It does one thing well, and yet there are other multi-use devices that are arguably better, but dammit sometimes I’m lazy.
Sony is often at its best when it’s at its weirdest, like making donut-shaped earbuds that are actually super comfy or a speaker and lamp combo that totally looks like a bong for some reason. But when it comes to the PlayStation Portal, the weirdness isn’t just in the design, it’s at the core foundation of “Why does this thing exist?”
PlayStation Remote Play is far from a new feature, and it’s something you can use with multi-purpose devices like a phone, tablet, or laptop at no additional cost. So why spend $200 on a dedicated piece of hardware for only this one feature? After spending a lot more time with the PlayStation Portal since my initial hands-on, I think I’ve finally figured it out: this thing is an air fryer.
You may be asking, “Wait, how is a gaming handheld a home cooking appliance?” Well, much like an air fryer, the Portal is a device that costs a not-insignificant amount of money that does just one thing with only one way of doing it (it streams games off your PS5 via Wi-Fi), while other multi-use devices can pull the same task (PS5 Remote Play works on Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, iPadOS, and even the PS4). And also like an air fryer, you likely already have a device that does the same thing as the Portal (many home ovens offer convection heating, which is how an air fryer cooks). But I’ll be damned if firing up some crispy chicken nuggets in 10 minutes or grabbing a quick game session while in bed aren’t the same kind of convenience.
The PlayStation Portal is all about conveniences — taking your games from your console and moving them around your house or even out into the world. However, with a reliance on Wi-Fi performance, your world of convenience comes crashing down as soon as you struggle with poor connectivity or when one of the Portal’s many strange quirks rears its ugly head.
In my time with the Portal, I’ve mostly had the “it just works” experience, especially after a post-launch software update that seemed to make some small performance improvements. I connect it to my PlayStation 5 and within a few seconds I can bring my games to most parts of my home and play them fine on the Portal’s crisp and colorful eight-inch LCD — complete with those nifty DualSense haptics.
It sounds foolproof when I sum it up like that, but booting up the Portal and connecting (the only thing it does when you turn it on) is a very “your mileage may vary” moment. It may work fine. It may not work at all. It may require some tinkering with your home network settings. I’ve been lurking in the r/PlayStationPortal subreddit to get a gist of the vibe from its community, and amid the troubleshooting help and people posting their W’s about how great their Portal works even on a roadtrip you occasionally see some massive frustration.
For my home testing, my PS5 is connected via ethernet and I have gigabit internet over a mesh Wi-Fi network with three Google Nest Wifi Pro routers. Even with all of that, there are of course spots in my home where connectivity can get a little dicey. Sometimes, for what seems in the moment unexplainable, a game will freeze up and skip whole seconds of gameplay. I never quite know if it’s because another device on my network is suddenly soaking up bandwidth, or there’s more congestion from my ISP in the neighborhood, or maybe it’s just a strange anomaly. You never really know why, but you have to live with the reality that every once in a while you might have your swings in Spider-Man 2 or your axe throws in God of War Ragnarök disrupted. It may test your patience at times, but it’s the trade-off of relying on Wi-Fi in exchange for not taking up the family TV or bringing your game into a different room.
But the Portal’s illogical quirks go well beyond its Wi-Fi spec shortcomings. This thing has an Airplane Mode. Why? It’s a paperweight without Wi-Fi. It doesn’t play any games or media off of local storage — it doesn’t even tell you how much internal storage it has — and it doesn’t stream any content that isn’t beamed to it from your PS5. It also lacks an auto-brightness adjustment, doesn’t come with any protective case (the only options out there are from third parties), and only supports one user login at a time. Do you share your PS5 with another person or have multiple accounts within your family? If you plan to share the PlayStation Portal as well then be prepared to manually log out and log back in (including with 2FA if you have it activated — which you should) on it every single time someone else wants a turn.
All of these quirks and shortcomings make the Portal feel like a half-measure, or the bones of a bigger project that got its funding cut part way through development. Though perhaps nothing feels as egregious as the omission of Bluetooth audio. The Portal thankfully has a 3.5mm headphone jack, but if you want wireless your only option is Sony’s new proprietary PlayStation Link audio devices — which carry premium prices while lacking premium features like active noise cancellation. Of the two headphones announced thus far, only the $199.99 Pulse Explore earbuds have come out yet (and are still hard to find in stock). The $149.99 Pulse Elite headset isn’t due out until late February.
Despite all these frustrating quirks, the Portal delivers a nice all-in-one experience. You can have a higher quality Remote Play experience on an iPad or laptop with much larger screens, and you can have a more portable experience with a collapsible phone controller like the BackBone One, but all of those solutions are clunkier. Nothing is quite as simple as picking up the Portal and turning it on.
Many Steam Deck and Asus ROG Ally owners have found ways to use Remote Play with free software like Chiaki, but you still have to put in a bit of legwork and tinkering to get it set up. I’ve used it on my original Deck, and it’s mostly fine — successfully mimicking even the DualSense touchpad and share button thanks to community-made downloadable button layouts — but you’re just never going to have all those DualSense haptics (if you care).
The PlayStation Portal shortcuts the initial setup labor and confusion of Remote Play to give you a somewhat turnkey, streamlined solution. It can be handy alongside your PS5 if you’re a parent or a busy person looking to squeeze in short game sessions despite someone else using the TV, or if you want to add a level of comfort to your gaming by allowing you to chill in bed while playing. But all the caveats and hangups of Remote Play are still here.
Sony’s first attempt at a handheld since the PlayStation Vita may be a strange, limited device that only serves one purpose but it serves that purpose well if your home Wi-Fi isn’t plagued with gremlins. Hopefully, Sony is testing the waters of what’s to come more than simply releasing a half-baked product. There seems to be a demand (at least for now), as Portals are heavily backordered. I’m cool with nerdy niches and single-use devices when they’re good, and overall I’ve enjoyed the Portal despite its numerous flaws. But it mostly makes me long for a return of a true portable PlayStation handheld, which I hope Sony is working on for the future.
Photography by Antonio G. Di Benedetto / The Verge