Is this Sony’s Wii U moment? That’s one of many questions we asked during our PS4 Pro review in progress. When PS4’s lead architect Mark Cerny first announced the upgraded console back in September, most gamers were baffled. The confusing, overly techy conference left many seeking answers. Is the Pro supposed to replace the standard PlayStation 4? Does it really run games at true, native 4K? Is there any point in buying one if you only own a 1080p TV, not an Ultra HD set?
It’s that last question in particular we’re going to try and answer. And below, we’ll look at whether you can expect better framerates and other visual refinements while playing games at 1080p on a PS4 Pro.
But first, let’s quickly examine the current state of 4K. Is it the future? Is it a fad? Recently, we looked at the best gaming TVs of 2016. The one common factor about almost every set on the list? Nearly all of them are 4K sets. Ultra HD televisions are no longer futuristic pieces of kit beamed down from some advanced alien world; they’re the present. Many high street stores no longer even stock 1080p TVs, so there’s no denying 4K is here to say.
Still, we can’t look past the fact the vast majority of PS4’s install base - currently sitting north of 40m gamers - continue to play at 1080p. That’s why it’s important to figure out whether it’s worth upgrading to the PS4 Pro if you’ve got no plans to buy a new television.
Regardless of what type of TV you own, though, there’s no denying you’re getting an impressive piece of tech for a good price. Thanks to Sony’s clever ‘checkerboard’ rendering, the GPU in this beefed up PlayStation punches well above its weight. Admittedly, native 4K games are few and far between in the initial wave of games that support Pro patches. According to Digital Foundry, many titles only upscale to 1440p (2K resolution), including Uncharted 4 and Titanfall 2. Yet that’s still a tangible upgrade on 1080p, and Sony’s elegant upscaling technique is convincing enough in the likes of Rise Of The Tomb Raider that many will probably struggle to tell they’re not getting full-fat 4K gaming.
Again, it’s important to emphasise the cost factor. For $399/£349 - the same price the original PS4 launched at in 2013 - you’re getting a box that’s capable of delivering 4K streaming media, plus a mix of 4K and upscaled games. Quite frankly, that’s insane. In comparison, upgrading a PC to the spec required to properly run titles at Ultra HD is monstrously expensive. You’re looking at the best part of a $400/£350 outlay for graphics card on the level of Nvidia’s GTX 1070, and that’s just the GPU! Factor in the beefy CPU, motherboard, and (minimum) 8GB of RAM also needed, and you’re putting up a $1000 investment. You may be happy with your vanilla PS4, but Sony deserves serious credit for producing the Pro at such an aggressive price point.
If you don’t already own a PS4 but are planning to buy one, the Pro is an absolute no-brainer. For less than $400 you’re getting a console with twice the GPU power of the original model, a 30% faster CPU, not to mention a 1TB hard-drive. Even if you don’t have a 4K TV, the extra $100 over the base PS4 buys you a /lot/ more power. And as we’ll look at below, playing games on the Pro at 1080p still provides visual upgrades you can’t get on the default PS4…
This is the biggie. Most PS4 players own 1080p sets, and many of you probably have no plans on upgrading your TV anytime soon. Hey, it’s totally understandable. After all, many games still look damn good at 1080p. As Crystal Dynamics and Nixxes have shown with Rise Of The Tomb Raider, though, all that extra grunt under the Pro’s hood does net you visible graphical improvements over the base PS4, even if you’re not playing in 4K mode.
Lara’s chilly Siberian adventure uses super-sampling - a process where a higher res picture is downscaled to your display’s current resolution - in order to improve anti-aliasing at 1080p. On a normal PS4, the game’s environments are blighted by jaggies, but on the Pro, this is considerably cleared up, resulting in a much cleaner looking image. In theory, all games with Pro patches, which under Sony’s guidelines should be every title that comes out on PS4 from here on out, should be able to offer super-sampling to reduce aliasing at 1080p.
Of course, it’ll be up to individual developers to make the decision on whether they implement the technique or not. With the vast majority of TVs in the wild being 1080p displays, you’d hope studios put real effort into ensuring there are benefits to playing Pro games at Full HD over the original PS4.
