- Sony’s next-generation PlayStation 5 delivers a truly next-generation experience with its 8-core AMD Ryzen CPU, 10.3-teraflop GPU, 16GB of RAM, and 825GB custom SSD.
- The PS5 user experience is similar to that of the PS4, but every element has been improved.
- The PS5 and PS5 Digital Edition launch on November 12th for $499 and $399, respectively.
I’ll admit that in the months leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 5, I was concerned that Sony’s next-generation console would arrive half baked. We didn’t even know what the home screen looked like until three weeks before the console began shipping, despite the fact that preorders had already opened and sold out. It’s impossible to ignore the impact the pandemic has had on product development across the board, but it became abundantly clear as Sony was silent for long stretches of 2020 that the company’s plans had been completely thrown out of whack.
So when the (enormous) PS5 retail box showed up on my doorstep on Friday, October 23rd, I couldn’t believe how quickly my fears were allayed. The console itself is comically large, but its design is striking in a way that I found appealing, even if it wouldn’t fit in my IKEA media center. Of course, the physical design doesn’t matter much once you power the console on, and once I did, I was astonished by how much of a leap Sony had taken.
Before I go any further, I should note that this is the first part of what will be a two-part review, as Sony has barred me from talking about some of the console’s features and functionality until launch day.
UI and UX
For my money, the PS4’s most pronounced weakness was its user interface. The PS4 UI was unwieldy, unattractive, and excruciatingly slow — especially when visiting the PlayStation Store to buy and download a new game. Improvements were made to the user experience over the course of the generation, but it was so fundamentally flawed from the outset that there was little to be done without a complete overhaul. That’s not to say that it was unusable, but it did test my patience on more than one occasion.
You might start to detect a theme here, but as with the wireless controller, the UI has been improved dramatically on the PS5. Speed is the keyword of this console generation, and that applies to every part of the experience, not just load times within games. Everything from the initial setup to switching between games to pulling up the Control Center and changing settings happens without a moment of hesitation on the part of the console.
One of the first (of many) pleasant surprises sprung upon me while exploring the console’s main menu was finding the Game Library and realizing that virtually every PS4 game I’d ever bought was readily available for me to download and play on my PS5. Sony was bizarrely coy about how backward compatibility would work on the PS5 for months on end, but my experience with it thus far has been relatively seamless. Plus, in order to limit the confusion for games that launch on PS4 and PS5 (of which there will be plenty in the coming months), both games will live under the same icon on the home screen. You can find an ellipsis button on the game page where you can choose which version of the game you want to play.
While the endless string of square icons on the home screen is reminiscent of the home screen on the PS4, moving the icons to the top of the display gives the game hubs room to breathe and makes everything feel less congested. Within the hub for each game — which you can access by hovering over the game’s icon — you’ll find official news stories about the game, DLC you can buy or download for free, video clips, and a new feature called Activities.
Activities are unique to the PS5 and allow you to jump right into a specific game mode or level without having to slog through the game’s menu first. For example, if you want to retry a level in Astro’s Playroom, which comes preinstalled on the PS5, you can find that level within Activities and the game will immediately load into the beginning of that level. The same might be true of Call of Duty or Fortnite, so instead of starting from the main menu of the game, you can jump right into a multiplayer match and save yourself a few precious seconds.
You can access Activities from within a game as well. Pressing the PS button on the controller will bring up the Control Center, which gives you quick access to notifications, settings, your friends list, and more. At the top of the Control Center are a series of cards, which include all of the news, clips, and Activities you saw in the hub on the home screen. In supported games, the cards for Activities will show you which objectives you have yet to complete, and some will even feature short video guides showing you exactly what you need to do to complete them. Again, not all games will utilize this feature, but it will be a godsend for players who are struggling to get through a difficult level when it is available.
From the days of the PlayStation 2, Sony’s controllers have always been my favorite. For whatever reason, the DualShock 2 just fit my hands better than the GameCube controller or the controller for the Xbox 360. That carried over to the PS3 and the PS4, but as Microsoft began to tinker with the design of the Xbox One controller, the deficiencies of the DualShock 4 became more evident. The DualShock 4 is a fine controller, but it’s not very sturdy or weighty, and by the end of the generation, I’d started to actively dislike it.
It’s still early days, but Sony’s DualSense for the PS5 might be the best pack-in game controller I’ve ever used. I’m not going to compare it to any of the $100+ premium controllers we’ve seen in recent years, such as the Xbox Elite, but the DualSense feels as premium as any controller I’ve ever owned. It’s bigger than the DualShock 4 and the Xbox One wireless controller, but it also feels better in the hand than either of those devices.
Conceptually, the DualSense isn’t all that different from the DualShock 4. All of the face buttons are in the same place, the joysticks are still side by side at the bottom of the controller, and the headphone jack sits underneath the PlayStation button. The only new button on the controller is the mute button between the PS button and the headphone jack, but once you actually get your hands on a DualSense, you’ll quickly understand why Sony changed the naming scheme.
