Gaming

Why you shouldn't get excited about 4K and HDR gaming, at least not yet

The new PS4 Pro and Xbox One S game consoles finally bring us into the era of high-resolution 4K and high dynamic range gaming. But just barely.

One of the biggest letdowns of the "original" PS4 and Xbox One was the lack of 4K resolution. The new PS4 Pro and Xbox One S consoles fix that issue, offering the potential to game in 4K as well as high dynamic range, aka HDR. The combination promises better graphics, contrast and color than ever, especially when mated to a high-end big-screen TV. Sounds pretty awesome, right?

Hold your horses. We aren't quite in the era of 4K gaming just yet. In fact, we're barely at the cusp. The games haven't quite caught up to the improved console hardware, and that hardware itself needs to get even better before "true" 4K gaming becomes commonplace.

Here's what you need to know about these new consoles, what you need to get them to play 4K and HDR in your home, and where PC gaming fits in.

What's in a name?

If you don't follow gaming hardware news, we should talk briefly about the new consoles, otherwise the rest of this article will get confusing, and quick.

  • Xbox One: Launched in 2013, no 4K gaming or HDR
  • Xbox One S: Launched in 2016, slightly upgraded hardware, "upconverts" games to 4K, HDR support, 4K UHD Blu-Ray playback built-in
  • Xbox One Project Scorpio: Launching holiday 2017, significant hardware upgrade, 4K gaming (claimed)

I'll explain the "upconverts" and "4K capable" scare quotes in the somewhat less frightening "Output vs. Render" section below.

What has improved?

In both cases, the upgraded boxes add graphical horsepower, although the PlayStation 4 Pro gets a significantly bigger bump than than Xbox One S. For the full details, check out PS4 Slim vs. PS4 Pro vs. Xbox One vs. Xbox One S: What's the difference?

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These aren't the huge jumps Sony and Microsoft's marketing would like you to believe. It's also going to depend largely on the game. Using the new, more powerful hardware isn't mandatory. Developers can use it if they want, or not, depending on their preference (or more likely, their development budget). They can also pick and choose, adding additional rendering resolution (more on this in a moment), upping the frame rate, or adding in things like HDR or better anti-aliasing.

The main thing to remember, however, is that the PS4 Pro and One S won't be quite the "true" 4K gaming we've been promised. Sure your TV will see "2160p" or "Ultra HD" resolution, and display as much on-screen, but that's not the full story.

Render vs. Output

The Xbox One S can't do "true" 4K gaming at all -- you're only getting an upconversion of Xbox One games. Sony says the PS4 Pro is technically capable of native 4K gaming, but most titles will likely not reach that maximum resolution. It will render most games at a lower resolution and upconvert to 4K. This is something consoles have done from the beginning.

In other words, the rendering resolution of a game is different from its output resolution. Allow me to explain.

Say you're playing CODBLOPS 9: Mission to Maui. The console creates everything in the world you see. The trees, the ocean, the mai-tais, everything. The process of creating a game on-the-fly is called rendering, and it takes a lot of processing power. Once you start throwing in angry seagulls and weaponized seals (the flappy kind), the limited hardware in the console starts to chug.

Most game designers want to keep the frame rate smooth (so you don't get choppy motion). They also don't want to reduce the number of items in the world. The solution is to reduce the rendering resolution. So instead of 1,920x1,080 pixels (1080p), the game is rendered at, perhaps, 1,600x900. Then, a separate upconverter makes sure your TV still gets 1080p, even though the game is really a lot less.

This was one of the worst kept secrets in gaming, since pretty much every console does it. One of the best things about the PS4 and Xbox One was the promise of true 1080p gaming, since we hardly ever got that with the earlier PS3 and Xbox 360.

Now we'll see the same thing with 4K. A game could be rendered at 1,920x1,080 (or more), but output at 3,840x2,160 (4K). How big of a difference will we see between upconverted-4K and true-4K games? Again, it depends on the game. If the textures, which are essentially the wallpaper used to cover the frames and structures in the game, are 4K resolution, then the upconverted version won't look as detailed as a native 4K version. If the textures are lower resolution, then the upconverted version might look a little better than the same game running at 1080p on the base PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but the difference won't be drastic.

Textures can be upconverted, but you can't upconvert is the polygons, which comprise the frame and structure of what you see in the game. So while the edges of upconverted games might be sharper than 1080p, the game won't look more "real." Ars Technica dives into this a bit in its first impression of the games.

HDR and 4K Games

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Screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn, one of the announced PS4 Pro-compatible games.

Sony

All your current games will play on the new consoles. These are hardware updates, not entirely new systems. Even the games announced that will work with the new hardware are backward compatible with the older PS4 and Xbox One.

According to Sony, "[All first-party titles] released in or after 2017 will support 4K. Highly anticipated titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone, Detroit and Spider Man will also support HDR in addition to 4K." The only game we know about so far to actually render in 4K is Elder Scrolls Online.

