PlayStation 5 Review: Building a Foundation to Repeat the PS4's Success

PlayStation 5 Review: Building a Foundation to Repeat the PS4's Success

The future is bright for Sony's oddly-shaped box of entertainment.

The beginning of the last console generation was truly remarkable for Sony. Following the announcement of the PlayStation 4, Sony opened up on Microsoft's Xbox One with everything it had. The new system came in at $399, showing that it had learned from the disastrous PS3 launch while undercutting the Xbox One. It focused on the games, not the ill-aimed Kinect or multimedia. And there was no controversial always-online DRM, as illustrated by the iconic PlayStation used game instructional video.

There's nothing like that as we head into the launch of the PlayStation 5. The Xbox Series X lacks a marquee title, sure, but in terms of price, capabilities, and overall launch lineups, both systems are roughly the same. There's a parity that wasn't there in the last generation, leading both platform holders to make their cases in terms of more subtle nuance. The PlayStation 5 is improved horsepower backed up by a very familiar user interface, just like Microsoft's offering.

For $499 (or $399 for the Digital Edition), you can enter the next generation on November 12. Sony is heading into 2021 and beyond betting on the same thing that won it the last generation: powerful hardware, a strong list of first-party games, and a stranglehold on Japan. Having spent a while with the upcoming console, I can say the PlayStation 5 is shaping up to be every bit the strong follow-up to the PlayStation 4.

Are you ready to evolve? | Mike Williams/USG

The Design and Specs of the PlayStation 5

The PlayStation 5 makes a statement, screaming from the rooftops to be seen. In my early impressions, I called it a "huge, weird art mural of a console," and I stand by that. It's been on my entertainment stand for some time now, but it still hasn't faded into the background of my life like its predecessors. The PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro had that unique slant to their designs, but once they were in my home, the boxes themselves were forgotten. That's partially because of the matte black of each unit, but also because this generation saw me move away from physical media. The gentle slope of the white faceplates on the PS5 stand out, a stark contrast to every other box under my television.

The PS5 itself was obviously designed to stand upright, venting heat out of the top and back of the unit. In the upright position, the included stand screws into the bottom, adding some stability to the entire system. In my own home, using the upright position would mean putting the PS5 behind my television, but I have cats and they already occasionally knock down the Switch dock that already occupies that space. For this hefty 10.08 lb console (versus the 6.17 lbs and 7.2 lbs of the PS4 and PS4 Pro), a fall would probably damage something, so I can't chance it.

Instead, I have the PS5 horizontal. Here the stand just clips onto the back; moving it while in the horizontal position is likely to make the stand slide off, and the PS5 cannot lay flat on its own. It feels much larger laying on its side, where you can feel every bit of the 15.4 x 4.1 x 10.2 inch (390 x 104 x 260 mm) dimensions. Some folks will need to really think about where they place the PS5 in a way they didn't for previous PlayStation consoles.

That space is necessary to house the beefy internals of this next-generation console. For reference, here are the full system specifications for the PS5:

PlayStation 5
CPU 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5GHz (variable frequency)
GPU 10.28 TFLOPs, 36 CUs at 2.23GHz (variable frequency), Custom RDNA 2
Memory 16GB GDDR6/256-bit
Memory Bandwidth 448GB/s
Internal Storage Custom 825GB SSD
IO Throughput 5.5GB/s (Raw), Typical 8-9GB/s (Compressed)
Expandable Storage NVMe SSD Slot
External Storage USB HDD Support
Optical Drive 4K UHD Blu-ray Drive
The DualSense, the DualShock 4, and the competition. | Mike Williams/USG

Out of the box, the PS5 comes with almost everything you need to hook the system up. There's the DualSense controller, the power cable, an HDMI 2.1 cable, and a USB-C to USB-A cable for charging the DualSense. If you want to have a wired connection directly to your router, you'll need your own LAN cable.

