The PlayStation 4 Pro Reveal And The Shape Of Things To Come

Happy Shu.

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.

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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.

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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.

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19 Comments

  1. I may upgrade to a ps4 pro depending on where the games go with it. I only have a 1440p display so I wouldn’t see a huge benefit, unless devs also give the option for a 1080p output with a higher frame rate/detail setting. I don’t see them natively supporting 1440p either way, it’s more of a monitor resolution.

    I was also surprised by the announcement that all PS4s will support HDR, it’s not supported by hdmi 1.4 (whats in the stock ps4), and I wasn’t aware you could patch hdmi versions.

    • Actually, it looks like it may be slightly surprising to the people in charge of the HDMI standard(s) too.

      From http://www.hdmi.org/manufacturer/hdmi_2_0/hdmi_2_0_faq.aspx#124

      “Can my existing HDMI 1.x devices be upgraded with HDMI 2.0 features?” (the PS4 being a HDMI 1.x device)

      “Currently, there are no provisions for doing such an upgrade. Because of the new enhanced feature set, any such conversion would require hardware and/or firmware upgrades. If there are such conversions, it would come from the manufacturer. Please check with them directly.”

      So it looks like it’s not a required behaviour (for older devices to be forward compatible) and they weren’t really expecting it to happen. Obviously a cheap Blu-ray player is going to have the minimum hardware to handle the standard at the time. More expensive hardware might be able to handle it, but the required software updates probably wouldn’t happen.

      So the PS4 is a special case. The hardware can handle 10-bit colour and the firmware update is coming. No idea how much extra processing is needed to go from 8 to 10 bits though. And obviously the normal PS4 can’t do it at 2160p.

      But yes, you can “patch” HDMI versions. It’s just a (rarely changing) standard for the cable, and a list of features and formats for the data you send over the cable which relies on having enough processing power to provide that data.

      • Didn’t the ps3 have an hdmi update because of 3d? I’m sure I remember something about.

        Methink it’s mostly to get you to replace perfectly working equipment and cables.

        Not sure about 10bit colour but my standard xbox has had the ‘option’ to switch between 8 and 10 bit.

  2. I’m surprised that Sony were able to keep the PS4 Pro design under wraps considering it’s out in two months time. Maybe they were happy for the slim to be “leaked” to keep the attention away from Pro?

    • They didn’t, actually. Around about the time the PS4 redesign leaked, there were sketches of this three tiered console design appearing in certain places. The slim PS4 did definitely distract from that, though, and they were terrible sketches.

      • I missed the sketches but I guess that was no bad thing.

  3. I wasn’t keen on the overall design of the Pro yesterday but now I’ve seen the high res images, I think it looks quite smart. The front facing view above reminds me of the grooves on the original PS2. Plus, the Pro console does have touch buttons. Leaning more towards getting one now but I think I’ll wait for the White version.

  4. I have my PC for playing games at higher resolutions and better frame-rates (and better detail). However, I think it’s a shrewd move that may well set a precedent going forward into another generation – whenever that happens.

    Historically, we’ve had the consoles (set in stone for x amount of years) and then the mess that is PC hardware. So many permutations and configurations that developers don’t get to truly optimise their experiences… ever. I really did think the Steam Box (is that what it’s called?) would find the happy middle ground but I never see it being discussed and, to me, it’s a failure. However, here’s the PS4 Pro with an option in the Settings menu for resolution, detail, frame-rate. Top marks to them.

    Will that be well received by the masses? Not sure. Will it be received well by the more hardcore crowd? I can’t help but think “yes”. It’ll just be down to whether it’s worth the financial investment for Sony to do it again next generation (or continue it this generation).

  5. I was hoping for a 1080p 60 locked option. The tomb raider game where the frame rate flicks between 40 and 60 is surely going to result in screen tearing isnt it?

  6. I’ve been mulling all day what to do with my gaming future. I’ve had a Xbox One S on preorder for a few weeks, I’ve had PS VR on preorder since the day after of release date being announced and i was waiting for last night’s press conference to blow me away but it never did. I didn’t like the idea of no 4k Blu-ray drive at first then I remembered i haven’t bought a Blu-ray for 2 years. I didn’t like the look of the console but I never like the look of new consoles on first appearance. All in all I’m cancelling my One S and going with Ps4 pro as I can’t afford both or its it my marriage can’t afford both…

    • Save up for Scorpio?

      I think i’ll be sticking with my standard PS4 and X1. I can’t see any worthwhile benefit when I have 1080p displays.

      What’s putting me off a HDR 4K TV is that currently there isn’t one that:
      Has proper HDR (very complicated which I don’t understand)
      Has low input lag while using HDR. I am used to 2ms on my monitor.
      Is OLED and priced for the ordinary citizen.

      I don’t want one that scrapes the grade.

      • You can definitely get proper HDR sets (look for the certified Ultra HD ones) but they don’t come cheap!
        The rest… Yeah, I’d hold out a while yet!

      • Yes I think I’ll be waiting for the Scorpio. Also latency is bad on HDR TVs at the minute but I have 4k, at the moment I have no intention on upgrading from that.

  7. Any info on whether the Pro will improve the PSVR performance…? That’s really the only reason for me to consider it. Having said that – it will piss people off if they feel they have to spend another £350 for the full VR experience.

    • Some gamers would be pissed off if you gave them a free PS4 Pro, a PS VR and Kim Kardashian for the weekend.

  8. My main concern with the presentation was with the presenter, who appears to have a British accent, referring to Christmas as (I can barely bring myself to type it)… “The holiday season” (I feel sick). Plonker!

    • In a few more years we wont be allowed to call it Christmas in this country. Last year the Christmas markets were advertised as the Winter markets. Religious cards were banned from our workplace and we did not have a Christmas tree in the main lobby because it may cause offence to ‘minorities’. Enjoy your Christmas’ while you can because we’ll all be calling them ‘the holidays’ before long.

  9. I’ve just upgraded to my first full HD tv, so i will probably only want to upgrade my console when i see some distinctively next-gen games appear.

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