Sony’s new home entertainment system finally launched after a long waiting period of more than 18 months — during a pandemic, no less, which is something no other PlayStation had to do in the past. Still: it’s always a cause for celebration when a new platform promising countless hours of fun arrives and the PS5 promises that and more. Expectations are understandably high given the fact that its predecessor, the PS4, is the most successful platform of the previous generation, boasting a userbase of over 110 million worldwide. So… well? Does it seem to be everything we’ve been hoping for?
I’ve been evaluating the PS5 day in and day out for the last four weeks or so, doing testing, playing games, using it as a media player in order to form a complete picture of the product Sony is offering. It is a powerful, ambitious device and, as such, it just can’t be reviewed thoroughly in just one article (well it could… but the article would exceed 20K words and it would be needlessly tiring). So, a three-part review. An assessment from a gamer’s perspective, a separate one focusing on the hardware itself and a different one dedicated to its use for entertainment purposes other than gaming.
Having covered the first two parts of the PS5 review, it’s time to wrap it up with this one: should the streaming and media playback capabilities of Sony’s new system be factored in one’s decision of buying it or not?
All the usual (streaming) suspects
What PS5 owners will do with the device when not playing games on it can only be either watching movies/TV shows or listening to music (using it as a photo viewer might be the most hilarious overkill of a use case). And, being honest here, watching movies or TV shows means Internet streaming these days, regardless of the audiovisual quality that Blu-ray or UltraHF Blu-ray discs offer. So, how does the PS5 fare in that department?
Pretty good, actually. All the popular streaming services of 2020 are present and accounted for: Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, Vudu, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, along with a few specialized ones such as Crunchyroll and Funimation. The way these apps work is the same found on other devices because the companies they belong to prefer it that way — no “special” features for their respective PS5 versions, then — and this also goes for the audiovisual quality they offer. There are more apps for more services on the way but, for day one, these will have to do.
Since YouTube and Twitch are supported at a system level, there are apps for these services too, along with some secondary services such as Now TV, Pluto TV and the WWE Network. There are also a few “catch-up TV” apps, such as SKY and BT Sport in England (there will be others in other countries presumably), and… that’s pretty much it. Not a terrible selection overall but not impressive either. Just passable. It seems that it will be a while before all the streaming apps that are available on the PS4 make the jump to the PS5 (there’s an “if” somewhere in there too).
What’s noteworthy about the way the PS5 works with streaming services is that it “collects” content from the most popular ones, presenting it on the home screen of the Media section as a kind of “guide” for recommended movies or TV shows. Owners of TV sets based on the Android TV operating system are familiar with this approach and it works fine, even though the thumbnails are not presented in high resolution like the rest of the PS5 UI. That might change over time as Sony will probably have to work with the various streaming services for that. Again: nothing groundbreaking, just something worth mentioning.
Streaming has taken over music as well, of course, so there was bound to be some support for it on the PS5 and… there is. But through just one service: Spotify. It’s present via a stand-alone app as well as through the Control Center, where gamers can activate it at any time and listen to their favorite playlists in-game. It’s interesting and useful that Spotify is implemented as a content source on a system level: there are some ready-made lists “for gamers” present on the Music icon of the Control Center by default and even a button for the service on the Media Remote Sony sells.
But music lovers will point out that (a) not everybody likes Spotify and (b) not offering support for Apple Music, TIDAL, Amazon Music Unlimited, YouTube Music, or any other music streaming service for that matter, is not ideal. The companies owning these services are responsible for the PS5 apps they offer, yes, but knowing how deeply integrated Spotify is with the PS5 UI, will they not be discouraged to build them at all? Something to consider.
Blu-ray player blues
For consumers who choose the “full” PS5 model instead of the Digital Edition one, there’s always the option of using the optical drive for watching entertainment content on DVD, Blu-ray and UltraHD Blu-ray discs. Sony has provided this functionality with the PS2, PS3 and PS4, so it’s good to see that tradition honored by the PS5 as well. What’s not good to see is how the Japanese giant chose to implement optical disc support on its powerful new system: “reluctantly” would be one word for it, “poorly” will be another.
For starters, the necessary app for disc playback will not even show in the PS5 user interface until a disc is inserted into the drive. Talk about snub! Sony will probably suggest that it’s a choice in line with the minimalistic approach of the PS5 UI overall — and it is not untrue — but… come on. It’s kind of insulting to not even mention visually that this device can play DVD or Blu-ray or UHD Blu-ray discs. People not aware of that fact might never find out, which is funny and sad at the same time.
