After a generation of figuratively towering above its rivals with the monstrously successful PlayStation 4, one thing is certain: Sony’s next-generation contender will also loom large over its peers… literally. This thing is massive. However, what the PlayStation 5 lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in potential, thanks in part to its amazingly fast SSD but mostly to its truly remarkable new controller, the DualSense.
While a good deal of what folks are going to be able to squeeze out of 2020’s salvo of shiny new hardware may be bottlenecked to some degree by the screen that they own, the PS5’s unique DualSense democratises a next-gen gaming experience for all, delivering an amazing new level of haptic feedback that really needs to be felt to be believed.
PS5 Console First Look, Size Comparison
Make no mistake: the austere and unceremonious nature of the box and packaging is in stark contrast to the PlayStation 5 itself, which is far and away the most flamboyant-looking console I’ve ever owned. Rather than a single shell, the PS5 appears to be made up of four separate pieces: a glossy, black case sandwiched between a pair of warped, matte-white plastic plates, with a detachable stand.
I’ll happily concede the PS5 does look a bit better in the flesh than it did in the initial product shots; the matte, off-white finish to the plates is actually a lot nicer than I feared it would be, and the sloping vents flanking the strip of glossy black plastic that wraps around the edge of the unit are eye-catching. The problem, to my eye, is that the gradually widening black strip on the front and the flappy, overhanging plastic corners makes the PS5 look a little bit like a piece of luggage that’s stuffed too full to zip up properly, and the irregular curves remind me more of a cassette that’s spent a hot summer day on a car dashboard than a PlayStation.
It’s obviously not the first white games console but, in concert with its sheer size and shape, it’s surprisingly ostentatious for something destined to sit beneath or beside black televisions, black sound bars, black subwoofers, and generations of black AV equipment and gaming hardware. It’s a bit showy and in a world of generally sleek and simple tech it looks a bit out of place, like 2006’s vision of 2046.
On the front you’ll find access to the Ultra HD Blu-ray optical drive, a high-speed USB Type-A port, and a super-speed USB Type-C port, as well as the power button and eject button. These buttons are adjacent to each other but the eject button is noticeably smaller so, if you’re anything like me, there’s now hope of not spending an entire generation trying to remember which button is which. On the back there’s the figure-8 power connection, an HDMI 2.1 out, two super-speed USB Type-A ports, and an Ethernet port. Unlike the PS4, the PS5 does not feature an optical audio out.
Confirmed PlayStation 5 Games
The stand is necessary because the misshapen nature of the plates means the PS5 can’t sit flat on its side properly without it. It has a pair of small hooks, which loosely clutch the back of the PS5, and a rotating base. Sitting flat, the console is simply perched on the stand without any additional fixtures. The base can flap around and slip left, right, or even off entirely, but that’s something unlikely to frustrate unless you’re regularly moving your console from place to place. Positioned vertically, a single screw is required to affix the stand to the console to prevent it from falling out of it. The slotted, “cheese head” screw comes stored in the stand itself and is easy to install; if you don’t have a flat screwdriver, a knife or even your thumbnail will suffice.
Appearances aside, there is one element of the PS5 that can’t be as easily ignored, and that’s the sheer size of it. Positioned vertically and perched atop its stand the PS5 is about 40cm tall (almost 16 inches). With the stand switched that figure is a fraction less when positioned horizontally, coming in at around 39cm, but even in this orientation the PS5 is still just over 11cm high (around four and a half inches) at the point where its top plate curls skyward. That’s bigger than two original PS4s stacked on top of each other, bigger than the grill-sized PS3, and even the VCR-esque original Xbox One. There are only two bigger white appliances in my house: one washes my clothes, and the other keeps my butter cold. The PS5 fits in my furniture (albeit with all the subtlety of a Humvee squeezing through a drive-through) but may not fit in everyone’s set-up. It’s quaint that this year’s biggest console comes from the land of capsule hotels and kei cars and it’s the American console that’s more compact by comparison.
