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Sony PlayStation 4 Pro review: Should you buy a PS4 Pro? It's complicated

Real-world comparisons

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.

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Close-up to the front of the PS4 Pro.

CNET

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:

The Last of Us Remastered

  • Extremely subtle improvement in image quality with PS4 Pro, but no noticeable frame rate or performance increase
  • HDR provided noticeably brighter highlights

Shadow of Mordor

  • Better frame rate and slightly improved visuals on PS4 Pro
  • No HDR support

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

  • No noticeable improvement on PS4 Pro

Infamous: First Light

  • HDR support not very noticeable (on both PS4 and PS4 Pro)
  • Pro update provides a better frame rate/higher resolution toggle in options menu

Battlezone (PSVR)

  • Slight improvement in frame rate and visual fidelity, and text was easier to read in the Pro version

VR Worlds (PSVR)

  • Menu room looks crisper
  • Tough to notice differences in each of the mini games

Rise of Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration

  • Noticeable uptick in textures, overall sharpness and performance
  • Adds option for 4K resolution, better frame rate or richer visuals -- up to you to choose. We preferred the 4K setting

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.

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The three PlayStation 4 systems: (L-R) The Pro, the 2016 Slim model and the original.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Should you buy a PS4 Pro?

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.

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Days Gone is enhanced by the PlayStation 4 Pro's higher specs.

Sony

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.

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