Sony has a new high-end gaming console. It’s $400, and it has the “Pro” designator in its name. But after seeing it in action yesterday and having some time to reflect, it’s clear who this system is aimed at:
It’s for the hardcore consumers who already bought a PlayStation 4 a couple of years ago.
On November 10, Sony will release the PS4 Pro. For $400, you’ll get a significant upgrade over the original system, and that means support for 4K televisions, high-dynamic-range (HDR) color reproduction, and a better PlayStation VR experience. Of course, if you haven’t already purchased an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4, the pro is potentially your best entry point. But if you haven’t jumped into the current gen through the last three years, chances are it’s because you’re price conscious. And if that’s the case, I’m betting you don’t own a 4K television capable of producing HDR images. You’d probably still end up better off future-proofing with a Pro (GamesBeat will have a review to let you know for sure), but the point here is that Sony isn’t really chasing after you. Instead, the gaming company wants to get its most diehard enthusiasts to upgrade from their current PS4s.
The proof is right in the name: Pro.
Sony is emphasizing that this is the PS4 for people who care about having the best. Forty million people already own the PS4, and those are the people who would have the most interest in something like the PS4 Pro. If you spent $400 to adopt that machine in 2013 or 2014 — before it had a lot of big games worth owning — you are potentially someone who would spend another $400 to get the most from those games. And that strategy could enable Sony to significantly grow its market share over the next couple of years.
PS4 Pro’s new spin on an old idea
Sony is the first company to introduce a mid-cycle upgrade to processing power for a home console, but the market has seen other versions of the Pro system and the product refresh before.
In 2006, Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 Pro/Premium alongside the Xbox 360 Core. The Pro came with a hard drive, and the Pro name signaled to early adopters that this was the version for them.
The industry has also seen new versions of consoles come out in an effort to get gamers to upgrade. Microsoft and Sony both did it with the 360 and PS3, respectively. Throughout the life of those systems, each company introduced slimmer revisions featuring more storage and sharper aesthetic designs.
Nintendo, however, is the king of this strategy. That company has pushed out new models of its handhelds on a nearly annual basis for the last decade. From the DS to the DS Lite to the DSi to the DSi XL, and then from the 3DS to the 3DS XL to the 2DS to the New 3DS and New 3DS XL. With each of these product launches, Nintendo will often get the same customers returning every year or two to update their handheld units.
That upgrade cadence — of introducing new 3DSes or Xbox 360s with bigger HDDs throughout a product’s overall lifecycle — has enabled Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony to keep the retail price for their products relatively high. At the same time, by targeting the same hardcore enthusiasts over and over, console companies are still growing their install base. When someone buys a new 3DS, for example, they will likely sell their old model or give it to a family member or friend. That brings someone into the ecosystem that typically wouldn’t pay full price for a console but may now buy a few games since they have access to the hardware.
Sony is trying to get both of those effects with the PS4 Pro. The $400 price is essentially a $50 increase. And if I were to upgrade to a Pro, I would likely sell my old Sony system to my brother at a steep discount — something to cover the shipping. That would turn my brother into a PlayStation gamer even though Sony only ever targeted me with the Pro. And while me and my bro are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, Sony is also giving something to everyone in the middle with the new, slimmer standard PS4 at $300.
With all of those pieces working together, Sony is casting a wide net that could help it get its next 40 million PS4 owners.
But is the PlayStation 4 Pro worth it
Whether or not Sony succeeds in capturing more revenue from its most enthusiastic fans will hinge on the Pro’s capabilities. Unfortunately, for both Sony and its customers, it had a difficult time showing off the power of the new system during its livestream yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in live to see a grainy, compressed videofeed that could never do justice to the 4K resolution and detailed HDR imagery.
But thankfully, VentureBeat editor Harrison Weber was there in person, and he came away impressed with what he saw. Here is his take:
At carefully constructed PlayStation 4 Pro demo stations, Sony staff guided reporters through 4K and HDR-ified games like Uncharted 4, Days Gone, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. In each presentation, the difference was stark, as the presenter toggled 4K on and off and activated a sweeping HDR filter to showcase exactly what had changed.
Activating 4K felt like a slight upgrade to my eyes — hiding behind prescription glasses. It added crispness to background fauna while turning off HDR altered the game more drastically: it made the entire screen instantly appear washed out and faded.
Sony’s demos probably do not perfectly capture what it’s like to upgrade from a PS4 to a PS4 Pro. Watching 4K/HDR and *normal* graphics side-by-side, forcing my eyes to notice every change in detail, likely exaggerates the fundamental differences between the two. But in any case, seeing is believing, and Sony presented a strong case for making the switch, with the addition of HDR overshadowing the benefits of 4K.
From the comfort of my office in Denver, I (GamesBeat reporter Jeffrey Grubb) took a look at some of the 4K video Sony put online. I watched on a 4K monitor, and I admit that the improved visual fidelity impressed me. Horizon: Zero Dawn looks especially beautiful, and I think that open-world robo-dino-hunting adventure presents a compelling reason to upgrade (both my PS4 and my TV) when it debuts in March.
The value proposition here is simple. For $400, you’ll get games that look and play better on your television. They’ll support higher resolutions and more realistic colors thanks to HDR. If you decide to get a PlayStation VR, Sony confirmed you’ll also get faster framerates and higher resolutions in those games as well. What you won’t get here is a generational leap in graphical enhancements. The Pro is not going to make today’s PS4 games, which are equivalent to the medium settings on a PC, look like they are running on Ultra settings.
So if you want today’s PS4 games running at 4K with HDR support — both features that can impact image quality — then the Pro will deliver that.
And for those of you who don’t have a 4K HDR display and don’t plan on buying one? Sony is giving you fewer reasons to get the Pro, but it’s not totally pointless. The games should still have a higher framerate in many cases, and you can still expect crisper images due to the techniques like supersampling, which renders games at a higher resolution to provide more accurate pixel data to a 1080p set. You will also get the PSVR improvements.
In the end, however, I would suggest everyone wait and see when it comes to the PS4 Pro. If you’re happy with the system you have right now, you probably don’t need to preorder the Pro. If you’re an early adopter who has to have everything, well — I don’t think I could change your mind, and that’s what Sony is counting on.