Hardware Review: PlayStation 5

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Even though the PlayStation 5 release date was only just announced a couple of months ago, it feels like the wait for launch day has taken forever. Such of the way with 2020, I guess. But the next generation of PlayStation is finally here, bringing with it some exciting possibilities. The technical leap, though noticeable, isn’t quite the jump we’ve seen previously, but PlayStation 5 brings with it some welcome user experience improvements and exciting new features that, depending on how widely they get taken up by developers, could be game-changing. 

A Quick and Painless Setup

That improved UX begins as soon as you plug the new console into your TV and fire it up—PlayStation 5 has the smoothest, simplest initial setup I’ve seen since such things become standard. 

One of the first things you’re asked is if you have a game disc that you want to install; if so, you can pop it in right away and let the install run in the background while you continue with the rest of the console setup. (I’m assuming this doesn’t happen with the disc-less PS5 Digital Edition, though!) 

From there, the PS5 finds every opportunity to give you shortcuts on the process, especially if you’re upgrading from PS4. You can skip manually entering account details by using the PS App for mobile to sign in with the flash of a QR code. Privacy settings offer a bunch of different presets with different levels of visibility for play history, friend requests, and so on (including “Solo and focused”, aka “Leave me the hell alone”), so that you don’t have to waste time fiddling with those setting unless you really want to.

If you’ve got a PS4 connected to the same network, you can opt to transfer user profiles, save data, and applications to your PS5 as part of the initial setup (or you can leave it and do it later). Doing this will extend the setup time dramatically—we’re talking a five-minute setup turning into half an hour, depending on how much data there is to transfer—but if you’re not in a hurry, it’s extremely useful. It’ll copy across all user profiles, complete with social media account connections, saved payment info for the PlayStation Store, friends list, party history. Saved data can be transferred in the same way (for PS4 games that support it, which is most, but not all of them).

If you choose to do this as part of the initial PS5 setup, you won’t be able to finish the setup and begin using your new console until at least the profile and save data transfer is complete, which could take a bit of time depending on how much data there is to transfer. For me, with both consoles connected by LAN cable and about 15 GB worth of save files (!), it took a little over half an hour. The good news is that if you choose to transfer any games or other applications—which will most likely take a few hours, volume of data depending—this will run in the background, letting you finish setting up your PS5 and start using it in the meantime.

This is just for applications that are stored in the PS4 system storage. if you have an external drive connected to your PS4, bringing those across to PS5 is much quicker and easier—just plug your external drive into the PS5, and away you go. The PS5 will take a few moments to scan the drive and get everything ready, so I wouldn’t exactly call it “plug and play”, but that takes a couple of minutes at most.

All up, you can be up and running on your PlayStation 5 within five to ten minutes of turning the system on for the first time. If you choose to transfer data from PS4 to PS5 as part of the initial setup, you’ll increase the time it takes substantially, but if you’re not in a hurry, it’s probably worthwhile (and if you are in a hurry, you can save this step for later.) The last time I remember a console setup running so smoothly is back in the days of PlayStation 2, when it was literally just putting a game disc in and turning the machine on.

New Possibilities

A new console generation means beefier hardware and improved technical performance—more on that in a bit—but the far more noteworthy jump from PlayStation 4 is when it comes to new features. Chief among these are the widely-discussed new capabilities of the DualSense controller, haptic feedback and adaptive triggers.

The former is, in essence, a much more advanced version of the rumble feature that’s been part of PlayStation controllers since the first DualShock. Instead of simple motors to generate a vibration effect that’s limited to different levels of intensity, the DualSense haptic actuators are able to generate a wide variety of different sensations, localised to specific parts of the controller or spread throughout the whole thing, moving and changing as necessary. In practice, that means PlayStation 5 games can introduce a whole new level of tactile feedback to do things like simulate different driving surfaces in WRC 9 or replicate the distinctive clang of metal clashing against metal in Demon’s Souls. There’s so much potential here for a whole new way of games talking to their players, and as impressive as the application of this haptic feedback is already, I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Related: Astro’s Playroom is a wonderful showcase of the DualSense’s new features, and a celebration of PlayStation history. Here’s our review.

The adaptive triggers are similarly loaded with potential. In short, the L2 and R2 triggers can dynamically adjust their resistance to add another layer of physical interaction with a game—the oft-cited example being a trigger that grows steadily more tight as you draw a bow and the tension on the string increases. That’s a fine example that’s easy to envision when you haven’t tried the thing yourself, but the possibilities with these new triggers go so much further than that. Drift around a corner in WRC 9 and you’ll feel the pulse of the ABS in little bursts of resistance on the break trigger, while changing gears comes with a little kickback from the accelerator. In a game like Call of Duty, you can feel the back to back jolts of recoil as you shoot an automatic weapon. Doc Oc’s gadget puzzles in Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered now come with a satisfying little click as you lock the pieces into place.

Of course, the big question mark here is going to be how widely these features are actually used by developers, especially third-party studios. There’s so much potential in the DualSense controller, but it’s going to be up to the people making the games to realise that potential so that these things don’t just become a forgotten little gimmick (PS4 Light Bar, anyone?). The launch line-up, already has some great use of the DualSense’s unique capabilities, and not just from Sony’s own games, so I’m hopeful that haptic feedback and adaptive triggers will see widespread, clever, creative use going forward.

