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4K for the PS4? Who cares?

Will the PlayStation 4 have 4K resolution? It probably doesn't matter.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Rumors abound that the next-generation PlayStation will be able to output 4K resolution.

Normally, I find rumors about as useful and interesting as other people's gas, but this one stinks on a different level.

Allow me to confound with reasons why I think 4K output with the PS4 is simultaneously likely, and pretty much irrelevant.

OK, not irrelevant, per se, just far less important than it seems. 4K fanatics are likely to grab hold of the PS4 4K rumors to champion the cause of higher resolution. Let me first give them some ammunition with why I think it's likely the next-gen PS4 will be able to output 4K:

  1. The PS2 was able to output 1080i back when pretty much no one had an HDTV at all.
  2. The PS3 was able to output 1080p back when there was pretty much no other source that could.
  3. Sony announced a 4K TV, and it loves creating Sony-centric ecosystems (plus it already has a 4K home projector).

While these three reasons are enough to put me in the "likely" camp, the one thing giving me some doubt is the hardware required to output 4K resolution. You'd need a pretty serious graphics card on the PC to output 4K at any reasonable frame rate. I'd be surprised if Sony (or Microsoft) in today's economic climate wanted to lose serious money on every unit sold like it did with the PS3 and Xbox 360 to put in that kind of hardware. But hey, I think selling any product at a loss is crazy. What do I know.

Beyond the specs
Note how I worded the points above. "Was able to" is more than just boring sentence structure. Technically the PS2 could output 1080i, but only if a game were designed to specifically take advantage of it. How many PS2 games were capable of 1080i? Four. Four out of how many hundreds of games?

Here's the kicker: the same is happening with the PS3. There are very few games that are actually 1080p. Sure, you may set your PS3 to output 1080p, your TV may say it's 1080p, but it's not 1080p.

This gets a little tricky, but the difference is in the rendered resolution and the output resolution. Specifically, almost all "1080p" games are rendered at something less, like 960x1,080 pixels (as opposed to "full" 1080p, which is 1,920x1,080 pixels).

Game designers, desiring a specific frame rate or polygon complexity (or other factors), are limited by the finite processing power of the PS3. You can think of it like a triangle, with graphics "quality" on one point, frame rate on another point, and resolution on the third point. The more you head toward one point, the more you have to take away from the others. As a choppy frame rate is far more noticeable than a lower resolution, resolution is where designers skimp. Regardless of the resolution claimed on the game box, the actual rendered resolution is likely a lot lower.

So what's going on? That's the easy part: it's upconverted. As when you watch a DVD, the lower-resolution game is upconverted by the PS3's hardware to output your desired resolution. It's way easier to upconvert a signal than render a game at a high resolution, with a smooth frame rate, and with lots of polygons and textures. (OK, technically the way the PS3 does it is anything but easy; if you're really techy, check out this and this.)

If you want to learn more about upconversion, check out "What is upconverting" and "When HD isn't HD."

The Xbox 360 does basically the same thing, by the way.

Which brings us back to the PS4 and its "4K" potential. Will it have 4K output? Maybe, probably, could be. It is incredibly unlikely, though, that it will have the hardware to actually render games at 4K. When modern PCs have difficulty doing this for thousands of dollars, it would be folly to believe a console would be able to do it for the same price as a high-end video card. Most likely, it will upconvert 1080p games to 4K. Sony already has the hardware to do this in its 4K projector, and presumably the upcoming 4K LCD.

The most likely scenario will follow the precedent set by the PS2 and PS3: headline-grabbing stratospheric tech specs, down-to-earth realistic performance.

Beyond the hard cap set by the technology, there's the question whether game developers want to create games that push this envelope. There's been no public outcry that most PS3 games aren't 1080p. Many developers give fealty to the almighty frame rate. Would they sacrifice 60 frames per second for higher resolution? So far signs point to no, given how many 720p games there are.

It also takes more time to create games at higher resolutions, not least the art required to make all those polygons pretty. More time means more money, and while many games are incredibly profitable, if costs increase across the board by 20 percent (30 percent? 10? who knows), you know game publishers are going to jack up the rates. Already we're seeing $60 as the norm. What's next because of higher resolutions? This isn't to say it won't happen, but if 4K games require significantly more time/money than 1080p, it's less likely we'll see many because of the increased risk of loss if the game doesn't do well. Game publishers don't like risk, which is why you see infinite sequels.

It's probably worth noting the current HDMI spec, while capable of 4,096x2,160 pixels, only manages it at 24fps. That, of all the facts here, is probably the least likely to hinder 4K gaming development, but it's worth noting. A first-person shooter (like Call of Duty: Dutier 8) running at 24fps is going to look choppy.

And what about potential 4K Blu-ray discs? I wouldn't hold your breath, as Blu-ray currently tops out at 1,920x1,080/24p or 1080i/60. If there is an announcement, I'd expect the PS4 to be a part, just like the PS3 was with Blu-ray initially.

Lastly, all of this is above and beyond the fact that with the average-size television at the distance most people sit from their TV, 4K resolution is completely wasted. For more on that, check out "Why 4K TVs are stupid," the snarky followup "Why 4K TVs are stupid (still)" or just skip to the uber-long, kitchen-sink-included "Why Ultra HD 4K TVs are still stupid."

Bottom line
Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the PS4 will have incredible graphics, way better than what we have now. The advancements in polygon count, texture size and realism, anisotropic filtering, and so on will do vastly more for the graphic quality than an increase in (likely apparent) resolution. For that matter, just being able to render all games at 1080p/60 would be a huge leap.

In other words, even if the PS4 does 4K, this will have little to nothing to do with how good the games look. Resolution is just one factor in the visual quality of a game, and given all the technological (and physiological) issues with 4K, this aspect of the PS4's performance should be the least important spec to drool over.

Got a question for Geoff? Click "Geoffrey Morrison" below, then click the E-mail link in the upper right to e-mail, wait for it...Geoffrey Morrison! If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. No, I won't tell you what TV to buy. Yes, I'll probably truncate and/or clean up your e-mail. You can also send me a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.