I saw Shuhei Yoshida walking around the venue to PlayStation Meeting after the end of Sony’s press conference. He looked happy, and it’s understandable why that’s the case. The event went well, with Sony managing to exceed certain expectations after months of leaks about “Neo”.
Some parts of the event were almost too fast to keep track of, as prices, release dates and the look of the new consoles were revealed in quick succession. The new PlayStation 4 model, a slimmer, more compact and more efficient piece of kit was the first thing to be unveiled, but it was merely a footnote to the overall presentation. The focus here was all about the PlayStation 4 Pro – the official name for the Neo – and what it can do for games, both old and new.
The presumption going into this event was that the PS4 Pro wouldn’t be able to manage 4K. The AMD Polaris-based GPU that is the catalyst to the Pro’s graphical advantage isn’t seen as a 4K part on PC, not by a long shot. Yet in the PS4 Pro, it is. An advanced post-processing techniques known as checkerboarding allows developers to get a 4K image without needing to use anywhere near as much graphical power to do so.
So no, it’s not “ture 4K”, but a clever way of getting to that resolution and doing so with high quality. Digital Foundry has an excellent explanation of the technicalities, but it’s not simply running the game at a lower resolution and then stretching the image to a higher one, it’s working with fewer pixels, but it’s then able to extrapolate and expand the image with more detail.
However, the games do all look quite fantastic on 4K TVs, with a great deal of added clarity even when looking very closely at the huge screens that were set up for all the demos. HDR is another key facet to the PS4 Pro’s appeal, making the best possible use out of the latest TV technology, and again, it makes a major improvement. It’s actually quite jarring to see the image shift from SDR to HDR, as though its almost fake in its sudden vibrancy. Yet, going the other way even a few seconds later, all of the life is sucked out of the image. It looks flatter and less interesting.
There’s just so much more detail on show with HDR turned on. For such a long time, we’ve lived with SDR screens that can’t let you peer into a shadow of an otherwise brightly lit scene and spot details. Highlights in a dark scene or the foliage of a tree seen through a window on a sunny day are easier to pick out. The difference is a big and noticeable one.
But there is a problem. For the few hundred people at the event, watching the games being played on large 4K screens and with HDR enabled, it was great, but for those at home watching, it was muted at best. There are ways to simulate or exaggerate the differences for those watching via a compressed stream over the internet and on SDR screens, but they don’t get across the true impact. Without seeing the difference in person, comparing things side-by-side, even, it could be a tough sell.
It’s important to remember that the PS4 Pro isn’t necessarily an essential purchase. It doesn’t make the original PS4 or slimmer PS4 redundant by any means, just as the iPhone 7 hasn’t made the iPhone 6S completely worthless overnight – it’s not as appealing, but it’s cheaper. This is now a family of consoles, with an entry level PS4 that is more than good enough for the vast majority of buyers, but also a new top tier for the enthusiast gamers who want the best they can get and have the money to splash on a new 4K TV with all the bells and whistles.
That’s a huge factor. HDR in particular is still an evolving technology, and finding a 4K TV with HDR support that also has good response times for a reasonable price is no mean feat. On top of that, while the PS4 Pro doesn’t support it, there’s the emergence of Dolby Vision, which features an even greater range of colours beyond for an even more nuanced image, even greater dynamic range and demands a much brighter TV.
It’s fascinating to see the different ways that developers are using this power. Sony’s teams at Sucker Punch and Bend Studios are aiming to keep the experience the same, with the same frame rate and so on, but do so at a 4K resolution, or as near as is possible. If you’re playing on a HDTV, they render at 4K and then downsample the image for the TV, effectively giving you some very, very nice anti-aliasing. For those not planning to upgrade their TVs, there are greatly diminished returns from having this singular approach.
On the other hand, you have games like Rise of the Tomb Raider, where you have options. You can run at 4K, but you can also run at 1080p with an unlocked frame rate – this currently goes “north of 45”, Crystal Dynamics Head of Studio Scot Amos told me – or play at 1080p30 and play with a lot more detail in the actual environment itself. There’s more rendering passes, PVR lighting, reflections and shadow details.
The console is out on 10th November, less than a month after PS VR is – this makes sense, given the codenames they were given during development and the potential improvements for VR games – and it costs $399 or £349, aping the launch prices of the original PS4. It’s a fantastic price point, and less than I had personally expected given the hardware that’s in the box. Even so, the PS4 Pro currently has a limited target audience, and the upsell to anyone without a 4K TV will be tricky, let alone a 4K HDR TV, unless more developers adopt the approach of Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Given how well this announcement fits with Sony’s TV business, it’s surprising that there’s no Ultra HD Blu-ray drive in the Pro. It might have been a way of keeping the price of the console so reasonable, but it also doesn’t quite make sense. If you’re pushing 4K and HDR, you want to be able to access the best of these, which Netflix and YouTube simply can’t offer. Just as with 1080p before, UHD Blu-ray doesn’t have to restrict itself with bandwidth limitations.
I’m also not particularly fond of the Pro’s actual design. It has a common shape and look to the redesigned PS4, but now with three layers and two grooves to help cool the more powerful GPU. Where the PS4 was stylish, the PS4 Pro looks chunky and monolithic in the wrong ways, while featuring a unified design alongside the new base PS4.
The most important thing is what the hardware can do, and here, Sony can be quite confident and enjoy a year on the market as the only 4K capable console. It might not be as powerful as what’s looming on the horizon from the team in green, but the PS4 Pro has certainly exceeded my expectations in more ways than one.