PlayStation 5 Review | ‘Not perfect, but daring’

The PlayStation 5 is less than a week from release, and we’ve spent the last two weeks diving into Sony’s latest console. The bold design of the PS5 is matched by excellent performance and a beautiful new UI. However, there are some aspects of the console that are rough around the edges. We dive into each aspect of the hardware in our PS5 review below.

Design

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The design of the PlayStation 5 is a significant departure from the utilitarian lines of the PS4 family of consoles. It’s a large console — it’s even a bit bigger than the original PS3, itself a behemoth — and comes just shy of being awkward. The outer plastic portion of the system is removable for cleaning and accessing the m.2 SSD expansion bay. When attached, they form fins at the front, which give the console a bold look.

How big is the PS5?

Head-on, the PS5 looks like a skyscraper, or when set horizontally, the tailfin of a 1950s automobile. However, there’s more functionality to the design than is first apparent. The console’s black midsection is fitted with vents to facilitate cooling, and the plastic outer panels are attached loosely enough that these sections, too, offer excellent ventilation. This, along with the large central fan, means that the PS5 doesn’t suffer from the loud fan noise under heavy load that was a hallmark of the PS4.

Connectivity options are adequate enough. There are two USB 3.1 ports on the console’s rear, and the front panel houses a USB-C and USB 2.0 port. The singular USB 2.0 port is an odd design choice for a modern console, and it mars an otherwise fantastic device. It can be assumed by its location the USB 2.0 port is meant primarily to be used as a charging port. Still, with USB 2.0 providing 500mA to USB 3.0’s 900mA (and USB-C’s 3-5A), users are better off using the USB-C port for charging. Unfortunately, Sony’s decision to go with a USB 2.0 port for the console’s front panel will cause a minor inconvenience for those connecting external hard drives as they’ll have to use the rear ports.

Horizontal vs. vertical

As good as the console looks standing vertically, most players won’t have the room to use it in that configuration. The PS5’s unique tapered design doesn’t allow it to sit flat in the typical horizontal position. Instead, users must attach a stand that levels out the console. The stand mounts via a screw when the console is positioned vertically. When using it horizontally, the stand just clips onto the back. As the system is just sitting there, gravity holds it down, and rubber pads on the stand prevent slippage. However, only the clips on the back secure the stand to the PS5, so when a user lifts it, the stand will dangle and most likely fall off. This makes moving the console forward to reach the rear USB ports a precarious situation.

I love the design of the PS5, and it was daring of Sony to put some artisanship into its form. However, it seems like it was constructed primarily with vertical use in mind, which isn’t going to be possible for most users. The stand also adds more height to the already large console when its positioned horizontally than is probably necessary. As is, the PS5 just kind of hovers on the stand. Including a smaller stand that hugs the console’s body instead of making a two-in-one solution would have resulted in a better look, smaller form, and a more secure fit.

UI

PS5 Main Menu UI

The PS5’s revamped UI is beautiful and minimalistic. It maintains the familiar media bar format that debuted with the PSP and evolved with the PS3 and PS4. The icons on the bar are much smaller this time around, and are focused on the upper left portion of the screen. This allows for each game to feature almost full-screen artwork when highlighted, which is reminiscent of the PS3’s presentation.

Unlike the PS4, the UI only displays the eight most recent games or apps that have been accessed on the main menu. The rest can be found in the revamped Game Library that always sits as the right-most icon on the bar. Meanwhile, the PlayStation Store, which has been redesigned, is pinned to the left-most slot on the bar.

No customization options

Unfortunately, at launch, there are no customization options for the main menu. Users are stuck with the last eight games or apps appearing there. There’s no pinning a game or arranging the icons in a different order. Folder and theme support is gone as well. It was disappointing to see how gorgeous the new UI is, but have no way to customize it to my liking.

