We’ve seen countless images and videos by now, but it’s still surprising just how big the PlayStation 5 is. This is a monument to your hobby, the biggest games console ever made and one that might be a little difficult to fit into your TV cabinet. Sony don’t even vaguely try to hide the PS5 with a striking two tone design that’s meant to stand out, its central glossy black core sandwiched between two flowing, swooping sheets of white plastic. It’s a look that you’ll either love or be a bit baffled by, but it’s also a statement of intent, that this console offers something new and different.
The design is more than just looks, though. The plastic side panels are removable, hiding things like dust holes you can use a vacuum cleaner on, the spot where you can put an SSD expansion, and allowing the myriad of vents to feel like a flourish of style as opposed to a mere consequence of cooling. However, with no flat surface to speak of, it also means you need a stand for the console, regardless of if you want to have it upright or lie it flat.
You do get one in the box, and it has its own unique design quirks, with a moulded form to match the side of your console that rotates depending on how you want to place your console and features a secret slot that either hides a mounting screw or a screw hole cap – there’s some impressive attention to detail there. When vertical, it’s secured to the base with a screw, but when horizontal it clips onto the lower white sheet of plastic at a point marked with a cute strip of PlayStation symbols. It can flap around a bit if you need to move the console. Also, while it’s a broad disc, putting pressure on the corners of the machine will cause it to wobble and bonk the table, something that’s especially easy at the front left. Cue the wobbly PlayStation 5 memes.
Does all of this size pay off? Is it silent? Well, no. There’s a tone to the fan that just stands out a little for me, not too dissimilar to an idling PS4 but quieter, and as you launch a game there’s a noticeable step up in fan speed and sound, though it stays pretty constant and never comes anywhere near to the jet engine sounds of the PS4. Still, you might pick it out during a particularly quiet moment of a game or when returning to the PlayStation 5 home screen. Compared to the Xbox Series X? The Xbox has a more neutral fan sound that’s less noticeable in my estimation.
The new PlayStation system software feels like a blend of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 eras. The size of the icons is reminiscent of the XMB, shunted up to the top left hand corner of the screen, but the way it actually works is closer to the PS4, with a limited list of nine recent games before you have to delve into the full library – there’s no folder support here. Select a game and you can scroll down to that game’s area, looking up game streams, trophy progression and more.
Many of the system features that lived in the PS4’s upper menu bar are now a part of the general quick menu, which overlays from the bottom of the screen when you tap the PS button. Your friends and all your communication with them live in the Game Base area, alongside other notifications, download progress, audio options and more. If you’ve spent years with the PS4, you’ll have to adjust between pressing and holding the PS button to get to where you want.
Also in the quick menu are a set of cards, presenting you with a bunch of gaming opportunities. They could be news for the game you’re playing, an open invitation to join friends in something else, your parties where you can chat, message and share clips. PS5 games are now much more linked to the system, and these cards can show you a Trophy you’re about to reach, track collectible progression through a level, even offering up a mini walkthrough video to follow, or simply show the status of your most recent checkpoint. They also allow you to boot straight to that point in the game.
This is Sony’s alternative to the Xbox Series X|S Quick Resume feature, but instead of suspending the game mid-race, mid-mission or whatever, it will load you in at a nearby checkpoint, level start, to the multiplayer menus, and so on. Of course, this will depend on the game developer for a robust implementation, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales shows off its flexibility pretty nicely, with granular loading points based around mid-mission checkpoints. It has the potential to be a much more universal system than Quick Resume, not that that’s a slight on what the Xbox can do.
Once you’re actually in-game, you’re beholden to the wonderful effects that the DualSense can pull off. Catch our separate DualSense review here, but in short, there’s a huge amount of nuanced directionality given through the Haptic LRA motors, which can enhance the kinds of feedback you’re getting. That’s nothing compared to the Adaptive Triggers that add texture to each trigger pull, resist, and can even send a violent rumble effect of their own. It’s a shame that you only get basic and sometimes incongruent buzzing in backward compatible games.
Backward compatibility is a big deal on PlayStation 5. Having been poo-pooed by Sony in the past, it’s now a core feature of the system, and pulls off some familiar tricks. The added power of the PS5 allows it to steady frame rates and resolutions at their maximum settings in many games, and the SSD allows them to load faster. In addition to just performing so much better, Shenmue 3’s load time drops from 37 seconds on PS4 Pro to 22 seconds from the PS5’s SSD. Horizon Zero Dawn fast travel drops from 64 seconds to 28 seconds, Crysis Remastered plummets from 47 seconds to just 19 seconds, and then GT Sport cuts from 36 seconds to 20 seconds. Similar to the Xbox Series X, games will need to be designed to really take advantage of the SSD, but it can dramatically reduce the waiting in older games as well.
Backward compatibility can be held back by the games your playing. Titles from the start of the PS4 era will be limited to 1080p and often have frame rate caps of 30fps, and once developers started to target the PS4 Pro, they started to impose resolution caps like 1440p (Uncharted 4) or a dynamic checkerboarded 1800p at 30fps (Horizon Zero Dawn). It leads to a curious case where the PS5 will be stronger than the Xbox Series X for early generation, but then the Series X can push to the typically higher resolution targets of the One X, while the PS5 is stuck in the middle ground. However, just as Microsoft have made waves with their own game updates, Sony are also selectively going back and updating games as well. Days Gone now runs 60fps on PS5 vs. 30fps on PS4 and PS4 Pro, and we awaiting an update for Ghost of Tsushima to go live that does the same. Hopefully they’ll make similar updates for other games, especially those found in the PS+ Collection.
The feedback of the DualSense combines with the new 3D audio system, the Tempest Engine. Sony have talked up the potential here, and it is truly fantastic. Put on some headphones connected via USB or 3.5mm jack, and you’ll be surrounded by sounds in a wonderfully immersive fashion, whether it’s the cacophony of sounds in Astro’s Playroom or the differently cacophonous streets of New York, all coming from different directions. I can’t truly say that it’s better than Dolby Atmos, but it’s certainly up there as a rival.
Unfortunately, I also can’t say if I’m using the correct audio HRTF profile for my particular ears. You’ll find the profile test nestled away in the system settings with the 3D audio options, but this boils down to giving you five presets of different sounding babbling brooks to choose between. You’re meant to find the one that lets you pick out five distinct layers, but it’s like walking into a DFS and only getting to look at the sofas. They certainly do seem different, but I don’t know what qualifies as the right one for me. So, default it is.
There are other quirks and minor annoyances that carry over from the PS4 as well. Honestly, game install management just needs to be dramatically more flexible and easy to access. As on PS4 you can only have one external expansion drive active at any one time (which I’ve always found to be a pain in the bum), you can only move game data, not copy it (another pain in the bum), and if you want to clear space, you are not able to archive a PS5 game install on an external drive to avoid having to redownload it later. When you only have 667.2GB of storage, it’s pretty galling to discover that another chunk of that is taken up by “Other”. I’ve got a dozen games installed taking up 512GB, but then there’s 94GB of this apparently performance enhancing “Other”. Affordable ultra-speedy NVME expansions can’t come soon enough.