In addition, some games you may already have will be patched to take advantage of the PS4 Pro's extra power. These, plus some new titles, include Uncharted 4, The Last of Us, Shadow of Mordor, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Infamous First Light, Horizon Zero Dawn, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and the upcoming CoD: Modern Warfare remaster. GameSpot has a full list with some details about what's being upgraded.

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Screenshot from Days Gone, one of the announced PS4 Pro-compatible games.

Sony

For the Xbox, initial titles that support HDR are Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, Scalebound and NBA 2K17. The upcomingBattlefield 1 and several others will also support HDR. According to Microsoft, "All Xbox One games and accessories will be compatible with Xbox One S and Project Scorpio."

Project Scorpio

The graphics hardware on the Xbox One S is a tiny leap over the original Xbox One, and certainly not equal to the PS4 Pro. That will change next year when, barring any delays, we'll see Microsoft's "Project Scorpio," its answer to the PS4 Pro, except even more powerful. On paper it has the hardware to render games at 3,840x2,160 pixels. It's safe to assume it will also do HDR.

We're still pretty far from launch, so who knows what will change, but it's also safe to assume it will be more expensive than the Xbox One S.

What you need

As you expect, you need a 4K TV with HDR compatibility. If your current TV can't do HDR, you're out of luck on that aspect. If you have a 1080p TV there might be some graphical improvements with the faster hardware, but it's doubtful it will be enough to justify the cost of the upgrade.

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Screenshot from Detroit, one of the announced PS4 Pro-compatable games.

Sony

If you have a 4K TV with HDR, your current HDMI cable should work, presuming it was fully up to the High Speed spec. If not, a new, cheap, HDMI cable will only set you back a few dollars. An HDMI cable will also be included with both consoles, though it might not be long enough, depending on your setup.

For both the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro your TV will need to support HDR10, which most do.

No UHD BD?

While this isn't directly gaming-related, the PS4 Pro won't play the new 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs. This is odd, since previous Sony consoles were often the first DVD and later Blu-ray players in many homes. Not offering playback of the latest disc format is certainly a statement about what Sony thinks about physical media and the future of streaming.

The One S can play 4K UHD BD discs, though I doubt that's going to persuade someone to buy the Xbox over the PS4 if they have their heart set on the latter.

Both consoles can stream 4K HDR content from sources like Netflix.

What about PC?

A good gaming PC will always have faster, more cutting-edge graphics hardware than any console. You can do 4K gaming fairly easily on any number of desktop and laptop PCs right now.

HDR is another story. The main issue now is that no PC monitors can do HDR, and just a handful of recent video cards can. Nvidia talks about its HDR-capable cards here, and ATI claims HDR support for its RX 480/470/460 cards. The Nvidia Shield, meanwhile, can stream HDR games from a compatible PC in your home to the TV.

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The Alienware 13 has an OLED screen, but with sub-4K resolution and no HDR support.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But like we've discussed before with HDR, the hardware is the easy part. You need content, and right now there are even fewer HDR games for PC than there are for consoles.

By the way, you may have been reading about "HDR" in games since at least Lost Coast in 2004, but that is different. Earlier HDR games faked a higher dynamic range to view on your SDR monitor. Most of the time it's just blowing out the highlights when you're inside looking at a window, and crushing the shadows when you're outside looking down a cave or in an open doorway. The Render vs. Output from earlier? Same idea here just with HDR. I know, it's annoyingly confusing.

As for real HDR PC games, Cyan (of Myst fame) has said their new game Obduction will support HDR, although there doesn't seem to be anyone who's actually gotten it to work (if you have, please leave a comment below). The upcoming Lawbreakers has shown HDR support. Nvidia has an interesting blog about adapting Rise of the Tomb Raider in HDR. Other titles include Paragon, Shadow Warrior 2 and The Talos Principle sequel, though specific details haven't been announced.

Most of the other games have only mentioned HDR support on consoles, not PCs. Some discussed PC HDR support early on (like others in this link), but have since said HDR support was just for consoles. We'll likely see more PC games with HDR, but it will likely be slow since there isn't much hardware support yet. One advantage of the current generation of consoles being so similar to PCs is that it's a lot easier to port stuff over to the PC. Hopefully that includes HDR compatibility.

Should you upgrade your TV or console?

Just for this? Probably not. At least, not right now.

There aren't many games that take advantage of 4K or HDR today, though we will see more soon. Neither Sony nor Microsoft dictate how game developers should use the consoles' upgraded graphical power, leaving each developer make the call themselves. Many will surely go for frame rate first and visual flair second (e.g., polygons, render resolution and HDR). So just because the potential is there, doesn't mean the games will show much improvement.

While the 4K and HDR revolution on the TV side is in full swing, and worth getting if you're buying a new TV, on the gaming side it's just beginning. We'll have to wait and see how it plays out.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED, why 4K TVs aren't worth it and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his bestselling sci-fi novel and its sequel.