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PlayStation 5 review: a big, confident step into next gen

The real star of Sony’s new console is its controller

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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A new console generation is usually something you can see. It’s measured in pixels and polygons. When we moved from the NES to the Super Nintendo, it wasn’t hard to spot the difference between 8- and 16-bit Super Mario games. It was just as clear when games evolved to support 3D worlds and, later, HD graphics. Your eyes told you this was something new. It was obvious. With the PlayStation 5, things aren’t so simple.

Yes, games look better, particularly if you have a high-end television to take advantage of features like 4K, HDR, and 120fps. But it’s not the dramatic shift that we’ve seen with past generations. Instead, the biggest changes come from how the experience feels. Games run smoother, load faster, and are accompanied by a new controller that further immerses you by using adaptive triggers and more subtle vibrations. On their own, each of these elements is a nice upgrade over the PS4. But when you put them together, you have an experience that qualifies as next-gen.

The problem is you can’t see this generation. You have to feel it.

A big console and an intriguing controller

When it comes to the design of the console itself, the most obvious thing is its scale. It’s not just big, it’s historically big, one of the largest video game consoles ever built. It measures in at 390mm (15.4 inches) tall, 260mm (10.24 inches) deep, and 104mm (4.09 inches) wide. It’s big enough that it’ll probably require some careful planning to fit it into your existing entertainment setup. (Right now, I have mine all by its lonesome on a side table beside my TV stand, for lack of better options.)

It’s not just the size, though. Whereas many gadgets are now designed to fit seamlessly into our homes, the PS5 goes in the opposite direction. It is not shy. Sony doesn’t want you to tuck this away in an entertainment cabinet where no one can see it. The PS5 has what I think of as a robotic clam look, with two huge white panels surrounding a shiny black interior. One panel features a nice etched PlayStation logo, and the console comes in two varieties with slightly different designs: the $499.99 base model features a disc drive that juts out of the right side, giving it an asymmetrical look, and the $399.99 digital edition has no drive and is more uniform as a result. Either way, the PS5 is an intimidating machine and certainly an acquired taste.

The console can be displayed either vertically or horizontally by using an included circular stand. While the stand itself feels a bit like cheap plastic, it’s very sturdy when you connect it to the console. I should also note that the shiny plastic strip that runs down the center of the machine is an absolute dust and fingerprint magnet. I live in a house with two cats and one dog, and I’ve had to clean it off almost daily. In a nice touch, the panels are removable, so you can at least clean the insides of dust and hair relatively easily. Removing the panels gives you access to a storage expansion slot, though we haven’t been able to test this out yet, as Sony says SSD expansion isn’t available at launch. The storage situation for the console is a bit of a question mark, though you do have the ability to load PS4 games from USB storage. (In terms of usable space, the PS5 comes with 667.2GB, with the rest of the internal hard drive reserved for system data.)

A PlayStation 5 DualSense controller rests on a PlayStation 5 console.
The PS5’s DualSense controller.
Sony’s PS5 console.
A closer look at the top of the PS5 console.
The back of the DualSense controller has a grip texture made up of classic PlayStation iconography.
The back of the DualSense controller has a grip texture made up of classic PlayStation iconography.

One of the most surprising things about the PS5 hardware has been how quiet it is. I haven’t heard a sound while playing with it over the past 10 days, and it doesn’t give off much heat either. It’s a big change from my PS4, which sounds like a jet engine every time I hop into a match of Fortnite. Of course, the PS5 is virtually brand-new, and it’s entirely possible it will get noisier over time. In terms of ports, the PS5 features three USB-A ports (two on the back, one in front), a USB-C port on the front, an Ethernet port, and an HDMI 2.1 port on the back.

