You don’t need a Sony PlayStation 4 Pro, but when you see games in 4K, you’ll want one
Since we began treating video games as tech instead of as toys in the last decade, the primary argument for console gaming over playing games on a powerful PC has ultimately come down to simplicity. Gaming PCs have always provided the opportunity for players to push their hardware by customizing minute settings in every individual game. Consoles, even with modern conveniences like patches and software updates, plug-and-play for the most part.
Sony will be the first of the two major console manufacturers to remove that distinction with a mid-generation upgrade, the PlayStation 4 Pro. The PS4 Pro is the first game console able to process gameplay at 4K UHD resolution with high-dynamic range (HDR), thanks to a better graphics card and other hardware improvements (Xbox One S can also output 4K, but cannot do so for games).
Unlike past hardware leaps for game consoles, however, the Pro is still a PlayStation 4. It will not have the ability to play any games or game modes that can’t be found a standard console. Basically, the Pro is supposed to offer players who care how about their games look the option to pay more for the privilege of knowing that their games run as well as they can.
The console does not do everything you’d need to make it the centerpiece of a high-end media system.
PlayStation 4 Pro is largely successful in this regard. When played on a 4K TV, the PS4 Pro makes games look sharper and more detailed. On a standard, Full HD set, the games also run smoother. It is the best PS4 you can buy.
On the other hand, Sony’s choice to give players the ability to maximize their consoles’ performance has opened Pandora’s box. Getting the console to output at 4K HDR is a complicated and expensive process that most people simply will not do, at least not until 4K UHD TVs become cheaper, and HDR becomes a widely adopted standard.
There’s nothing stopping you from buying a PlayStation 4 Pro and exploiting whatever performance benefits it naturally offers, but those improvements are small: You may see more pixels and shave a few seconds off load times, but the cost is an extra $100 – $150 missing from your pocket. More importantly, by engaging with the complexities of setting up the PS4 Pro (it’s not always easy), you are giving up the biggest strength that video game consoles have over PCs in the first place: the ability to just plug and play.
We’re gonna need a bigger box!
Physically speaking, the PS4 Pro isn’t that much different than its new counterpart, the PS4 “Slim.” It features the same sharp, slanted design, but with three “slates,” instead of two. The Pro is not as big as you might guess by looking at it; at 295 x 327 x 55mm, it’s two centimeters wider and two centimeters deeper than the original PS4. At 7.3 lbs, it is also a pound heavier than the original PS4 and almost three pounds more than the Slim. Then again, it’s a console that just sits under your TV most of the time, so who really cares?
It also has some additional ports: The optical drive and two USB 3.1 ports on the front on are standard PS4, but the Pro features an extra USB 3.1 port on the back, which is useful if you have a PSVR headset. To accommodate the 4K signal, the HDMI port on the Pro is HDMI 2.0. The Pro also features an optical port, which was included on the original PS4, but removed from the “Slim.”
Interestingly, the PS4 Pro’s optical drive is the same one used in the PS4, which means it does not support 4K Blu-ray. The console will be able to stream 4K HDR content from apps such as Netflix and Hulu, but lack of support means the console does not do everything you’d need to make it the centerpiece of a high-end media system.
When played on a 4K UHD TV, the PS4 Pro makes games look sharper and more detailed.
The real changes are on the inside. The PS4 Pro features a 4.20 Teraflop (TFLOP) AMD Radeon graphics card, which is a serious improvement. Like the standard PS4, it features an 8-core AMD x86-64 Jaguar processor, but the clock speed has been amped up to 2.1GHz. It features 8GB of DDR5 RAM, like the original PS4, but also has an extra gigabyte of DDR3 RAM to handle temporary save states for open games and apps. The Pro comes with 1TB hard drive, which like the PS4 can be replaced with any 2.5-inch SATA hard drive.
The bottom line is the Pro’s technical upgrade is more than cosmetic. Even without software support from individual developers, games and apps run more smoothly and load times may shorten. Some games that push the games hardware to its limits (or have been poorly optimized) will stutter less or see fewer framerate drops. At the same time, this is not the kind of jump that will enable a new generation of game. Even if Sony would allow PS4 Pro exclusives, those games wouldn’t be much bigger or content-rich than what we’re playing now. The improved graphics card could lead to sharper, more detailed games over time, but that’s it.
