PlayStation 5 review: The most extravagant console in decades

Sony's PlayStation 5 captures the awe and power that comes to mind when you think "next-gen" console. With a more striking design and more immersive DualSense controller that lets you feel games in new ways, the PS5 is the superior gaming experience compared to the Xbox Series X.

Architecturally, Sony's PlayStation 5 and Microsoft's Xbox Series X are incredibly alike.

Both next-gen consoles promise games with even more photorealistic graphics enabled by ray tracing and larger worlds backed by similarly monster CPU and GPU chips. The two consoles also come with wicked fast flash storage that significantly cuts down on loading times.

I've been playing the PS5 and Xbox Series X every evening and weekend nonstop for the past few weeks and I now have a good sense of each console's strengths and weaknesses. While the underlying tech components tell a tale of similarities, Sony and Microsoft's philosophies couldn't be more different.

You can't wrong with either game console. Video game generations come only once every 6 to 7 years so they're long-term investments. But if you want the system that truly feels next-gen — really pushes video game immersion (not just graphics or frame rate) to the next level — the PS5 is the way to go. In every way, it’s a weirder, more interesting, and fun console than the Xbox Series X/S, which plays it almost too safe.

From the future

The PS5 is demands your full attention.Raymond Wong / Input

The PS5 is enormous; the memes are never-ending; and you may even still be upset it doesn't come in black, but there is no denying the PS5 is a statement piece. I have no doubt Sony could have designed a sleek console, but such a predictable box wouldn’t be the same conversation starter compared to what it landed on.

Compared to the spartan Xbox Series X, the PS5 projects pure confidence: its bending white panels (if you're daring you can spray paint them) look alien but futuristic, like a piece of architecture designed by Zaha Hadid; its prominently slanted vents scream power; and the glow of its light (orange in standby, blue when booted up, and white when on) feels alive, breathing, and begging you to engage with it.

The PS5 is massive compared to the PS4, Xbox Series X, and Xbox One X.Raymond Wong
One is not like the other
The PS4 is absolutely compact in comparison.
Better make sure your media center has room for this big boy.

I was not a fan of the 15-pound bulging case when Sony unveiled the PS5 in June to the world (apparently, Sony wanted it to be even bigger?!). But once unboxed and plugged into my 4K TV, I've grown to admire its distinct shape and facade. There’s no mistaking the PS5 for a last-gen console; I can’t say the same for the Xbox Series X’s minimalist which looks and feels too evolutionary to the Xbox One X, but also befits Microsoft’s “Netflix for gaming” strategy with Xbox Game Pass.

There’s no mistaking the PS5 for a last-gen console.

The PS5’s large and unorthodox design made hooking it up to my TV more challenging than my previous consoles. As expected, the PS5 didn’t fit inside of my entertainment center horizontally and the included HDMI cable and power cable are not long enough to reach my TV's HDMI port and the outlet so I’ve just left it sitting vertically outside of the cabinet.

Out in the open, the PS5 is impossible to ignore. It begs to be played.Raymond Wong / Input

And truthfully, I don’t hate that it’s just hanging out in the open. It reminds me of the old days when everyone’s console setups weren’t so pristine and neat — consoles were haphazardly wired up to a TV in bedrooms and attics. For lack of a better word, the PS5 feels more gamer-y, which is not a surprise when the panels and controller undersides include details like this that you wouldn’t even notice at first glance.

Feel your games

The DualSense 5 is more ergonomic in every way compared to the PS4's DualShock 4 controller.Raymond Wong / Input

Besides the design, the biggest and most important differentiating factor between the PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S is the DualSense controller. Unlike the Xbox Series X/S controller, which is mostly the same as an Xbox One controller but with minor refinements, the DualSense is hands down more groundbreaking.

True to its name, Sony’s engineered the DualSense to offer more sensation. The advanced haptics and adaptive triggers make the DualSense a considerable leap over the Xbox Series X gamepad. I thought the Rumble HD in the Switch’s Joy-Cons were next-level, but the DualSense’s haptics go so much further. The best analogy I can think of is: stereo audio vs. surround sound. The DualSense’s haptics is akin to jumping from two-channel separation to five or seven-channel speakers that encircle you and makes the hairs on your arm stand up from the heightened immersion.

