It’s been three years since the launch of the PS4, and it would normally be around now that we’d start looking toward what Sony has in store for its next gaming console – the inevitable PS5 so to speak. Indeed, Microsoft has already taken its first steps toward gearing up for its sort-of next console release, finally announcing its 4K-capable and VR-ready Project Scorpio machine at this year’s E3, which is due in time for Christmas next year.
Sony is treading a different path, however, with all talk about what’s next for the console giant geared toward the PS4 Pro and no mention of any next-gen console. As the name implies, it’s still a PS4 at heart. It plays all the same games and comes with exactly the same software interface. It even shares a similar slanted design to its non-Pro siblings; in fact, despite its revamped design, it’s only a touch larger than the original PS4, measuring 295 x 327 x 55mm (WDH).
So what’s the “Pro” bit all about? That’s derived from its enhanced graphics, which make use of AMD’s new Polaris architecture to provide superior performance, support for higher, 4K resolutions, more stable frame rates and an improved VR experience for PSVR owners. It’s essentially been designed to make your PS4 games look even better in Full HD, and, if you have a 4K TV, do its absolute best to take them beyond that 1080p threshold.
Is the PS4 Pro a true 4K gaming machine?
Now, don’t get too excited about this. Most games won’t actually have full, native 4K support. Instead, most PS4 titles with PS4 Pro support will be upscaled to 4K using a technique known as “checkerboarding”. This effectively doubles the size of each individual pixel block to reach higher resolutions, such as 3,840 x 2,160, and allows games to run at higher resolutions.
The depth and scale of PS4 Pro support will vary from game to game, which means that on some you’ll see a difference – on others, less so. You can see a full list of supported titles on Sony’s website, but the extent of how each one’s improved will very much depend on individual developers, making it hard to give a definitive verdict on whether the PS4 Pro is a worthwhile investment over the new PS4 Slim, which is £100 less, or an original PS4 secondhand.
It’s also worth noting that, while the PS4 Pro also supports HDR (high dynamic range) for richer colours and improved contrast, it only supports the HDR10 specification rather than Dolby Vision, so some 4K HDR TVs, such as the Dolby Vision-compatible models made by LG, won’t be able to make the most of Sony’s new console. At the time of writing, Sony has said it doesn’t have any plans to introduce support for Dolby Vision.
With a recent firmware update, the PS4 Pro now comes with a “boost mode” system setting. This allows the PS4 4 Pro to squeeze better performance from games that haven’t been patched with Pro support. What does that translate to? It means that older games, which haven’t been patched by their developers to offer higher-fidelity visuals for Sony’s newest console, are given a dose of higher GPU and CPU clock speed – resulting in higher frame rates and short loading times.
Do I need a 4K TV?
From the handful of games I’ve tested with the PS4 Pro, it’s clear the console offers a marked improvement in terms of overall clarity, and you don’t have to own 4K TV, either. Those games also looked better at 1080p.
On a 49in 4K TV, Rise of the Tomb Raider looked absolutely fantastic. Not only did it look much sharper than a standard PS4, but the level of detail in Lara’s clothes and her surrounding environments was superb. Ratchet and Clank impressed, too, with Ratchet’s finely detailed fur one of its highlights. However, Ratchet and Clank was already a fairly handsome game to begin with, so it’s more difficult to say just how much better it is on the PS4 Pro compared to a regular PS4.
And herein lies part of the problem. While some games such as Ratchet and Clank simply “support” the PS4 Pro and adjust to the new output settings automatically, others, such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, have a multitude of different options available. While a little confusing at first, I found the games that provided different graphics options actually gave me a clearer idea of how I was using the console compared to the titles that adapted automatically.
Zip over to Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s options menu, and you’ll be presented with three different “Enhanced Fidelity” options: High Framerate, Enriched Visuals and 4K Resolution. The first option, as its name implies, prioritises frame rate over visuals, kicking things up to nearer 60fps rather than capping the game at 30fps. Enriched Visuals keeps the 30fps cap in place but enhances the graphics for a “lusher, more realistic experience” according to Crystal Dynamics. 4K Resolution, meanwhile, is the only mode that will display the game at 3,840 x 2,160 at 30fps on compatible 4K TVs.
Best TVs for gaming in 2017
Having tried out these modes on our KS7000 TV, the 4K Resolution option was definitely the best. The other modes looked noticeably softer and less detailed up close, and the TV was clearly having to do some of the upscaling legwork. On the whole, though, both still looked excellent in motion and the option to go for a full 60fps at a lower resolution was very much appreciated.
Whether you should buy a 4K TV specifically for the PS4 Pro is debatable. Yes, it looks stunning, but in Rise of the Tomb Raider at least, I wouldn’t say the difference between the 4K mode and lower resolution Enhanced Visuals setting was actually that dramatic. From a normal viewing distance, I was hard-pushed to tell the difference between the two modes, and it was only when I sat very close to the TV that the 4K mode started to look obviously sharper.
If anything, the Enriched Visuals was slightly easier on the eyes, as the softer edges did a better job of hiding signs of motion blur and jagged edges. Plus, it was also able to render a lot more environmental detail than the 4K mode, giving it a fuller, more PC-like appearance.
The same applies to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Here, you only get the option to turn HDR on or off, and having played it on both our 4K TV and a standard Full HD TV, the difference in overall visuals was fairly minimal. Where I really felt the difference was the frame rate. Whereas Mankind Divided is quite choppy on a standard PS4, it didn’t seem to drop a single frame on the Pro, with intense fight sequences gliding by without a hitch.
As a result, I’m not convinced I need to rush out to buy a 4K TV right now just to take advantage of the PS4 Pro’s higher resolutions. You’ll still get plenty out of it on a normal Full HD TV for the time being, and given the rather hodge-podge approach to PS4 Pro support at the moment with several games being very unclear about how they’re actually using the console’s extra horsepower, it’s hard to say how much benefit you’ll actually see on a 4K TV compared to the Full HD one you already own.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the PS4 Pro will not play 4K Blu-ray discs, putting it at a disadvantage compared with the Microsoft Xbox One S. It can still stream and output video in 4K, though, so you’ll be able to watch higher resolution Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and YouTube content, but those wanting to play proper 4K Blu-ray discs will have to buy a separate player, the cheapest of which right now is, ironically, the Xbox One S.
Is it worth upgrading?
The PS4 Pro is a better version of Sony’s current gen console than the standard PS4. The question is, should you buy one? The answer to this question isn’t straightforward. Right now, the answer for most people will be no.
The PS4 Pro brings improvements, but they’re fairly minimal in the grand scheme of things. A few visual improvements here and there do not justify a £350 upgrade for PS4 owners, or a £100 premium over the PS4 Slim for new buyers. Sony has long-since confirmed there will be no PS4 Pro exclusive titles, so you don’t need to worry about missing out on any particular games, either. I’m certainly not tempted to pay an extra £350 for the privilege.
On the other hand, for those who already own a 4K TV — and the number of people who do will inevitably increase in the coming years — it’s an easier sell. Games look a touch better right now, and as time wears on developers will begin to develop for the PS4 Pro first, and the PS4 second, rather than the other way around. If you care about the way your games look, then go for it.
The PS4 Pro is a great product, as any small upgrade to a console as successful as the PS4 was inevitably going to be. It’s also, however, disappointing that it isn’t a more significant step forward.