I am in the market for a PlayStation 4. With the upcoming release of Persona 5, Gravity Rush 2, Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, there is finally a number of games that are not available on the PC that I would like to play. So it is quite fortuitous that Sony announced two new models of the PlayStation 4, the Slim and the Pro. The Slim is the unsurprising smaller and more efficient second rendition of the base PS4, while the Pro represents a new change in the console hardware lifecycle that was previously only seen in Nintendo’s handhelds, namely the New 3DS. The PS4 Pro promises greater graphical power, allowing it to support output to 4K televisions, but also to improve graphical quality and/or framerate at 1080p. The Sony conference also spoke at length about support for HDR-capable televisions, but through firmware updates every PS4 model will support HDR.
If you have a 4K television, it would be an easy decision to upgrade to the Pro (though for some inexplicable reason the PS4 Pro does not support Ultra 4K Blurays, the Xbox One S does though). So for the rest of us, the decision is whether to get the Slim (or stay with the base model), or get/upgrade to the Pro. (As a side note, if you already have a base model PS4, the only reason to upgrade to the Slim is the addition of support for 5GHz wifi and the ac wifi standard.) Here I’ll give a brief overview of the changes the Pro brings over the base/Slim models and some of the other stuff talked about in relation to the Pro.
4K and HDR
The two main things Sony talked about at its announcement conference were support for 4K televisions and support for HDR, specifically the HDR10 standard. HDR televisions support 10 bit colour display, meaning it can display a wider range of colours in comparison to the more common 8 bit colour displays today, and thus offer better contrast in scenes featuring both high light and low light situations. Most 4K televisions support HDR as well, which is partly why they look so good in stores.
The Pro’s support for 4K is unique to the model, but it is also a little complicated. The Pro does appear to have the potential to output native 4K, but the number of games where it would be feasible to do that with the GPU in the Pro will probably be very close to zero. The Pro sports an AMD GPU on the Polaris architecture, which seems to be somewhere between the RX 470 and the RX 480 in performance. Given that Nvidia’s GTX 1080 has just achieved 4K gaming at above 30 fps on average in current games, it would be nothing short of a miracle to see AAA games like Uncharted 4 running at native 4K on the Pro. But it appears that the PS4 Pro is not just upscaling a rendered 1080p image to 4K. According to the amazing people at Digital Foundry, the Pro uses an upscaling technique that takes 2×2 blocks of pixels to generate a 4×4 block of pixels, meaning that a 4K image can be constructed from two 1080p images. There is also the possibility of using previous frames to inform the colour of derived pixels, similar to how temporal anti-aliasing techniques work. This technique has already been used in some form by games that render at resolutions lower than 1080p to upscale to 1080p, including Rainbow Six: Siege and Quantum Break. So it should look better than a television upscaling a 1080p input signal to 4K. Hence, there is value for people who have a 4K television who wish to display content suited for its resolution. The Pro also supports 4K streaming video such as that offered by Netflix, but as noted above does not support Ultra 4K Blurays.
What if you have a 1080p display (or a display with a similar resolution)? Most, if not all, games released in from now on, as well as some games previously released, should support enhanced graphics when running on a PS4 Pro. Sony suggests that developers can choose to increase graphical quality, increase frame rates, or both. Notably, it appears Sony is not allowing developers to impair frame rates to increase graphical quality when compared to the base version of the game. For games that render at lower than 1080p on the base version, they should render at native 1080p on the Pro.
Rise of the Tomb Raider has given an early example of how the Pro is being taken advantage of. There are two graphical modes in the PS4 version at 1080p – one with more graphical effects but runs at a capped 30 fps, and one that targets 45 fps and above, but turns off certain graphical effects. In addition there is a third graphical mode for 4K televisions, but you won’t have the choice to trade frame rate for graphical quality.
The PS4 has a number of games that have struggled to maintain 30 fps, let alone 60 fps. Bloodborne is a notable PS4 exclusive that, like almost all From Software Souls games, have areas where frames drop below 20 fps. Demos of the soon to be released Final Fantasy XV on the base model PlayStation 4 have also had issues maintaining a nice frame rate. So there is a case to be made that if the PS4 Pro is capable of playing these games at a constant frame rate it is worth the reasonable premium in price over the Slim, and from what we’ve seen of it the Pro is capable of doing just that.
Price and Choice
So the final thing to consider is the price – the Slim currently retails at $399 for a 500GB and $499 for a 1TB from JB Hi-Fi, with the Pro (with a 1TB drive) priced at $559. So a reasonable increase in price over the Slim, for what is a modest yet clearly visible graphical improvement in your games.
I will personally hold off until Final Fantasy XV is released and information comes out on how the Slim handles the game compared to the Pro. But I am currently leaning towards a Pro as the difference in price is not that great and the extra performance will probably be appreciated as someone who mostly plays games on a PC.
The Potentially Dreaded Future
There is one last thing to talk about with the PS4 Pro, and it also touches on something that may affect the Xbox Scorpio. This new era of half-generation upgrades to consoles brings up a new scenario, one that has actually occurred on the New Nintendo 3DS. While Sony has asked developers to target the base model PS4 in developing their games, the possibility does arise of a developer creating a game that technically runs on the base model, but runs so poorly on the base model that you should only really play it on the Pro model. On the 3DS, Hyrule Warriors runs quite poorly on the old model that you will basically want to get a New 3DS to play it (or just play on the Wii U). I have no doubt that Sony will be trying to avoid such a situation in the near future, but if it ever does happen it will be interesting to see if it is just accepted as part of the new console hardware lifecycle (and consoles become closer to a PC upgrade cycle), or the concept is rejected wholeheartedly by console gamers.