The DualSense feels like a compromise between the DualShock 4 and the Xbox One controller, widening out the handles to better fit in my larger hands. The handles also include a cool mini-pattern of PlayStation symbols to add grip. The rest of the controller is just small design tweaks, with the Lightbar LEDs moving underneath the touchpad, and a USB-C port where the Lightbar used to be for charging the controller.

Welcome to the PS5's Home screen. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony

User Interface: Smoothing Over the PS4's UI

Turning on the PS5 for the first time, the LEDs around the upper end of the system (right side if horizontal) glow a soft PlayStation blue. Folks wanted to know if there were multiple colors to these LEDs, and there are. Like the PS4 Pro, they'll glow white in normal operation and orange in rest mode.

Though the opening screens of PS5's user interface hearken back to the PS3, once you log in on your PlayStation account, the actual home interface is a slightly-altered version of what you've seen on the PS4. The PlayStation Store retains its spot on the far left of a horizontal row of cards. Next up is the "Explore" section, which replaces the PS4's "What's New" section, and offers official news and videos for recently-played games. The rest of the bar is filled out by current games in the order you've installed or played them, ending in your Game Library section.

It's actually a bit odd how little the user interface has changed versus the PS4. Sections have been moved around, and there are more options available, but the general layout feels familiar and the font is the exact same. One major change is that Media has been shuffled into its own section of the homepage, so apps like Netflix, Disney+, or Crunchyroll no longer appear in your Game Library.

There's also a shift in how the system handles pressing the PlayStation button while inside a game. On the PS4, doing so would dump you right back out to the home screen. On the PS5, it's an overlay of your game called the Control Center, featuring cards with official game news, what your friends are playing, and recent videos. It also offers a smaller version of the old PS4 home screen top bar, with sections for Home, Notifications, Downloads, Friends (now called Game Base), Music, Devices, Profile, and Power Settings. This new Control Center allows you to change settings, check downloads, or change device settings, all without actually leaving your game. It's a more elegant choice versus the PS4, and it works great here.

Control Center also includes the new Switcher, a feature that Sony hasn't talked much about. On the surface, this seems like a way to quickly switch between different games, similar to the Xbox Series X's Quick Resume. You'd think that it would save your current game state, allowing you to move to another seamlessly. It doesn't though. It lets you move from game to game, but jumping from Spider-Man: Miles Morales to Ghost of Tsushima or Astro's Playroom returned me to their respective title screens. The feature is sadly more of a way to quickly switch between games. The fact that the Switcher doesn't have save states honestly feels like a misstep.

Poking around other system settings in the PlayStation 5 also reveals a few new options. I've spoken about the DualSense's Adaptive Triggers being a game changer for immersive feedback, but not everyone wants their triggers to fight them. On the PS4, you only had a single toggle for vibration. With the PS5, you can change vibration intensity and trigger effect intensity to one of four levels in the Accessibility or Accessories sections, including disabling it entirely. Customized button assignments also return, and Sony has added more color tweaking options and text choices for readability.

This is how much storage you have available out of the box. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony

Benchmarking The New Storage Options

Overall storage space is an issue on PlayStation 5. Sony's decision to prioritize speed meant compromising space, with the PS5 offering only 646.7 GB of free space out of the box. That's small because the games themselves are getting bigger; Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is 133 GB on PS5 and you're likely to see similar Triple-A titles start to approach 100 GB in the rush to make 4K-ready assets. You can augment your storage with an external hard drive, but any game you install on it won't benefit from the architecture of the main drive. (There is a slot for M.2 SSDs, but Sony has confirmed that support won't be available at launch.)

My current solution is to run my old PS4 games off the external drive, but given that modern games are starting to become prohibitively large, this feels like a stop gap solution. Sony was obviously aligned with this solution though, as there's a toggle in Storage settings to make PS4 games automatically install on the external hard drive. You can copy your games straight from your PS4 to PS5 during setup, or you can copy them to the external drive on the PS4 and just move that drive over.

I actually had to move PS4 saves over manually via USB, as the PS5 would not connect to my PlayStation Plus cloud storage. The system separates PS5 and PS4 save data, and oddly enough, there doesn't currently look to be a way to move PS5 save data to a USB drive. I assume that's something that will be added with time.

