Sony announces a mid-cycle upgrade of its best-selling video game console, designed for 4K gaming and VR
No doors were blown off. No presses were stopped. Yesterday's invite-only "PlayStation Meeting" in New York had less in common with the excitement of a new console reveal than with a mid-cycle Apple iPhone event – with which it happened to share the date. Shortly after Tim Cook's brain had waited patiently on stage for its host's Carpool Karaoke ordeal to mercifully end, Sony was doing its best to build excitement for it's own mid-cycle refresh of the world's number one selling video game console, the PlayStation 4. Along with a slimmer version of the current PS4 (that's unhappily less capable than its equally slim new rival, the Xbox One S) Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO, Andrew House revealed the faster, more powerful PlayStation 4 Pro, which will retail at $399 when it launches November 10th. Here's a primer.
What is it?
The PlayStation 4 Pro is the brainchild of Mark Cerny, lead system architect for PlayStation and technical MVP of at least three generations of Sony games including Crash Bandicoot, Uncharted and Resistance. It features a new three-layer case design, a more powerful graphics processor and a faster CPU, along with a bigger, 1TB hard drive. All of which is in the service of two things: the 4K future of your television and the soon-to-be-strapped-to-your-face future of Virtual Reality.
Traditionally, console makers like Sony have been on a mission to drag out the life of a single piece of hardware for as long as possible between generations. The original PlayStation lasted six years, the PS3 seven before they were superseded. What's changed is the technology inside, which used to be bespoke and pricey but is now basically the same, off-the-shelf stuff that sits in every PC, tablet and notebook. That and a tech consumer that expects their phones to be updated every two years. That's made it a much easier sell, and even a necessary step in order to keep up with the current trend towards ever more high definition content (4K TVs) and games that demand virtually photorealistic graphics.
What does it mean for my games?
Quite a bit. The enhanced graphics and 4K output means that games you already own, as well as any new titles released after the PS4 Pro is launched, will either be running smoother (faster frame rates), running with much more detail (in 4K) or at the very least, running with enhanced color depth – thanks to the addition of High Dynamic Range, or HDR. To prove the point, at yesterday's reveal, Sony re-introduced a number of stunning-looking games – from the open-world sci-fi adventure of Guerrilla's Horizon Zero Dawn, to the zombie apocalypse of Days Gone from Sony's Bend Studio, to Ubisoft's hacker fantasy, Watch Dogs 2, and finally a surprise all-new in-game demo of Bioware's forthcoming Mass Effect Andromeda – all running in 4K with HDR color.
What does it mean for movies and TV?
If you have a 4K TV and broadband, the PS4 Pro will take advantage of the limited (but growing) Netflix library of 4K content via a new Netflix streaming app. Marvel's new Luke Cage series will be compatible, as is the Netflix original series and caterpillar mustache showcase Narcos. Sony also has its own catalog of 4K movies that live under its 'Ultra' brand. Bafflingly, despite Sony owning the Blu-Ray format, the PS4 Pro won't be able to play 4K Blu-Ray discs – something the new Xbox One S can do. Either Sony doesn't believe its own disc format has a future, or it's simply assuming that the kind of people that will pay $399 for a mid-cycle refresh of a games console they already own are cutting edge enough to have long since left the confines of physical media for the world of streaming.
What if I don't have a 4K TV?
Thanks to the wonders of something called super-sampling, where the PS4 Pro takes the 4K image data and shrinks the image to fit a standard HD screen, even a 1080p image should look a wee bit sharper. But the real benefit will be in how games run. If the PS4 Pro detects a standard HD TV, it will know to push its power towards increasing the frame rate and dabbing extra detail into the world, such as extra blades of grass in a field or more realistic flowing locks on the head of your favorite hero. Or slightly more realistic identical gray backpacks in The Division.
What does this have to do with PlayStation VR?
Because VR works by giving each eye its own HD TV, virtual reality is power-hungry – effectively asking the PS4 to draw everything on the screen twice. Though Sony has promised that all PSVR games will run smoothly on the vanilla PS4, the extra processing power that the Pro brings to the party is going to mean enhanced – and certainly less motion-sickness-inducing experiences, thanks to increased frame rates.
How does it compare to Microsoft's forthcoming 2017 Xbox One update, 'Project Scorpio'?
Given that it's arriving an entire year earlier, not well. Microsoft has already stated that its PS4 Pro equivalent will have both faster chips and more raw processing power thanks to its silicon being a generation newer. What this means in practice is too early to say, but both systems will handle 4K gaming with HDR color so the real differences are likely to be in the smoothness of the images and the amount of detail the designers can bake into their creations. Still, neither Sony nor Microsoft want to see inferior versions for their legacy consoles, so this will have to be handled carefully – it's one thing to see every leaf on a tree in 4K on PS4 Pro, but another to find that on an old PS4 the tree has been replaced by a sign that says 'tree here' because the aging processor can't hack it.