Sony PS5 Review: Breaking the Mold

This week, video game consoles are taking a big step into the next generation with two new systems sporting upgraded CPU, GPUs, SSDs, and a bunch of fancy new features. So on the eve of the PlayStation 5’s launch, there’s no better time to take an in-depth look at what Sony is bringing and how that will impact the next five to 10 years of console gaming. Say hello to the PS5.

The Basics

You know what this is, it’s Sony’s fifth PlayStation. The Cinco. The PS5. It’s got a custom eight-core AMD Zen 2 CPU along with an AMD RDNA 2 GPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 885GB SSD (though only 667GB of that is usable space, more on that later). It comes in two versions: the standard $500 PS5 and the $400 PS5 Digital Edition, which is basically the same system but without an Ultra HD Blu-Ray disc drive.

Illustration for article titled Sony PS5 Review: Breaking the Mold

Photo: Sam Rutherford

In front, there’s a power button (and a disk eject button on the standard model), along with two USB ports (one is Type-A, one is Type-C). Around back, there are two more USB Type-A ports, an Ethernet jack, and a power socket. All of the PS5’s USB ports support data transfer at up to 10 Gbps, except the front USB Type-A port which is a bit slower and limited to 480 Mbps. The PS5 also supports Bluetooth 5.1 and Wi-Fi 6.

Aside from the console itself, the other things you get in the box are a DualSense controller, power cord, HDMI 2.1 cord, a USB-A to USB-C charging cable for the controller, and the PS5’s plastic stand.

Curvy Future Chonk

In case you’ve missed the hubbub, the PS5 is big, really big. In fact, at 15.4 x 10.2 x 4.1 inches and weighing nearly 10 pounds, the PS5 is bigger than the original Xbox, making it, I think, the largest video game console ever made. It’s also got a sleek, futuristic design with swoopy removable side panels and a two-toned black-and-white color scheme, which has garnered some very shall we say emotional reactions. Personally, I kind of like it. It’s unique and eye-catching in a sort of sci-fi (but not quite cyberpunk) way, but I’ll let you decide.

Illustration for article titled Sony PS5 Review: Breaking the Mold

Photo: Sam Rutherford

In the end though, it doesn’t really matter because the PS5 isn’t that big to the point where it won’t fit in most cabinets or media centers, so once you decide if you want to stand it up straight or lay it down horizontally, that’s it. Thanks to its SSD, the PS5 is also significantly quieter than the PS4 and it doesn’t put out that much heat either, so while you don’t want to swaddle it in a blanket, it should do just fine in relatively small spaces as long as there’s a bit of airflow.

Just remember to attach its included stand properly, which means screwing it in if you opt for a vertical orientation. The one small caveat to this because of the swoopy panels, when laid on its side, you can’t really stack anything on top of the PS5. Oh well.

Another note is that the PS5’s sides are intended to be removable, as seen here in Sony’s official teardown video. You won’t need to do this very often, but it’s important to know because you’ll need to remove one of those panels if you want to access the PS5’s single M.2 SSD storage expansion slot.

Speedy Storage With Untapped Graphics

When it comes to performance, at least right now, the PS5’s capabilities can be split into two major categories: upgrades you can feel instantly at launch, and potential that developers will hopefully be able to take advantage of in the future.

Initially, the added speed of the PS5’s new CPU and SSDs deliver an instant shot of haste. Everything from loading screens to UI animations feels incredibly snappy. In games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales entire loading screens and their associated tooltips are skipped simply because the PS5 doesn’t need them. Things are fast and it’s glorious. Even little things like deleting games from storage takes just a couple seconds. In almost every case, the PS5’s loading times were 50% shorter than they were compared to the same game on the PS4, and even when compared to the new Xbox Series X, we found that the PS5 tends to load games a few seconds faster than its next-gen rival. How’s that for fast?

The one downside to the PS5’s speedy storage is that with just 667GB of usable space, its SSD feel a bit cramped compared to the Xbox Series X’s 802GB of base usable storage—especially when some games like NBA 2K21 and Final Fantasy XV take up 114GB and 102GB respectably. Install those two games plus another 39GB of for Miles Morales and pretty quickly the size of the PS5’s SSD gets reduced by a third. Thankfully, Sony will allow users to install their own M.2 SSDs via the PS5’s expansion slot post-purchase, though Sony has yet to reveal a list of officially supported drives. That’s a bit of a bummer, as it means you’ll have to wait a bit to upgrade your console, so keep some money in reserve. Technically you can also store games on an external hard drive, but you can only play PS4 games that way. PS5 can only be played if they’re installed on the PS5 itself.

