If you are reserving judgment of the PlayStation 4 Pro console from Sony until you get to try it, I have to warn you: I’ve played the system a lot over the past week, and I still don’t really know what the hell to think of this thing.
All year, gaming fans have heard rumors that Sony was planning to drop the PlayStation 4.5 or the PlayStation 4K, an updated version of the popular PS4 console with more horsepower. Finally, that device is about to turn into something you can buy and have in your house when it ships November 10 for $400. This new system is still a PS4, but now it supports a 4K video signal for both games and media. Some existing games will get “enhanced” patches, but — going forward — every new game will have to support both the Pro and standard PS4s. That will primarily manifest as higher resolutions, steadier framerates, and improved graphical effects.
But you only get some of these benefits when you plug a PlayStation 4 Pro into the TV that, statistically speaking, you currently own. Unless you’ve purchased one of those new UHD 4K sets in the last couple of years, you only have 1,080 lines of horizontal resolution. And many games (not all), are already maxing that out on our current hardware.
So what benefits can you expect from the PS4 Pro whether you own the necessary equipment to take advantage of it or not, and is it worth it? It could be, but probably not yet.
What you’ll like
4K is impressive
You should be skeptical of Sony’s claims that the PS4 Pro is rendering games at a 4K resolution because it isn’t in the vast majority of cases. Instead, most games run somewhere between standard “Full HD” 1080p and UHD 4K. The Pro then uses a number of integrated algorithms and tricks to upscale that original signal into a 4K image.
Only this isn’t your typical upscaling. Sony’s algorithms and tricks are using special technologies that can essentially get a faux-4K final product from a 2K-or-lower source that is almost indistinguishable from a game that natively renders at 4K.
All of that is a technical way of explaining that the PS4 Pro isn’t doing “real” 4K, but most people won’t be able to see a difference. You especially won’t see a difference when you’re using a 50-to-60-inch TV that you keep up on a wall 10 feet from your couch.
Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered and Infinite Warfare both support 4K out of the box, and I have the most experience with them so far. On a display that supports the resolution, the improved sharpness is noticeable. Moving human characters don’t look like a shimmering mush of pixels when they are at a distance. Instead, they maintain their shape in a much more realistic way.
That detail applies to everything even if it is most noticeable on elements that move as well as surface textures. And while you get the full effect of this benefit on a 4K TV, the improvement is still somewhat noticeable on 1080p sets. On Full HD displays, the PS4 Pro uses supersampling, which is a graphical effect that renders a scene at a higher resolution than it will actually display at. This gives those aforementioned algorithms more information to work with, which helps them produce sharper images around objects.
At the same time, none of this looks like a potential “PlayStaiton 5.” Instead, you’re getting the same games you’d get on a PS4 but with notable improvements.
Your games work and always will
Since this isn’t a entirely new console, Sony is guaranteeing that any existing PS4 games that get the Pro upgrade will have a free patch. This means those discs or downloads you already own are now capable of outputting 4K or the wider high-dynamice-range (HDR)color spectrum. HDR uses more colors from the visible spectrum as well as blacker darks and brighter lights to create a more realistic image.
But even if a game doesn’t have a Pro patch to take advantage of the revision’s beefed-up capabilities, all games still work. They just will have the same resolution and framerate as you get on the standard PS4.
PS4 Pro also doesn’t make a lot of noise. My launch PS4 is the loudest gaming device in my house. The disc drive or the fan (or both) often sound like they are preparing for blast off, and my PC and Xbox One and Xbox One S don’t even come close to matching that.
The Pro, however, is now potentially the quietest alongside the Xbox One S. That makes sense considering Sony is using AMD’s new Polaris chip architecture, which is a 16nm process that produces less heat and requires fewer watts. Sony has taken advantage of that to build something that is merely a whisper in most situations.
VR games run better
Sony isn’t just improving its on-screen games with the Pro. It also is using the horsepower to give PSVR players a better experience. In my tests, that seemed to largely come in the form of higher resolutions and improved graphical fidelity. Photorealistic games like DriveClub VR look remarkably better with the detailing of cars maintaining their integrity as they move far away, which is something that the game struggles with on PS4 proper.
The Pro brings the PSVR experience much closer to the Rift and Vive on the PC in terms of capabilities. The difference is enough that I think Sony should likely make sure any future PS4/PSVR bundle uses the Pro.
What you won’t like
You need a very specific TV
The 4K television market is a mess.
Standards are starting to clear up the most confusing elements, but plenty of display manufacturers are willing to let the “4K” term do their marketing hype for them. The issue is that if you went out and bought the first 4K TV you saw today, you have a high chance of bringing home something that cannot take full advantage of the PS4 Pro’s features. Most importantly, you want a set that supports HDR10, which is just one of the current HDR standards.
And while you may get a TV that says it is “HDR,” it might not always support HDR10. That might mean that your PS4 won’t display HDR at all or not to its full potential. Either way, you are missing out on a key feature. Unless you know for a fact that you have a TV that can support HDR10, upgrading to PS4 Pro is almost pointless because the 4K sharpness alone isn’t enough of an upgrade.
You can guarantee that you get a compatible TV if you purchase a set with the “Ultra HD Premium” sticker on it, which is a widerly accepted industry standard that used HDR10. But you probably only know that if you’ve paid close attention, and the average consumer hasn’t reached a point where they know that’s what to look for in the same way that they once learned to look for “Full HD.” And for now, getting a capable UHD Premium TV is going to mean spending around $1,500 at a minimum.
HDR doesn’t require a Pro
Even if you do have an HDR10 television, you don’t need a PS4 Pro to take advantage of it. Sony recently updated the original PS4 to support this functionality.
And the reality is that HDR is much more likely to impress you than 4K. At the distance you likely sit from your TV, those extra pixels are difficult to notice. An image that more accurately reproduces color, on the other hand, is easy to spot even when you’re sitting all the way back in your recliner.
So if you can get the more important upgrade with your original PS4, why get the PS4 Pro? I don’t know.
No Ultra HD Blu-ray player
Finally, and this won’t affect you if you’re done with physical media, but the PS4 Pro does not have an Ultra HD Blu-ray player. That’s a bummer since those 4K discs are among the best sources for HDR UHD content. Instead, you’ll have to settle for streaming 4K HDR video over the web from providers like Netflix and Sony’s PlayStation Store. Those will work, but they are both going to come up short in any comparison to UHD Blu-rays.
This is rough.
Let’s get the easy recommendation out of the way first. At $400, if you don’t own a PlayStation 4 already and you want to get one, then get the Pro. It’s only $100 more than a standard PS4 while also coming with twice the storage. It will probably last you a few more years as well, considering it should play games three or four years from now a lot better than the 2013 model.
If you already own a PS4, however, I think you should wait and see — unless you are in a specific situation where you have the right TV or the money to spare for an upgrade or you are all in on PSVR. If you don’t have the display, the cash, or the VR headset, force Sony to prove the value of the Pro to you first. I’m confident the company will establish a strong argument for the upgraded system going forward once it has more games that take advantage of it.
But you don’t have to act on an unknown, possible future. Instead, wait and see what Sony does, and then decide on the importance of upgrading.
Sony lent GamesBeat a PS4 Pro for the purposes of this review. It is available November 10 for $400.