PlayStation 5, first impressions

I almost considered doing an unboxing video, but I figured there were probably plenty of those that were far more interesting than anything I could do. Plus it came really late and I still don’t have a better spot than my greenhouse, so I just wanted to set it up.

The first thing you’ll notice is the controller is a bit large and heavy. The face buttons are surprisingly far apart, making Square an even bigger pain to reach than usual, and the lack of the signature colors makes them blend into the controller in a way I really don’t like. Silver on white makes them indistinguishable at a glance where a splash of the old color would have lent this thing some semblance of personality. It’s USB-C and uses the same amber color for charging as the PS4 controller does and seems to just use the same LEDs wholesale, but there’s a lot less of it since Sony dropped any plans of using it for motion controls and you can more easily see the color since it’s on the clear piping (I’d struggle to call it a "strip") of the face facing you, rather than what they did with their revised DualShock 4 where the front LED comes up through a line in the touchpad. I can’t say I really like their revisions for the DualSense. Just trying to remember it, it comes out as a featureless blob, and honestly I keep thinking the touchpad is black when it’s actually white like the rest of the thing (EDIT: most of the rest of the thing; this thing has so little personality I completely forgot about the black parts). The only feature that’s actually memorable is the light piping and only then because it’s awful. Charging it has a cold white LED at the center bottom and the blue LEDs for it being on just don’t travel as far along it as they’d need to to make it feel like a good design. They just sort of peter out before coming anywhere close to filling out the thing like a neon pipe as I can only assume may have been the original intent. I won’t say I hate it; it’s just a whole wad of nothing and sometimes "bland" is the worst thing you can be. If it were terrible, that would mean someone actually threw some passion into it. I shudder to think what this means for button prompts in games going forward, because if I need to choose between two low-contrast white-and-silver circles in the heat of the moment, it ain’t happening. Sony didn’t so much drop the ball here as took it to the top of the Burj Khalifa and did the longest Olympic high dive ever with every maneuver on the books in triplicate before taking it into a face-forward slam straight into the ground that anime shattered a whole city block. This whole thing is made of Essence of Design by Committee. It’s the first time I’ve ever looked up controller mods and despite the Internet going ape over a simple photoshop with the iconic colors pre-release somehow nobody brought that to market! It’s pretty unbelievable that what took someone a couple minutes of tint work in Photoshop and drew universal praise somehow eluded the entire market. There’s an obvious need not being met here to add back an ounce of personality to this thing, and I’m not coughing up nearly $40 to cobble together solid-color buttons that simply don’t go out of 4 sets. This abject failure from Sony, official partners, and Chinese knock-offs to provide something so critically basic to making this thing have any soul at all is proof that capitalism is not the best economic system. Now excuse me while I buy a suncatcher kit with enough clear paint colors to tint these dang things. I’m not even joking; I have an open tab and am seriously considering it, if only because taking the buttons out to replace them requires an opening pick and a "spudger" and I am right there with you thinking that sounds like a made-up tool some plumber came up with to make a homeowner stop "helping." I cannot remember the last time Sony made any device that was so visually forgettable. Adding those frosty colors into the white would have at least given it something to identify it as anything but "a controller, maybe" and their own lack of branding has sucked a lot of my enthusiasm out of it. The whole thing feels like a step back, because if my stubby thumbs can’t easily reach the buttons, a kid’s tiny hands certainly aren’t having a good time here, and the shapes are the only branding Sony has anymore and here they basically fade into everything else with their silver color (EDIT: neutral gray… *sigh*).

On branding, the PS5 itself crams the logo in what passes for a corner (EDIT: IT’S A PS LOGO ON THE BACK BOTTOM CORNER OMG WHY!?), too, so, like, I guess if you’re into modern art it will fit nicely next to all your other things that don’t look like anything, but just to nitpick, it looks like they recycled the LED setup for that, too, so I hope you like orange and cold white, because the only blue you’ll get will once again be when it’s spinning up. I’d say "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," but the honest truth is I wasn’t impressed with it on the PS4, either. Though I do have to say the effect of the colors on the inside of the white curves is kinda nice, even if the cold white just makes it even more stark. Once again, I really wish they’d have switched the blue and white just to retain some visual interest during operation. One can only assume it likewise uses red in the event it overheats or you really step in it somehow.

The PS5 is pretty shockingly easy to set up, with the plug in the bottom easily identifiable as something you have to pick out with a fingernail and the base turning to reveal the screw and plug holder came like second nature to me even without the instructions. It was quite obvious how it fit together. One thing I will say is while it’s big, it’s not quite as cartoonishly big as I was expecting. It is, however, pretty darn heavy, and the base doesn’t need to be weighted because of it.