The triggers have more tension; they get tighter and looser depending on how hard you press them and what materials you interact with in a game.Raymond Wong / Input

This new level of tactility is impossible to show in photos and difficult to convey in videos because it’s something you can only understand through touch. In a nutshell: the new haptics and triggers are much more precise and sensitive than your usual rumble found in gamepads. In games like Astro’s Playroom (included as a free download with every PS5), which was deliberately created by Sony as a way to showcase the DualSense’s unique haptics and triggers, surfaces and actions feel different. For instance, walking on metal feels different than walking on wood and solids feel harder than liquids. The haptics aren’t just mechanical buzzes. There’s specificity and intensity to each vibration that opens the potential for games with more depth.

In a game like "Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War" the triggers add new levels of feedback to shooting.Tom Caswell / Input

Similarly, the adaptive triggers have more tension to them; there’s a tightness and looseness depending on how light or hard you press them. In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you can feel the strength of your web as you swing across New York City. It’s truly mind-blowing stuff the first time you feel a game with this added realism.

The added levels of sense aren’t the only things that make the DualSense such a pleasure to use. The larger and more curved proportions make it more ergonomic to grip for long game sessions; the LED light has been reduced compared to the big bar on the PS4’s DualShock 4; and the built-in microphone is nice for when you don’t want to don a headset. Other than a new Create button that replaces the old Share button, the controller’s pretty familiar to PlayStation users, which comes with all of the good and bad. That includes the D-pad that’s still split into four which makes it less than ideal for fighting games that require more diagonal presses and somewhat cheap-feeling rubbery analog sticks (the texture on the analogs on Xbox controllers feel more sturdy). On the bright side, it charges via USB-C, the touchpad is still awesome for inputting text, and the textured grip undersides give it a premium-ness you won’t find on the Xbox Series X gamepad.

Turbo power

We could sit here all day and compare the PS5 and Xbox Series X spec for spec, but that would be a huge waste of your time. The PC-esque architecture inside is so alike that Microsoft's claim that the Series X is “the most powerful game console” doesn't hold too much weight.

As a tech guy, I love me some beefy specs, but I can’t honestly say I even care that the PS5 has an AMD Ryzen CPU with eight cores, each running at up to 3.5GHz at variable frequencies or that its AMD RDNA 2 GPU has 36 CUs (compute units) versus the Series X’s 52 CU and delivers up to 10.28 teraflops of performance (1.72 fewer teraflops than the Series X). Nor do I think anyone is buying a PS5 because it has 16GB of GDDR6 RAM. With the exception of storage — PS5 comes with an 825GB NVMe SSD (667GB of which is usable) versus the 1TB NVMe SSD on Series X (802GB usable) — these numbers matter more to game developers than they to do players. On the topic of storage, there’s also no internal M.2 SSD storage expansion at launch (the slot’s disabled for now); Xbox at least has fast SSD expansion cards. The PS5 does support USB storage for playing PS4 games, but they won’t benefit from the faster speeds you’d get from the internal storage.

The vents are prominent, but the console runs silent.Raymond Wong / Input
The $499 model comes with a Blu-ray drive. The digital edition doesn't.
All the ports on the back.Raymond Wong / Input

At the end of the day, the PS5 is no less of a powerhouse than the Xbox Series X despite having fewer compute units in its GPU. Games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and Demon’s Souls are visual showstoppers that really show off the power of ray tracing. Real-time reflections, improved textures and shaders, and more lifelike weather and water particles are just the tip of the iceberg with ray tracing. The only wrinkle in this that you need a 4K TV with HDR to get the absolute best graphical fidelity with up to 4K resolution and 120 fps. I’m spoiled by my bleeding-edge 55-inch LG 4K HDR OLED TV and plugging the PS5 into a smaller 1080p HDTV felt like a major downgrade. Sony’s boasting support for 8K, but unless you’ve got pockets full of cash to drop on an 8K TV, that’s nothing to be concerned about right now.

It’s excruciating going back to loading times that are long enough for you to make a sandwich.
Ignore the lack of HDR (my video editor can't edit HDR so it's HDR), but look at the reflections in the glass and the subtle real-time lighting in the puddles. That's ray tracing, baby!Raymond Wong / Input

It’s still the very early days for what we can expect from PS5 games. Games released in year two, three, and four, will no doubt be even more grand and stunning from a graphics standpoint. However, the most immediately noticeable upgrade if graphics are not at the top of your list is the speed of load times. Sony made a big fuss about the PS5’s blistering fast SSD and RAM, which enables a significant reduction in load times and it wasn’t kidding. In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the PS5 often loads the game’s expansive cityscape levels in under 10 seconds versus the 30+ seconds it takes on my launch PS4. I can’t overstate what a seismic shift this is for console gaming. It’s remarkable how quickly you get used to the shorter loading times. This is how games should have always worked: with fast read and write speeds akin to the near-instantaneous experience that you get from a cartridge. The PS5’s fast load times really spoil you and it’s excruciating going back to loading times that are long enough for you to make a sandwich.

