review

The PlayStation 5 Review

Sony’s next-gen machine offers deep immersion, flexibility in use, and lightning-fast speed
by Matt Miller on Nov 6, 2020 at 7:00 AM

The PlayStation 5 Review

Sony’s next-gen machine offers deep immersion, flexibility in use, and lightning-fast speed
by Matt Miller on Nov 06, 2020 at 07:00 AM
Developer: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release:
Introduction

The new generation is upon us, and Sony has come out swinging with an incredibly powerful new console to stake its claim on the gaming landscape. The PlayStation 5 offers up blazing speed and some remarkable audio and visual technology. The new console also brings the most exciting innovation in controllers in many years with the excellent DualSense. While not everything is perfect, our weeks with the PlayStation 5 have revealed a worthwhile successor to the legacy of the brand, and an experience that has the potential to change the game for both developers and players.

Hardware

Hardware and Form Factor

Most mainstream entertainment tech opts for a low-profile presentation, with subdued lines and shapes meant to blend into the background. That’s even been true for earlier iterations of the PlayStation consoles. The PS5 breaks that mold, with sleek, curved forms, and overpowering presence – less a tech box, and more a billionaire’s yacht.

The PlayStation 5 is a beast in size – the largest home console ever – at over 15 inches in height, more than 10 inches in depth, and 4 inches wide, with the standard edition. The digital edition drops some mass and width without the disc drive. Rather than attempt to diminish the bulk, the designers have added curves and extended wings on both sides that lend yet more flair and size. When active, the operating lights shine outward with enough power to illuminate several feet in an otherwise dark room.

An included stand can be attached in either vertical or horizontal orientation, communicating a vague illusion that the machine is floating in space. That same stand is required to keep the PlayStation 5 steady and level; its oblong lines simply won’t sit flat without support. When the stand accentuates the already prodigious size, the PS5 can’t help but dominate your entertainment center.

I find the overall design ostentatious. As an object in a living space, it draws the eye and demands you notice it, and there’s no denying its striking presence. For many, that stylized and aggressive form may be a plus, recalling recent years of ever-more colorful and light-up PC gaming rigs. For my own tastes, the shape of the box defies the understated qualities I’ve often liked in Sony consoles. At the same time, I’m happy that the PS5 won’t be drawing attention for the sounds it produces. Sony’s new flagship runs games whisper-quiet, and remains near-silent even when playing a UHD Blu-ray in the disc drive.

The PS5 offers a generous set of up-to-date ports, including a front-side USB Type-A and Type-C port, and two Super-Speed USB Type-A ports on the rear – ideal for data transfer. That’s in addition to the HDMI out, capable of supporting up to 8K and variable refresh rate TVs, if you happen to be that far ahead in the monitor-quality rat race. The expected Ethernet socket is present, and the PS5 supports Bluetooth 5.1 and Wi-Fi capability. Unfortunately, there's no dedicated optical out, which is a disappointment for users with particular home setups. The AC-In is notable only in that the PS5 features no external brick – simply a standard power cord.

From the outside, the PlayStation 5 is big, attractive, and showy. If it had legs, it would swagger. But it’s possible the bluster is warranted, once you power up and see what this monster is capable of doing.

Performance

Performance

Any new console needs to be powerful at launch, as it will have to keep up with ever-growing demands put on it over its lifetime. While it’s impossible to predict the computing challenges the PS5 will face in five or even 10 years, the initial release is a remarkably sophisticated and impressive console. The PS5 is so fast that it has the potential to change the way game designers put together their games.

That speed is one of few especially notable features that set the PS5’s performance apart from its predecessor, and which even casual users will likely note right away. The custom 825GB SSD is larger in storage capacity than the standard PS4, but smaller than the PS4 Pro’s 1TB drive. At next-gen game sizes, you will run out of space very quickly. But since the PS5 features easy storage-expansion options using off-market (read: cheap) SSDs, the bigger story is the way the internal solid-state drive helps to speed up information access. Alongside the processing power afforded by the AMD Zen 2 CPU and 16GB GDDR6 Memory, loading speeds are greatly diminished.

The tech jargon is proven out by the dramatically faster loading I saw across a variety of games. On games built specifically for PS5, loads were far faster; in the new Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, fast travel on the PS5 was near instantaneous. And while the speed improvement was less dramatic on backward-compatible PS4 games, I still found significant improvements in games like Ghost of Tsushima and Days Gone, sometimes halving waits. Design-wise, play spaces can load in faster, so in games designed for the system, we’re likely to see fewer winding tunnels or long elevator rides connecting explorable areas.