As wild as it looks, the most interesting thing about the PS5 hardware isn’t the console itself; it’s the new DualSense controller. It’s the first major redesign of the PlayStation controller since Sony introduced twin-sticks, and it’s a deceptively subtle change. In your hands, the DualSense is slightly larger and heavier than a DualShock, but it’s still comfortable and familiar. It has a dual-tone design that matches the PS5, and the button layout is virtually unchanged from the PS4, though the touch panel and rear triggers are slightly larger.

Meanwhile, the home button — previously, a simple circle that rests in between the sticks — is now an etched PlayStation logo. It looks cool, but I found it harder to find when I wasn’t looking at the controller. You charge it via USB-C, and I was able to get around 6–7 hours of playtime on a charge, which is comparable to the DualShock 4. This means, like the DualShock 4, you’ll probably need to charge it regularly. But you do get a more advanced gamepad for roughly the same battery life.

The big changes are inside, however. The DualSense controller is outfitted with new adaptive triggers with variable tension, offering physical resistance depending on what you’re doing. At the same time, the controller features haptic feedback in the form of more subtle vibrations that give you a better sense of what’s happening in a game. It may sound like a gimmick, and reminiscent of similar, failed technologies like HD rumble on the Nintendo Switch. But thankfully, the PS5 comes with just the right game to show what the DualSense can do.

Games you can feel

Each PlayStation 5 comes bundled with a game called Astro’s Playroom. It’s a seemingly simple third-person platforming game starring cute robots, the kind of game you’d expect to come out of Nintendo. It’s also an experience explicitly designed to showcase the DualSense controller’s myriad features.

The haptics are obvious from the moment you start playing. As you move the lead character, Astro, around, you can feel subtle footsteps in your hands, and they alternate left to right to mimic those steps. That’s cool, but things get even more interesting when you walk on different surfaces. It’s hard to put into words, but there’s a graininess when you’re walking on sand, and a surprisingly accurate flat “slap” feeling when Astro dives into a pool of water. In one sequence, you can feel the pitter-patter of rain in your palms, and when it changes to freezing rain, the sensation shifts to be sharper and heavier.

These elements don’t fundamentally change the way Astro’s Playroom plays, but they add another layer of feedback that further immerses you in the experience. This is especially true when most of the haptic sensations are accompanied by sounds from the DualSense’s built-in speaker. You could close your eyes and still know it’s rainy or windy or that a flying car just zipped past you.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Astro’s Playroom.
Astro’s Playroom.

The same goes for the adaptive triggers. Most of the time, the DualSense triggers act just like the triggers on a classic PlayStation controller: they’re basic buttons. But during certain sequences, they change. An obvious example is when Astro picks up a bow-and-arrow, and you can feel the tension in the trigger as you pull back on the string, while later in the game you turn into a spring-powered mech, and the tension builds up as you gather momentum.

Another good example is a capsule toy machine in the game, in which you operate two robotic arms to pull a lever with one hand and then crush them with the other. Each action requires force: you have to push just a bit harder to make the lever go down, and then do it again to crush the plastic toy container. It may sound like a small addition, but it makes these otherwise standard actions into something incredibly satisfying.

In the case of Astro’s Playroom, the controller elevates what might otherwise be a typical platforming game. I found myself exploring new areas and techniques just to see if I could find new sensations. Of course, one great game doesn’t prove the controller isn’t a gimmick. After all, Wii Sports was amazing, but it didn’t exactly usher in an era of motion-controlled games. But there are some good reasons to believe that the DualSense will catch on.

For one thing, it’s additive; designers don’t have to fundamentally change their games to work with the controller the way they would with something like a Wii remote or Kinect. And even at launch, there are already good examples of third-party developers making use of the DualSense.

One is Bugsnax, which will be available for free to PlayStation Plus subscribers when the PS5 launches. It’s sort of like a cross between Pokémon and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. You explore a colorful island in search of little bugs that are actually food and then scan them with a camera. When you do so, the right trigger replicates the classic “thunk” of an old-school camera’s shutter. You can also feel the environment through the haptic feedback: the subtle rumble of thunder in the distance or the splash of jumping into a pond. PS5 launch title Pathless similarly uses subtle haptic vibrations to help you sense nearby monsters stalking you.