Just as divisive as the console is the PS5’s UI. I agree it can be confusing if you’re used to the simpler and more organized UIs on past PlayStations. But I got used to the two different modes (“rest mode” and “control center”) after a few days and have come to appreciate how it displays content activity in cards with a major focus on detailed game activity; for example, you can see your progress for specific levels in a game and dive back into specific sections. It’s a very different way of playing and resuming games, and can be very helpful for beginners. There’s one feature I’m disappointed about: there’s no built-in web browser. Yeah, there a million ways to get online especially when everyone’s phones are right next to them, but it still feels weird to not include a feature that the PS3 and PS4 both have. Fingers crossed it’ll get patched in with a future software update.

Strong start

The PS5 is weird, powerful, and feels more next-gen than the Xbox Series X.Raymond Wong / Input

I said at the start that you can’t go wrong with either the PS5 or the Xbox Series X. Both consoles deliver ray tracing graphics and 4K at up to 120 fps. Which one is better suited for you depends on which company’s strategy you want to buy into. With Xbox, Microsoft’s betting on the strength of its platform as more of service; Game Pass gives gamers access to over 100 games for $14.99 a month. Exactly like Netflix, Microsoft’s vision for gaming is less about the specific Xbox hardware — play on Xbox One or Xbox Series X/S or PC or Android — and more about accessibility and convenience.

On the other hand, Sony’s doubling down on the traditional console formula that tightly marries hardware and software. I think Microsoft’s skating in the right direction, but at the same time, the Xbox’s gaming experience offers little in ways of next-gen immersion compared to the PS5. Shinier graphics wear off quickly and right now gushing about reflections is really a geek luxury. The truth is most people are going to be indifferent to prettier visuals and as always, it’ll come down to what games are available on each console. On that front, the PS5 already has a leg up on the Xbox Series X/S.

If you’re looking for wow factor, the PS5 has tons of it.

Every PS5 owner should grab themselves a copy of Spider-Man: Miles Morales to get a taste of not just ray tracing, but the unique haptics enabled by the DualSense. My colleague Tom Caswell recommends Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War for experiencing the adaptive triggers. Sure, many of the two dozen or so PS5 launch titles are available on PS4, which makes it less urgent to upgrade. But exclusives like Miles Morales, Demon’s Soul, and Godfall can’t be had on Xbox. Sony’s also promising more PS5 exclusives including God of War: Ragnarok, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Grand Turismo 7, and Final Fantasy XVI coming in 2021 and beyond. I’m personally looking forward to the second part of Final Fantasy VII Remake which I’m willing to bet will come as some kind of exclusive on PS5 just like the first part.

Hardcore gamers and early adopters will love the hardware and software lineup Sony’s pulled together for the PS5. But neither the PS5 or Xbox Series X will feel like a compelling value until more games like Cyberpunk 2077 come out. The launch titles are good, but the second, third, and fourth wave of PS5 games are going to really unlock the console’s power and graphics.

It also remains to be seen how detailed or lazy developers will be in incorporating the more immersive haptics in their games. Like the Switch’s proprietary Rumble HD or the iPhone’s 3D Touch (RIP), the DualSense’s legitimacy will live or die by its support. I can see developers who create for multiple platforms or smaller developers who are strapped for resources not even bothering with the additional tactility as a way to shave cost or development time or both. Sony’s tried adding an extra level of immersion to the controller with the Sixaxis controller for PS3 (later upgraded to include vibration with the DualShock 3. The added level of immersion on the Sixaxis was different and the lack of vibration altogether made it inferior to an Xbox controller, but the promise for new levels of interactivity was the same. Time will tell if Sony’s controller ends up being a gimmick or not. I really hope it’s not because it’s really enjoyable when given enough love.

If you’re looking for wow factor, the PS5 has tons of it. The console is far more exciting than the Xbox Series X. Now, Sony just needs its own version of Xbox Game Pass — yes, there's PlayStation Now, but it's nowhere near as compelling — to make Microsoft really sweat.