Tradition Broken

Playstation 5 critique

Let’s talk about the Playstation 5.

The DualSense 5 controller design didn't prepare me for this. A true deviation from Sony’s classical geometric forms, the PS5 is a sculpture of organic surfaces and contrasting materials. The outer surfaces are raised from the internal structure, creating fins that look like a 50s Chevy. Rough external surfaces wrap glossy innards like sharkskin. This is a new direction for Sony. Here I'll discuss what could have caused it, where it succeeds, and where it may fall short.

Playstations 2-5

While most PS4 games will be backwards compatible, Sony is creating a hard generational division between the PS5 and previous consoles. We don’t know every detail regarding compatibility, but Sony has repeatedly emphasized a focus on a new generation of games that can only be experienced on PS5. I’m curious if a more progressive design was chosen in part to visually separate the PS5 from previous PlayStations, which are comparatively simple, geometric forms. The PS5 certainly looks futuristic, with the kind of high-tech organic surfacing usually reserved for PC towers or skyscrapers.

Peer pressure

Xbox Series X and Playstation 5 consoles.

It’s impossible to talk about this design without comparing it to that of its rival the Xbox Series X. Ironically, recent Xboxes have adopted design characteristics I have long admired in Sony products. Clean, simple, geometric forms with well-hidden IO and a few graphics to break up the otherwise minimal exterior. The Series X will integrate unobtrusively with your home entertainment center but is still appealing in a monolithic way. This is consistent with the trend of Xbox designs we’ve seen this generation. The competitors are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves and I wonder how much influence Xbox had in Sony choosing a more organic, expressive design? You certainly won’t confuse the two.

Design Influences

Generali Headquarters, designed by Zaha Hadid archtects.
Eve from W.A.L.L.-E
1959 Cadillac Eldorado

Look familiar?

The PS5’s gestural form language, including its vertical format, has a commonality to modern architecture, specifically the work of Zaha Hadid. Look at that skyscraper and tell me you don’t see a resemblance. Sony is trying to achieve a similar expressiveness. Like jewelry, organic geometry can make a product feel more premium. I think many people passively conflate complexity and quality. Considering the PS5 may launch at $600 ($200 more than the PS4), it NEEDS to validate that extra cost visually. For the most part, I think it succeeds. The blue LEDs wrapping the vent edge mirror high-end gaming peripherals from companies like Razer and SteelSeries. The PS5 looks more like a car than a console.

Too big to hide

The PS5 is packing serious processing power and we know that Sony has invested in extra ventilation to prevent overheating. This provides some engineering rationale for the exterior shell and immense vents that separate those shells from the core machine. The extra space for cooling makes this a big box; much larger than the Series X based on the proportions of the disc drive. Rather than attempt to hide this, Sony decided to feature the hardware as a centerpiece.

I can’t help wondering how much space could be saved by eliminating the wing-like fins? The controller wraps the white components tightly around a dark undercarriage, creating an effect like armor on a stormtrooper. I would have liked to see a closer treatment on the console.

The push for all digital

PS5 and PS5 All-Digital edition.

Sony unexpectedly announced an all-digital version of the PS5 that will launch alongside the standard model. Looking at the design of both machines, you might ask which was designed first. In comparison, the symmetrical all-digital model looks elegant and intentional. The awkward hump of the disk drive on the standard edition is so poorly integrated it looks tacked-on. I prefer to have a hard copy of my games, but I would rather have the diskless console in my living room. Could this be a subtle method to push people towards buying the all-digital edition? I expect it will be cheaper and it's more attractive? Save watching occasional Blu-Ray, I’m running out of reasons to buy the standard model.

Familial resemblance

The PS5 product family.

Sony also unveiled several accessories including a headset, camera (for streaming), a controller charging stand, and a remote. All share the new white-on-black design language of the console and controller. Seeing everything lined up together, the console doesn’t quite blend in. Everything else feels simple and resolved. That headset looks sharp!

The price of good looks

The design of the PS5 prevents it from supporting itself in any orientation. If you misplace the stand, or it breaks, you will be left with an unstable platform. The stand itself does nothing to complement the form of the console like previous models do. Since the two models have different curvature their stands are unique. It appears each stand has a contoured upper surface to support the console horizontally, but this creates a form that doesn’t compliment the consoles in either position. It sticks out like a sore thumb. At least we don't need a stand for each orientation! Overall this seems like a hastily constructed solution to an unnecessary problem.

As mentioned, the integration of the disk drive on the standard model feels like an afterthought. The slot for the disk interrupts the otherwise perfectly smooth surface and draws even more attention to the lopsided bulge. I may redesign this to wrap the white shell exterior around the drive. I think positioning the drive underneath the shell and hiding it in darkness would look more refined.

First impressions are certainly mixed, but I'm excited to see how it presents in person. I hope Sony will, at some point, release more details about how the PS5 was designed and what drove their unconventional decision-making. What do you think of the PS5 design? Do you prefer it to the Xbox and will you be picking it up this fall? If you could change it, what would you change?

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