There are two new features that define the DualSense controller: adaptive triggers and haptic feedback. I had my doubts when I read about these gimmicky-sounding additions earlier this year, but the potential for both is much higher than I expected.
The adaptive triggers allow developers to change how the L2 and R2 buttons react depending on the situation in the game. For example, in Astro’s Playroom, there are sections of the game when your character hops into a spring suit in order to navigate the level. Once you’re in the suit, you can press the R2 button to push down on the spring, and letting go will launch you into the air. But when you push down, you can feel the trigger fighting back against you. The experience is enhanced even further by the sounds coming out of the DualSense speaker, which seems to emit audio of much higher quality than the DualShock 4 speaker was capable of achieving. All of the technology within the controller combines to create a sensation which immerses you even further into the world on the screen.
The haptic feedback is just as impressive, as the controller not only rumbles in specific areas based on the action on the screen, but also mirrors the activity in a way that honestly feels a little like magic. In Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, there’s a moment right at the start of the game where Miles is riding the subway. As the train speeds from one station to the next, you can feel the distinctive, intermittent bumps in the tracks inside the DualSense. Living in New York City during the pandemic, I haven’t been on a subway in months, but it was absolutely wild to have a video game controller make me feel like I was once again zipping underground from Queensboro Plaza to Lexington Avenue.
The elephant in the room is whether or not any third-party developers will take full advantage of these features in the years to come. Sony’s first-party titles will likely continue to use every part of the buffalo, but much like the DualShock 4 speaker became a non-factor fairly early on in the last generation, it’s easy to imagine developers opting to focus their efforts elsewhere as game development continues to become increasingly expensive and time-consuming.
Thankfully, the DualSense is such a great controller that it will stand on its own with or without any of its unique functionality. It is appreciably larger than the DualShock 4, and this might be an issue for some gamers, but having now completed a few games with a DualSense in my hands, I can confidently say that this is my favorite controller I’ve used in years.
One of the big advantages that the PS4 had over the Xbox One throughout its seven-year run was the number of exclusive games that were available for the console. We have no idea how this generation will shake out, but it continues to hold that advantage at launch, with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon’s Souls, and Sackboy: A Big Adventure all dropping alongside the console.
The new Xbox has the advantage of being backward compatible with every game from every previous generation, and without the same support for PS1, PS2, and PS3 games on the PS5, Sony needed a strong launch lineup. I have only played a couple of the PS5 exclusives at the time of writing, but I can say that both Astro’s Playroom and Miles Morales are fantastic introductions to the new generation. Astro’s Playroom might be preinstalled, but it’s a more compelling experience than you might expect, showing off the capabilities of the powerful hardware and the capabilities of the controller while simultaneously providing a genuinely fun platforming experience in the vein of a Mario game.
I described the process of downloading games you own from the Game Library above, but you can also transfer data directly from the PS4 to your PS5 by connecting the consoles to the same network or putting your PS4 games, media, and save data on an external drive and hooking it up to your PS4. If you opted for the standard PS5 with a disc drive, you can also insert PS4 discs into the drive and they will begin installing immediately.
One of the concerns for many PlayStation fans going into the generation was the oddly-sized 825GB custom SSD that Sony opted to use with the PS5. Only 667GB is actually available to the user, and as games begin to take up more and more space, it’s hard to imagine that this will be enough storage for many PS5 owners. The good news is that you can dump all of your PS4 games on to a relatively affordable external hard drive and save your SSD space for the PS5 games that can take full advantage of its speed, but you might end up needing an SSD storage expansion card down the road. These are significantly more expensive, but you won’t have to worry about the investment for a while, as Sony has confirmed that the PS5 doesn’t actually support SSD expansion at launch.
Storage concerns aside, the SSD is the star of the show when it comes to playing games on PS5. Load times are virtually nonexistent. When I press the PlayStation button on my controller to wake the console up, the PS5 home screen loads faster than my 4K Sony TV can even turn on. This carries over to the games I keep referring to as well. When you choose a level to explore from the lobby of Astro’s Playroom, you are pulled through the door at warp speed and dropped directly into that level faster than you can blink. In Miles Morales, when you open up the map and fast travel across New York City by selecting a subway stop, Miles is walking up the stairs of the station before you even lift your finger from the X button. I might be repeating myself from my Xbox Series X review, but I can’t ever go back to the last generation now.
As I explained at the top, this is just the first part of the review, since there are still a number of features and elements of the console that won’t be finalized until launch day. In the meantime, I can say that the PS5 feels like a more complete upgrade than the transition from the PS3 to the PS4. As a console, the PS4 did everything it needed to do, which was really just to play most of the best games of the last generation. But the PS5 goes above and beyond. Everything looks and feels more thoughtful, more deliberate, and more suited to last half a decade or so connected to your television.
I’ll have more to say in the days ahead, but for now, I can easily recommend the PS5 to anyone who is ready to upgrade from the PS4. It’s the best of both worlds, as you can bring all of your PS4 games with you and see how much the user experience has improved from one generation to the next. Sony promised a “truly next-generation experience,” and Sony delivered.