Back when news of Sony’s PS Neo project (now called PS4 Pro) first broke, the idea of a new console arriving outside of the long-standing generational cycle for games platforms widely split opinion amongst the gaming community.
The valid fear was that any ‘4.5’ console with increased specifications would force current PS4 owners to choose between two unpalatable options: either invest in a stop-gap console that might be obsolete in a couple of years or see their current device become of secondary concern to game developers, who would have to spread their resources more thinly to create games that are compatible across three models (including the PS4 Slim), each which come with distinct processing requirements.
All of this is true. Yet there are many reasons why the new PS4 Pro represents a big step change for our home entertainment.
As we discussed on Connected Lifestyle back in April, there were a few key expectations that many gamers were looking for in an updated PS4. Bringing it in line with the capabilities of the latest high-end televisions by introducing 4K support was one oft-quoted desire, as was the ability to work smoothly with the previously-announced PlayStation VR headset.
It is hard to argue that recent developments in home entertainment didn’t warrant a beefier, more powerful console to allow gamers to fully maximise the potential of these new technologies. That said, there are enough caveats to the PS4 Pro that are likely to make users think twice before they take the plunge and buy a whole new console.
The good, the bad, the ugly
While 4K support is an important step forwards in terms of visual quality, the more noticeable change for users will be the introduction of HDR content, which vastly increases the depth and richness of the colour space. To benefit from both, a user will need to make sure that their Ultra HD (4K) television additionally supports HDR content, as the two are not synonymous with each other. The PS4 Pro will still work well with non-4K and non-HDR screens, but having a lower resolution screen would kind of defeat the point of plumping for the extra visual capabilities of the enhanced platform.
It is worth pointing out that the PS4 Pro will only support the HDR10 standard rather than Dolby Vision but, as almost every TV manufacturer either exclusively elected for HDR10 or supports both, this is unlikely to be a source of frustration (Vizio – long a Dolby Vision HDR proponent – is a recent convert to this dual approach).
While the PSVR headset is designed to work across all PS4-generation consoles, the increased memory bandwidth of 218 GB/s (up from a stated 176 GB/s, but estimated at 140 GB/s in effective bandwidth) and increased frame rate available to the PS4 Pro will result in it offering a smoother VR experience than the less powerful PS4 and PS4 Slim.
With a relatively long lead time and a lengthy list of friendly studios working on titles, it seems unlikely that PSVR headset owners will be starved for gaming choices. An interesting twist is that many major developers appear to be introducing VR chapters into their flagship games – such as with Rise of the Tomb Raider – or else releasing a VR version alongside a conventional version (as is the case with the upcoming Resident Evil 7).
When it comes to audio support, the PS4 Pro comes out ahead of Microsoft’s current challenger, the Xbox One S. Unlike its rival, the entire PS4 line and later versions of the PS3 all offer support for 3D audio – if you enable bitstream pass-through in the settings. By contrast, the likes of Dolby Atmos, Auro 3D and DTS:X continue to go unsupported on Microsoft’s dedicated games consoles.
3D audio looks to be a key part of Sony’s more immersive strategy for gaming: alongside the PS4 Pro, the company is releasing its Platinum wireless headset, which offers 7.1 virtual surround sound using Sony’s 3D audio tech, for gamers who prefer to play with headsets on.
The key element that prevents the PS4 Pro and PS4 Slim from being a completely ‘new’ generation of consoles is their cross-compatibility with their older sibling. As games will be playable across all three PS4 consoles, games will be built or updated to either upscale or downscale visuals so as to offer the best performance depending on the device. Offering a single digital eco-system is a core tenant of the expanded Playstation 4 family, as Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Mark House explained in an interview with Digital Spy:
“Large scale publishers were very vocal [that] we mustn’t create a two-tiered universe around the players […] I think there’s a kind of shared intent there amongst publisher and platform holder which gives me a fairly good degree of confidence that we’ll be able to keep that.”
Not enough disc space?
Perhaps surprisingly, the PS4 will not have an Ultra HD Bluray disc slot like the Xbox One S; instead Sony are sticking to a standard Bluray player and supporting 4K streaming content from the likes of Netflix and YouTube. While this could be seen as a move to promote its own 4K streaming service, Sony Ultra, the company has oddly refused to comment on why this will be supported by the PS4 Pro.