Shiny, happy people
The primary benefit of the PS4 Pro is the ability to play games at 4K UHD resolution. Games look better in 4K UHD than standard 1080p Full HD games. The 4K benefit increases the detail of every wall, every face, every weapon, every vehicle – every thing looks sharper. Even older games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, one of the few 4K compatible games prior to launch, look much better. That detail mostly comes through if you see objects up close — you can stare at a close-up of a person’s face and see every pore — but you will still see less-detailed textures if you’re vigilant.
As long as you have a 4K UHD TV, running a game in 4K is very easy: The console will automatically scale your resolution to 4K when you plug it in, the same way it scales your resolution on the standard PS4.
Each game also requires a patch enabling 4K support. Prior to the console’s launch, there have been a very limited number 4K-enabled games, fewer than 10. That number is expected to grow — many developers have announced 4K patches are coming — but the timeline for those releases is not clear.
When it comes to 4K support, every game is different. Though many proposed 4K patches seem to simply enable a high-resolution mode, some games give you new settings options. The Witness, for example, lets you to choose between running it at 4K with the framerate locked at 30 frames-per-second (fps), or at 1440p, upscaled to 4K, with the framerate locked at 60 fps.
The Xbox One S also can upscale games to 4K. However, it doesn’t currently have native 4K games, and most of its games continue to render at or below 1080p resolution, just as with the original Xbox One. Skyrim: Special Edition does render at 4K on the PS4 Pro, and other games like Titanfall 2 and The Last Of Us receive a resolution boost.
In many cases, the resolution boost increases image quality to some degree on both 4K and 1080p sets. If you’re on a 4K set, the increased render resolution means less chance softness or up-scaling artifacts. And if you have a 1080p television, the game can “super-sample,” which means it renders at a higher resolution and then down-scales to 1080p. That results in a sharper, cleaner image.
Of course, this is all a bit confusing. While many games will “just look better” when you plug the PS4 Pro in, you may find yourself tinkering with settings to make games work “right.” This isn’t a problem — more choice is generally a good thing — but, as with adding patches and other PC-style system features to consoles, the feature offloads more decisions onto you, and forces you to do more research about the technical aspects of games. After launch, Sony also added a “boost mode” to the Pro, which pushes games without dedicated support for the Pro to run at higher framerates. Unfortunately, the feature is far from perfect: The results of “boosting” varies from game to game, and Sony has acknowledged that it can cause unforeseen glitches to occur, adding more trial-and-error your console. That’s a boon on PC, where those distinctions allow you to customize your hardware, but on a console it feels more like a burden.
Shinier, sadder people
Both the PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro support high-dynamic range, so it technically isn’t only a benefit of the PS4 Pro. But since HDR is only available in a subset of 4K televisions, and the PS4 Pro was originally shown with 4K and HDR working together to boost the console’s image equality, it is an important, and very questionable, aspect of what the console can do.
With HDR support, Sony has thrust players into the complicated world of competing, unregulated software standards. HDR is a separate feature from 4K that’s mostly unpublicized, and can be difficult to identify when buying a television. There are also different forms of HDR: The PS4 Pro requires HDR 10, which is different from “HDR Premium.” There is also a competing standard, Dolby Vision, which is similar but will not work with a PS4 Pro.
Even if you purchase a compatible TV, there’s a good chance you may experience frustrating technical issues that could impede or prevent your ability to play games with HDR. Though it varies from from model-to-model and brand-to-brand, it seems that models may have compatibility issues. Some of these seem to be firmware related. In November, 2016, LG released a firmware patch for some of its TVs that specifically addressed problems with the PS4 Pro.
For this review, we tested the PS4 Pro with a Samsung 8-series set, which meets the console’s specifications. The TV was able to register 4K and HDR in other devices: With the PS4 Pro, however, the set detected the HDR connection, but could not properly sustain it. The problem was partially fixed when Samsung technicians replaced the motherboard of the TV, but HDR was still not compatible with every setting.
All of these roadblocks make HDR all but unusable, which is a shame.
While it would be easy to simply chalk this up to a defective TV, it’s worth pointing out that the problem would not have presented at all if not for the technical eccentricities of the PS4 Pro. While TV-makers are individually working to make their HDR sets PS4 Pro-compatible, it seems fair to say that every person will have their own issues navigate when pairing the console with a TV.
What’s more, the PS4 Pro must be plugged directly into your television to support HDR. It cannot present HDR content through a switcher, receiver, or any kind of pass-through. This constraint, which I understand to be rare, if not unprecedented, will be a serious barrier to entry for anyone who uses any kind of surround sound or other high-quality home theater equipment. Given how specialized the technology is, it isn’t crazy to think that many people who will be capable of using HDR will want to use in conjunction with a speaker system.