As for the PS5’s graphics, both the PS5 and the Xbox Series X are based on AMD’s RDNA 2 GPU architecture, which promises support for fancy effects like ray tracing and more. However, this early on, the advantages of the PS5 over the previous generation are much more subtle. We’re talking about slightly sharper details, maybe better dynamic range every now and then, and a few extra sparks or lighting effects. The PS5 even offers support for 120 fps gaming, though I haven’t found a title that actually supports that yet, and because those types of graphic settings are decided by developers, it’ll be their call for which games get that option.

However, that doesn’t mean you don’t get options. For example, Miles Morales offers two video settings: Fidelity Mode and Performance mode which lets you chose 30 fps gameplay with all the graphics bells and whistles, or 60 fps gameplay with a few settings disabled and resolution up-ressed from 1080 to 4K. It’s a way to make graphics setting simple but still meaningful, and after seeing how smooth webslinging looks at 60 fps, I’m extremely happy that the PS5 comes with the power to push framerates to 60 and beyond.

If you remove the PS5's right side panel, you'll see this plate covering up the PS5's M.2 SSD expansion slot.

Extra storage goes here.
Photo: Sam Rutherford

But let’s be honest, slow starts for new systems is how it’s been for multiple console generations going back to the PS2. It takes time for game makers to figure out hard they can push new hardware, the best ways to optimize, and where the limits really are. Also, given the way games like Miles Morales and Godfall look right now, it’s not like we’re suffering from big jagged polygons that made old renders of Lara Croft look ridiculous. Every now and then, you’ll catch a glimpse of a streak of light or a bolt of electricity that bounces around just right and you can see how the PS5’s graphics have room to grow.

Audio Is the Underrated Upgrade

After hearing Mark Cerny talk a lot about the PS5’s audio prior to launch, I was expecting major sound improvements. And yet after I hooked up the system to my TV, I didn’t hear a difference compared to audio on the PS4, either over my TV’s built-in speakers or my 2.1 sound bar. But as I discovered that wasn’t the PS5’s fault, it was mine, because while Sony has included support for spatial 3D audio, if you have a relatively typical speaker setup like mine, you won’t really notice the difference.

Illustration for article titled Sony PS5 Review: Breaking the Mold

Screenshot: Sam Rutherford

In order to dive deep into 3D audio, you’ll want to switch over to headphones. From there, it doesn’t really matter if you’re using wireless headphones like the PS5’s Pulse headset or more standard wired cans, because once you do, the change is obvious. Depending on the game, you’ll feel like you’re surrounded by thousands of cheering fans or quietly creeping through a warehouse full of baddies while footsteps echo around you. The PS5 automatically processes sound so that certain effects will sound like they are coming from above, below or either side of your head, with Sony even providing adjustments to change the position of these sounds so that 3D audio sounds natural to your ears (setting 2 works best for me, but it’s different for everyone). I like what Sony is doing and it’s the kind of upgrade you don’t really appreciate until you switch back to something without it. However, like the PS5’s graphics, getting full use of the consoles 3D sounds will take years of refinement.

Another small aspect to the PS5’s audio is the speaker built into the DualSense. It’s significantly louder and much more detailed than in the previous generation, and while some may see it as a gimmick, I generally like how it interacts with numerous games where I often have a hard time deciding if I can plug in headphones or not.

A DualSensual Delight

Aside from a slightly wider body and a new two-toned color scheme, the DualSense feels a lot like the DualShocks of old. And that’s a good thing. It’s comfortable and immediately familiar to millions, and still retains useful features like a headphone jack and a charging port (now with USB-C). Additionally, I’ve found the DualSense lasts about 12 to 13 hours on a charge, which is basically double what I get from a DualShock 4, and compared to the Xbox Series’ controllers which still rely on disposable AA batteries, I’m really glad Sony stayed on the rechargeable train.

On the inside though, the DualSense offers two major upgrades with its more advanced haptics and adaptive triggers. It turns what used to be a simple rumble into an orchestra of vibrations. Astro’s Playroom (which is packed in with the PS5) is cute but also a powerful way of demonstrating the DualSense’s haptics, and I love how it serves as both an intro to the PS5’s controller tech and a fun game in its own right. But it’s not just Astro that gets to show off. In games like NBA 2K21, the adaptive triggers change tension depending on how much boost you have left, giving you intuitive feedback without the help of the game’s UI. Meanwhile, the adaptive triggers can also be used to differentiate between the sensation of shooting a bow, firing a gun or simply pulling on something. I love the Nintendo Switch’s 3D Rumble (when devs could be bothered to use it) and I love Sony’s haptics here too, and I can only hope that now that two of the big console makers have their version of advanced haptics on their consoles, enhanced rumble finally catches on.

Transforming XMB for 2020 and Beyond

Illustration for article titled Sony PS5 Review: Breaking the Mold

Screenshot: Sam Rutherford

In addition to improved performance, the PS5 has also gotten a much-improved interface that makes it faster and easier to jump right into whatever you want, whether that’s creating a party with your friends or launching straight into a mission. Certain checkpoints or in-game tasks will even get highlighted in the PS5’s new Activities row allowing for instant action.