Having everything concentrated in the Game Library isn’t a huge negative. It can be sorted from various options like A-Z, recent purchases, and recently played. It can also filter to show only PS4 or only PS5 games. It can also display the player’s whole library or just the games that are installed. However, the console doesn’t save which sort order users choose and defaults to most recently used, which can be frustrating if one wants their games to show up in alphabetical order consistently or only wants to see their PS5 games.

Games and Media

There are a few other small things about the UI that didn’t make sense to me. The UI is split into Games and Media now, with the Media section being dedicated to streaming services. However, the Media Gallery, where players can view their captured images and video, isn’t pinned to the Media section or the Game Section. Instead, it resides in the Game Library. I spent around 20 minutes trying to find it for the first time because it’s such an unintuitive place for it to be.

There’s a lot of good to the new UI as well, though. I absolutely love the Activities system that pop up when players view game info on the main menu or Game Library or hit the PS button in-game. These keep track of in-game opportunities like activities, missions, and trophies, and are great motivators. For example, in Astro’s Playground, it would show me how many artifacts were left in a level and would give me the option to jump right to that point in the game and even had hints available for finding them. It’s incredible to go from not playing the game at all to jumping right in with almost zero loading time, and I hope this is a system we see third-party devs embrace consistently for their PS5 titles.

The PS5 is a big departure from the PS4, and the UI is obviously a bit rough around the edges. Despite my issues with a lack of customization and some odd design choices, I think it’s a great first step. We saw the PS4 system menu improve over time, and I think the PS5 UI is already in a better place at launch than its predecessor’s was.

DualSense Controller

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The PlayStation Dual Analog controller debuted in mid-1997. Sony, confident on a job well done, didn’t change much about it for the next 23 years. Sure, the Sixaxis introduced wireless connectivity, and the DualShock 4 added a touch bar and replaced Select and Start with Share and Options. Regardless of minor changes, every past PlayStation controller has just been a variation of the Dual Analog with some extra bells and whistles. That’s not to fault Sony; the Dual Analog configuration was revolutionary, so much so that every current first-party controller uses a variation of its layout.

Ergonomic design

Despite the groundbreaking design of the Dual Analog and its successor, the competition caught up. To distinguish the PS5 controller, Sony would have to pull out all the stops, which it did with the DualSense. Where the DualShock 4 sits nicely against a player’s hand, the DualSense sits well in the hand. It’s a curved, ergonomic design that is a joy to hold. There’s no awkward ledges or sharp angles, and it doesn’t bend the hand to its shape.

Haptic feedback

The haptic vibration works much the same as HD rumble does on Nintendo’s Joy-Cons and Pro Controller. The vibration is much more nuanced than on the DualShock 4. It can simulate the taps of footsteps or the thrust of a rocket to really connect the player with what’s happening on-screen. I’ve found myself tuning out the generic rumble of past generations more and more, and haptics revitalizes the feature in a big way.

Where haptic feedback really shines is when it’s paired with the adaptive triggers. When drawing a bow in Astro’s Playroom, for example, the triggers strain against the player’s fingers, and the haptics give a slight vibration. Together these effects simulate the strain of holding a bowstring in a very realistic facsimile. Having practiced archery before, it’s not quite the real thing, but it’s more than enough to call the action of using a bow to mind.

Performance

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We got to play two PlayStation 5 exclusive games pre-review: Astro’s Playroom and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. These titles are early indicators that this generation will see a paradigm shift on a level that hasn’t been seen since the transition from SD to HD. The switch from HDDs to SSDs for storage is nothing short of amazing.

Loading screens are no longer necessary

Besides the obvious loading screen, think of all the little tricks developers have had to use to mask loading times. Long elevator rides, barren hallways, crawling through narrow crevices, all these are meant to keep players immersed. Still, they’ve become so common that they have the same effect as if the devs just threw “Now Loading” up on the screen. With the PS5’s SSD, these are no longer necessary. Both Astro’s Playroom and Spider-Man can load into the game almost instantly, and with the Activities feature, they can even bypass the main menu entirely.

