It’s been 274 days since the launch of the PlayStation 5. It’s the most powerful PlayStation ever made. It’s broken records. It has ray-tracing technology. It can display 8K content. It has the greatest controller ever made. Demand is so high you still can’t even buy one.
And it kind of sucks, actually.
When we first reviewed the gigantic PS5, it wasn’t clear this was going to be the case. The console seemed beefy, innovative, eye-catching, and “extravagant.” We were excited about ray-tracing. We were (and still are) obsessed with the DualSense controller. We eagerly anticipated the chance to expand its storage with our own non-proprietary NVMe SSD (fuck you, Memory Stick!). But, as we stare at the giant, ugly, easily damaged units sitting under our TVs… perhaps we’d gotten ahead of ourselves.
In the beta for its 2.0 firmware, Sony has just enabled SSD expansion for players lucky enough to get their hands on a PlayStation 5. It’s a shame, then, that the process of installing a compatible ultra-fast M.2 NVMe SSD is too hard for most people to actually accomplish. Not to mention the exorbitant cost of additional SSD storage, which lands in the same neighborhood as Xbox’s $220 expansion card (which, again, is easier to install).
The PS5 is establishing something of a pattern with this kind of user experience: We get excited about a feature on paper, the fandom imagines all the exciting things it will enable, and then we wait, only to be delivered a confusing product that seems intentionally designed to frustrate us. Meanwhile, over on Xbox, the same feature set is integrated into the system effortlessly.
While we’re on the topic of customization, Sony’s console also supports swappable faceplates, a feature that would take some of the sting out of the console’s controversial design. At the moment of writing, there are none on offer from Sony — who has also sued third-party manufacturers for producing their own faceplates — presumably so that the company can release exclusive themed consoles whenever sales of the platform start to sag. Which raises the question: Why design a unit with swappable faceplates if you don’t want anyone to, you know, use the feature? Is Sony just encouraging us to learn how to paint?
This isn’t the worst part of the console’s design, however. The glossy black middle of the console attracts a mind-bending amount of dust and is also so prone to scratching that players have taken to using sandpaper to scratch it themselves in a way that looks more attractive than the random damage the console will inevitably accumulate if it encounters anything harder than a human fingernail.
And, while the visual design is less than ideal, the actual engineering of the machine is also confusing. When the console is standing vertically (which, thanks to Sony’s decision to make it so large, is more often than not), why do discs enter the console facing away from the bulk of the hardware? Even if cover-in was the orientation we were used to when inserting discs, this is the exact opposite of what we had to do on the PS4. It just seems like poor decision-making to put the disc drive on that side of the machine.
The games themselves have touted their support for ray-tracing, which is a processing-intensive feature that creates much more realistic lighting in a game than traditional methods. Thus far, it’s been a very pretty but ultimately negligible addition for the amount of hype Sony was promising. In general, games run faster and more smoothly with it turned off. Because of this, an increasing number of players are turning off the feature as a matter of course.
And speaking of these PS5 games, while we love Demon’s Souls, Astro’s Playroom, and the stunning Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Sony has yet to produce a must-have experience exclusively for its next-gen behemoth. The vast majority of games are cross-platform — something we’d usually celebrate… if it weren’t for Sony’s batshit decision to forgo anything resembling Microsoft’s Smart Delivery system.
Over on Xbox, all games automatically upgrade to their next-gen versions, meaning that, without any effort on their part, every user will always be given the best experience of a given game available at the time. Combined with its fancy new FPS Boost mode, which improves the look and feel of legacy titles from the OG Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One eras, it makes for a seamless way to play your games. Even more seamless? Playing Game Pass games on xCloud (included for free with a Game Pass subscription), which never requires any updates or downloads.
New users will be hard-pressed to know whether they’re playing the PS4 or PS5 versions of a given game.
Meanwhile, on Sony’s offering, new users will be hard-pressed to know whether they’re playing the PS4 or PS5 versions of a given game. To select which you’d like to install or play, you have to enter a submenu — not indicated anywhere in the interface — and select the correct system. Why would anyone who owns a PS5 opt to play a PS4 game? Well, don’t worry, there’s a reason and it’s horrible…
Unlike Xbox, where your game saves just automagically arrive wherever you happen to be playing, Sony requires consumers to either migrate the data from their old PS4 (which many people sell in order to afford even the lower-end $399 digital version of the PS5), move their save files onto external storage, or pay for PlayStation Plus.
PlayStation Plus, for its part, also sucks. For a monthly payment of $9.99, a quarterly payment of $24.99, or a yearly payment of $59.99, you get cloud saves (are save files really that large?), monthly free games (of varying quality), access to the PS Plus Collection (downloadable versions of the PS4’s greatest hits), and online multiplayer features. Yes, you still need to pay a monthly subscription fee if you want to go online to play games you have already purchased on a console you have already purchased.
PlayStation Plus, for its part, also sucks.
