PlayStation 5, analysis: Sony is committed to innovation with a DualSense controller that is the perfect partner for very powerful hardware

PlayStation 5 has two major challenges ahead of it. The first is to continue the legacy of the PlayStation 4, a highly successful console that has sold almost 114 million units so far. And the second is to withstand the onslaught of a Microsoft coming up to the next generation much better prepared than it was in 2013, when Xbox One landed in the shops determined to take on PS4.

Mark Cerny, the head of hardware for PS Vita and PlayStation 4, is also behind the architecture of PlayStation 5, a machine that, like its predecessor and unlike Sony’s first three desktop consoles, looks very much like a PC. But not on the outside. And the PS5’s breakthrough design does not leave you indifferent. We’ve spent the last ten days squeezing this console to the max, and we have a lot to tell you.

PlayStation 5: technical specifications
The real heart of this console, the integrated circuit that brings together both CPU and GPU, has come out of the laboratories of an AMD that seems to be in better shape than ever. However, Sony’s managers, like those at Microsoft, have been striving over the last few months to argue that the APU in their new console is based on customised elements that set it apart from the solutions that AMD is putting on the market.

The PlayStation 5 CPU incorporates 8 cores designed to work at a variable clock frequency of up to 3.5 GHz, and builds on AMD’s Zen 2 microarchitecture

The PlayStation 5 CPU incorporates 8 cores designed to work at a variable clock frequency of up to 3.5 GHz, and builds on AMD’s Zen 2 microarchitecture. The photolithography process used in its manufacture uses 7 nm EUV (extreme ultraviolet photolithography) integration technology, and, as we shall see below, its cooling is provided by a huge copper heatsink and a 120 x 45 mm turbine type fan.

Leaving aside the discussion about whether this console’s graphics processor partially implements the features of AMD’s RDNA 2 microarchitecture or not, a very interesting issue of which we hope to be able to offer you more information soon, what we know for sure is that it integrates 36 calculation units that work at a variable clock frequency of up to 2.23 GHz. And we also know that when they perform at their best they manage to deliver a calculation capacity of 10.28 TFLOPS (approximately two TFLOPS less than Xbox Series X).

To solve the main memory of PS5 Sony has chosen to integrate in this console 16 GB of GDDR6 type that communicate with the APU through a 256 bit bus. The bandwidth of this memory reaches a respectable 448 GB/s, although this figure is less impressive than the transfer speeds that, according to Sony, the input and output system of this console manages to achieve: no less than 5.5 GB/s with uncompressed data and up to 9 GB/s with compressed data.

The 825 GB of PS5 secondary storage is in practice reduced to 667.2 GB, which is the space left for users to install games and other applications

In his mid-March technical session, Mark Cerny explained that the efficiency of the PS5’s input and output system relies on a custom controller that is responsible for managing the data traffic between the SSD’s NAND flash chips and the other system components. That sounds great, but as you can see from the screenshot below, the 825 GB of secondary storage on PS5 is effectively reduced to 667.2 GB, which is the space we have left for users to install games and other applications.

An interesting point: PlayStation 5 is the first Sony console to incorporate an optical drive whose transport mechanism is capable of reading 4K Blu-ray discs. However, only the version that costs 500 euros has an optical reader; for PS5 Digital Edition we will pay 100 euros less, but it lacks this component.

The table below shows the specifications of the PlayStation 5, but we have also decided to include the features of the PlayStation 4 Pro, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S and Xbox One X to make it easier to understand what this console offers us, to what extent it is superior to the machines of the previous generation, and also how it looks if we compare it with the other consoles with which it will coexist during the generation that is about to begin.

The sobriety of PS4 gives way in PS5 to a design that does not leave indifferent

As with the Xbox Series X and S, there are certain issues when it comes to assessing console design that are solely in line with individual tastes. And it is clear that the Playstation 5 is not a console for all tastes: its enormous size (390 mm x 104 mm x 260 mm) and its remarkable weight (4.5 kilos, and the Digital Edition 3.9) make it a true colossus.

