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Sony PlayStation 5 review: King of the current-gen?

, Senior news editor · ·
Review An assessment or critique of a service, product, or creative endeavour such as art, literature or a performance.

(Pocket-lint) - Somewhere amidst the different console generations, Sony decided to put less stock in all-round entertainment and focused far more on games, while its main home console rival opted for a more rounded, media-friendly approach. And it worked - the PS4 ended up in many more hands than the Xbox One.

However, it changed tact for this current generation, having introduced a machine that's more sensitive to the needs of a wider audience. Its PlayStation 5 in undeniably a top-tier games console, but also embraces media playback and backward compatibility like never before.

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It's a strategy that also seems to have paid off, with sales well above initial expectations. Here are many of the reasons why.

Our quick take

What's most impressive about the PlayStation 5 as a games machine is its ability to seamlessly continue to play your PS4 titles, while still feel exciting and new. Even a year or so after launch.

Its strangely massive body will no doubt cause some headaches as you consider where to house it, but at least it looks like something futuristic and different.

Our only worries are that the SSD will soon be filled to the rafters, and the DualSense controller becomes fragile after extensive use.

Still, this is an undeniably superb machine, taking Sony in directions it never trod before. That's why we have scored it accordingly and overlooked the minor quibbles.

The PS5 is an excellent piece of home entertainment kit and something to truly covet. As long as you can get one, that is.

5 stars - Pocket-lint editors choice
For
  • Up to 4K 60fps gameplay as standard
  • 120fps-enabled
  • Silent running
  • Great user experience
  • Extremely fast loading times
  • DualSense controller has excellent extra features
Against
  • It's a monster that some might struggle to find a home for
  • The 825GB internal SSD only has 667GB available to the user
  • No Dolby Vision nor Dolby Atmos
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When you see the PS5 in pictures, it often looks like a monster in comparison with former PlayStations and rival consoles. Well, unboxing it ourselves for this review gave us a further shock as it's even bigger than we realised.

It is easily the tallest games console we've ever handled and, at 4.5kg, the heaviest as well. However, there is something elegant about its design, with the white faceplates serving as space-age protection to the actual console unit sandwiched between. It's certainly different.

The plates also serve a purpose. They can be removed, even replaced with different colours, and underneath lies one of the largest fan units we've seen. Sony is clearly taking no chances on a repeat of the overheating issues experienced by PS4 Pro owners and has included hidden ports that, once exposed, provide easy access for vacuuming dust away.

On top of this, there are exhaust struts all down the rear and between the main unit and plates, to help guide heat away from the console. Certainly, in our experience, this results in silent and largely cool operation.

When switched on, that central unit also lights up either side, much like the PS4 and PS4 Pro had a light strip to show when it was sleeping or active.

You get a plastic base to use with the PS5, which is most at home standing vertically. However, it can also be attached under the side where the 4K Blu-ray disc slot sits in order to lay the behemoth horizontally. Either way, you are either going to need a lot of room in your AV furniture cabinet or a very forgiving partner or flatmate.

On the facia you get two ports – one USB 3.1, one USB-C. There are also physical buttons for on/off and disc eject. Around the back, you get another two USB 3.1 ports, a HDMI 2.1 output, Ethernet for wired internet, and a figure-of-eight power socket.

There's no doubting that the PS5 looks odd – but we like it. It's unique and so far removed from the PS4 and PS4 Pro that it genuinely feels different to previous console generations.

Also radically different is the DualSense controller. It continues with some of the technologies first introduced with the DualShock 4 but adds significant new ones for good measure.

The shape of the DualSense is more Xbox than PlayStation, and while that might come as a shock to some die-hard fans, you soon get used to it. Same with the slight ridge around the underside that apes the faceplates on the console – it feels odd at first, but not for long.

Gone is the light bar on the top face of the controller, but you still get coloured lighting around the touchpad at the top-centre. The options and share (now called "create") buttons are retained, along with the thumbsticks, D-Pad, and traditional PlayStation shape buttons. And there is a speaker again, which will be useful for developers to have fun with and add an extra layer of immersion.

What's new this time around is a microphone, which can be used both for voice interactions and, as we experienced in the free game that comes with the PS5, Astro's Playroom, to blow into Nintendo Switch-style as an additional interactivity feature. Motion sensors also aid some gameplay mechanics. However, the headline new features are haptic feedback and adaptive triggers.

