Sony PlayStation 5 System Review

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The 9th Generation Console Wars have just begun, and for this generation Sony shows up to the launch week two days after Microsoft enters the arena but still manages to win the hearts and minds of true next-gen gamers.  Perhaps the tides will change in 2021 when there are enough systems to meet the demands of eager gamers, and Microsoft actually has a game…an exclusive game to brag about, but until then Sony has really come out of the gate strong with one of the most impressive launches since the PlayStation 2.

Microsoft and Sony have two very unique and distinct approaches when it comes to dominating your game space.  Since both systems are virtually identical in their PC-like quality of next-gen graphics, that only leaves console-exclusive games and hardware-specific features as the determining factor in which system to buy – assuming you can’t get both.

Microsoft seems more concerned with you subscribing to their Xbox Game Pass service than purchasing one of their impossible-to-find consoles, and rightly so.  They’re losing money on every console they sell, relying on existing and new subscriptions to generate monthly revenue and it works, with 70% of new Xbox systems generating new members.  Meanwhile, Sony is perfectly happy to just let you play games, lots of games both new and old, and for PS Plus members, you’ll find access to 20 top PS4 titles available for immediate and free download.  Those looking for exclusive titles will find a couple already available for PS5 with more around the corner while Xbox gamers will need to wait until Q2 2021 for the new Halo.

But we’re not here to compare apples and oranges because while these two consoles are similarly spec’d and play all of the new third-party cross-platform games there are still some major differences that sets Sony’s system apart.

THE UNBOXING

If you’ve watched any of the unboxing videos you’ll already know that the PlayStation 5 packaging is targeting a compact and utilitarian design with an outer sleeve covering a simple box with a top compartment containing accessories like the HDMI and power cord and the PS5 stand, while the actual console is wrapped in that foam paper and sandwiched between two egg cartons.   The PS5 is deceptively heavy (9.9 lbs.), and I nearly sprained my wrist trying to lift it out of the box with only one hand.  Other goodies to unbox for my review also included an extra DualSense controller, PS5 Camera, the Pulse 3D headset, and the dual charging cradle.  The only item I didn’t bother getting was the Media Remote, as I don’t plan to use this system for anything but gaming.

Opening the actual PlayStation 5 box revealed a surprisingly futuristic system loaded with curves and a modern design aesthetic that screams “NEXT-GEN”!  I was initially put off by the white side panels that made the PS5 really stand out in my black entertainment center already loaded with black equipment, but with the sexy curves and cool case lighting the PS5 almost becomes a sculpture on or off, and I warmed up to it within a day.

THE SETUP

Setting up the PlayStation 5 was fairly straightforward.  Connect the power to the wall, HDMI to the TV (or receiver), and Ethernet to the router unless you are going wireless then you’ll need to provide network name and Wi-Fi password then turn it on.  You’ll need to plug your DualSense into the system using the provided USB-C cable to pair the device then choose language, setup screen size, complete a 3-part HDR setup (if you’re using an HDR display), setup power-saving mode, and finally download the day-one system update.  In my setup I also attached a 5GB external drive to one of the rear USB ports, and out of the box most of these drives will need to be reformatted for PS5 compatibility using the system tools found under Storage.  As far as fitting the super-sized tower in my entertainment center I did have to remove a shelf, switching from an over-under setup to a side-by-side with the PS5 and Xbox Series X now sitting vertically next to each other.  It’s also worth noting that the circular stand required for both horizontal and vertical mounting requires a screw for vertical use.  This screw is actually hidden within the base in a secret compartment that will reveal itself when you rotate the base to the vertical mount position.

The back of the PS5 has minimal ports; an HDMI, an Ethernet, and two USB ports, which were quickly occupied by the HD Camera and the external HDD leaving only the single USB port on the front of the system, which was used for the wireless dongle for the Pulse 3D headset.  So within minutes of setting up the PS5 I had zero expansion opportunities, so if I wanted to connect a racing wheel I’d have to unplug something, and if I wanted to broadcast using a camera and headphones I would have to unplug the HDD, which means that racing game would have to be on the internal storage.  I haven’t tried using a USB hub yet but it’s on my to-do list.

