Place a PlayStation 1-era DualShock controller alongside a PlayStation controller, and you might have a tough time telling the difference between the two. Sure, there have been improved ergonomics and new features added to PlayStation controllers, from touchpads to light bars, but the overall layout and design haven’t changed much at all in the 23 years since that first DualShock dropped. It’s an astonishing level of commitment for Sony, but also a testament to just how strong that original design was. After all, if it ain’t broke ...
Which is why the first photos of the PlayStation 5’s new DualSense controller were so surprising. The shape-marked face buttons were there, as were the symmetrical analog sticks, but the thick, stubby handles of DualShocks long past had been replaced by longer, thinner handles that swooped down, looking like a black-and-white croissant. Why, Sony? Why mess with something that was working so well?
Well, now I know why. This may be the best controller I’ve ever used.
Is the DualSense’s new design better?
Photographs don’t adequately capture the new DualSense controller’s attributes. In a still image, it doesn’t look like something I’d ever want to hold. Even just looking at it on a table, it doesn’t seem particularly comfy. I remember bracing myself before picking it up for the first time last week, knowing I would be stuck with this controller for the next seven years or more.
But when I wrapped my hands around the new, lengthy handles of the DualSense, it clicked. Goddamn, this controller feels great to hold. The longer handles mean my entire hands can rest on them comfortably, in contrast to the DualShock 4, which could cause floating pinky syndrome for players with bigger hands. And because the handles are thin and somewhat angled in the back, it feels like I have a more secure grip than I did with the exclusively round DualShock 4 handles. The new DualSense arms feel like they were built around the concept that fingers have joints and don’t actually bend in a perfect circle. The DualSense fits my hand like the best handshake I’ve ever had.
There are far too many hand types across the spectrum to account for everyone’s personal style and preference. Some of my colleagues have experienced hand strain when using the DualSense for a few hours, so mileage may vary from person to person.
How much do adaptive triggers + haptics really matter?
The rest of the improvements made to the new PlayStation 5 controller aren’t immediately evident upon picking the thing up, but quickly become clear once you start playing games designed to make use of the gamepad’s features.
The new controller’s L2 and R2 triggers feel nearly identical to those on the DualShock 4 under normal circumstances. But if you happen to stumble on a game that supports the “adaptive trigger” functionality, something magical happens.
Adaptive triggers mean that the force required to pull the trigger can change depending on what’s happening on screen. In my early impressions of Astro’s Playroom, I talked about pressing down on a spring and feeling that increased pressure pushing back at me in the trigger. In Bugsnax, when taking photos of critters, the last 10% of the trigger turns into a “clickable” button, giving the illusion of taking a shot with a DSLR.
To further sell this illusion, Sony makes use of the DualSense’s internal speaker to mimic the sound of the spring or shutter going off, making me feel like these are things that are happening literally in my hands as I play.
The last part of this magic trick uses the new haptics. Think of it like the next generation of vibration technology. Rather than just being limited to the same rumbly feel for everything, there’s a lot more variety in what the PS5 controller can produce to mimic the events on screen. Captain Astro’s little feet tapping across a glass surface in Astro’s Playroom feel completely different from the robot standing near a massive explosion, for example.
These three features combine to give me more of a “next-gen” sense than 4K visuals or HDR ever have.
The big question right now is just how many of these features will actually appear in most PS5 games. It’s safe to expect that Sony-published titles will lean into this functionality — if Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t have a bowstring trigger, I’d be shocked — but third-party games could easily skimp on or ignore this functionality entirely, since it does require more work to include features that are only supported by a single platform.
There’s also the threat of overusing these features to the point of them being a detriment to the experience. Spider-Man: Miles Morales uses adaptive triggers to mimic the tension of Miles’ web-swinging, but after just a few hours, I started developing finger strain and turned off the feature. When used sparingly, the adaptive triggers can be a tasty addition. But developers need to be careful not to oversalt.
On the new, built-in microphone
While there are returning bells and whistles, like the aforementioned touchpad and motion controls (which work, more or less, like they did previously), there’s really just one more major difference between the PS4 and PS5 controllers: the microphone.
Every DualSense controller comes with a built-in mic, letting you communicate with friends (and enemies) online without needing to grab a headset. It’s a handy feature, but it also comes with some noteworthy drawbacks.
The DualSense mic is surprisingly good at sensing when you’re talking versus when your TV is making noise, and it will attempt to filter out the latter. Even with my TV volume jacked to higher-than-normal levels, my online buddy was only hearing my end when I was actively speaking, rather than when the game I was playing made a loud boom. (There’s also a button to hard-mute your mic if you don’t want to stress about any of this.)
That quasi push-to-talk feature is neat, but perhaps a little aggressive. Even just a brief, one-second pause between words (perhaps for added drama?) will cut your mic off before bringing it back again on your next word, often clipping your audio in the process. On the other side, your buddy might only hear the second half of what you were saying, as the mic decides when it’s safe to start picking up your voice again.
What’s more, the built-in mic does not offer great audio quality, and if you’re using it without a headset, your buddy’s voice chat will default to coming out of the controller itself, which just has a passable (but tinny) speaker. You are able to shift chat audio to your TV’s speakers, but all that does is further highlight the limitations of the built-in mic.
In practice, the mic’s inclusion is nice if you’re just looking to ask a friend a quick question. But if you want to have a drawn-out conversation, or you’re trying to complete complex gameplay tasks (like a Destiny 2 raid), you’ll be much better off plugging in an actual headset.
Into the unknown
There are other variables regarding the PlayStation 5 controller that make it hard to to judge fully at this early stage. Thus far, the battery life on the DualSense has seemed comparable to that of the DualShock 4 — Sony claims five to six hours of battery life on the new one — but surely that depends heavily on which games you’re playing and how many of the rumble, trigger, or speaker features are being used. Also, after several years, DualShock 4 controllers definitely lost a large chunk of their charging capacity. A true scientific test of battery life over a long period of time is beyond my personal reach, though I’m sure the more tech-minded will swoop in within days to fill in the blanks.
There’s also the weird question of, uh, slimy analog sticks. DualShock 4 analog sticks, for whatever reason, get pretty damn slimy and gross if they haven’t been used for a few weeks. And no, I’m not playing with Cheeto hands. But it’s enough of a problem that I’ve had to break out rubbing alcohol if it’s been a while since the last time I played my PS4. The new DualSense sticks feel the same as they did on the DualShock 4, but whether they will suffer from the same slimy residue remains up in the air.
Despite these X-factors, I find myself totally smitten by the new DualSense. The major structural alterations from the DualShock 4 are big boons when holding the controller for long stretches. Meanwhile, the melding of haptics and adaptive triggers is a gobsmackingly cool way to evoke new feelings of immersion from the events onscreen. If the DualSense ends up being the new standard for the next 23 years, I would have no problem with that.
The PlayStation 5 will be released Nov. 12 in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, and on Nov. 19 elsewhere. This review was conducted with a final retail PlayStation 5 (and its DualSense controller) provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.