One Month of PlayStation 5: User Interface
Welcome to the second part of my PlayStation 5 impressions. If you have missed my first part, which covered the hardware itself, please read it here. While I will go into great detail on the user interface of the PS5 itself, I will also touch upon the services that offer special features on PS5, such as PlayStation Plus, as they are integrated in the user interface.
The PlayStation 5’s user interface mostly adheres to the same design philosophy of the PlayStation 4’s UI. The PS5’s UI inherited the linear horizontal grid of tiles representing different games or applications from its last generation counterpart. One crucial deviation from the PS4’s UI is how it approaches segmentation. For example, the PlayStation Store and accessing media applications like Netflix are baked into the interface, doing away with launching a separate menu like on PS4. However, there are two distinct interfaces on the PS5: the home menu and the Activity Cards menu. Activity Cards are essentially context-sensitive panels that show you relevant information based on what you are playing, what you have recently played, what games you follow, your trophy history, and what your friends are doing.
Some features are exclusively on the Activity Cards menu as well, such as the ability to activate rest mode or reset or turn off the PS5. This can take some time to get used to if you have used the PS4 for years like I have because the power settings were on the home screen, not the “quick menu”. It’s possible that Sony designed the new UI in such a way that encourages users to be continuously engaged in the games, rather than browsing to see what else they want to play. This focus on engagement makes sense when considering the industry’s pivot towards games-as-a-service. If you have an ongoing game session and wake the system up from rest mode, the system immediately puts you back into the game after you log in to the appropriate account. While the PS5 interface lacks an equivalent to Microsoft’s Quick Resume feature on Xbox Series X and S, which allows players to have multiple games suspended instead of one game on the PS5, the Activity Cards primarily position themselves as utilities to mitigate boredom while gaming.
Say you’re in an open world game and you’re looking for a side quest, there is an activity card that can warp you to the nearest side mission. Spider-Man: Miles Morales demonstrates this benefit really well and I found myself more interested in collecting more trophies than I normally would. Think of activity cards as “hyperlinks” the developers can encode to minimize the meandering nature of games after you beat the main campaign or are struggling with a level. If you find yourself stuck on a hard puzzle or something, Sony also included a neat feature called Game Help that has pre-recorded gameplay videos showing how to get through the part you can’t progress through. While walkthrough guides are literally everywhere on the Internet, Game Help goes a step further by being context-sensitive, so it detects where you are in the game and has the specific guide you need. This eliminates the need to scroll through long videos or articles detailing everything pertaining to the level, thus saving the player time. The only downside to Game Help is that it’s exclusively for paying PlayStation Plus members, which is a pretty annoying caveat Sony threw in.
There are some games that rarely use the Activity Cards feature, which makes the cards primarily show a list of trophies you have yet to unlock and recent updates from games you follow. Trophy lists on PS5 are only displayed on Activity Cards, which can make trophy hunting a little more of a nuisance because players need to scroll more to find the trophy they are trying to unlock due to the horizontal orientation*. Sony could build upon the Activity Cards even further with user customization and additional social integration. In the meantime, Activity Cards are a nice gimmick that helps provide convenience to some players. Organizing party chat sessions is very easy to do with Game Base, even if the connectivity tools on offer are somewhat rudimentary, though that shortcoming appears to be addressed with Discord integration coming next year.
*It appears that the next major system software update will change the trophy list into the vertical orientation, as well as add a trophy tracking feature. In the coming months, trophy hunting is about to become even better on PS5.
Another notable UI overhaul is the aforementioned PlayStation Store integration, which makes the store load instantaneously and much easier to access. The Store has also changed considerably to accommodate for the updated design language of the PS5 UI. Some aspects of the PlayStation Store bear some similarities to other digital storefronts such as the Google Play Store, such as categorized content being organized in a horizontal orientation and how there’s a greater emphasis on promotional material on the front page. Similarities aside, navigating the Store is relatively easy, but discoverability could be improved. For instance, if you were to use the search bar to look up a specific game, the keyword you type in could retrieve the wrong game. There was one situation where I wanted to look up Dirt 5, but Persona 5 Royal Edition came up instead. To put it succinctly, the search bar is somewhat broken and it might create some headaches for users.
Unusually, there are two search bars that serve similar purposes, except one retrieves content from the Store and one retrieves content from both your library and the Store. I haven’t determined which one is superior at searching, but both of them could encounter some glitches. Aside from the lackluster search feature, there are some welcome additions to the Store, such as a wishlist that notifies your console when an upcoming game is available on the store. It’s not as effective as Steam’s wishlist as it doesn’t notify you when a game is discounted. You can also “follow” games, which functions almost identically on the Switch as it highlights news and announcements regarding selected games on the What’s New page. It’s basically integrating brief promotional blurbs on the home screen. It’s nothing revolutionary, but a neat feature if you’re into big multiplayer games like Fortnite or Call of Duty Warzone and is certainly more utilitarian than the PS4’s iteration of it.
That last statement essentially summates my thoughts on the PS5 interface. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it provides plenty of interesting tricks to the table. It is evident that Sony sought to refine the PS4’s interface rather than to create something entirely different. The lack of customized theme is rather disappointing to some, but the visuals are largely occupied by posters of highlighted games and applications. The icons are considerably smaller, but the UI is designed to be on a 4K display, which I have and it looks quite good. Everything is rendered in native 4K, so everything appears polished and clean. The preview music that originated from the PS3 era is still present in the PS5 UI, which can be toggled off in the settings. I sometimes like the preview music played in some games, such as Fortnite (which surprisingly has a good soundtrack, by the way). The emphasis on posters makes it difficult for me to imagine customized themes coming in a future update, sadly.
Simple and polished are two major adjectives I would apply to the PS5’s interface. I acknowledge that some early buyers report frequent crashes and instability with their consoles, but I would attribute that to typical growing pains of a launch unit. On my end, I’ve had a practically crash-free experience with minimal glitches and errors, aside from the occasional network error while playing Returnal that doesn’t really impact much and could be an issue with the game. Sony didn’t wholly rewrite their design philosophy regarding the user interface of the PS5 and they did not need to either. Innovation should not change a design that’s proven to work well, but rather it should elaborate upon it. The PS5 interface is a solid elaboration and has plenty of potential to become even greater.
Now that I have extensively covered both the interface and the hardware design, stay tuned for the final part of this deep-dive review next week, which will focus on the library of games. I will discuss backwards compatibility as well as the first-party exclusives built for the PS5.