Initial set-up is extremely simple; beyond an obligatory firmware update I was up and running within minutes. For PS4 users, the PS5 manual describes the ability to connect your PS4 console and PS5 to the same network to transfer save data, downloaded content, and user information, though it doesn’t outline the process. For me, the much quicker alternative was plugging in the USB hard drive I’ve been using as extended storage for my PS4 for several years; it’s a cinch, and the PS5 can access your existing digital PS4 games from it instantly. For long-time PlayStation users the PS5 makes it very easy to browse your whole digital library and sort between PS5 and PS4 games. Peculiarly enough there’s a search field for PS3 games, too, though it comes up empty.
The PS5 UI doesn’t feel wildly removed from its roots on the PS4, particularly as you get deeper into the menus, but it’s definitely different – and significantly more elegant in a number of ways. Now a single tap of the PlayStation button in the centre of the controller will bring up what Sony has called the Control Centre, which is a little like a taskbar on a Windows PC. Checking things like current downloads and what friends of yours are online on PS4 requires a bunch of shuffling back and forth, up and down, and left and right through menu icons; the PS5’s Control Centre places all that info at our fingertips after one button press.
The other key point of difference are dubbed Cards, which are also presented on screen when you hit the PlayStation button. Some of these are just fluff, like links to newly-published articles about games you’re following on PlayStation and recent screenshots, though the Activity Cards seem to have the potential to be a little more useful. There’s information about how much longer it’s estimated you’ll need to complete a certain level or task, or the ability to immediately view pre-made game hints without having to reach for your phone. For example, it was revealed earlier this week the PS5 remake of Demon’s Souls will feature over 180 help videos that players can opt to watch if they get stuck. The ultimate value of the Activity Cards is hard to gauge at the genesis of the PS5, though; hopefully developers will embrace them as useful ways to communicate to players while in-game and not turn them into lists of additional chores.
The PS5’s UI does make a few changes of note for those who liked to Trophy hunt, as well as for those who like to customise their setup. On the former, Trophies are now easily accessible to view on a per-game basis from each game’s individual splash page on the dashboard, while Trophy info can also be included in the new Activity Card view. And on the latter, the PS5 doesn’t have overall themes you can select, so your dynamic themes won’t carry over. However, each PS5 game seems to come with its own mini-theme of sorts; when selecting a next-gen game on the dashboard, each game features a big piece of art alongside some music from that specific game. It may not overhaul the UI buttons like a dynamic theme could, but it’s nice to let each game in your library offer a showcase for itself.
There’s other interesting stuff sprinkled throughout the PS5’s UI too, though, from global settings to automatically configure difficulty, subtitle preferences, and even invert the Y-axis by default – like the Xbox 360 used to do (take note, Microsoft) – to the ability to watch a friend play a game picture-in-picture while chatting to them as you play something else entirely. I’m not a particularly proficient multitasker so I can’t say I’m very interested in the latter, but the idea of not having to spend the opening moments of virtually every game inverting the Y-axis warms my old-school, upside-down heart.
One of this generation’s most important upgrades is the switch from traditional hard drives to solid-state storage drives, dramatically improving loading times across the board and potentially enabling games to load in new objects effectively on the fly. The PS5’s SSD can read 5.5GB in just one second (which is, on paper, twice as fast as the Series X). In practical terms, it means I could go from powering up from a complete shutdown to perched on top of whatever Manhattan building I last left Miles Morales on in a mere 45 seconds. That still leaves time to tap your toe, but once I was in a game, the time it takes to go from selecting a save to load to actually swinging through Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ open world is basically a blink. It takes me longer to enter my passcode that it does to load a save. After generations of watching progress bars inching across a screen it’s pretty stunning stuff.
