We’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months talking about the PlayStation 5 and anticipating its release. There’s been speculation about how fast it’ll be, whether the games will look much different, and whether we’d have enough room on the SSD for everything we want to play; and now we can put a lot of those questions to bed, and more. The machines have been with us for just over a week and that’s been enough time to get familiar with the big boy, understand what’s new, and discover if there’s a faux pas or two hidden under those fins. Has Sony delivered the machine that heralds the 9th generation of gaming, or is it just a slightly spec’d up version of a PS4 Pro?
Let’s get a few things out of the way first:
- The specs – the tech savvy will want to know these, so here’s the link to the official ones, there’s no point us reproducing them here. If you’re looking for in depth analysis of the hardware capabilities from an electronic engineering view, we recommend Digital Foundry’s work.
- The size – yes, it’s the biggest console there’s ever been. Does that matter? Not unless you live in a shoebox. Will you be able to find somewhere to home it? Easily, but beware that some shuffling of kit in your media centres might be required.
- Which version is being reviewed – the one that takes discs. Both are identical aside from the optical drive, so we’ll not make any distinctions between the models.
- Can you buy one right now? Depends on where in the world you are and whether you’re keeping an eye on retailers getting more stock. There are units being made available all the time, so just watch out for them. Give it a couple of months and there’ll be plenty everywhere, so don’t be tempted to go over the odds on a second hand one.
OK, notices done, on with the actual review.
Nearly everything needed to get the PlayStation 5 up and running comes in the box – HDMI 2.1 compatible cable, DualSense Controller, power lead, Astro’s Playroom and the stand. The latter is needed whether the machine is going vertical or horizontal, and is very easy to attach and secure. You’ll need to supply your own TV, obviously, and that’s probably the most complex part of 9th generation console ownership. With a number of boasts coming from both camps about refresh rates and resolution, the only way to get the most from any of the machines is to have a TV that supports all the fancy tech that’s packed inside. The PS5 will do up 120 hz refresh rate, up to 8K resolution, HDR, and has Variable Refresh Rate compatibility coming at some point in the future. All this is great, though a TV that will support all of that is going to set you back at least £1,500, so chances are the vast majority of buyers are not going to be getting the full experience until they decide (or can afford) to upgrade. Does it really need it though? With limited numbers of games that support the higher end spec that it’s capable of there’s not much to miss out on at this stage. There’s enough of a bump in visual fidelity that it feels like a full blooded step on even when comparing cross generation performance. It’s something that hits straight away with good use of the full 4K output and HDR as part of the operating system rather than simply applying the settings when it loads a game. It’s surprising how much that makes a noticeable difference during the simple to follow setup process.
Sony have opted for an overhaul of the UI visual design for the PlayStation 5, and its clean lines and smooth operation make it feel new and special. It’s the type of experience that makes you go “oooooh” for the first few times you see it boot up. It’s built with the fundamentals of a console at the heart of it – playing games, sharing with friends, and getting into the action as quickly as possible. Start up always defaults to the icon of most recent game played and a tap will launch it, which with the custom SSD is a very quick process. Take a second to look a bit deeper though and you’ll find that each game has a number of activity cards representing different aspects of the title, one of which is a resume option that will not only launch the game, but skip through menus and put you straight in at the last point you played. It’s a nice touch, and fits in with the desire to make gaming as quick and easy as possible. Complementing this idea are a number of options around default languages, difficulty, subtitles, inverse aim and whether performance or quality modes are preferred. These apply system wide, so as long as a game supports those options you’ll never have to enter settings menus again. Likewise, there’s little interruption for accessing console features outside games too. A tap of the PS button and a quick menu appears that lets you see notifications, access parties, swap audio out between headset and TV/audio system, and control downloads, amongst other things. It’s uncluttered and non-invasive to keep distraction to a minimum. It’s here that some of the more interesting additional features are found too.
Activity cards pop up in this quick menu and, depending on what support the developers have put in, can be shortcuts to jump between levels (including how long it thinks you’ll take to do them), access challenges against your friends, or even be used for in-game help. That last one is brilliant when it’s done right with a little video popping up that shows you what you need to know – it is a PS Plus exclusive feature though. Trophy details also feature as cards so you can track progress against them, but accessing the full list and seeing requirements is a bit more of a faff. Hints and tips aren’t the only things that make use of the picture-in-picture, there’s screen sharing with friends so that you can be more social. Hit a button whilst in a party and suddenly you’re sending your feed off to them so they can watch, add support, or even take over if you let them. It’s this extension of SharePlay from the PS4 that’s really impressed with how it’s implemented and how much it’s evolved. We tried out the Spider-man Remaster over this link and the remote gamer had what seemed like a full 60 fps feed running at 4K. We’re sure there’s some clever trickery involved that simulates some of the image, but it looked pretty amazing. It seems the same for the remote play to PS4 as well with a stable and high quality image transmitted to the older console. Get your head around the fact that the PlayStation 5 wants even single player games to have online interactions and a lot of the UI design work beings to make sense.