PlayStation 5’s new features go beyond the controller, with some nifty new additions and tweaks to the user interface and welcome quality of life improvements. The context-sensitive “activity cards” that accompany the quick-access menu when you press the PS Button during a game are a godsend. There’s a wide range of different cards with different functions depending on the game in question, but some of the common ones are trophy updates and progress trackers, quick-launch cards that take you directly to a specific level or game mode, and access to game help videos that you can pin to the side of the screen when you need a hand.

The quick-access menu itself is much more useful now compared to PlayStation 4, being both much more responsive and much more customisable. It offers handy new tools like a “Switcher” that lets you quickly jump between recently-used games and apps, and direct access to your user profile (and with it, your trophy list) without having to go back to the dashboard.

A new “Game Presets” setting category lets you set, at a system level, things like subtitles, axis settings, and default game difficulty. You can always change these from within a game if you need to deviate from your own defaults for whatever reason, but it’s wonderful to be able to set your own defaults for these things. The catch is that it depends on developers choosing to support this function in their games—it’s not something that Sony can force—but so far, I haven’t encountered any games that don’t.

One thing I hope to see more developers pick up is the PS5’s ability to compartmentalise installs, so that you can choose to install only the parts of a game you want and delete the rest. The only game I’ve encountered so far that actually makes use of this is Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, but that’s a perfect example of how useful this feature is. The whole game is over 150 GB—a quarter of the PlayStation 5’s storage capacity—but you can install or delete different game modes on a case by case basis. Play through the campaign once then uninstall it, and you’ve got another 50 GB freed up. I just hope more developers start making use of this soon, because it’s going to make managing storage a whole lot easier.

But for all its improvements, the PlayStation 5 also has some little annoyances. At launch, there’s no folder function, and the dashboard only shows your nine most recent games. For everything else, you have to dig through a library that has no search function and limited filters and sorting options—if you have a lot of games, you can expect to do a lot of digging every time you want to go back to something you haven’t touched in a while. There are no custom themes or wallpapers, with the dashboard instead showing a giant splash screen for whatever game or app you currently have selected. These are things that may be added in future through updates, but for now, they’re just things you have to live without. 

Next-Gen Performance

No new console generation would be complete without advances in technical performance and fidelity. PlayStation 5 is no exception, though the leap is much more modest this time around—it’s certainly not the massive step forward the PlayStation 2 was from its predecessor, or even the jump from PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4. It’s inevitable—such progress is incremental, and as technology marches along, such increments get smaller and smaller.

That isn’t to say that PlayStation 5 isn’t a noticeable improvement on PlayStation 4, especially when you compare them side-by-side. PlayStation 5 can handle much more demanding lighting effects and deliver genuinely lifelike reflections thanks to its ray tracing capability. In games that push for realism, the level of detail is better than ever—NBA 2K21 frequently tricks my eyes into thinking I’m watching a live game, even though my mind knows better and my hands are directing the players. Demon’s Souls is a stunning demonstration of the minute detail and pristine polish that the console can deliver. (The question remains if Demon’s Souls is really a game that should be doing this, given how much the original relied on its murky, rough presentation for atmosphere, but as a technical showcase, it’s impressive). PlayStation 5 can deliver games that look amazing, but so could PlayStation 4, and PS5’s steps forward feel more incremental.

However, it is capable of running most games at a stable 60 frames per second while still retaining decent graphical settings, which is something PlayStation 4 often struggled with. How much this actually matters in practice depends on perspective and the game in question—I tend not to be bothered by low frame rates unless it drops to truly horrific lows unless I’m playing something that demands frame-perfect precision, but I know others who consider anything less than 60 unplayable. The important thing here is that PlayStation 5 can do it, and giving players an option of 60fps with (relatively) lower graphical settings or 30fps and maximum visual sheen seems like it will become the norm. Being able to give players that sort of choice is always going to be a good thing.

With its built-in solid state drive, PlayStation 5’s load times are much, much improved over what came before. I can’t think of any game where I’ve spent more than a couple of settings on a loading screen, and for most games, jumping into a level is near instantaneous. Even Demon’s Souls, which is probably the most technically-demanding game of the PS5 launch line-up, can load you into a level in a matter of seconds. Over the last however many years, I’ve gotten used to checking Twitter or some such while I wait for games to load, but PS5 barely lets me get halfway through a tweet. (I’m mostly not complaining.)

It’s also a deathly quiet console, which is a welcome reprieve after spending the last seven years with something that sounds like an aeroplane trying to take off. Even in the most demanding games, I can barely hear the PS5 at work unless I go right up beside it. People joke about the size of the PlayStation 5—it’s a tank, no doubt about it—but I’ll happily take a big console over a noisy one every time.

Verdict

Once upon a time, a new console generation meant a huge leap forward in realism and graphical fidelity. That’s not necessarily the case anymore—such progress is necessarily incremental, and the gains to be found necessarily get smaller as the base they’re building upon get more advanced. PlayStation 5 is a noticeable improvement on PlayStation 4 in that regard, but not an earth-shattering one.

But Sony’s newest console is breaking new ground in other ways. The haptic feedback and adaptive triggers in the DualSense controller have the potential to truly change the way we see—or rather, feel—our games. That’s going to depend on developers taking up the call and making the most of these features, but early signs from the launch line-up show a good appetite for that. 

Ultimately, like any console, PlayStation 5 is going to live or die by the quality of the games you can play on it. But with the controller’s nifty new capabilities, an all-round improvement in performance, and welcome improvements to the user experience, PlayStation 5 lays the groundwork for that greatness.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.