Beyond speed, lighting is the next big noticeable upgrade. Ray tracing was not a supported technology on the PS4, but the PS5 makes it a centerpiece. Ray tracing is a rendering technique to create realistic lighting throughout the game worlds we explore by tracking the way that light moves and reflects in an environment. Light is also the way we see everything in a game world, and ray tracing offers the potential for real-time global illumination. Textures in the game world reap the benefits of that realism, from hair and cloth to metal and glass.

Real-time ray tracing is enabled through the powerful GPU, and that same GPU contributes to greatly improved framerates (up to 120 FPS). As monitor/TV tech continues to expand, the PS5’s graphical power also enables support for 8K output. At launch, many games support native 4K with HDR. Some games offer a choice of graphical mode, giving the user flexibility to prioritize higher fidelity visuals running at 30 fps, or greater performance at 60 fps, but without some graphical upgrades.

The PlayStation 5 also distinguishes itself in the audio department, with a new 3D audio engine that can process many audio sources at once. Experienced through headset use, the impressiveness of the tech is limited by your audiophile tendencies. In early use, the 3D audio effect felt similar to good surround-sound headphones I’ve used in the past. But with experience, I began to notice the nuances of distance and volume, especially in game environments with a bevy of different sounds. In practical terms, the tech increases immersion by helping you feel like you are in the center of the environment depicted in-game.

Over many hours of playing, I did encounter some performance issues on the PS5, including some game freezes that required game or system restarts. It’s difficult at this early juncture to point to software or hardware issues, but it’s fair to acknowledge that this new generation has not yet done away with technical hiccups.

Finally, for those who purchase the standard edition of the PS5 (rather than digital), the Ultra HD Blu-ray drive enables double the capacity of the PS4’s standard Blu-ray discs, which should be a boon to developers trying to squeeze in more data. More functionally, it means that the PS5 can be a UHD Blu-ray player, exhibiting movies in crystal clarity on your 4K TV.

User Experience

User Experience

Raw power is great, but the potential can be wasted if the way you interact with the console is tedious. Thankfully, the PlayStation 5 provides a slick dashboard and easy access to the content most users will want, alongside deep customization options and an attractive overall aesthetic.

While the new dashboard has been wholly redesigned, longtime PlayStation users will recognize the legacy of the XrossMediaBar that has long been the basis of organization. Horizontally organized apps are placed under one of two distinct groups – Games and Media – and can be scrolled through left to right. And whether it’s a game in your collection or your app library, each entry on that horizontal bar presents a new background splash screen (think game box art), and the option to tap down to explore greater detail. The full-screen art that overtakes each screen is inviting, but I sometimes miss the subtler backdrop screen of the PS4.

A tap of the PlayStation button pulls up a customizable control center – a second horizontal set of icons that represent common tasks. The control center can be tweaked at will, adding and subtracting items you commonly use, which is handy. Do you regularly turn on Spotify to listen to tunes while playing? Check the box to have quick access to Music. Play mostly solo? Get rid of the Game Base icon that governs voice chat and other social features. If you instead play a lot of multiplayer, the Game Base offers expanded party options beyond voice chat, including a quick way to share your screen, so you can watch what your buddy is doing in their game, even while you might be playing something else.

The Control Center also offers a quick-select option for accessibility controls; Sony has made major strides to support players with a variety of needs, offering chat transcription, closed captioning, custom controller button assignment, color inversion, and a screen reader to convert onscreen text into spoken word, among other aids. Even if some of these features are dependent on games or apps that support functionality, the ease of access and availability of these and other accessibility features is a great way to make the console a friendly place to game for the widest variety of players.

For any given game, large pop-up cards can be accessed in the hub, and depending on the developer, a variety of neat options are available, including percentage completion of an activity, the ability to jump directly to that activity, and even hint videos. While not every game or activity will include these features, it’s a handy set of tools that recognizes the value of your time and your desire to make sure that time is spent in a fun way.

Games Library
Controller

Controller

If there’s a surprise success in the first page of the new-gen console story, it’s Sony’s DualSense controller. It has rocketed to become my favorite first-party controller ever made, thanks to attractive design, excellent in-hand feel, and a peerless approach to feedback and motion that must be felt to be believed.