Proceeding with the playback of movies using the optical drive: the process is exactly the same as the one established by the PS3, followed by the PS4. Getting into the main menu of a disc takes a bit of time (no more than what it takes for most standalone players), consumers select the preferred settings regarding sound, subtitles, etc. and then it’s business as usual: the controller is used as a remote of sorts, with different buttons assigned to different functions, while a visual cheatsheet can be called up at any time to remind users which button does what. Also available is the transparent overlay showing the exact tech specs of the content currently playing.
All this is OK for casual use of the disc playback functionality of the PS5, yes. But we can’t help feeling that a modern system such as this could have offered a refreshed interface, not a direct port of an interface first used in 2007. The fact that almost all functions are also available through the, rather crude for today’s standards, icon-ridden overlay at the top of the screen (the one that Sony has used since the PS3) is telling: the Japanese company spent no time or resources at all on considering how a PS5 disc player app should look and work. At all.
The audiovisual quality offered by the PS5 playback of DVD or Blu-ray or UltraHD Blu-ray movies can only be described as typical: it is no worse, but also no better than the quality expected of standalone players at a fraction of the price commanded by Sony’s new home entertainment system. Movies on DVDs look soft, meaning that there is no processing done on the picture, no attempt to make it look even marginally better, other than what the TV set itself is doing on the final step before displaying. Movies on Blu-ray look better, of course, but the absence of any processing makes any shortcomings all the more noticeable. As for movies on UltraHD Blu-ray, well, they look the best given the advantages of the format, but even players costing €150/$150 — no kidding, we found two of those in the upcoming Black Friday deals — do a similar or even better job of displaying the same content.
Then there’s the absence of Dolby Vision support for HDR on UltraHD Blu-ray discs. The PlayStation5 only works with the “baseline” HDR10 metadata embedded in all UHD BD discs, meaning that the color palette of a movie stays the same throughout its duration. Dolby Vision adapts the color palette on a scene by scene or frame by frame basis, so it’s far more accurate. It’s better than nothing — that is, better than SDR — but, for people that invested in a good TV demanding picture of higher quality, this is disappointing.
The PlayStation5 will also not process Dolby Atmos or DTS:X sound, meaning that it cannot — at this time — decode that data. It can pass it on to an external device — such as an amplifier or soundbar — for decoding if the system is set to output pure sound data (bitstream) but… that’s it. Both omissions mean that the PS5 cannot replace even an entry-level standalone player in a home cinema setup, let alone a hi-end one.
On top of everything else, the optical drive of the PS5 is not the most silent one in operation we’ve come across in the past few years. It’s perfectly acceptable for it to make noise when a disc is first inserted and the laser is seeking the necessary data for the main menu, but it can also be heard at times during playback, louder than the usual humming most of us have learned to ignore. It might sound like a first-world problem but movie lovers dislike this for good reason: in films that use silence as part of their atmosphere, it can be noticeable and quite distracting. It’s not a deal-breaker, yes, but something to keep in mind. So there.
Media playback mediocrity
How Sony chose to implement DVD/BD/UHD disc playback on the PS5 should prepare anyone for the way multimedia files are handled. In short: in the same way reluctant, half-hearted way. What’s there is fine for the most basic of usage scenarios but, considering what the hardware of Sony’s new system is capable of, the whole affair is just… sad.
For starters, there is no Media Player app anymore. Sony thought it would be simpler to just ditch it completely (the PS4 one does not work either — we tried) and assign the photo viewing and video file playback to the Media Gallery app, while music playback is handled by the Music function of the Control Center bar. It’s one way of doing things, sure. But it’s also illogical (shouldn’t multimedia files all be handled as one function of a system?), while Media Gallery has always been associated, to the minds of 110 million people owning a PS4, to the screenshots and videos they made on the PlayStation — not multimedia files that a USB drive may contain.
It all underlines Sony’s intent to de-emphasize the role of the PS5 as a media player in general. But all that could probably be, begrudgingly, overlooked if the main problem the PS3 and the PS4 had as media players had been addressed this time around: proper multimedia file support. Well, it has not. The new PlayStation is, once again, picky regarding not just the file formats it will play but also the type of encoding these files use. In theory, there should be no problem with MP4/MKV files based on H.264 encoding, for instance, but practically more than half of the files we tested refused to play normally. The PS5 does not support H.265 at all and DTS sound is not supported in video files either. As for the playback quality of the video files Sony’s new system did play, it was nothing to write home about: as is the case with disc playback, no processing or improvement whatsoever.