Software setup is a breeze, but I recommend doing your data import from PS4 with a cable. It really does make life easier. Just importing your accounts is enough and only takes a minute or two. You can import your PS4 games, but unless save transfer is a pain like it is for Final Fantasy VII Remake, you may not actually want to since it’s just going to import the actual PS4 version data when you could, y’know, get the PS5 version with all the benefits.

Downloading actually kinda sucks now, though. The PS4 allowed you to download up to 3 items at once, where this is one at a time, which is a rather disgusting backstep. Even worse is that your download progress is buried even deeper than it was before in your notifications and that took me longer to find than I’d like because the icons are miniscule and could have used a clarity pass. The whole interface lacks clarity and is just too small overall. I don’t like it. Oh, and the default color scheme is gray. A cavernous dim gray. I wish I was joking; I haven’t seen an interface go from pleasant if professional to soul-crushing drudgery with even worse organization this hard since Microsoft Office 2003 was kicked to the curb and Microsoft forced the Ribbon onto the world. Not that either the PS3 or PS4 had the best interface, but it didn’t cram everything I wanted into tiny strips on the top and bottom so it could use 99% of the screen real estate to advertise at me. I quickly found myself getting tunnel vision trying to read the crap I actually wanted. If I wanted an interface that so poorly prioritized the actual games in my library I’d tape a Game Boy to the top of a billboard and call it good. Oh, and the settings organization is garbage, too. I found myself clunking through different levels of 3-deep menus searching for something as simple as the Internet Connection Test and that’s just as frustrating as it sounds. It’s like Sony intentionally gave the whole design process to Microsoft and asked them to work their magic and Microsoft ran off giggling and twirling their mustache and then served Sony this on a silver platter along with a bottle of suspicious brown liquid labeled "TOTALLY NOT POISON, PLEASE DRINK" before going home to giftwrap an alarm clock wired to a bundle of dynamite. And somehow that image is INFINITELY more engaging to think about than any of the design of the PS5.

Setup otherwise doesn’t actually take long and Remote Play works surprisingly nicely. The Disconnect option on the PS4 side even asks if you want to put the PS5 into Rest Mode.

One good thing about the PS5 controller is it has the mic right on it, so there’s no need for the PS5 HD Camera unless you want to stream. On the other hand, that makes the PS5 HD Camera completely useless for anything but streaming and it seems like a big ol’ waste when it could have done some good for actual games, even acting as a secondary point of view for the upcoming PSVR 2. I can’t say I really trust the thing to be a true room VR setup with inside out tracking if you have to be constantly looking at your own hands. There are plenty of reasons having a secondary camera would be useful for that, like, say, the 50% of the time in VR games when you have reason to be looking at anything but directly at your hands. I really hope a software update gives the camera a better reason to exist given Sony’s patents on how they planned to stitch together the room as a 3D space based on whatever cameras you could feasibly throw at the problem. Until then, I won’t be buying one. And that feels really disappointing to say, because I for one absolutely love the PS4’s facial recognition login. It feels like a step backwards to not have that given how convenient it is.

But I keep saying things like this and it keeps circling back: almost everything about the PS5 feels like a step backwards from the PS4. Sure, the hardware may be better, but the features, visual design, and usability all are worse. Much worse. Add on to that that it basically has no games and while I don’t regret it as an investment, there’s nothing on it that makes it feel like I actually needed it right now. And, frankly, there’s nothing about the thing that makes me feel like I’m not just better off using it remotely from my PS4, which has a controller that’s not too big for my hands and actually has some personality. If I didn’t know better I’d think Sony was intentionally hiding their branding because they were embarrassed to put their name on this thing. The whole thing simply doesn’t feel very fun or interesting and at worst it’s outright frustrating.

So I guess that’s really the rub: the PS5 may have more technology crammed into it, but the PS4 feels like the better system to have right now and it’s just the better overall experience. The PS4 may be your edgelord friend, but at least it’s your friend, not the office artwork that somehow vaguely looks like a uterus and still thinks it’s better than you, now go back to your cubicle under the buzzing fluouresent lights or I’ll put a recommendation in your file to send you to the salt mines with no lights at all. People ragged on the PS5 for its shape, but it turns out that’s the only thing about it worth talking about, if only because it’s the only thing that’s awful in an entertaining way.

If you came here for a recommendation, the PS5 has my gray tin seal of "you’ll need it eventually." That’s literally all I can give it and frankly if it were a person, I’m almost afraid it would like it.