The PlayStation 4 Pro promises enhanced 4K visuals for certain games. But at launch, it's a tough sell.
Closing in on 50 million units sold, it's safe to say Sony's PlayStation 4 has been a huge success, significantly outpacing its closest competition, Microsoft's Xbox One.
But just three years since its debut, Sony has released a hardware step-up model of the PS4, aptly called the PlayStation 4 Pro. As you can guess by the name, this isn't the PlayStation 5. It's fully compatible with all of the existing games, apps and nearly all the PS4 accessories currently on the market (or in your personal collection). The new model hit stores on November 10 for $399 in the US, £349 in the UK and AU$559 in Australia.
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But the PS4 Pro promises to deliver better, smoother graphics than its predecessor. You'll only get that graphical upgrade on games with a free downloadable software patch installed. The most noticeable improvements will also likely require TVs with support for 4K resolutions and HDR, the high contrast mode that can offer bright whites and more gradated blacks.
For console gamers who have always looked with envy upon a $3,000-plus PC gaming rig with daisy-chained video cards running games at super-high resolutions, it's certainly a compelling upsell. But -- spoiler alert -- the PS4 Pro didn't leave my jaw dropped. In fact, I often struggled to see any discernible difference between the same games on a Pro and a regular PS4 when played side by side on nearly identical 4K TVs. Out of the gate there only a limited number of titles that are noticeably improved.
So what, exactly, does that mean in terms of a buying recommendation? The short answer is this:
Update, November 21, 2016: Added more impressions of PS4 Pro games and ratings, and acknowledgment that some games have been found to run worse in their enhanced Pro versions.
The PlayStation 4 Pro is essentially a PS4 with better hardware inside that's designed to improve the performance and visuals beyond what's currently possible on a standard PS4. Not every PS4 game can take advantage of the Pro, but it will play any PS4 game you throw at it.
A regular PS4 game will need a downloadable patch to support the PS4 Pro's upgrades, but it's still unclear what exactly each patch will provide. For any given title, a Pro update will bring some or all of the following enhancements: better frame rates, higher output resolution, better textures and HDR support. That latter feature, however, is also available on the non-Pro PS4 consoles following a September software update. Judging from the updates we've seen so far, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason in regard to which games get what.
Only a small number of games with Pro patches were live for us before review time, but Sony promises that 30-plus games will have Pro patches at launch, totaling 45 by the end of 2016. Starting next year with games such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone and Mass Effect Andromeda, you'll start to see a "PS4 Pro Enhanced" badge on the box art of games that have Pro support already built in. Sony says that almost every game released on PS4 from here on out can have Pro perks.
Physically, the PS4 Pro looks like a beefier PS4 Slim. Its footprint is a bit larger but it's not much bulkier than the original 2013 PS4. It casts a thin, horizontal LED light (blue, orange and white) from the front of the unit when in different modes of operation.
Thankfully, the Pro brings back the optical audio port that the Slim omitted while adding an extra USB port around back. Like the Slim, the Pro also supports the fastest Wi-Fi protocols (802.11ac), and it also has dual-band support (it can use both a 2.4GHz or 5GHz signal).
Sony has confirmed that the console makes use of the SATA-III specification too, which theoretically means you could install a solid-state drive to take advantage of quicker read times. (Although all PS4s support user-upgradeable storage with standard 2.5-inch drives.)
We're testing that out separately and will report on what we find. Either way, it's good to know anyone can still swap out the stock drive for a new one.
The PS4 Pro will launch with Netflix support at 4K resolution in addition to a YouTube app with 4K and HDR compatibility. More apps will open up support for 4K and HDR features as the platform matures.
Also exclusive to the PS4 Pro is improved bandwidth for the Remote Play and Share Play options, which let you stream gameplay over the internet. Both modes will be able to share, stream and play at 1080p, which is a bump up from the standard PS4's 720p cap.
Of course I need to bring up the most glaring of missing features: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray playback. For whatever reason, the PS4 Pro cannot play these discs (unlike the Xbox One S ). Standard Blu-rays will be upscaled to fit 4K screens, however.
One of the big frustrations of my initial experience with PS4 Pro-compatible games was trying to manage my expectations. That's because Sony's labelling of which games support which video upgrade is vague at best.
By looking at a title's version history from the PS4 menu, you can get a tiny bit of insight as to what's been added. For instance, The Last of Us: Remastered says the latest version offers "PS4 Pro Support," but Shadow of Mordor simply states "4K Support."
There's an inconsistency here that's tough to follow, not to mention I don't know if 4K really means what you might think it means. On Sony's PS4 Pro site, a disclaimer reads that the console offers "dynamic 4K" which means, as it explains with a footnote, "Dynamic 4K gaming outputted by graphic rendering or upscaled to 4K resolution."