Finding an opening for the Playstation 5 can be problematic. The two authors of this article have had trouble placing it near the TV, and one of them has been unable to do so without sacrificing one of the consoles he already has installed. The general feeling is diametrically opposed to that of Xbox Series X: despite the stand that Sony includes in the box, there is an annoying feeling of instability with the console, and of course, it is very unwieldy when it comes to manipulating its rear connections.

The design, we insist, will be liked more or less according to the preferences of each one. It is very different to the sober, simple-lined style of the Xbox, and something tells us that the electric blues and satin whites, so modern today, will not be well treated by the passage of time. But at least there is a commitment to a specific visual style, and one that is in keeping with the controller. It is clear that such a size and weight of the hardware cannot be an advantage, but the truth is that the new Sony console, unlike some Xboxes that seem to want to go unnoticed, can easily take the lead in your gaming area.

In short, there are contradictory sensations: a bulky casing (but whose design has taken into account making it easier for the player to keep the ventilation ducts clean), a size almost like a pet and a certain amount of instability. But also a very marked personality, completely in line with Sony’s style of making hardware: tightening the screws to a highly recognisable style to the point of excess.

PlayStation 5, under our magnifying glass

When the console is placed vertically, the optical unit is housed in the lower half of the right-hand side panel, next to the base. This location breaks the perfect symmetry of the PS5 Digital Edition in the standard PS5, although there is no doubt that Sony engineers have solid reasons for placing it there. In fact, the printed circuit board on which the SoC, main memory chips, input/output controller and NAND flash chips in the SSD, among other things, reside is located in the lower half of the machine, forcing Sony to attach the optical drive to the side.

This is what the optical unit looks like when we remove the plastic cover that covers the entire side of PS5. Removing this film is a piece of cake: we only have to place our hands on the opposite ends of the cover and exert a little force to move it towards the base of the console. It will then come off smoothly.

As you can see in the following detailed photograph, the buttons that allow us to turn the console on and eject the disc previously inserted in the optical drive reside at the bottom end of the PS5’s front panel. They are so stylish and discreet that they easily go unnoticed.

In the centre of the front panel of the console, and almost at the same distance from the base and top of PS5, reside the two USB ports that you can see in the following detailed photograph. One of them implements the 3.1 standard and is a C type, and the other is a somewhat more limited USB 2.0 port.

The PS5’s power transformer resides inside the console, a feature this machine shares with previous PlayStations. On the other hand, the HDMI port that you can see in the following detail photograph implements the 2.1 standard, so it can carry video signals of up to 120 images per second to the TV or monitor to which we connect the console (although it seems unlikely that the games that are going to offer us 4K graphics and 120 FPS rates will abound on this platform).

On the back panel of the PS5, and just above the HDMI 2.1 output, resides the still necessary Gigabit Ethernet port in RJ-45 format and the also very important USB 3.1 ports to which, among other accessories, we can connect external storage units on which we can store the PlayStation 4 games compatible with PS5.

Under the grille you can see in the following picture is the 120 x 45 mm turbine type fan which is responsible for preventing the critical elements of the console from exceeding their maximum temperature threshold. The most striking component of the PS5 cooling system is the liquid metal that acts as an interface between the SoC core and the heatsink base. One more thing: in this picture you can also see the M.2 slot where we can install an SSD with PCI Express 4.0 interface when it is enabled by Sony through a firmware update.

This is the base included with PS5 that allows us to place the console both vertically and horizontally. Users who choose to install it in the latter position must ensure that the two anchors that join the console and the base are fixed in the right position. Otherwise the machine may wobble when the optical drive is accessing the data stored on the disk inserted inside.

We test the PS5 cooling system

Another key element in the cooling of this console, apart from the turbine type fan and the liquid metal I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, and which we talk about in more detail in the article I link here, is a huge aluminium and copper heatsink that is responsible for transporting by conduction the thermal energy dissipated by the components that heat up the most. Sony has asked us not to dismantle the console that it has provided us with so that we can prepare this analysis, but you can see this heatsink in full detail in the video that Yasuhiro Ootori, one of the heads of mechanical engineering at Sony, published several weeks ago.

The two holes that you can see in the following detailed photograph allow us to use a traditional hoover to periodically absorb the dust that will inevitably accumulate inside the console as time goes by. There is no doubt that this is an ingenious way of helping us to keep the interior of our PS5 cleaner, which could also have a beneficial impact on the noise the console emits by preventing the dust from ending up accumulating on the shaft and blades of the turbine fan.

