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Sony PlayStation 5 review: Showcasing the next-gen’s potential

PlayStation 5 controller and PS5.
Sony PlayStation 5 review: Showcasing the next-gen’s potential
MSRP $500.00
“Sony's PlayStation 5 is the next-gen console to buy this holiday season.”
  • Speedy hardware
  • Excellent game load times
  • Attractive design
  • Several enticing next-gen titles
  • New controller with enhanced haptics
  • Limited storage space on all models
  • Console is very large

The expectations for Sony as it goes into the upcoming console cycle are preposterously high. The PlayStation 4 was a rousing success, and gamers are anticipating the company will open new, previously unimagined possibilities with its next-generation system.

The PlayStation 5 not only meets those expectations, it makes them seem conservative. With lightning-fast load speeds and innovative (and captivating) changes to the DualShock controller, the PS5 sets the bar for the next generation of gaming.

That’s impressive in any year, but doubly so in 2020. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Sony has assembled a strong system that backs up its hardware with a strong lineup of launch titles to challenge Microsoft’s competing Xbox Series X.

Digital Trends reviewed the PlayStation 5 over the course of just under two weeks. This review focuses on the larger $499 Blu-ray drive version of the console, but Sony says that is the sole difference between this model and its smaller $399 brother, the so-called Digital Edition. Both go on sale November 12. Several PS5-optimized games – including Demon’s Souls, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and top third-party titles – were not made available before the review embargo. The PlayStation Plus Collection, with 20 classic PS4 titles, was made available.

The hardware: It’s fast, and it’s huge

Sony, from the very beginning, has said the PS5 is about speed. But until you experience it, it’s hard to convey just how big of a difference speed can make.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales loads in seconds – and once you’re in the game, you’ll never experience a load screen of any sort, even when you take the subway. Want hints and tips for the game? You’ll have to find them somewhere else.

PS5 Console and Remote

That optimization is also apparent in other Sony-made titles. It adds tremendously to the immersion factor of games, and it positively impacts the flow of the story in narrative titles. Jumping into games quickly is just as satisfying.

It’s interesting to note this perceived difference in performance stems from software, rather than hardware. Technically, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X is the more powerful console, though the PlayStation 5 has an edge in storage performance. The Xbox lacks a launch title, however, and relatively few last-gen games take full advantage of the new console’s capabilities. This gives the PlayStation 5 a big advantage at launch.

The PlayStation 5’s physical design can be a problem. It’s a honking big piece of hardware, and if you opt to place it horizontally, the stand (which is necessary to correct for the system’s curved sides) does not lock onto the back panels. As a result, you will have to worry about slippage if you’re adjusting the cables. You won’t want to put anything on top of it, either. Should you choose vertical positioning, you’ll have a mini-skyscraper near your TV, which, depending on your room layout, could be jarring.

Microsoft’s Xbox Series X is a smaller, squatter console that isn’t quite as imposing, but its boxlike shape will still mean trouble for the average A/V cabinet. Gamers with limited space for a console may instead consider the Xbox Series S, which is much smaller than the PlayStation 5 or Series X, and has a more traditional slatelike shape.

Storage: There’s not enough

The PS5’s Achilles’ heel is storage space. Due to the proprietary solid-state drive and the size of the operating system, players will only have 667GB of the 825GB hard drive available for games. That is a paltry amount that will result in the same headache players faced with the PS4. They’ll have to choose which titles to keep on their system, and which to delete (even if they can redownload them in most cases).

Most recent PlayStation 4 owners no doubt bought the PS4 Pro, which shipped with 1TB of storage space. Discounting the storage reserved by the system, a PS4 Pro 1TB offered about 862GB of available storage. The PlayStation 5 is quite far behind that, despite the ever-inflating size of AAA games.

Owners can expand that amount by buying and installing a NVMe PCIe 4.0 SSD. The console has an open SSD slot for just that purpose, but Sony has yet to confirm which off-the-shelf NVMe SSDs will work with PS5. These are the only hard drives that will let you take advantage of the PS5’s load speeds. A typical NVMe PCIe 4.0 SSD is about $200, which isn’t cheap. On the plus side, it’s a bit less than the $220 storage cards used by Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and S consoles.