You can set PS4 games to automatically download to external storage. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony

But how do those old games perform on the PS5 overall, assuming you have them on the system or an external hard drive? Here's a few benchmarks from my limited testing, using my PS4 Pro, PS5, and cheap 2 TB WD Easystore (USB 3.0 5400 RPM HDD) I picked up from Best Buy. For the purposes of testing, I loaded Ghost of Tsushima from the respective console's home screen, from the title menu into the game itself, and then tested Fast Travel from the two furthest points (Jogaku Temple to Azamo Bay). Here's my results.

Ghost of Tsushima - PlayStation 4 Pro

Time
Load From System Home 46.19 seconds
Load From Title 24.32 seconds
Fast Travel 9.65 seconds

Ghost of Tsushima - PlayStation 5, External HDD

Time
Load From System Home 46.42 seconds
Load From Title 27.63 seconds
Fast Travel 7.56 seconds

Ghost of Tsushima - PlayStation 5, Internal SSD

Time
Load From System Home 41.54 seconds
Load From Title 18.67 seconds
Fast Travel 6.49 seconds

There's not much in the way of difference between the PS4 Pro and PS5 on an external drive, but I was surprised to find that moving Ghost of Tsushima to the internal SSD only saved a ton of time in one test case. I'm sure the folks over at Digital Foundry will do far more testing on a larger variety of games and external drives, but for the time being, you're not losing much playing your PS4 games off a bog-standard external. And certain games like Ghost of Tsushima look far better on PS5, running at 4K60, so you're winning in that respect no matter what.

The system does its best to clearly marked PS4 and PS5 games. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony

While installing games on the PlayStation 5 for the testing, I was also struck by the fact that it felt like games were downloading much quicker. Despite some fan statements to the contrary, it can take much longer to download games on the PS4 versus Steam or even the Xbox One. I have a rather robust Verizon FIOS internet—756 Mbps down, 939 Mbps up—and I have both systems wired to the router, so I know that's never been the problem. I decided to test the difference with small and medium-sized PS4 games.

For the small game, I chose Disgaea 5, which comes in at a very slight 6.58 GB. On the PlayStation 4 Pro, it took 10 minutes and 42 seconds to download the entire game, versus the mere 1 minute and 58 seconds on the PlayStation 5. From there, it only took 1 minute and 2 seconds to transfer to the external hard drive, making it playable on both systems.

The medium-sized game I chose was Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, standing at 36.6 GB in total size. That took a total of 58 minutes and 34 seconds to download completely on my PS4 Pro. On PS5? 7 minutes and 1 second. From nearly an hour to under ten minutes is an astonishing drop in terms of download times. That's almost worth the price of admission alone. Suffice it to say, you probably don't need to keep your PlayStation 4 around anymore.

Miles Morales is one of the PS5 ringers. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony

Launch Lineup

Heading into this new generation, Sony is relying on extensive help from third-party partners to fill out the overall launch lineup of the PlayStation 5. The list of pure PS5 exclusives is rather small on paper, leaving most of the games listed below to stretch across multiple platforms.

PS5 Exclusive

  • Astro's Playroom
  • Demon's Souls

PS5 Non-Exclusive

  • Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition
  • Godfall
  • Observer: System Redux
  • Overcooked: All You Can Eat

PS5-PS4 Crossgen, With Free Upgrades

  • Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  • Assassin's Creed Valhalla
  • Borderlands 3
  • Bugsnax
  • DIRT 5
  • Fortnite
  • Maneater
  • Mortal Kombat 11, MK11 Ultimate
  • No Man's Sky
  • The Pathless
  • Planet Coaster: Console Edition
  • Poker Club
  • Sackboy: A Big Adventure
  • Watch Dogs Legion
  • WRC 9

PS5-PS4 Crossgen, With Shenanigans

  • Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  • NBA 2K21

The remake of Demon's Souls and Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales are acting as the ringers here. Since Sony passed on bringing the original Demon's Souls to the West on PlayStation 3, the "Souls" name has risen in prominence. The wizards over at Bluepoint Gamesare using the framework of FromSoftware's cult classic to deliver a strong next-gen showcase. And Spider-Man was one of the best-selling titles on PlayStation 4, so a soft sequel is a great place for PS5 to kick off.