Neither game is as impressive as Astro, but they show what’s possible with just a little bit of support. And plenty of other developers have already promised to utilize the controller, including big-name games like Fortnite and NBA 2K.

Outside of what the controller adds, the PS5 benefits from being a more powerful machine compared to its predecessor. This manifests in a few ways. The first is visual. If you have the right TV, the PS5 supports up to 120fps, 4K HDR, and variable refresh rates. Certain titles even utilize ray tracing for more realistic lighting. A great example of this is Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which launches alongside the PS5. The game takes place in New York City during the midst of a snowstorm, and you can really see the difference in the way the sun reflects off the icy roads and glass skyscrapers and more realistic reflections from lights, windows, and puddles. 

Games can also run at a higher frame rate, and in some cases, you’re given a choice of what you want to focus on. In Miles Morales, for instance, there are two visual options: “performance,” which prioritizes running at a solid 60fps, and “fidelity,” which utilizes features like ray tracing but drops the frame rate down to 30fps. For a fast-paced action game like Spider-Man, you can really feel the difference: as nice as ray tracing is, it’s hard to go back after swinging around New York at 60fps. Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition has a similar option: you can switch on ray tracing, but you’ll be warned that frame rate might be impacted. Sony also says some games will support 120fps, but I wasn’t able to test this.

Besides performance, the other big change with the PS5 is load times. The console has what Sony describes as an “ultra-high speed SSD,” and the result is games that boot up much faster compared to the PS4. With Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which is a cross-gen game, I was able to start playing in 17 seconds on the PS5, compared to one minute and 27 seconds on the PS4. The differences in load times varied across games, but universally, games booted up faster on the PS5. Here are a few examples. (Note: these examples compare the PS5 to a base model PS4.)

PS5 load times

Spider-Man: Miles Morales17 seconds1 minute, 27 seconds
No Man's Sky1 minute, 34 seconds2 minutes, 52 seconds
Final Fantasy VII Remake35 seconds1 minute, 29 seconds
Genshin Impact59 seconds2 minutes, 57 seconds
Ghost of Tsushima1 minute, 4 seconds1 minute, 10 seconds
Days Gone1 minute, 18 seconds2 minutes, 54 seconds
Death Stranding54 seconds1 minute, 50 seconds

These speeds have another benefit. The PS5 introduces a new feature called “activities,” which lets you boot up a game from a specific point directly from the console’s main menu. In an open-world game like Miles Morales, for instance, you can see all of the missions you currently have open from the main PS5 menu and choose to start from one of those specific points. Astro’s Playroom will similarly let you boot up a game from a specific part of a level. And while I haven’t been able to test it just yet, Fortnite developer Epic says this feature will be used so you can pick which mode you want to play and boot into it straight away.

When you put all of this together, you end up simply spending more time playing games and less time messing around in menus or staring at loading screens. This won’t always be a big deal, but it’s amazing when you have just a brief window to play; if I just want to knock out a quick Spider-Man side mission while I have some free time, I can get straight to it in seconds.

The DualSense controller.
The DualSense controller.

Right now, it’s a great feature that makes me more likely to boot up a game than waste 30 minutes in Netflix. But Sony also believes that these near-instantaneous load times could change the way certain games are designed, like with PS5 exclusive Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, which has players zipping back and forth between different dimensions. But without being able to play those games, the impact of the change remains largely theoretical for now. (That said, jumping straight into a level in Astro’s Playroom is incredibly fast.)

I should also note that playing PS4 games on the PS5 is an extremely easy process, particularly when it comes to digital releases. As long as you’re signed in to your PSN account, it’s all just there: the games you own digitally on your PS4 will show up in your library, marked with a small “PS4” badge. I have close to 200 games in my library, and the only titles that were incompatible were the VR spinoff of The Last Guardian and Dragon Quest Heroes II. (Fortnite wasn’t playable either, but Epic has already detailed its plans for launch day support for both next-gen consoles.)