There is only a relatively important difference in the front panel, but not in the sides, and it is reasonable that this should be the case if we bear in mind that the air at room temperature enters the interior of the console from the front and top, and is expelled from the rear once it has collected by convection the thermal energy dissipated by the PS5 components that are heated most. The imposing size of the console acts as a further ingredient of the cooling system and helps to facilitate the movement of air flow inside the machine.

At high load the temperature measurements we have taken on the PS5 exterior panels hardly vary compared to the values at low load. The measure that is clearly increased is the one that reflects the temperature at which the hot air is expelled to the outside through the grille on the rear panel of the console, and it is consistent that this is the case. At high load we have measured that the air is expelled with a maximum temperature of 56.7ºC, a figure consistent with the working temperature of the critical components of a machine with the power that this console has. During our tests PS5 did not show the slightest instability due to possible overheating.

Now you can: PS5 leaves the noise of PS4 Pro behind

Fortunately, the new Sony console is much quieter than the PlayStation 4 Pro. In fact, during our high-load tests it produced a sound pressure level of 45.1 dB, making it only slightly louder than the Xbox Series X, which measured 42.3 dB under the same conditions. These measurements were obtained using a Velleman DVM805 sound level meter whose microphone was placed perpendicularly 2 cm from the hot air outlet grille of the consoles. The good news is that the noise level of both machines is easily masked by the soundtrack of the games, even if we are located relatively close to the console.

Consumption tests and start and stop times

The third test that we performed on the PlayStation 5 was to measure its maximum consumption at both low and high loads using a consumerometer. In the first of these usage scenarios, it yielded a measured 54.9 watts, and at high load a reasonable 222.2 watts. These figures are consistent with the configuration of this console, and as you would expect, are similar to the consumption it has shown during our Xbox Series X tests.

También hemos medido el tiempo que invierten estas consolas en iniciarse y apagarse. El primer valor contabiliza el tiempo que invierten en iniciarse y apagarse recurriendo al apagado completo, y el segundo valor refleja los tiempos en el modo de reposo. Como podéis ver en la siguiente tabla, las máquinas de Microsoft son sensiblemente más rápidas al llevar a cabo estas operaciones que las consolas de Sony cuando entra en acción el modo de inicio y apagado rápido.

No obstante, es importante que tengamos en cuenta que para medir el tiempo que invierten en apagarse hemos esperado hasta que cada consola se apaga completamente. No nos hemos conformado con contabilizar el tiempo que transcurre hasta el instante en el que dejan de enviar la señal de vídeo al televisor o el monitor al que las hemos conectado. Es importante tenerlo en cuenta porque el apagado completo se prolonga durante bastante más tiempo.

We decide: we can prioritise image quality or FPS

The HDMI 2.1 link incorporated in this console allows us to send to our television, provided that it also incorporates at least one HDMI input that implements this same standard, 2160p images with a maximum rate of 120 FPS. It seems reasonable to predict that the graphics engine for titles with a demanding graphics load will hardly be able to achieve that rate of images on PlayStation 5 hardware (some users will settle for 60 FPS if they are rock solid).

The new generation of consoles will undoubtedly consolidate a choice that is already frequently made by Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro: the possibility of deciding whether to enjoy the highest image quality at some sacrifice of image cadence, or whether to have less refined graphics to access the 60 FPS held so dearly by so many console players. Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ is one of the latest games we’ve been able to test on PS5, and it puts this choice in our hands.

The capture that you can see below these lines was taken using the ‘Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ mode on PS5 which prioritizes image quality, not image rate. The portion of the image you can see is a cut-out from a 300% enlargement of the capture, and its level of detail is very high. An interesting point: look at the quality of the reflections that we can see in the frozen water on the ground.

Interestingly, by switching to the performance-driven ‘Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ mode, which disables ray tracing and other effects that impose a significant burden on the GPU, graphics quality is not really affected. At least in this title. We’ll have to see how other games implement both modes in the future to reach a definitive conclusion, but for the moment we prefer the mode that gives us a higher frame rate.

