Interested in learning what's next for the gaming industry? Join gaming executives to discuss emerging parts of the industry this October at GamesBeat Summit Next. Register today.
If you are reserving judgment of the PlayStation 4 Pro console from Sony until you get to try it, I have to warn you: I’ve played the system a lot over the past week, and I still don’t really know what the hell to think of this thing.
For a large slice of the year, gaming fans have heard rumors that Sony was planning to drop the PlayStation 4.5 or the PlayStation 4K, an updated version of the popular PS4 console with more horsepower. Finally, that device is about to turn into something you can buy and have in your house when it ships November 10 for $400. This new system is still a PS4, but now it supports a 4K video signal for both games and media. Some existing games will get “enhanced” patches, but going forward, every new release will have to support both the Pro and standard PS4s. The Pro support will primarily manifest as higher resolutions, steadier framerates, and improved graphical effects.
But you only get some of these benefits when you plug a PlayStation 4 Pro into the TV that, statistically speaking, you own. Unless you’ve purchased one of those new UHD 4K sets in the last couple of years, you only have 1,080 lines of horizontal resolution. And many games (not all), are already maxing that out on our current hardware.
So what benefits can you expect from the PS4 Pro whether you own the necessary equipment to take advantage of it or not, and is it worth it? It could be, but probably not yet.
What you’ll like
4K is impressive
You should be skeptical of Sony’s claims that the PS4 Pro is rendering games at a 4K resolution because it isn’t in the vast majority of cases. Instead, most games run somewhere between standard “Full HD” 1080p and UHD 4K. The Pro then uses a number of integrated algorithms and tricks to upscale that original signal into a 4K image.
Only this isn’t your typical upscaling. Sony’s algorithms and tricks use special technologies that can essentially get a faux-4K final product from a 2K-or-lower source that is almost indistinguishable from a game that natively renders at 4K. This is a technical way of explaining that the PS4 Pro isn’t doing “real” 4K, but most people won’t be able to see a difference. You won’t see a difference when you’re using a 50 inch-to-60 inch TV that you keep up on a wall 10 feet from your couch.
Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered and Infinite Warfare both support 4K out of the box, and I have the most experience with them so far. On a display that supports the resolution, the improved sharpness is noticeable. Moving human characters don’t look like a shimmering mush of pixels when they are at a distance. Instead, they maintain their shape in a much more realistic way.
That detail applies to everything even if it is most noticeable on elements that move as well as surface textures. And while you get the full effect of this benefit on a 4K TV, the improvement is still somewhat noticeable on 1080p sets. On Full HD displays, the PS4 Pro uses supersampling, which is a graphical effect that renders a scene at a higher resolution than it will actually display at. This gives those aforementioned algorithms more information to work with, which helps them produce sharper images around objects.
At the same time, none of this looks like a potential “PlayStaiton 5.” Instead, you’re getting the same games you’d get on a PS4 but with notable improvements.
Your games work and always will
Since this isn’t a entirely new console, Sony is guaranteeing that any existing PS4 games that get the Pro upgrade will have a free patch. This means those discs or downloads you already own are now capable of outputting 4K or the wider high dynamic range (HDR)color spectrum. HDR uses more colors from the visible spectrum as well as blacker darks and brighter lights to create a more realistic image.
But even if a game doesn’t have a Pro patch to take advantage of the revision’s beefed-up capabilities, all games still work. They just will have the same resolution and framerate as you get on the standard PS4.
PS4 Pro also doesn’t make a lot of noise. My launch PS4 is the loudest gaming device in my house. The disc drive or the fan (or both) often sound like they are preparing for blast off, and my PC and Xbox One and Xbox One S don’t even come close to matching that.
The Pro, however, is now potentially the quietest alongside the Xbox One S. That makes sense considering Sony is using AMD’s new Polaris chip architecture, which is a 16nm process that produces less heat and requires fewer watts. Sony has taken advantage of that to build something that is merely a whisper in most situations.
VR games run better
Sony isn’t just improving its on-screen games with the Pro. It also is using the horsepower to give PSVR players a better experience. In my tests, that seemed to largely come in the form of higher resolutions and improved graphical fidelity. Photorealistic games like DriveClub VR look remarkably better with the detailing of cars maintaining their integrity as they move far away, which is something that the game struggles with on PS4 proper.
The Pro brings the PSVR experience much closer to the Rift and Vive on the PC in terms of capabilities. The difference is enough that I think Sony should likely make sure any future PS4/PSVR bundle uses the Pro.