Opinion: At Gamescom 2013, Sony announced that its ISP partner for the PS4 launch will be Virgin Media. The news had gaming fans coo-ing over the idea of super-fast 200mb broadband made for the PS4.
However, the real benefit is that it’ll force Sony to improve its network infrastructure in PSN, which currently lags way behind Xbox Live.
Downloading update… 1% complete
What do we mean? Anyone who has a PS3 or Xbox 360 will be familiar with this scenario – sitting down to play a game, only to be confronted by the game update screen.
However, where with an Xbox 360 the download bar tends to fill up quickly, the PS3 can be painfully slow. To the point where I've given up and fired-up Netflix instead on many an occasion.
Those with just a PS3 may pass it off as their home broadband acting up. But many of you who own both an Xbox 360 and PS3 will be familiar with this bizarre disparity. The PS3 is slower, simple as.
Although Sony hasn’t made an official announcement explaining why its downloads are so much slower than Microsoft’s, there’s only one simple explanation – throttling.
Easy on the accelerator
Throttling downloads results in much less server load at Sony’s end, making the PSN infrastructure much cheaper to maintain. It’s all about controlling the level of demand at peak times, reducing the number of servers needed at Sony’s server farms to stop the whole enterprise from falling on its face.
A lack of clear download speed throttling is probably one of the main reasons why Microsoft has to charge for Xbox Live.
So far, Sony has managed to get away with it. Millions may be irked by the slow downloads of PSN, but it hasn’t come to a head as a reason to pick an Xbox 360 over a PS3 (which it is, in my opinion.) It’s brushed under the carpet, for the most part.
However, that won’t fly for those who have paid out big bucks for a ‘gamer-centric’ PS4-approved Virgin broadband package for their PS4. Would you be happy if you’d forked out for a 200mb connection only to find yourself waiting an hour for a game update to download?
Now that Sony’s name is implicated on both sides of the equation – broadband and console – the company is much easier to blame. Download speed could easily turn from an issue shrugged off this generation to one that attracts the likes of Watchdog and the Daily Mail in the next.
Upping the game
The worrying part is quite how much Sony needs to improve its network infrastructure to avoid these sort of speed caps, given how much more data-heavy the PS4 is than its predecessor.
With the PS3, you have standard downloads from PSN and game updates corralling much of the weight of the data. Most of the rest of the console’s streaming – Netflix and so on – relies on other companies’ servers.
This time around, Sony has to contend with live game video streaming – horribly unpredictable in terms of bandwidth use – and actual game streaming through its Gaikai-based streaming service. If Sony hasn’t accurately predicted how popular these features will be, it will result in server meltdown.
Sony has made some sensible moves, though. Game streaming won’t be available at the PS4’s launch – arriving in 2014 – and will launch as US-only to start with. PR disaster averted? Perhaps, but it could backfire if Sony realises its backend isn’t up to the task – with the potential to stall the launch of game streaming outside the US semi-permanently.
And all of these shortcomings will, of course, be amplified when you’re paying for gamer-centric Virgin broadband. Sony has tried to claim the PS4 is the simpler, more gamer-friendly alternative to the Xbox One, thanks to its early shunning of online check-in DRM. But really it is just as complicated. If not more so.
Next, read our comparison of the Xbox One vs PS4
Andrew Williams is Features and Reviews editor at Trusted Reviews, and owns an Xbox 360 and PS3. He was too cheap to pre-order one of the next-gen consoles before the initial stocks ran out, though. He can be found tweeting at www.twitter.com/wwwdotandrew.