Haptic feedback uses dual actuators inside the arms of the controller, replacing the traditional rumble packs. They are much more precise and can subtly transform the experience depending on a game's environment. If you've ever used a Nintendo Switch Joy-Con and, specifically, the game 1-2-Switch, there's one mini-game where you have to guess how many marbles are sliding around inside the controller. Its haptics give a very accurate feeling of numerous balls rolling from one end to the other when you tilt it. This is similar to the effect haptic feedback brings to the DualSense. And, now that developers are really getting to grips with it – no pun intended – it definitely adds a new element to games immersion.

As do the adaptive triggers. The Xbox One controllers have long had the ability to interact with games using different amounts of pressure on the triggers, but the DualSense raises this to a whole new level. It has the ability to add force feedback at varying levels, making it either easier or harder to apply varying amounts of pressure. For example, again on Astro's Playroom, when you pull an arrow on a bow, it gets much harder to squeeze the trigger the further back the bowstring goes. It's all clever stuff.

One thing to note is that both haptic feedback and adaptive triggers will more than likely reduce battery life. The controller has a larger rechargeable battery than the previous DualShock, but is called on to do more when those features are utilised. We found it to last up to 12 hours of play, switching between Astro's Playroom (which is heavy on the new tech) and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which is less so.

It's also worth noting that the DualShock 4 works on PS5 too, but only with PlayStation 4 games played through backward compatibility. The DualSense works with all games.

Our only gripe with the DualSense, which we've experienced over the the lifespan of the PS5 so far, is that the thumbsticks on the controller can get a bit loose, even tricky to handle. Of course, that might be because we play more often than most, but it's worth a mention.

Inside the PlayStation 5, you get a whole lot of bang for your buck. It might not be the most powerful current-gen games console on paper, but it has more than enough power to present games at their very best – both native PS5 titles and PS4 through backward compatibility.

There is an eight-core AMD Ryzen Zen 2 main processor, Radeon RDNA 2-based GPU with 10.3 teraflops of power, and 16GB of GDDR6 RAM.

Its 825GB solid state drive boasts up to 5.5GB/s read speeds and combines with the processing unit to provide some of the fastest loading times and responses we've seen to date. It's quite mind-boggling how quick the console can spark up a game or pull assets to move you from one location in an open-world title to another.

One less trumpet-worthy issue, however, is that while the internal SSD has a maximum capacity of 825GB, only 667GB of which is available to the user. That's not a whole lot, to be honest, especially if you take into account that the latest Call of Duty suite of games takes up more than a third of that total.

There is an M.2 expansion port to be found after you remove the faceplates, where you can insert an optional SSD card (PCIe Gen4), but pricing for compatible cards is still largely prohibitive over 1TB, so you might find yourself uninstalling games often just to download others.

The PlayStation 5 does have one saving grace, though: like the PS4, you can use external HDDs and SSDs as long as they are USB 3.0 and above. Indeed, if you already have one hooked up to a PS4, you can just unplug it and plug it into your PS5 instead, and all games on it will be instantly available to you.

The problem is, this only works with PS4 games and even then they won't benefit from any of the console's wizardry (loading times, etc). PS5 games stored on a USB drive will not be playable at all.

We advise, therefore, that you keep PS4 games on an external drive (foregoing super-speedy loading) and reserve the SSD space for PS5 titles only. Indeed, there is even an option in storage settings to automatically install PS4 titles onto external storage only.

Storage space aside – and media playback, which you can read about below – everything else about the PlayStation 5 impresses us, including the all-new user experience.

From the moment you boot the console and sign in, you are treated to a more content rich experience. It's faster than the UX on PS4 and also much prettier. Games – accessible through a top scroll bar that's smaller than before – come with their own backdrops and, in the case of PS5 titles, theme music that plays on the homescreen as you browse.

Each game on the homescreen also presents activities, including trophies you might have earned, plus official news, including trailers, trending broadcasts and add-ons, by just scrolling down through the different segments. These too are beautifully presented and mean you can interact with different game elements or purchase DLC without even needing to open the game or head to the store.

Press the PlayStation button anywhere on the menu and you will see a series of cards with additional content and information. Plus, along the bottom, an additional scroll bar will give you multiple options, including downloads, notifications, a game switcher, Game Base for parties, and the on/off button.

Do so with a game loaded in the background, and you also get access to that title's in-game cards, allowing you to even jump to different game levels and more. The same pops-up if you press the PlayStation button in the game itself.

If you do tap on one of the mission cards – or activities, as PlayStation calls them – you will get a further pop-up detailing any rewards still available in that mission and an option to jump straight to it.