But to me, it’s the little tweaks that make a big difference, like the way the PS5’s menu background and background music changes when you hover over a specific game, or like how Sony removed the PS4’s Capture Gallery App and just built screenshot management right into the Storage menu setting. Every now and then in things like the PS5’s Settings menu, you’ll get of whiff of the PS4’s XMB, but elsewhere, it feels like everything else has gotten a fancy, interactive, and very pretty dynamic wallpaper that’s both fast and modern.

A More Than Capable Media Player

Illustration for article titled Sony PS5 Review: Breaking the Mold

Screenshot: Sam Rutherford

One thing that often gets overlooked is that as consoles have evolved into mini PCs (which is a good thing), they have also turned into media centers too. And in that capacity, the PS5 has a lot of the big streaming services covered on day including big names like Netflix and Hulu, and even apps like Apple TV+, which up ‘till now has been a rare sighting on non-Apple devices. And for the few that aren’t available right away like CBS All Access, given the size and audience of the PS5, it’s a safe bet that support for those is coming soon. I also gotta say I kind of like that Sony keeps Games and Media separated in their own tabs in Control Center, which is just enough organization to make things easy to find without making navigation needlessly complicated.

PS5 Games: a better Start Than Xbox, But It’s Early

Finally, we come to the games because no matter how good or bad everything above is, nothing matters if there aren’t any games worth playing. As with a lot of new console generations, the library of pure PS5 games is a bit thin, but between Miles Morales, the Demon’s Souls remaster, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, Godfall, and others, the PS5 is definitely doing better than the Xbox Series X, whose original highlight launch game in Halo: Infinite has been delayed until 2021.

For anyone who liked the original Spider-Man on PS4, Miles Morales is more of the same in the best way possible, while additions like Miles’ Venom powers and camouflage add a fun twist on the original formula. Godfall is gorgeously stylish, and I really can’t say enough about how every new PS5 owner should play through Astro’s Playroom.

I also want to call out what an incredible value Sony’s PlayStation Plus Collection for PS5 is, which gives you access to 20 of the biggest and best games from last gen as part of a PS Plus subscription. You even get access to a few new games like Bugsnax. So regardless of what is your favorite genre, there’s sure to be multiple games to tide you over until more next-gen titles hit the market. And if all that isn’t enough, the PS5 is backwards compatible with pretty much every PS4 game too.

To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade?

Based on the PS4’s lead over the Xbox last generation, rumors of design and pricing challenges, and the slow trickle of official PS5 news that came out over the summer and felt, initially I thought Sony had gotten overconfident or at least complacent in a way that would allow Microsoft to flip the balance with the new Xbox Series. But that just isn’t the case.

Sony is breaking the mold used for previous PlayStations by upgrading from an HDD to an SSD, reimagining the XMB, going with a more futuristic design instead of another black box, and doubling down on the DualSense’s force feedback.

Illustration for article titled Sony PS5 Review: Breaking the Mold

Photo: Sam Rutherford

Sure, the Xbox Series S costs $100 less than the least expensive PS5 model which might garner Microsoft some additional sales, but when it comes to speed, audio, controllers, and interface the PS5 is every bit a match for the Xbox Series X, and then some. That’s because while the Xbox Series X offers a bit more storage, the PS5’s SSDs are actually just a touch faster, while offering unique 3D audio and controller haptics that Microsoft can’t really counter. And while it’s still early, the PS5 has a better launch library too.

But do you need to upgrade right now? That depends on you, there’s no real rush. Long anticipated games like Cyberpunk 2077 won’t be available until December, while the enhanced version of Cyberpunk tweaked specifically to take advantage of next-gen consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series X won’t be available until sometime in 2021. Meanwhile, other games like Miles Morales are available on both the PS4 and PS5, and aside from slow loading speeds, lesser graphics, and a lack of extra haptics, it plays largely the same on both consoles. So don’t stress if you can’t or don’t want to upgrade right now. Sony has given the PS5 everything it needs to succeed along with a few signature features that its rival don’t have. And when you do feel ready to upgrade, the PS5 will be there to blast you into the next generation of gaming with power and style.

README

  • The PS5 is available in two versions: the standard $500 model and the less expensive $400 Digital Edition, which has the same specs and storage as the standard model minus the built-in Ultra HD Blu-Ray disc drive.
  • In-game graphics settings are determined on a title-by-title basis by developers, not Sony.
  • The PS5 comes with 667GB of usable storage, which is almost double what you get from the Xbox Series S but 150GB less than the Xbox Series X.
  • Sony says users will be able to upgrade the PS5’s storage by adding on an approved M.2 SSD, though Sony hasn’t released a list of certified SSDs yet.
  • As with all new consoles, it’s going to take some time until developers and truly harness the PS5’s improved performance.
  • The PS5 is backwards compatible with practically every PS4 game.

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