The absence of the UHD Bluray disc slot in the PS4 Pro could be related to the fact that Sony’s first proprietary UHD Bluray player – the UBP-X1000ES – won’t be commercially available until next year. Most likely there wasn’t a device ready in time for the launch of Sony’s mid-generation console refresh. That said, considering that Microsoft managed to implement one into a console that came out months before the PS4 Pro, this is a serious misstep for the Japanese company and one that will be a huge issue for gamers wanting their console to double up as a full home entertainment system.
While the company claims that it is reflecting a growing trend towards streaming by omitting UHD Bluray, the reality is that many households simply don’t have the broadband capacity for high quality 4K content streaming. You can score one to Microsoft and Xbox on this front.
Compounding this strange omission is the reality that this new half-generation iteration will struggle to stream natively in 4K. One criticism levelled at the Xbox One S is that it upscales content to 4K, rather than running in this resolution natively – yet the PS4 Pro will also suffer from this problem. The lead architect of the PS4, Mark Cerny, has admitted that the new console doesn’t render in native 4K, primarily for ‘cost and form’ reasons. As Albert Penello, head of Xbox planning at Microsoft, points out, the 4.12 teraflops that the PS4 Pro boasts is ‘not enough to do true 4K’.
While Sony’s method of upscaling to 4K results in a much-enhanced, ‘near-enough’ resolution without noticeable artefacts, this may come to matter more significantly when Microsoft’s Project Scorpio – its second mid-generation console of this cycle and the first to support VR gaming – emerges from the chrysalis in late 2017.
With a reported GPU of 6 teraflops and 320GB/s in memory bandwidth (the same as Nvidia’s top-end GeForce GTX 1080 gaming graphics card, which is the current benchmark for high-end VR applications), this new Xbox model promises to render games in true 4K resolution, meaning it would outstrip the PS4 Pro’s capabilities a mere twelve months after the latter launches. However, this level of performance is likely to come with a significant price hike over the competitively priced Pro (£349 at launch), which might prove beyond the budgets of many in the Xbox community.
What does this all mean for the home?
In the short term, there are a few fundamental shifts that this new set of gaming consoles will bring to the home. Firstly, the increased specifications will give many homeowners a sensible reason to upgrade to a 4K HDR television, rather than simply to access what is still relatively niche number of films and TV shows. Whether a 3D audio sound-system is a worthwhile investment for gamers will continue to be split down the middle; for Playstation players, it will enhance gameplay, while Xbox aficionados won’t benefit from this unless the company chooses to start supporting direct bit streaming for audio formats at some point down the line.
Perhaps the biggest sea change won’t be seen in the consoles themselves, but the peripherals. Notably, the addition of a VR headset to the average console owner’s gaming arsenal would represent a huge uplift in the number of such headsets on the market, resulting in this relatively nascent technology seeing a significant leap in terms of adoption.
“I think that in the next couple of years we will see virtual reality become more commonplace as headsets become an integral part of our home gaming experience,” suggests Hamza Abbas, business development manager at Andrew Lucas Studios. “This will not only raise the profile of VR as a recreational tool, but also for several other applications as well.”
Whether Sony neglecting to incorporate UHD Bluray into the PS4 Pro will hinder this new Bluray format, or console sales – or perhaps both – remains an unresolved question. When you consider that one of the cheapest options to have a PS4 Pro and a UHD Bluray player in the home right now will be to invest in an Xbox One S alongside the new unit from Sony, it is easy to see the impact that this omission might have on sales of the new PS4 models.
While Microsoft might come to regret taking a full year longer than Sony to introduce VR, it seems improbable that this will be a deal-breaker for Xbox users in quite the same way.
Iterative, rather than generational
While both Microsoft and Sony remain tight-lipped about whether these new consoles spell the end of the generational cycle, it is quite clear that the two have embarked on divergent strategies that both undermine the idea that big hardware upgrades will only take place every five to seven years from now on.
Yet, in much the same way that the public has become used to only seeing a fresh iPhone exterior every two years, rather than expecting a complete overhaul every time, it might be the perfect time for the two big console manufacturers to wean their respective audiences off what appears to be an increasingly outdated sales concept.
If both rivals can continue to develop new hardware without compromising on backwards compatibility with the generation that precedes it, then the notion that each new model needs to represent a complete platform reset becomes obsolete. This would allow them to evolve their hardware at a more organic pace, allowing consumers to pick and choose at what point they wish to upgrade to the latest specification.
Might this lead to video gaming becoming a more expensive hobby? Perhaps. More likely, however, is that PS and Xbox game developers would follow the lead of the PC gaming world, where the clear majority of games can be played (albeit not always with fully-realised graphics) even by those that own older or less powerful machines.