Or you can stream games through PlayStation Now, Sony’s other service on offer. PlayStation Now is the company’s cloud streaming platform, offering unlimited gaming, on a subscription basis, of highlights from PS2, PS3, and PS4. While the quality of the library itself is up for debate, there’s no doubt that it’s by far a worse streaming solution — with worse latency, picture quality, and much older graphics — than NVIDIA GeForce Now, Google Stadia, or Amazon Luna. It’s about on par with xCloud but, unlike Microsoft’s service, not all games are available to download and play locally.
This might be for the best, as you’d probably have some frustration with the downloaded versions of those games anyway, as the PS5 is not backward compatible with PS1, PS2, or PS3 games. The PS4 and PS5 games it is compatible with require frequent updates.
DAY TO DAY
My PlayStation 5 has a nasty habit of constantly logging my husband in instead of me, the primary user of the console. This isn’t simply a matter of switching between profiles. You see, when logged in to my husband’s account my games don’t install update files — and when logged into my account, his games don’t either.
On the Xbox, those updates happen in the background — I’ve never once gone to the update menu and found something that needed manual updating — but on PlayStation, which promises automatic updates, I’m constantly having to manually do downloads in order to play up-to-date games. There’s also the issue that, once downloaded, all updates go through a “copying” state where the system essentially reinstalls the entire game. This takes a shockingly long amount of time; Sony knows how irritating this is, as it previously promised that PlayStation 5 buyers wouldn’t suffer this much-hated feature of the PS4.
PS5 games also do not support anything like Xbox’s “Quick Resume” which allows players to quickly jump in and out of a given title without having to go through the hassle of reloading and logging into each game. Even with that fancy new SSD, every time you pick up your controller you’ll need to start from square one.
That DualSense controller itself also features a swappable faceplate that we have to paint ourselves to actually customize. Its haptic feedback and adaptive triggers are such good ideas that Microsoft is even flirting with introducing them on its own platform. Unfortunately, Sony’s controllers are suffering their own “drift” issues, similar to those Nintendo is still struggling with. Fixing the issue involves either dealing with Sony’s presently overwhelmed customer service agents or plunging into DIY YouTube and rolling the dice. Not ideal!
The controller also has built-in speakers and a microphone — though, again, these end up being a bigger problem than they’re worth, as the company has opted to turn on this microphone by default, with no warning, in every game. This means you’ll regularly find yourself having a private conversation covertly broadcast to whatever troupe of teenagers are currently kicking your ass in Fortnite.
Then there’s the media tab. Following the universal flop that was the Xbox One’s home theater aspirations, Sony smartly separated its dedicated interface into “Games” and “Media” to better help customers to focus on these two tasks as separate, but dedicated, uses for the console. Regrettably, the media features here are deeply lacking. The PlayStation 5 does not support Dolby Vision or Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Its dedicated media player app does not remember where you were in a movie file. It does not have any settings you can adjust. It goes dim after 10 to 20 minutes of use. It does not autoplay files in any kind of playlist. To get any kind of usable video playing experience using your local library, you’ll need to download and run Plex.
Even the console’s dedicated DVD and Blu-Ray player is utterly barebones. Sony, the company that cemented the DVD’s place in home video with its release of the PlayStation 2, only offers some light noise reduction in place of the suite of playback features already created and available on its line of Blu-Ray players. I guess it felt the need to double-dip?
The system also does not support 1440p resolution — something you’ll find on Xbox — meaning you’ll have to choose between a 4K resolution or a 1080p resolution with better frame rates. This choice, in particular, seems baffling, as Sony would surely prefer players see an upscaled 1440p image with high frame rates to a 4K image at 30 FPS or a 1080p image on a 4K display. And lord help you if you own a common, affordable 1440p gaming monitor.
Even powering off the device is its own tiny nightmare. On the PS4 and Xbox, you simply long-press the console’s logo button, and the option to power down the console or its accessories pops up over any game or app. On the PS5, you must tap the PlayStation logo, scroll to the power options, and operate yet another sub-menu in order to turn the console off. There is no reason given as to why the company has made the change. My brain continues to insist that I turn it off the old way.
In everyday use, these annoyances compound into a frustrating portrait of a company unable or unwilling to create a user-friendly experience.
All of these things are petty squabbles, since the console ultimately delivers on its central promise: For $399, it plays games with cutting-edge visuals and exciting features. But in everyday use, these annoyances compound into a frustrating portrait of a company unable or unwilling to create a user-friendly experience. It’s death by a thousand cut corners. Where Microsoft simply took its old OS and interface and refined them, Sony opted to start over completely and we’re still not entirely sure why.
The vast majority of our issues with the console can, and likely will, be ironed out via firmware updates halfway through the console’s life cycle. It’s just infuriating that one-third of the console gaming industry’s hardware players has decided to phone it in this time.
Hopefully the PlayStation 5 follows in the footsteps of the PlayStation 3, which had a similarly high profile and rocky launch. Meanwhile, I’ll be playing whatever’s on Game Pass this month.