Whilst the console gets all the nods with the horsepower available, and its opinion dividing looks, it’s the DualSense Controller that stands out as the most evolved piece of equipment. It really does have to be used to understand, but the subtlety of the haptic feedback is superb allowing you to feel footsteps and raindrops as vibrations across the whole device, as well as backing those effects up with the internal speaker. Equally, the adaptive triggers provide a stimulus that you’ll not have realised was missing until they’re under your fingers. The level of resistance is surprising, and the games that have implemented them are doing well with showcasing the potential. There’s also the built-in mic that seems to get overlooked, yet means there’s no need to have a headset plugged in for a conversation – everything is there to start chatting straight away. Plug a pair of standard 3.5 mm jack headphones into it and you’ve got 3D audio compatibility as well which sounds really good, if not quite the full surround experience you might have been expected. It feels to us that the whole audio seems crisper and clearer than the last generation, even when using our old headsets, and the fact there are shortcuts to managing this makes you appreciate there is specific sound processing hardware tucked away inside.
You might not think about what’s hiding inside the shell, but it’s likely you’ll notice the noise. Or rather not notice the noise. The PlayStation 5 is oh-so-quiet you’ll wonder if it’s running at times. The disc drive isn’t as concerned about adding to the volume of the room, though it’s only when it spins up to recognise a game or copy data, and then it shuts up. If you’re all digital then there’ll only be the blue, white and amber lights to let you know what state it’s in. Rest mode returns with the same functions as before – downloads, updates, powering USB ports – though with the speed of everything there’s not much difference in boot time for a full power on. The advantage is having the exact point in the game saved in memory so you can jump right in. This works for external drives as well, though only one at once can be used and only PS4 games can be run from them. The space on the custom SSD is tight, especially with the likes of CoD Black Ops Cold War able to take up a third of the storage, so keeping backwards compatible titles somewhere else makes sense. Most will gain with the benefit of the additional power without any patching, though it’s easy enough to move installs around if you want to try out reduced loading times. With 4 USB ports (2 back, 2 front) there are plenty of options for plugging in drives, wheels, headsets and VR kit, and so far we’d struggle to find any that aren’t compatible. It’s a 4K Blu-ray player too alongside streaming media apps… but show me an online device that doesn’t have Netflix. Finding options to sort everything out though, that can be a test of patience.
For all the overhauled UI, the fancy, lightning fast tech inside, and the ease of social gaming, there’s a bit of a backwards step in the usability of the console. I hinted earlier with the trophy system that despite them being listed on the activity cards, it takes about four menus to get to the details, and even then it’s not easy to read summaries of what they are because of the presentation. It’s great that the main screen is all about games, though it limits the number shown based on what’s previously been used, so you need to head into the library that defaults to purchases instead of installed games to find them. Finding out how to share party chat in a broadcast was a lesson in codebreaking and secret handshakes. Everything you need is there, it’s just not always in a logical place for the user, and especially ones that have come from the PS4. I’ve found myself stumbling across an option or some information like total game time which is logged for new and older titles, then been unable to find out exactly how I’d got there later, being left with a feeling that I must have imagined it. We definitely wanted a new look and feel, but there’s work to be done to make it as accessible and smooth flowing as the previous incarnation. At least the PS Store is now native to the console and doesn’t take an age to load and scroll through. These are minor niggles though. If you remember the launches of the PS3 and PS4 we saw significant updates to the firmware over time, and I’ve no doubt that what has launched with the PlayStation 5 will not be what sees it through its discontinuation.
How do you sum up a console generation launch then and decide if it’s worthwhile? Given the connected world we’re living in they’re showcasing the potential for what’s to come rather than what’s right there on the day they release, and the PlayStation 5 feels like its going to deliver on that. The focus on being social, the speed of loading, the power to produce realistic lighting and reflections, the ability to create more immersive experiences and worlds… it’s all there in the box and that makes a powerful statement. That’s really what the test of a new tech release is for me. Am I looking at the same device with new components and a paint job? Or is this something that excites and brings a bit of wonder into my life? Sure, there are teething issues to sort out, but that’s not stopped every minute played being a joy. Bring on the next 7 years and let’s see what else it can do.
The PlayStation 5 is out now worldwide, though availability is limited to non-existent so keep an eye on your local retailers being restocked if you want one… and avoid the extortionate scalping on eBay and local listings!