A streamlined interface

Unlike Microsoft, which opted to keep the same interface across all of its Xbox hardware, Sony has redesigned its UI for the PS5. It’s not a huge change, but it’s nicely streamlined. Over the years, my PS4 became cluttered with all kinds of things I didn’t actually use, whereas the PS5 is divided into two obvious categories: games and media. (Note: we’re not able to talk about either the PS5’s new store or the media capabilities until closer to launch.) At first, it seems rather bare-bones. Your most recently played games appear in chronological order, from left to right, with your full library available at the end of the list. You can’t even organize things into folders like with the PS4.

But when you select a particular game, you’re given a lot more information about it. It’s from here that you can choose from the available activities, the feature previously mentioned, as well as your Trophy progress, recent news on the game, or scan through live Twitch and YouTube streams of that particular game. Most of the time, you’ll probably just hit the big “play” button, but there are some useful features here, particularly for bigger games. There’s also a guide feature tied to activities. When you select a particular activity, it might have a help icon attached, which means you can bring up a quick tutorial video to help get you through tough spots. You can even have the video play while you’re inside of the game, picture-in-picture style. It was helpful for playing Astro’s Playroom, but other games promise to offer more extensive tutorials; launch title Demon’s Souls will reportedly include 180 such videos, for instance.

There’s also a redesigned home button menu. Now, when you press the PS logo on the controller, a small overlay appears at the bottom of the screen giving quick access to some more common features. You can check your notifications, adjust the volume, check the battery status of your controller or headphones, or even choose to broadcast directly from a streaming platform. There’s also an app switcher, though, unfortunately, it doesn’t suspend games for easy access like the Xbox’s new “quick resume” feature. Instead, it’s just a list of the last few games or apps you used. You’ll still need to boot them back up when you jump in.

As with the PS4, the DualSense controller has a built-in share button, but the sharing tools have been revamped slightly. You can still immediately take a screenshot by holding the button for a few seconds. But a quick press will bring up a new menu that gives you a few options. You can grab a screenshot, record the last few minutes of gameplay, start recording right then, or kick off a live broadcast. You can also edit and post screenshots and video without actually leaving the game. It makes the whole process quite a bit faster, which is important when you need to capture a match-winning Fortnite play.

Everything else is stuffed away in the settings menu, but there are some extremely helpful features there if you do some digging. In the game / app settings menu, for instance, you can choose from several default presets. You can make it so all games are set to easy by default, for instance, or choose whether you want games to play in “performance” or “resolution” modes. You can even choose whether you want first- or third-person games to default to a normal or inverted camera. It sounds small, but it saves you from having to fiddle with these settings within each individual game; you do it once from the main PS5 menu, and you’re set. As someone who absolutely has to have subtitles on while playing, I’m glad I don’t have to remember to turn them on for each individual game.

A great first impression

Reviewing a video game console before it’s even out is always a tricky thing. There are just so many unknowns. Will developers really make use of the DualSense’s unique features? Will games like Ratchet and Clank utilize the PS5’s fast loading times to change the way game worlds are designed? And just how long will the UI remain uncluttered as more features and services are added? My experience playing the PS5 today will be very different compared to playing it in a year or two.

Physically, the PS5 is a brash, intimidating piece of hardware, one that is clearly meant to signal a major shift. But underneath, its changes are much more subtle — at least right now. This isn’t the move from SD to HD, or watching Mario explore a 3D space for the very first time. Instead, it’s a series of smaller — though still important — shifts, like faster speeds and a more immersive controller, which all add up to a markedly better experience compared to the PS4 by every conceivable metric (aside from the space it takes up). I can’t tell you what the future holds, but right now, the PS5 is a great piece of hardware.

It might not be clear what makes the PS5 interesting just from watching trailers or live streams. But once it’s in your hands, the next generation is a lot more obvious.