There were only a few other annoying issues during setup.  I wasn’t able to transfer my PS4 games and data to the PS5 over the network.  I suspect having the two systems separated by two routers and a hub (even though they are on the same connected network) was too much for the transfer software to deal with.  I could always temporarily relocate the PS4 to the main gaming area and share the same router to copy everything over.

I have to say I am very disappointed in the extremely short 4-foot USB cable provided to charge the DualSense.  The only thing more disappointing is that when you purchase a second $70 controller you don’t even get a charging cable, which means you either buy your own or only charge one controller at a time.  Ultimately, it didn’t really matter as I had the charging cradle and there is always one controller charging while the other is in use.  I was initially concerned about battery life considering the amount of battery-draining technology now inside the DualSense, but even the most demanding game, Astro’s Playroom, only drained a single bar during a 4-hour marathon session.

Sony HD Camera

Next up was the camera installation, which was as easy as plugging it in and then following the on-screen video guide on where to place the camera and snapping a few face photos in three locations for face-tracking.   This $60 camera comes with this really cool folding clamshell stand that makes it easy to use on a flat surface, clip to the top of your TV, or in my case, attach to a tripod.  The camera not only looks like a cool mini-PS5, it also has some fantastic HD quality with great low-light pick-up when streaming in the dark and good face-tracking so you can center your face in the camera without having to move the camera or tripod.  I only wish this tracking would update in real-time to follow me if I moved slightly or sat forward in my chair.  The USB cable could also be about 3’ longer.

Sony Pulse 3D Wireless Headset

I’ve been a big fan of the PlayStation Gold and Platinum headsets for nearly a decade but nothing could prepare me for the new Pulse 3D wireless headset.  The comfort of the cushy ear pieces combined with the floating head strap means you’ll hardly know you’re wearing them, and the level of control for balancing mic and game audio lets you create the perfect mix for both you and any broadcast audience you might have.  But what totally seals the deal is the pure level of 3D immersion you get with a complete surround sound experience that comes dangerously close to matching my Dolby Atmos home theater setup.  I have noticed intermittent hiccups in game audio like a loss of signal for a fraction of a second.  It’s random and happens in multiple titles, so hopefully it can be fixed with a patch.

Sony DualSense Controller

There is something uniquely special about the DualSense controller the moment you slip it from its foam pouch.  The gamepad is slightly larger than the DualShock 4, likely to house a bigger battery and all the extra tech needed to make this controller do what it does.  All of the individual components like the sticks, triggers, and buttons feel solid but the D-pad was kind of sloppy, although it didn’t seem to matter when using it in a game; it was still responsive.  But you can’t truly appreciate everything this controller can do until you fire up Astro’s Playroom, which is as much a game as it is a tech demo for the DualSense.  You can feel vibrations within the controller; not just the whole controller but distinct parts within the grips and body.  The triggers are unbelievable with variable tension that feels like you are squeezing through grainy sand before there is this snap into full-motion freedom.  When combined with in-game design elements you truly feel connected to the characters and environments in a way previously unavailable.  The only downside to this new feature is possible finger fatigue.  After only an hour or so of playing the new Call of Duty my trigger finger was getting sore from the added resistance and force feedback I was experiencing.  In WRC9, an off-road rally racing game, the constant rumble and vibration of the engine and road surface was numbing my hands and fingers, but I wouldn’t trade this added level of immersion for anything.

