the interface, shut down the console, or enter standby mode (which now lets you charge the controllers, thank goodness). The built-in game Playroom shows off some of these features, letting you have a little goofy fun with the “augmented reality” bots, who react to your movements. If you have the old PlayStation Move controllers from the PS3, those will be compatible with the PS4 with the use of the camera.

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The Games

Make no mistake—the games are coming. The next year will see all kinds of eagerly anticipated titles finally drop, including The Order: 1886, Metal Gear Solid V, Watchdogs, and Destiny. Other Sony exclusives like God of War and Uncharted are sure to follow at some point. But at the moment, the only true, AAA exclusive on the PS4 is Killzone: Shadowfall. If you haven’t played the series before, now is a great time to jump in as Shadowfall marks the start of a new story arc in the perennially underrated franchise. It looks excellent and plays smoother than any Killzone before it. After that, there’s Knack—a lighthearted platformer that’s fun to jump into, but hardly qualifies as a system-seller—plus a host of annual iterations from third-party publishers. On the action front, you can enjoy graphically enhanced versions of Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—but bear in mind that these are the very same games that recently released on the PS3 and Xbox 360, now sporting a next-gen makeover. The EA Sports games actually get the biggest upgrade over the old generation as the new Ignite engine does more than provide a cosmetic fix. Games like Madden 25 now play faster and more fluid. Moreover, the PS4 is capable of allotting far more resources to background aesthetics like sideline activity and crowd reactions. As a result, the stadiums feel truly alive and provide the wow factor you’d want out of a new system.

As a direct result of its developer-heavy focus, Sony has filled the PlayStation Store with loads of independent and smaller titles you can grab for just a few bucks. One example is Flower, a new offering from Studio Santa Monica that, like 2012’s Journey, speaks across all ages and genders with a simple, but beautiful gameplay premise: Guide a flower petal across wind currents to join with other petals. It sounds abstract and unlikely to enthrall an action lover, but playing is believing—and at just seven bucks, there’s really no reason not to. The arcade shooter Resogun is another PlayStation Store exclusive (get it for 15 bucks or for free with a Plus membership) and is probably the most addictive game on the system. An hour in and your eyes will be bleeding because you forgot to blink—your brain will be too busy drinking in all of the PS4’s wild new particle effects.

Conclusion

The PlayStation 4 kicks serious ass. If you pick one up right now, you’re certainly not making a mistake. The new technology and UI is fun to tool around with, and as far as launch libraries can go, the PS4’s isn’t bad. The annual sports and action/adventure iterations are all solid (you can even upgrade from the PS3 to the PS4 version for 10 bucks on certain titles) and Indies and shorter offerings add some unique depth. If you’re a Killzone fan, the decision is really a no-brainer. Go get it. But if you’re the type of gamer who needs that one big gamechanger (like Mario 64 was to the N64) then you’re going to have to wait a while, whether you’re considering a PS4 or its main competitor, the Xbox One. But at one point or another in the near future, you’re going to be tempted to plunk down your hard-earned cash on the PS4, and when the day comes that you finally break down, you’re not going to be disappointed.

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