Just these two launch titles are impressive enough, but we’ve seen enough in previews to know they’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible with high-speed storage. Upcoming titles like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart will load entire levels in-game almost instantly.

Ray-tracing, 4K, and HDR

While the SSD is the most impactful new feature, the PlayStation 5 also includes support for ray-tracing, which looks great in Spider-Man: Miles Morales and ALLM. It’s an HDMI 2.1 console, so it can support up to 4K/120Hz with HDR on compatible TVs. However, it looks just as good through HDMI 2.0, and only one game, Monster Boy and The Cursed Kingdom, is confirmed to support 4K/120Hz at this time anyway.

Backward compatibility

The PS5 also features backward compatibility with the PS4, though it’s a bit more spotty than the Xbox Series X’s implementation. Every game I moved to the internal SSD saw decreased load times. However, to get the full benefits of the PS5 games must be patched. Several in the PS Plus Collection have already received updates that allow higher resolution and better performance in addition to lower load times.

However, some PS4 games (outside of the ones marked on the incompatibility list) were labeled as “Playable on PS4,” meaning they were barred from launching on PS5. I’m hoping this will be fixed by an upcoming system update. If not, it means players won’t be able to enjoy some major titles on their new console.

Storage

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The PlayStation 5 comes with an 825GB NVMe SSD, with 667.2GB of that being usable by the owner. Right now, 76.38GB of that is being used on my console by “Other,” which the PS5 says is reserved for system data needed for games and apps to work properly. So, I really have just 590GB for games, save data, media, apps, etc.

Low storage space

Considering how big games are these days, 590GB isn’t a ton of room. It can be assumed with the PS5 targeting 4K, even with increased storage optimization, those big textures will keep average install sizes around the same or even larger than they are now. So, what are the options for expanded storage?

PS5 owners can still use external hard drives to store PS4 games. The Seagate Game Drive I reviewed previously works just as well connected to the PS5 as it did its predecessor. However, to benefit from decreased load times, PS4 games must be stored on an SSD. Using an external SSD may give some improved performance, but only the internal drive will guarantee it.

Expandable storage, but not at launch

The internal storage for the PlayStation 5 can be expanded, at least in theory. An m.2 bay lies under the console’s removable bottom plate and can fit any 30, 42, 60, 80, or 110mm PCIe 4.0 SSD that meets the 5,500MBs write requirement. Unfortunately, even if you have an SSD that fits these requirements, you won’t be able to use it at launch. The PS5 is releasing without support for its internal m.2 bay. In fact, when a drive is installed as of now, the console won’t boot. A screen appears asking the user to remove the drive and powers down at the end of a countdown, so there’s not even unofficial support for the m.2 currently.

There’s no ETA as to when m.2 support will be available for the console. I would assume that Sony will be certifying individual models and putting out a list soon. However, as much as I appreciate being able to use an off-the-shelf solution for expanded internal storage, the inevitable confusion this situation will cause might outweigh the benefits. As much as I dislike proprietary storage — looking at you PS Vita — introducing a revived Memory Card would have helped ease installation and eliminated the confusion of having to choose the right m.2 drive.

PS5 Review | The Final Verdict

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The PlayStation 5 isn’t perfect, but it’s daring. It provides a firm foundation for Sony to build its next console generation on, and it’s an impressive piece of hardware. The SSD is poised to revolutionize game design, and the improved horsepower compared to the PS4 (and PS4 Pro) makes this a true 4K console. The DualSense is my new favorite controller, and I’m excited each time I pick it up. I can’t wait to see what unique sensations developers coax out of the haptics and adaptive triggers.

The PS5 feels next-gen. Its design, UI, and the DualSense all feel like an evolution from the PS4. Despite its flaws, it’s a machine that fills me with wonder for what might come next. If the system’s boldness is any indicator of what’s in store, Sony has a bright, innovative future ahead.