Also improved on the DualSense is the built-in speaker which now plays much louder, clearer sounds that truly enhance the gameplay in several of the launch titles.  In Astro’s Playroom you can hear every robot footstep with unique sounds for a variety of surfaces.  In WRC9 you can hear gravel kicking up under the car.  The touchpad is slightly larger and much more sensitive and there is also a built-in microphone so you can chat online or do broadcast commentary, but you’ll probably still want to use a headset to avoid game echo.  It’s worth noting that using a headset mutes the controller mic that can interfere with games that want you to blow into the controller.  The PS button is now a raised symbol located away from the face buttons to avoid accidental presses, and that big light in the front is now just a thin decorative accent around the touchpad. There are also four LED’s below the touchpad that will light up to indicate what player you are.   The Options and Share buttons are also moved up and out of the way, and as with the SIXAXIS and DualShock 4, the DualSense has built-in gyroscopic functions for accurate motion tracking in 3D space.  This is easily my favorite controller in over 30 years of console gaming, and I hope future games exploit all the potential the DualSense offers.

Sony DualSense Charging Station

There’s not much to the DualSense Charging Station.  You basically plug it into the wall and place up to two controllers into the curved slots.  No moving parts or retractable pins; just a nice metal contact with no-fuss recharging and off-the-floor storage.  The stylish cradle also features the black and white design aesthetic similar to the camera and the PS5 unit itself.  So far I have yet to fully deplete a controller battery, but I did get it down to a single bar after about ten hours of use with games that had significant feedback and advanced trigger functions.

THE INTERFACE

Sony hasn’t really changed its interface more than refined it.  While the overall menu system is nearly the same the level of sub-content has been greatly enhanced with the Options button offering a lot more options.  You still have your main view with recently accessed apps sandwiched between the Store icon on the left and the Library icon on the right.  You have quick access to settings and such at the top menu and you can pop-up the system menu along the bottom with a tap of the PS button.  This bottom menu is also configurable, so you can streamline it to only the things you commonly use.  Interestingly enough Sony has removed the folder option that allowed you to combine games and apps into themed groups.  You still have plenty of filtering and sorting options when viewing the library as well as choosing to view internal and external storage, but it’s still odd to remove a feature we waited so long to get on the PS4.  Static and dynamic background themes are also gone since now, the background is used to display game-specific data based on your current selection.  The system interface is now rendered in 4K with HDR, so everything looks crisp and colorful, and the overall layout is ultimately one of the slickest and most intuitive menus in console history.  There are even these cool new game-specific tiles on the game pause screen that show your current progress towards various goals and trophies along with hint and tips videos.  Many of these act as shortcuts to take you to that part of the game; especially useful if you are trying to complete a trophy objective.

PERFORMANCE

Everything about the PS5 is designed to shave precious seconds off any non-gaming activity.  Using the fancy new internal SSD your games are going to install, load, and play faster than ever.  Load times are near-instant in many games.  I’ve even noticed that some games that use load screens to display game tips or even game-relevant backstory are flashing by so fast I only get to read the first few words before it’s gone.  The system interface is very fast when navigating the menus, library, and storefront.  I don’t even use the sleep mode because the system cold-boots in under 10 seconds and there seems to be some stability issues with sleep mode.

Regardless of whether you purchase a game on the PlayStation Store or buy a retail copy, that game must be fully installed on the HDD.  If it’s a PS5 game it must be installed on the internal SSD.  The deciding factor here is if you have the bandwidth limits and speeds to download upwards of 40-100GB for many new games.  If so, the clear winner is always a digital download.  Physical copies, even though fully installed, still require the disc to be inserted before you can play the game, so there is no real benefit to a physical copy other than possibly selling it or loaning it to a friend when you are finished.  Also, while the PS5 is virtually silent during normal operation the disc drive can be obnoxiously loud.  Games can still be played after reaching a certain point in the installation (noted by a segmented progress bar) and larger games like Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War will even let you pick what parts to install first.