Demon's Souls is a much bigger deal now than it was when it launched on PS3. | Sony

My suite of available games has been sparse, as some multi-platform games won't have their PS5 versions available until launch. Even some of Sony's own games won't be available until then. That's left me with a few PS5 games to play in total: Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Astro's Playroom, The Pathless, and Bugsnax, with Ghost of Tsushima and Days Gone having update patches for improved PS5 performance.

Most of my playtime with the PS5 has been on Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which is an excellent showcase of the PS5's graphical prowess despite also being available on PS5. Ghost of Tsushima looks fantastic under the "Better Frame Rate" option from the PS4 Pro version of the game, which seems to hit 60fps. (Sucker Punch stated there'd be a new option PS5-only on Twitter, but I couldn't find it on the current version of the game.) Astro's Playroom is a solid bit of fun, but a bit on the short side.

Which is to say, you're relying on a lot of old games and multiplatform titles. But honestly, I don't think that's a huge problem. Not everyone has a beefy desktop PC, and the PS5 is an excellent place to enjoy games like Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales or Assassin's Creed Valhalla in a kickin' 4K60. My major issue is more one of envy, as the Xbox Series X backward compatibility system natively improves a host of games. On the PS5, that's largely up to developer patches, so older titles like Assassin's Creed Origins essentially run just like they did on the PS4 Pro. This is one area where I wish Sony had looked backward rather than forward.

The PS5 stands alongside its predecessors, looking to repeat their success. | Mike Williams/USG

The Verdict: Is the PS5 Worth Buying?

I'm a bleeding edge consumer, so I would've purchased the PS5 regardless. But if you own a strong gaming PC and a PS4 Pro, the mental math here is a little fuzzier. Demon's Souls is a true graphical showcase for the PS5, but its other touted exclusive, Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, is basically a standalone expansion that's also available for PlayStation 4. The same can be said for several future games, including the much-anticipated Horizon: Forbidden West The lines between the previous generation and the next are blurred at the moment. The PS5 is a purchase of potential.

But Sony has largely delivered on that potential in the past. The run of first-party games including Horizon Zero Dawn, Spider-Man, God of War, Ghost of Tsushima, and The Last of Us Part 2 gives a strong indication of where this platform can go in the future. These are all fantastic games built specifically for the PS4 and PS4 Pro, with developers doing some magical work. And a key facet here is the ability to play all those excellent PS4 games on this new system. Not only do they download far faster on PS5—finally!—there are gains in loading times and some graphical improvements.

The addition of features like ray tracing, the ultra-fast SSD, and the Adaptive Triggers of the DualSense could result in some fantastic PS5-exclusive games, but that's not entirely apparent right now. Instead, the real gains are purely in terms of performance, with 4K resolution and 60fps being the benchmarks for a number of launch games. Developers need time to really come to terms with what the system can do. I can only imagine what say Spider-Man 2 can look like, untethered from the need to support the PS4.

I think the PS5 is a system that will prove its full worth in a year or so. Demon's Souls could be enough for some folks, a firm right hook to open up this new system. Once Sony starts delivering more possible haymakers, I can see the PS5 standing up right alongside the PS4. As it stands, especially in this economy, you could potentially survive without a PS5 this holiday. But I wouldn't wait too long.

While the exterior makes a broad, powerful statement, the day-to-day use of the PlayStation 5 feels a lot like its predecessor. What you actually gain are 4K and 60fps as clear, consistent benchmarks for many games, drastically-reduced load times, and the new haptic features of the DualSense controller. And while Sony and its third-party partners come to grips with the PS5, you're able to play all your favorite PS4 games, some with impressive graphical improvements. This is a great foundation though, for Sony to repeat the great success the PS4 had this generation.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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