We have some bad news for players who plan to use their PlayStation 5 with a 1440p monitor, or even with a TV compatible with this resolution, which there are (although there are not many of them): as you can see in the following screenshot, PS5 does not contemplate the possibility of facing the process of rendering at 1440p. Let’s cross our fingers and encourage Sony to make up for this shortcoming in the future through a firmware update.

DualSense: a control system for the new generation

If we were talking about an openly conservative position on the part of Xbox to design its controller, the opposite can be said of Playstation. After all, Microsoft had less room for improvement, because the Xbox controller was already extraordinary. But the DualShock has always been discussed because of the position of its sticks, the accessibility of its function buttons and its excessively small size. Most of these issues have been considered and improved (or nuanced).

We are in front of a bigger command. In fact, it’s not only much larger than previous Dualshock controllers, but also more than Xbox controllers. This is due to the area of the lower grips, where the now unusually elongated middle, ring and little fingers rest. At first glance it reminds one of that bulky Nintendo 64 controller in that aspect of the design, although obviously the DualSense is infinitely more ergonomic

The control sits well in the hands in terms of weight and feel. It has a curious soft angle of grip where the base of the thumb rests, and in many ways it’s identical to previous Playstation controllers: the crosshead is almost the same and the sticks are in the same position as always (which for many players will put the Xbox controllers ahead in terms of comfort). The touch panel is slightly larger and the front light disappears.

And a couple more details: the button with the Playstation logo is silhouetted in rubber, a nice and strange detail until the touch gets used to it, and the Options and Share buttons are more prominent than those in the latest version of the DualShock, a very positive improvement since they used to be lost at the edges of the touch surface and were even difficult to press without breaking into the touch area. But above all, it was the triggers that changed radically.

To begin with, even with the control off, they have two positions: the usual route and a small «extra» for which you have to press more strongly. But their real potential lies in the fact that their resistance is absolutely programmable, so they can emulate all kinds of objects. To check it out, nothing better than ‘Astro Playroom’, a game that comes included in the console and that works as a demo of the controller’s possibilities. It is a traditional exploration platform, in which the protagonist has to use a large number of objects and weapons.

Each one of them makes the triggers react in one way: with vibrations, different resistances, emulating the tension of a bow string or the regular shots of an automatic weapon, simulating the progressive force that has to be made to pull the lever of a ball machine or, directly, getting stuck when it does not work. The feeling of not being able to press triggers that until now offered no resistance is very interesting and immersive.

These different resistances go hand in hand with haptic vibration, whose possibilities are also displayed in ‘Astro Playroom’. In this case, it is not an absolute novelty, since we had experienced a similar capacity in the Joy-Con de Switch, but it is interesting how it combines with the triggers. Again in ‘Astro…’ we will have environments that make the control vibrate from one end to the other, in waves and with different powers. It’s a promising feeling and one that we hope the developers will squeeze out properly. Interestingly, there are even possibilities at two opposite ends: the more frenetic action titles, full of hits and shots, and the more atmospheric and relaxed titles.

All this is complemented by a motion sensor and the tactile zone we had previously experienced in the DualShock. More than the console itself, the DualSense is perhaps the true symbol of this new Playstation and its possibilities: a technical and ergonomic advance that represents a qualitative leap forward compared to previous Sony controllers, and which can give us great surprises in the future if it is used properly.

Software, interface and use: how the Playstation 5 works

Another aspect in which Playstation 5 distances itself from Xbox, opting for an aggressive turnaround rather than a continuous policy: the software and interface. As opposed to the somewhat chaotic interface of Playstation 4, where sometimes you had to wander aimlessly in search of sections, we have a simple, organised and game-centric interface. It is structured in two main categories that can be accessed in the upper area: Games and Multimedia Content. We cannot go into detail about the latter because of the embargoes to which we are subject.

However, the important thing about this Playstation 5 and its new look is the Games section, and we are not facing many radical revolutions, but we do have a clear intention to make things tidy and easy to locate. A row of icons opens up to the player in this section Games: Store, differentiated icons for the latest games played, Plus, Now, the Content Gallery, the new version of Share Factory (the powerful sharing editor), Remote Play and the Game Library. Again, we can’t go into detail about the expected redesign of many of them.

