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Confusion reigns over 4K gaming on PS4 and Xbox One

What's really happening with 4K gaming on the next generation of game consoles?

It's been four months since we last wrote about the new consoles and 4K gaming, and things are more confusing than ever.

(Credit: Sony/Microsoft)

In July, we talked about 4K gaming and noted that while the Xbox claimed it would support titles in Ultra HD, it seemed unlikely to be able to muster the processing power to make it happen.

Sony, meanwhile, told people even earlier in the year that the PS4 would be fine for 4K video but 4K was "something we will look at in future".

Well, that's changed apparently. In its 160 question FAQ released on 30 October, Sony has this to say about the PS4 and 4K:

Support for high-resolution 4K output for still images and movie content is in consideration, but there are no further details to share at this time. PS4 does not currently support 4K output for games.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has now doubled down on its 4K claims with Larry "Major Nelson" Hyrb making repeated references to the Xbox shipping with a "4K HDMI cable".

So what's the real deal here?

Let's look at Sony's admirable honesty first. Sony is one of the biggest proponents of 4K. In fact, arguably, Sony is the reason most people still use the term "4K" and not the approved official term "Ultra HD". Sony has multiple 4K TVs on the market and even (in the US) one of the few 4K players. Many of the home entertainment Blu-ray releases coming from Sony Pictures are labelled as "mastered in 4K". The PS3 got an upgrade in 2011 that gave it support for 4K still images.

What we're trying to make clear is that Sony is on the cutting edge of 4K technology in the home... except, apparently, when it comes to the PS4.

The use of the phrase "does not currently support 4K" is particularly curious, suggesting as it does that a software update might possibly provide said support down the road. If this is the case and Sony is confident that the hardware configurations on the PS4 can cope with 4K output after some clever firmware finagling, then it seems odd not to kick off with at least video support, given its aforementioned commitment to the format.

Over to Microsoft and Major Nelson's much-lauded "4K HDMI cable". There's nothing inaccurate about what the good Major is saying, but it's a little bit cheeky all the same.

Major Nelson unboxing the Xbox One.(Credit: Microsoft)

You see, every single high-speed HDMI 1.4 cable is capable of transmitting a 4K signal — every single one. You'd have to hunt for standard-speed HDMI cable in order to find one that couldn't handle 4K, and given that the price difference between the two is negligible these days, the majority of cables you'll find in shops are going to be either high-speed or high-speed with Ethernet.

Where it gets interesting is that the HDMI 1.4 standard is only rated for 4K signals (3840x2160) at 30 frames per second. If you want to run 4K at 60fps, which gamers most likely do, you need HDMI 2.0.

HDMI 2.0 only arrived in September, and given that timing, it doesn't look as if it will be supported by the PS4 or Xbox One. It's not clear, as neither company seems to have come out and categorically said whether their respective product is running the 1.4 or 2.0 flavour.

So even if the Xbox One can support 4K gaming and even if a developer makes a game in native 4K in time for launch, the odds are high that you'll only be playing it at 30fps.

To throw some more confusion into the mix, some devices might be able to upgrade from HDMI 1.4 to 2.0 by a simple firmware update, while others might require new hardware. Sony has said that its products fall into the firmware category, but again, this is really quite unclear.

(And as a side note, HDMI 2.0 does not require new cables if you have a high-speed cable, so don't be suckered in. Read more on this here.)

So where are we on 4K gaming again?

Well, Sony says the PS4 doesn't but might, Microsoft says the Xbox One can and will, and it's not clear how either of them will make that work. There's just one final point that needs to be made.

Recently, there was a lot of uproar online that Call of Duty: Ghosts from developer Infinity Ward would run at 1080p on the PS4 but only 720p (upscaled to 1080p) on Xbox One. Infinity Ward hasn't given an explanation on the discrepancy.

Similarly, Ryse: Son of Rome, an Xbox One exclusive and launch title, runs at 900p, upscaled to 1080p. Taking these two points together, there could be an implication that the PS4 has slightly better graphics processing power than the Xbox One. And, if you look at the estimates of the respective floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) for each console, the data seems to back that up: 1.84 teraflops for the PS4 versus 1.23 teraflops on the Xbox One. This doesn't bode overly well for 4K gaming, given the massive graphics processing power it requires.

What does it all mean?

That's a good question. At the time of writing there's just seven days to go until the PS4 launches in the US. We're waiting a few more weeks here in Australia, but by 29 November, we'll be able to put both consoles to the test side by side and put this whole 4K debate to rest.

Oh wait — no we won't. There are currently no developers making games in native 4K for consoles. Guess we'll have to wait a little longer after all.