I thought that was going to be the game-changing feature of the PS5, but to my surprise it’s really the DualSense controller that boasts the biggest potential. It may feel fairly similar to the DualShock 4 at first touch but it didn’t take me long to realise it’s really an incredibly impressive new beast entirely. Largely the same shade of white as the console itself, the DualSense is just a fraction larger than the DualShock 4 and has a more premium look, particularly in the translucent buttons which have an almost glass-like appearance. The Options and Create buttons are also more raised than they are on the DualShock 4 so they’re far easier to find without blindly rubbing your thumb beside the touchpad until you find it, or glancing down (the Create button is basically the PS5’s equivalent of the PS4’s Share button). The DualSense also has a built-in mic, making headsets unnecessary, but it still has a 3.5mm jack for those who prefer to use them. The charging port is USB-C.
However, it’s what’s on the inside that makes all the difference – and the range of haptic feedback the DualSense can provide is quite astonishing. Nuanced rumble travels from palm to palm and with a wide spectrum of effects, from almost imperceptible pulsations to massive vibrations. The triggers not only buzz with force feedback like the Xbox One controller, but also fight back and introduce a brand-new layer of immersion. It’s seriously remarkable. -For those of you nursing injuries or with conditions that would make some of these new features less than ideal, they can be scaled back or toggled off.
The pre-installed Astro’s Playroom is a pretty wonderful tech demo for the DualSense and well worth experimenting with – it’s a rich and fabulous demonstration of the new level of feedback the DualSense can output, and an adorable tour through PlayStation’s long hardware history to boot. For a hardware generation jump that’s currently muddied with a lot of cross-gen content and an overall feeling of something more incremental than the often seismic shifts we’ve experienced previously, the DualSense has emerged to me as a bit of a revelation. I’ve had to plug it in to charge every second day since getting the PS5, but it’s worth it.
For the Players
In the power stakes there’s been a role reversal this generation, with Microsoft’s new Xbox Series X arriving with reportedly 20% more grunt than the PS5. That said, it’s a bit of a meaningless figure until we can properly examine how the Series X and PS5 cope with the same third-party games head to head. Regardless of the apparent power disparity, however, 4K/60fps experiences are poised to be more regular on PS5, just as they are on Series X. Doubling the frame rate to 120hz will also be on the cards with certain PS5 games, should your 4K TV support it, but personally I suspect I’m going to get more mileage out of the better resolution and lighting effects that players who opt for increased frames will be forced to sacrifice.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales, for instance, has the option to switch between a 30fps ‘Fidelity’ mode with the maximum amount of visual flourishes, and a 60fps ‘Performance’ mode without things like raytracing and other advanced lighting effects (and temporal techniques providing a 4K picture from a lower-resolution base). Fidelity mode was easily my preference as without the slick lighting and real-time reflections it was a bit of an anticlimax.
Despite all that horsepower under the hood the PS5 is impressively silent, and IGN’s testing has pegged it at a virtually inaudible 44 decibels (at 58 degrees Celsius) in the midst of Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It’s a refreshing change from my current PS4 Pro; booting up Marvel’s Spider-Man on that makes it sound like it’s ready to be catapulted off an aircraft carrier.
Unfortunately, one of the PS5’s key strengths – its lightning-quick SSD – is also one of its weaknesses. It may say 825GB on the box but that translates to just 667GB of usable space, which is significantly smaller than the Xbox Series X’s 802GB of usable space. That’s room for maybe a dozen games, and even fewer if they’re anything like current-generation behemoths like The Last of Us Part II (78GB) or Grand Theft Auto V (94GB). As I mentioned, you can carry on using any external hard drive you may have already been using in your PS4 and continue to play PS4 games off of it, but PS5 games can only be played when installed on the SSD. And while you can open up the top lid of the console to install an additional SSD for more internal space, there are currently no Sony-approved drives on the market.
PS5 games can be stored on an external HDD but need to be copied back to the SSD to play, though the near-instantaneous loading times for PS5 games make this palatable. However, it’s worth noting that losing time later to the task of moving stuff around when my SSD invariably fills up may feel a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul. [Correction: only PS4 games can be stored on an external HDD; PS5 games cannot be moved to external storage.]