But on the surface, what we have is practically all the content offered by Playstation in a single row of icons. Some might prefer the thematic organisation into Xbox drop-down categories, but the truth is that most of the time we’ll be moving around in these essential icons. That’s all there is to it. Also, clicking on the Playstation logo on the controller opens an additional menu with access to areas of the system.

For example, if you are in the main menu you can access the famous Cards, with the last videos that have been generated. If you press during a game, all the cards will be related to that title: last videos and captures, access to different points of the game or trophies. Additionally, a menu appears at the bottom of the screen with access to the Main Menu, active game selector, notifications, Game Base, profile data and options of all kinds, divided into categories.

The theme of the cards is perhaps the most confusing and difficult to get used to within the interface: it consists of a series of elements relating to the title being played that a large number of players will not need to access. They also appear when you enter the icons of the games, in the top menu or in the library itself: trophies, videos… perhaps the most interesting thing is that, if the game allows it, it gives you direct access to different points of the game. In ‘Miles Morales’, for example, it allowed you to return to the main mission, but also to go directly to the secondary missions (provided that the game is being played, of course).

In terms of handling and other system navigation issues, there’s one aspect that Xbox has taken great care of and that Playstation doesn’t have that much of a polish on it: the jump between games. While there is an Active Game Selector accessible from the aforementioned floating menu at the bottom, accessible at any time, we have nothing comparable to Quick Resume and the ability to jump from one game to another in a few seconds and continue where you left off. Here, the games restart from scratch, a notable drawback in PS4 titles, where starting them up can be a somewhat slow action. We’ll come back to this when we talk about backwards compatibility.

What the system does achieve is to improve the startup time of the games. We’re not talking about the impressive speed of ‘Spider-Man: Miles Morales’, which launches us into action in just fifteen seconds from the Playstation main menu, and with even shorter times with a simpler game, such as ‘Astro Playroom’. Playstation 4 games also experience a considerable time improvement. Here are some examples:

MORTAL KOMBAT X44 segundos25 segundos
DOOM ETERNAL45 segundos36 segundos
MAD MAX52 segundos40 segundos

It’s not a dramatic improvement, but it does attest to the power of the hardware, which will be further exploited in games already designed with the possibilities of Playstation 5 in mind.

Backwards compatibility: the small setback that can be compensated for by the exclusive

If there is one painful issue to deal with with Playstation 5 it is backwards compatibility. It seems that Sony has turned a deaf ear (or has not been able to manage the hardware) to complaints that the Playstation 4 was a console that did not even look into the company’s more recent past. The situation has improved slightly, and the Playstation 5 is compatible with almost the entire PS4 catalogue, but we are far from the times of the first generation of PS3, which was absolutely backwards compatible with the two machines that preceded it.

This is a pity, because Xbox has a considerable advantage here, and even more so if it makes it easier for users to access the X Series library of games on disk. All this, completed with the Game Pass, opens up an impressive catalogue of games for Xbox that the Playstation 5 can’t boast of. To make up for this, there are a couple of alternatives (beyond promotions like the Playstation Plus Collection, which provides players with a great selection of PS4 games at a reasonable price).

PlayStation 5 can’t boast about the Xbox One backward compatibility display, but … do you need it? No doubt exclusives will settle that battle

On the one hand, the preeminence of the Playstation Plus and Playstation Now logos on the main menu, the still questionable Playstation streaming service, makes one hope for an interesting future for both services, where compatibility with older games may play a greater role than hitherto. Access to Playstation Now was once difficult to find in the PS4 menu, but here it’s clear as soon as you start the console: will there be access to titles from previous consoles, since it can’t be by way of emulation, at least not by streaming?

The second nuance that Playstation handles is that, perhaps, it doesn’t need retrocompatibility because it has the exclusives. Its portfolio of projects that will arrive in the remaining years of 2020 and 2021 is quite spectacular, and players who are loyal to the console know that this is where they can expect the greatest effort from the company. The company’s major franchises have already announced future deliveries and the console catalogue will grow in a matter of weeks. Certainly, many of Sony’s loyalists do not suffer from the absence of greater backwards compatibility because it does not fit in with their needs as players.

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