The DualSense abandons the single-color aesthetic that defined previous generations, and opts for a striking two-tone scheme that matches the console. Slightly larger and heavier than the PS4’s DualShock 4, the new DualSense feels more solid in-hand than its predecessor, with a gently curved shape that comfortably fits in adult hands.

The real revelation is the novelty of the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. Dual interior actuators create evocative effects, from the feeling of tiny creatures moving back and forth inside, to a more nuanced sensation of movement and footfalls than older rumble tech could replicate. The adaptive triggers provide resistance and tension for actions like firing a gun or braking a car. In combination, the DualSense fulfills the promise of a controller that genuinely assists immersion in a powerful way.

Only time will tell if the thumbsticks hold up better under strenuous use than the notoriously damage-prone DualShock 4, but my early sense is that the rubber seems sturdy and grippy. The d-pad and face buttons present attractive transparent plastic overlays, lending a 3D effect. The new touchpad features more surface area for swipes and was readily responsive as an input.

A built-in microphone is adequate to the task, allowing audible built-in voice chat (output from the controller speaker) for players who prefer to avoid a dedicated headset, while a standard 3.5mm headphone jack offers support for your preferred headset. A new mute button (with indicator light) is a welcome addition, allowing for quick audio-capture elimination. The integrated controller speaker still frequently feels like a gimmick, but it is easy to turn on and off. The accelerometer and gyroscope are capable, but I’ve yet to encounter a motion-controlled sequence (PS5 or otherwise) that I wouldn’t rather control with a stick.

The new “Create” button replaces “Share,” with similar purpose but improved functionality and speed, allowing for screen capturing, as well as video capturing of both recent activity or starting a new manual recording. You also have instant broadcasting options to Twitch or YouTube, once you’ve linked your accounts. In addition, the Create pop-up menu supports quick tweaking of a number of useful functions, such as whether to capture mic and party audio, or file output format for screens and videos.

Accompanied by a solidly impressive rechargeable battery life of several hours (varying based on usage) featuring an up-to-date USB Type-C connector, the DualSense comes out of the gate as a standout success, and it’s one of the big distinguishing features for the PS5.

Compatibility

Compatibility

With multiple generations of PlayStation hardware behind us, it’s challenging to paint a complete picture of what will and won’t work on a new system. As a rule, if a particular accessory or game is especially important to you, investigate individually. But there are some general guidelines you can fall back on.

In terms of software, “more than 99%” of PS4 titles should work at launch, according to Sony. Some games (like Ghost of Tsushima) even feature boosted performance. We had good luck in our testing of several first- and third-party games. Unfortunately, PS3 and older games are not backwards compatible.

On the accessory front, specialty peripherals like arcade sticks and flight sticks are compatible with both PS5 and supported PS4 games, and the PS Move and VR Aim controller work with supported PS VR games. DualShock 4 controllers will work on supported PS4 games, but won’t work on new PS5 games – those require the new DualSense. And if you use the PlayStation Camera, you’ll need to acquire an adaptor, which will be provided free to PS VR users after completing an online form.

Headsets are a more complicated mix. Anything that plugs in via USB or audio jack should work fine, and wireless headsets that use USB adaptors also worked well in our testing. Unfortunately, while the PS5 does support some Bluetooth devices, it does not offer support for Bluetooth headsets – a disappointing omission that feels out of step with the times.

Finally, when considering the model PS5 to purchase, be aware that any older games that you own on physical discs won’t work if you opt for the digital edition of the machine.

This review has been updated to clarify the extent of first- and third-party support for PlayStation 5's backwards compatibility.

The Verdict

The Verdict: A-

The PlayStation 5 is an incredibly powerful and sophisticated piece of gaming hardware, sometimes virtually eliminating the tedium of loading screens that have plagued console gaming for decades. Games look amazing thanks to new lighting techniques, especially on 4K displays, and a proprietary sound engine ensures an equally arresting aural experience. While its outward aesthetic is attractive, it’s also overpowering, and the design won’t please everyone. A slick dashboard is easy to use and smartly designed, and values what’s important to you, most especially your leisure time.

Release

November 12

Price

PS5 Standard Edition – $499
PS5 Digital Edition – $399

More Information

PlayStation 5 PlayStation 5 Digital Edition