I'm not sure that means native 4K (3,840x2,160-pixel resolution), which is four times what you can get from a "standard" HDTV's 1,920x1080 resolution. Considering that PCs with much more impressive hardware than the PS4 Pro can struggle to even reach native 4K at 30 frames per second (the absolute minimum required for smooth gameplay or video), it may seem hard to believe the PS4 Pro can output such a technically demanding video signal without some serious compromises. Well, it doesn't.
Indeed, the Pro uses some common tricks of the trade, including anti-aliasing, checkerboard rendering and geometry rendering. Effectively, that means that the games have horizontal resolutions such as 1728p, 1800p or 1952p. Then the games upscale to 2160p as needed, all the while balancing graphical sharpness with the all-important frame rate. (Indeed, this same upscaling technique is also widely used in the last generation of game consoles, too.)
At some point you just need to tune out all of the resolution data and flashy jargon. Just concentrate on what you can see in front of your eyes.
None of the junk I rambled about above even matters if you can't see the difference for yourself, so I set up two nearly identical LG OLED 4K TVs side by side and attempted to discern a noticeable difference in performance and visual quality between an original PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro.
For the most part, it's very difficult to suss out a considerable difference in the picture quality and performance of the games we tested. Even with the help of our TV expert David Katzmaier (who literally does this kind of thing everyday), there was not necessarily an obvious disparity when looking at the screens side by side.
Here's a quick breakdown of what we noticed:
Infamous: First Light and Rise of the Tomb Raider were the only games we tested that offered the option to choose between enhancements in the options screen. I'm told that is something other games will do, but it's at the developer's discretion.
By far, the most dramatic difference I've seen so far is in Rise of the Tomb Raider. There was an impressive amount of detail, crispness and overall performance improvement in the Pro version of the game. I'm also happy with the results I've seen in Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
But while Pro-enabled games are expected to perform better overall, there have been a number of reports where Pro games actually performed worse, in the case of The Last of Us Remastered and Watch Dogs 2.
Aside from the updated hardware under the hood, there's no difference in the console's menu performance, nor were there noticeable improvements in load time when I started games simultaneously side-by-side.
If you're looking for a dramatic visual difference, that will likely come in the form of HDR. Games that make good use of the technology can really appear to pop.
Sony says that customers with 1080p HDTVs will also be able to benefit from a PS4 Pro, but just like the negligible results we found in comparing two 4K TVs, David and I didn't notice much of a difference using a 1080p TV either.
It's definitely worth noting though that a game could have a separate graphics profile when a Pro is forced to output 1080p. This leaves the door open for a scenario where a PS4 Pro game could appear to have a more drastic increase in quality on a 1080p screen as opposed to a 4K one.
I didn't see a huge improvement in PlayStation VR performance, but could discern some better text clarity and an occasionally crisper image in the limited number of games we tested. I expect PSVR games released down the road to better benefit from the Pro's horsepower.
Judging from the small sample size of games that have been retrofitted to support Pro enhancements, I'm still hopeful that games developed with the PS4 Pro in mind may have more dramatic improvements. Of course I'm just speculating here, but I'm anxious to see the smattering of 2017 games that will have PS4 Pro specs introduced during their production.
From what I can tell at this stage, only a very limited number of people should even consider buying a PS4 Pro. If you already own a PS4, the recommendation is even harder to make.
If you own or plan to own a 4K HDR TV and don't yet own a PS4, the $100 on top of the standard PS4's US price is an easier pill to swallow.
You can obsess over resolution specs all you want, but the fact remains that I did not see a real world difference in the majority of titles I tested. Of course, my sampling was only a slice of the games that will offer Pro enhancements out of the gate, so it's entirely possible that more noticeable improvements will appear down the road, especially with games that have been developed with the PS4 Pro in mind from the start.
Indeed, CNET's Sean Hollister was wowed by games such as Days Gone and Horizon Zero Dawn at a closed-door PS4 Pro demo a few weeks ago. But both of those titles were apparently developed with the Pro in mind, and neither will arrive before 2017.
It's worth reinforcing that PS4 Pro games will not receive any kind of advantage other than cosmetic ones. You won't see a special mode of a game in the Pro version that isn't in the standard one. But you'll also be able to play online and communicate with any of your friends running the same game on an "old" PS4.
Will we see a PS4 Pro "killer app" in that first wave of compatible titles coming in the next two months? Or will that have to wait for a 2017 game? I don't know. But as soon as I do see a dramatic difference in a head-to-head test, I'll update this review accordingly.
In the meantime, there's no reason to run out and buy a PS4 Pro if you already have an older model. And remember that Microsoft has its own amped-up Xbox console, codenamed Project Scorpio, on deck to arrive in late 2017.
But if you've yet to purchase a PS4 and you're in the market for one, this is definitely the version to get.