It may be that Sony feels it’s discouraging consumers from using PlayStations for pirated material playback by doing this (although its best disc players are capable of playing similar files). That certainly used to be the case with PS3 back in the day, because of Sony Pictures and Hollywood’s obsession with online piracy. But it seems just plain naive to follow that line of thinking in 2020 when most Smart TVs themselves play these kinds of files with ease and media players capable of much more cost a fifth of what a PS5 is asking for.
Playback of music files is, fortunately, much better. The PS5 only recognizes MP3, FLAC and AAC files, but these happen to be the most common types and every single album we tried — regardless of bitrate — was flawlessly played. Nothing fancy, no e.g. “upscaling” of low bitrate files in order to sound better or anything, but hassle-free. Yes, custom playlists are not offered yet and yes, it would be nice if Sony added support for ALAC and DSD or even WMA and OGG formats at some point but, for now, this will do.
With spotty support for video files played directly off USB storage devices — the PS5 does not permit the transfer of files onto its SSD — the only way one can enjoy movies from a digital home library is through Plex, the popular multimedia management and playback software that managed to be available for the PS5 on day one. Plex works by running on a server and client environment, the server being a PC/Mac somewhere in the home network and the client being any device with a Plex “player” app.
Files that will not be recognized by the Media Gallery app play fine on Plex, but there’s work to be done if the PS5 app is to function as well as the apps of other devices do. Files that play effortlessly on the same home network via nVidia Shield TV 2019 or Apple TV 4 needed buffering far too often on the PS5, for instance. The app is also still designed in HD, not 4K (so its UI lacks detail), plus all the thumbnails are displayed in low resolution. I’ll keep an eye on it and report on updates/changes, hopefully soon.
A conscious choice, a missed opportunity nonetheless
The PlayStation5 is a powerful device capable of offering complicated, almost photorealistic 3D games in a truly spectacular fashion. So how come it does not offer simple playback of 2D video in a hassle-free fashion, let alone deliver the advanced post-processing it can clearly do? The answer is simple: the PS5 can, but Sony won’t let it. The Japanese have always put games above everything else with every PlayStation — and that is as it should be — but with the PlayStation5 in 2020 it feels that they have reached a tipping point. There is a decision that needs to be made here.
The way Sony has implemented far too many of the media player functions for the PS5 feels as if it actually does not want us to use it as such. Disc playback advanced features are held back, multimedia file support is stubbornly limited, the user interface feels dated by today’s standards. Even the “put your files in such and such a way in your USB drive if you want the PS5 to play them” demand or the absence of NTFS support seem archaic now, certainly not in line with how modern the PS5 feels in general. Realizing that the same device could have been the world’s first proper, powerful 8K player by January if Sony intended it to be, is almost painful.
The good news is that every single one of these issues can be resolved via firmware updates. Solving some of those issues would also cost Sony money in addition to time and resources (Dolby features are not free for instance). But the Japanese company will have to decide, at some point, whether it actually wants people to use their PlayStation5 as true disc/media players or not. Whether the company would like to get the additional sales a killer multimedia PS5 would bring — the Xbox Series S|X models are also mediocre performers in that regard, so it could prove to be a competitive advantage in the long run — or whether it intends to focus on games only with some Netflix on the side.
If the answer is yes, then it should go ahead and do the work that needs to be done in order for their system to become a modern player that lives up to the potential of its hardware. If the answer is no, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to scrap multimedia functions altogether and just keep the few streaming apps everyone’s using. What Sony is now doing, half-heartedly offering some multimedia functionality so as to avoid criticism, doesn’t do the PS5 justice. Not at all.
Will Sony make a decision? Will it be a progressive or a regressive one if it does? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. For the time being consumers interested in getting a PlayStation5 should know that, in its current state, it will not meaningfully replace a standalone disc player — it does not even play audio CDs, people — and it will not make a truly trustworthy media player capable of “playing everything one throws at it”.
Most people are OK with that, some aren’t. That’s fine, as Sony does not need absolutely everyone aboard, it just needs most people who are aboard to spend as much money as possible on the PlayStation Store and on subscriptions. Fair enough. But this approach regarding the disc/media player functions is giving consumers less reason to use their new PlayStations — which is the opposite of what Sony should be trying to do. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all used our PS5 for everything when it comes to digital entertainment? Wouldn’t that be a win-win for everyone involved? Yes, it would, and yes, it certainly would. Decision time, then!