We’ve already listed all of PS4 Pro’s confirmed games, which includes both current software and upcoming titles. Interestingly, the initial batch of Pro patches are already improving framerate performance for certain games at 1080p, though admittedly it’s only a handful of titles. The likes of Titanfall 2 boasts ‘increased framerate stability’, while Killing Floor 2 also benefits from better performance at Full HD.
Rise Of The Tomb Raider is the current poster girl for how to get Pro support right. Aside from its 4K mode, which runs at 30fps, there’s also the option to play the game at 1080p with an unlocked framerate. Now, reports suggest this isn’t quite a locked 60fps experience, but the game is said to run consistently between 50-60fps; a huge leap over performance on the base PS4, which can often dip below 30. Again, it’s on developers to try and boost performance, and there’s a worry all their focus could go towards upscaling to higher resolutions, rather than improving framerates at 1080p.
In short, probably not. The vast majority of TVs that support High Dynamic Range are 4K sets. 1080p panels with HDR are rarer than snow leopards, partly because the tech is still so new. What’s more, even displays that do support HDR often can’t do TV’s latest ‘killer’ feature justice. It’s all to do with the complicated business of nits - no, not the head lice.
Basically, nits measure the colour and contrast spectrum TVs can outputs pictures at. The recommended standard is a dynamic range between 0-10,000 nits, but in reality, even the best displays struggle to hit 1000 nits. In other words, HDR is still in its infancy, and has a long way to go. We wouldn’t lose sleep about not being able to play Uncharted 4 with slightly brighter whites and a teensy bit blacker blacks quite yet.
This is a tricky one because both pieces of kit are still so new. Developers are still getting their heads around making VR games for the base PS4, let alone implementing Pro support. What we do know is Sony’s upgraded console is capable of using super-sampling in PSVR titles, just as it does with games like Rise Of The Tomb Raider. As anti-aliasing is already a bit of a problem with the headset - your eyes are pressed up mere millimeters from the image, there’s nowhere for jaggies to hide - Pro patches offering super-sampling would be welcome. Smoother looking games can only lead to more immersion.
Sony has already stated developers really must hit 90fps in VR games in order to combat motion sickness. Most PSVR titles are already doing a good job of hitting that figure, so with the Pro’s mighty GPU jump and faster processor, it should be that much easier for studios to deliver the necessary performance needed to stop you bringing back up your lunch every time you sit down (or should that be stand up?) for a game of Job Simulator.
The quick answer? Probably not. While super-sampling in Rise Of The Tomb Raider or slightly speedier framerates in Modern Warfare Remastered are nice features, they’re hardly worth coughing up $400 for a new console. The reality is only the eagle-eyed will likely notice any visual improvements at 1080p, and even then better anti-aliasing isn’t exactly worth hundreds of dollars. If you’re happy with your current TV, you’re probably best sticking with the PS4 you already own.
BUT… if you do want to buy a 4K TV and have the budget for it - you can pick up good Ultra HD sets in the $500-$600 range - then PS4 Pro suddenly becomes a much more tempting prospect. Sony’s checkerboard rendering can upscale games to resolutions far above 1080p, and with the right screen that jump in pixel density is going to make upcoming titles look much sharper, not to mention existing games like The Last Of Us Remastered and Uncharted 4 that have been patched with Pro modes. Compared to paying $1000 or more for a 4K-capable PC, spending $400 on a PS4 Pro suddenly seems like quite the deal.
Finally, if you don’t yet have a PS4 but want one, the Pro looks like a slam dunk purchase. For just $100 more than the base PlayStation 4, you’re future-proofing your gaming experience with a console that’s considerably more powerful than the launch system.
Sony may have muddled its message with PS4 Pro, but it's clearly a well designed system with some seriously clever upscaling techniques going on under its triple decker sandwich chassis. With so many 1080p TVs out there, though, Sony really needs to hope it can convince people the upgrades while playing at Full HD are worth it. Right now, we’re not entirely convinced they are.