SHARING

Sharing is caring and PlayStation 5’s Share button is your one-tap access to screenshots, video clips, and even broadcasting to Twitch and YouTube.  Sony has added a lot of flexibility to the streaming situation, allowing you to turn off those annoying notification boxes for trophies and system events and even hide the viewer count.  You can stream up to 1080p at 60fps in HDR and insert your own camera feed into a variety of window shapes and sizes or even go transparent with a green screen.  I really love the ability to move the camera location around the border of the screen, even while broadcasting, so you don’t cover up important parts of the game interface.  You also have a nice setup screen to name and describe your video and can even use voice recognition instead of typing this info.  My only minor annoyance is you cannot start a stream until you have started the game, which means you could lose part of an opening cinematic if you aren’t fast enough, but overall if you have the Pulse 3D, and the HD Camera you are ready to stream like a pro.

The PS5 will also save and store important video clips and screenshots from your gameplay like when earning a trophy.  These can be tweaked or even turned off if storage becomes an issue.  After a week of playing numerous launch titles I had over a gigabyte of media clips saved up, but these are easily deleted from the storage menu.

THE GAMES

When it comes to choosing a new console it’s all about the games, especially when Sony is clearly pursuing gamers as their target demographic, so you better have the games.   Over the years each system has had their exclusives and Sony usually wins in this category, but with Xbox and their Game Pass, which now includes EA Play titles and the entire Bethesda library with future titles that will likely be Xbox-exclusive, the scales are starting to balance.  Sony still has a great line-up of exclusives although more and more of the larger titles are making their way to PC.  Even so, for this 9th-gen launch Sony is the only system to have any exclusives.

Games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon Souls are certainly system-sellers along with Godfall, also on PC but not Xbox.  Sackboy: A Big Adventure is one of the few family games that also supports four-person multiplayer if you can drop another $210 on controllers, but this game is also available on PS4.  In fact many PS5 games are cross-generation like DIRT5, Miles Morales, and the new Call of Duty game, and unlike Xbox’s smart delivery system you have to be careful when installing or you might just install both versions if you don’t specify upfront.  There are over two dozen new “launch titles” for PS5, many of which are cross-platform like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion, as well as 20 titles in the PS Plus Collection.  If this is your first PlayStation or you missed out on any of the top-tier games from the PS4 era now is your chance to enjoy an amazing assortment of games, free to all PS Plus members.  And there are over a dozen other PS5 games, many of which are exclusive, coming out over the next few months.

If you’d like to see first-look gameplay videos for most of the launch line-up head over to our YouTube channel.

STORAGE

There is a lot of complaining about the limited space available on the PS5’s internal SSD drive.  That 1 TB of storage is under attack by system files, game save data, and a growing library of media clips, but it is not as bad as everyone thinks.  I have 14 PS5 launch titles currently installed on my internal drive along with Days Gone, Ghost of Tsushima, and the new Crash Bandicoot game that I “moved” from external storage so I could enjoy faster disc access.   That’s 17 games with 21 GB remaining.  I know everyone wants to have their entire library available at the click of a button but let’s be reasonable; 17 games is a lot, and in my situation when I do need more internal space I have over 120 GB of PS4 titles I can move back to external storage.  And no, you cannot move PS5 games (or save data) to an external drive; at least not for now.

CONCLUSION

As is the case with most every new console launch the question isn’t IF you should buy a PlayStation 5 as much as WHEN you should buy one.   If you’ve got $500 burning a hole in your wallet and you can actually get your hands on one of these consoles then go for it, but don’t let FOMO send you to the eBay scalpers to pay 2-3x MSRP for a console that won’t find its stride until next year.  Many of the current titles are just visual upgrades of games that you can already be playing on a system you may already own, and many of those games will upgrade for free when you finally do get a PS5.

True gamers have always been early adopters, but I believe the next-generation of gaming is still months away when it comes to game design and making the most out of the amazing system and controller that Sony has delivered.    Sony has always had the best track record for innovation and evolution, and if you are a gamer first and foremost and you want to share that passion with a connected set of friends on the best looking and best performing console currently out there then look no further than the PlayStation 5.