This is all excellent stuff and is both intuitive and beautiful. Xbox took the well-trodden path of keeping its new consoles within the exact same ecosystem as Xbox One – and while that's great in its own right, the new PlayStation user experience is the only one with the initial wow factor for sure.

Having lived with the PS5 since launch, we've now played a vast number of titles on it and have been more than impressed with the majority of them. Native PS5 games look mostly stunning, with rich detail and buttery smooth frame rates.

We have also played a whole host of PS4 games, both from our own library and running through a 4TB external HDD, and from the PlayStation Plus Collection that every PS Plus member has immediate access to. This includes Days Gone and God of War.

The first thing worthy of note is that, thanks to the custom SSD, games stored on it have mind-bogglingly short load time. For example, one of our favourites, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, goes from in-game menu screen to open world action in literally seconds. It fades to black and almost as quickly back out to the actual game. We will never get tired of this.

Many games also make great use of the console's ray tracing abilities, which more accurately realises light within scenes and presents reflections, lens flare, and all the other graphical wizardry previously only available to PC gamers.

It is clear though that developers are still learning how to optimise their games for the machine, at least when it comes to picture performance. The PS5 is capable of 2160p and 60fps natively, fed to a compatible 4K HDR TV, but few offer its entire feature set in the same graphics modes. They might have a 4K resolution, with ray tracing, enhanced lighting and additional visual effects, but only at 30fps. Or drop the ray tracing, and so forth, to reach a stable 60fps.

It's clear that the PS5 isn't as capable as a high-end gaming PC, so there are compromises. However, these are still early days and if you consider the differences between early PS4 games and something like The Last of Us Part 2, you'll know just how far things can improve over time.

The PS5 is also capable of 120fps, but generally at 1080p. Some might prefer the even greater frame rate over resolution though, when their TVs are capable of running at 120Hz, so it's nice to have the option.

As for 8K? While Sony has been talking about it for a while, with compatibility even listed on the box, it'll be years before we see any 8K games. We might see some 8K video content sooner, but that's still debateable. So yes, with HDMI 2.1, the console is 8K-ready, but that won't be tested for quite some time. If ever, to be honest.

In its first year, the PlayStation 5 has improved greatly when it comes to streaming apps and video playback. It's not all rosy though, as the 4K Blu-ray player that's included in a PlayStation for the first time does not support Dolby Vision. You can get Dolby Atmos audio working if you jump through a few hoops, but it would be nice to have had official support for them both.

In other respects, the 4K Blu-ray playback is actually very decent. If you're not an AV purist, you'll applaud the added ability to spin UHD discs more than you'll lament what is lacking.

Media streaming is increasingly well served, with most of the big apps covered. Although we do still miss some of the free services in the UK - such as ITV Hub and My5.

You do now get BBC iPlayer and All4 though, which weren't available at launch. And, Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video playback is very good. Most offer 4K HDR playback too.

Of course, the PS5's natural ability is to play games at their best. And the best games, to boot.

One of PlayStation's big wins throughout the PS4 era was its uncanny ability to churn out streams of five-star exclusives, which has been the case on PS5 so far too.

Soon, Sony will offer its own version of Xbox Game Pass, with new tiers of PlayStation Plus giving access to more than 400 games. Until then though, PS Plus members with a shiny new PS5 get access to the PlayStation Plus Collection, with 19 classic PS4 games to play at no extra cost.

When we say classic, we mean it too. God of War, The Last of Us Remastered, Batman: Arkham Knight, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End… the list goes on. Some, such as the aforementioned Days Gone, also get performance patches to make use of the console's extra firepower.

These are important for those new to the PlayStation family, who don't already have mighty PS4 libraries to fall back on. Those who do will be in dream land, as Sony has never really embraced backward compatibility before – not in such a meaningful way.

Almost every single PS4 title works on PlayStation 5, including those on disc (apart from on the Digital Edition, of course, which doesn't have a disc drive).

If you already have a decent horde of downloaded games bought from the PlayStation Store, you will see them ready for you in the library section of the menu as soon as you boot up the first time. This makes a big difference for a generation quite unlike any other and fills any holes while we save up for native PS5 titles.

To recap

As the PS5 matures it's clear that it is a beast of a machine, both in potential and actual size. Its DualSense controller takes gaming to a new level with its extra features, while the speed of its internal SSD storage is a true game changer. Perhaps best of all though is the continuingly impressive game support, with 4K 60fps graphics almost a default. It's all very impressive stuff.

Writing by Rik Henderson. Editing by Conor Allison.