You can also hook up an external HDD or SSD, but you won’t see the speed advantages of the system on any games stored there. And any PS5 games stored there won’t be playable until you transfer them to the internal drive, making external drives useful only for older games.

The controller: It’s a win

If load times are the primary weapon of the PS5, the new DualSense controller is the secondary. And it’s impressive.

Slightly larger than the DualShock 4, it refines haptic feedback, incorporating a precise sense of touch into the video game experience that force feedback never did before. This could become hokey (and, in fairness, it might in years to come), but for now, it adds another layer to games, increasing player immersion.

Struggling to pull open a heavy door or draw a bow? The hand triggers can convey that tension. Had a rough landing as you drive over a hill or a slog through a muddy area? You’ll know it. This new haptic feedback is a subtle thing that, like the lack of load screens, you’ll soon take for granted. You won’t realize how quickly you’ve gotten used to it until it’s not there.

playstation 5 controller ps5
Digital Trends Graphic

A new built-in microphone is less useful in most games, but will allow you to briefly chat with friends without a headset.

The cost of this new functionality is battery life. The DualSense has a rechargeable battery (versus the Series X’s reliance on AA batteries), but we found that charge to drain quickly. Charging via the PS5’s USB rarely resulted in a full charge, whether in standby mode or if left on at full power. A separate charging stand, provided by Sony, did charge the controller fully.

PlayStation 4 controllers will work with the PlayStation 5, but only with PS4 games played through backward-compatibility. Microsoft offers controller cross-compatibility that lets old Xbox One controllers work with the new Xbox.

Games and software: The star of the show

Microsoft found itself in the awkward spot of having to debut a new console without a first-party launch title, but Sony is in an enviable position.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is terrific fun that showcases many, if not all, of the PS5’s features. It’s story is on the short side, but there are plenty of side missions to stretch things along. The bundled Astro’s Playground is a hidden gem of a platformer, loaded with Easter eggs that hark back to a stripped-down Super Mario Bros., while still acting as a walk-through of the PS5 controller’s new features.

Demon’s Souls and Sackboy: A Big Adventure weren’t made available for early review, and neither was BugSnax, which PlayStation Plus members will get for free at the system’s launch. However, the games we played from the PlayStation Plus Collection loaded smoothly and fast using the PS5’s Game Boost feature.

The long term

The PS5 might be the system to beat at the launch of this new console generation, but while previous cycles had a clear path forward, this one is much cloudier. Specifically, cloud gaming is a delivery method that’s gaining traction among publishers, just as digital delivery did in the early 2010s.

Microsoft has already laid out a path for that delivery method. Sony has PlayStation Now, but despite buying two innovators in the market (OnLive and Gaikai) long ago, the company has failed to do much to energize its base and build that business. That opened the door for Google’s Stadia, xCloud, and Amazon’s upcoming Luna.

Will cloud gaming make console power less relevant in the years to come? It’s hard to say. Gamers are skeptical of the technology, fearing lag, but the spread of 5G and high-speed internet could erase those concerns. And if cloud gaming truly becomes a significant delivery method, Sony could find itself behind the pack.

That’s the future, though. For now, Sony has delivered a terrific next-generation console, complete with at least one must-play, system-selling game. It has managed to build on the momentum of the PS4, innovate without reaching too far, and gives gamers a beacon of hope in a year where that has been spotty at best.

Our take

The PlayStation 5 is everything gamers wanted — and more. While storage space is a real concern and Sony’s long-term view of industry shifts is questionable, there’s no denying that this is a true next-generation machine. It makes existing games more fun, and has several strong launch titles.

Is there a better alternative?

No. For holiday 2020, at least, the PS5 beats the competition handily, and makes the PS4 seem almost archaic.

How long will it last?

Expect a long life from this system. The biggest hurdle is the shift to cloud-based gaming. If that happens quicker than industry insiders expect, Sony could have a hard time keeping up.

Should you buy one?

Yes, absolutely. The PlayStation 5 is a game system that lives up to the next-generation label. If you are looking to buy one, check out the best Black Friday PlayStation deals, so you can leverage Black Friday discounts.

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