Even under ideal circumstances, enabling HDR can be more complicated than setting up 4K. Though the PS4 Pro makes it as easy as possible, enabling the feature on your TV may require a deep dive into settings and a fair amount of trial and error. TV manufacturers seem to conflate 4K UHD (Ultra HD) and HDR. This will vary from set to set, but it is complicated and there is no intuitive road map to get it working.
All of these roadblocks make HDR all but unusable, which is a shame. Based on what we saw at the at the PS4 Pro unveiling event, where we saw the PS4 Pro using 4K and HDR together, and our review unit where we played in 4K only, HDR seems to be the more impressive of the two upgrades. The more dynamic lighting allows you to see across longer distances, and discern subtle details in bright and dark places that would be obscured standard HD.
I say “seems to be” because we have not been able to the test PS4 Pro’s HDR support yet. We will update this review once we have reviewed the console under all conditions. Even if the PS4 Pro’s HDR works as well as it did in our pre-launch demos, the fact of the matter is that HDR is not ready for mass adoption, and the PS4 Pro’s technical constraints mean it will not be the device to pave the way for it.
Going “Pro” in VR
The PlayStation 4 Pro can also improve how well PSVR games work, regardless of what TV you have. According to Sony’s Mark Cerny, the PS4 Pro does not automatically incur any technical improvements without dedicated support built into individual games. Based on our testing, we generally found this to be the case. Though games may seek to use the PS4 Pro to enhance PSVR in different ways, the added graphical power seems to allow the headset to show more detailed renderings at higher resolution.
The PlayStation 4 Pro includes a one-year limited liability warranty from the manufacturer. Our Take
There are a lot of questions you need to ask and answer before buying a PS4 Pro if you want to get the most out of the console. Do you own a 4K HDR 10 television? Does that TV have an HDMI port on the physical set? Do you use a receiver or switcher for audio? Do you care about 4K Blu-Rays? Do you own or plan to buy PSVR?
If you don’t answer all of these questions in the correct way, then the improvements you’ll see out of the PlayStation 4 Pro comes with a significant cost. The PS4 Pro is undoubtedly the best version of the PlayStation 4, but it is not so much better that you should feel compelled to upgrade. Similarly, just because you take gaming seriously does not mean you should feel any pressure to run out and buy a 4K TV to get the best PlayStation experience.
If you play on a PS4 or Xbox One, there is no need to rush into a major purchasing decision. The PS4 Pro makes things complicated enough that you will likely want to make a plan before buying any of this stuff to make sure it all works together. Kind of like how you’d pick all the parts you need to build a PC to make sure they’re compatible.
If you already have a 4K TV and you’re looking for more stuff to do with it, we’re hopeful that this will provide a fairly steady source of 4K and HDR content. For most folks, the PS4 Pro may be something we grow into when 4K becomes ubiquitous, and the HDR standard straightens itself out, but right now it simply isn’t worth the hassle.
Is there a better alternative?
That depends. For most people who want a console, the standard PS4 will access to the console’s entire library, most of which doesn’t support 4K UHD yet, for $100 – $150. On the other end of the spectrum, a gaming 4K-capable gaming PC will likely run you much more than $400, but will give you access to a wider variety of content and a more customization options.
How long will it last?
There’s no way to say, really. The mid-cycle console upgrade is completely new territory for console manufacturers. Pundits and analysts have repeatedly likened the shift to smartphone market: If that’s the case, you might see a new console in three years, which will make the PS4 obsolete and make the PS4 Pro the budget option. If the PS4 Pro doesn’t sell well, we could also see a shift to the PlayStation 5 in a few years. This is an experiment, and we won’t know Sony’s next step until it’s taken.
Should you buy it?
Yes, if you don’t own a PlayStation 4.
Though the regular PS4 is less expensive, and less complicated, it’s probably not wise to buy it now. Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it plays the same games. But you’ll be itching for the upgrade soon.
If you already own a PS4, wait until you’re ready to purchase a 4K UHD TV before pulling the trigger. And if you’re a PSVR user, the Pro does appear to offer some benefits, visually.
Review originally posted on 11-10-2016 and updated on 12-01-2016 with some added details chronicling our issues getting the PS4 Pro to run on our Samsung TV.