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Gaming Review

PlayStation 4 Pro Console

Sony’s mid-cycle upgrade is technically the most powerful yet, but the ‘buzz’ of 4K gaming is its only real trick.

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The anticipation has been mounting ever since rumors swelled of the “PS4 NEO”, a scenario that would see Sony officially break the conventional mid-console cycle with more than just a cosmetic nip/tuck. Three years into its reign, and the console’s family has grown with a slimmer model, PlayStation VR, and now the flagship PlayStation 4 Pro.

Much like Microsoft’s own Xbox One S, the PS4 Pro is meant to bridge the technical gap to 4K resolution gaming without the near-decade wait. After experiencing the PS4 Pro with modest expectations I’m certain that this is an upgraded amplification of sorts, if only for the sake of the idea itself. It’s quieter and handily the most powerful console this generation, though really benefits those who haven’t already joined the Sony camp by 2016; everybody else can hold onto their existing PS4 with no regrets.

Triple Decker

So, people who still have a PS4 can stop reading and get on with their lives, right? On appearance I can at least tell you that the PS4 Pro looks a little bit beastlier, a tad taller, and has a terabyte of storage right out of the box than its original incarnation. The slanted decker look is retained with that “love it or indifference” styling, only now the sections employed is now in three instead of a seeming two-piece. Between the layers are the disc slot, two USB 3.0 ports (plus one more on the rear), and status LED light situated on the lower gap for aesthetic consistency. However, while tolerable before, the power (I/O) and eject buttons are stupidly tinier and cheaper-feeling than what I imagined possible.

Here’s a fun fact: the underside of the newest PS4 models have the signature button shapes on the chassis for an added premium touch and corporate-mandated Easter egg.

Here’s what else is in the box: the updated DUALSHOCK4 Controller with the LED now illuminated on top of the touch pad (CUH-ZCT2), AC power cord, Micro USB cable, HDMI cable, earbud headset. Unfortunately, that vertical stand (CUH-ZST2) is deceivingly absent since it’s in all the press materials we’ve seen, but don’t worry because it’s readily available…for $24.99.

Adequately Overclocked

The PS4 Pro internals are either bumped in clock speed  or modestly refreshed to accommodate the 4K, specifically the 2.1GHz 8-core AMD Jaguar APU (up from 1.6GHz). The Semi-custom and integrated Radeon graphics is now rated at a throughput of 4.2 TFLOPs (versus the previous 1.84 TFLOPs), and incorporates minor bits related to AMD’s Polaris architecture. Other changes include 802.11ac Wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.1, and an additional 1GB of DDR3 system memory to ease the load on the existing 8GBs of GDDR5 (9GB RAM/8GB GDDR5+1GB DDR3) normally tasked for raw gameplay duties.

4K/HDR: The Reality Check

Since our Xbox One S article was published, it appears that many bandwagon reviewers actually bothered to learn the basics of 4K/UHD and High Dynamic Range (HDR), namely testing with a compatible display in the first damn place. This is good because now I won’t have to again enlighten you on why the realistic and minor technical aspects shouldn’t be hailed like the second coming of Jesus — although HDR in particular is worth getting excited about more so if you fancy yourself a proper videophile.

What we should mention though is that the PS4 Pro employs two methods in order to get content to run in 4K. the first is known as “Checkerboarding” (aka checkering) which is a technique that increases the resolution, by minutely omitting irrelevant details in an undetectable pattern — basically tricking the eye while simultaneously reducing hardware load. “Supersampling” in contrast, processes it all at once for rendering, then scales it back down in an effort to provide a better image that the hardware can handle outright. Clearly, it’s a bit of a scaling cheat that can be argued against the PS4 Pro not being a legitimate 4K console (it isn’t). But only the most vigorous AV purists will actually care.

 

(4K) Gaming Expectations

But that aspect is singular since the PS4 Pro is a gaming machine before anything else, and rightfully so to some degree. Admittedly, the jump from 1080p isn’t as radical as some may have hoped for, but you can expect certain games that already looked good to appear noticeably better. True, this doesn’t equate to massive improvements across the board, and the catalog limited to roughly 30+ titles ready to take advantage; but we have to start somewhere.

And we did, with a Sony XBR-49X800D 4K TV and a selection of games that are both exclusive and multiplatform, providing us with more than enough to test with. Our choices would give us an idea on how many titles can be enhanced, or if any redeeming qualities could be squeezed out. It’s not just about the system itself, but rather how far developers are willing to patch up their existing games to match the PS4 Pro.

We started with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, which does indeed utilize the increased resolution. However, you’ll only get a maximum vertical pixel and frame count of 1440p/30fps (2560×1440), clearly this is not in 4K and only applies in the single-player campaign to boot. It’s understandable to be disappointed if you believed the marketing hype, but keep in mind that Uncharted 4 looked fantastic before the visual augmentation. For me, HDR was the determining factor and gave everything that richness you’d have to buy an expensive TV for, so it’s best to look at the even-more beautiful Madagascar terrain with a “glass half-full” attitude. Multiplayer performance is left unchanged at 1080p/60fps.

Things continue to be vague depending on the games and required patches. EA confirmed that FIFA 17 will work seamlessly in 4K, albeit only during gameplay and once the necessary patch was available, which we didn’t have at the time. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a game that has to make compromises in order to reach any sort of visual plateau, because out of the three display options all of them sacrifice something. You can either have 4K (at 30fps), high framerate (1080p up to 60fps), or enriched visuals (1080p/30fps) which improves anisotropic filtering and tessellation, but not all three. InFAMOUS: Second Son is a similar exercise in concession where you can toggle between image quality and frame rate. Fortunately, there’s no penalty for enabling detail fidelity through HDR, which I’ll admit exhibits remarkably bold hues and effect details.

And there are some titles that may get nothing in the graphical department at all, because it’s at the developer’s discretion on whether it’s worth the effort. Take something like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and you might be upset to discover that no visual enhancements are made, while the much simpler Mantis Burn Racing comes equipped with a full native 4K treatment (3840×2160/60fps). Even worse, some titles may run slower than on the standard PS4 such as The Last of Us Remastered, which looks glorious but unexpectedly drops frames and exhibit screen tearing where it didn’t previously.

Forget the UHD Blu-ray

Another elephant in the room is media capability, by which that I mean a noticeable absence: The lack of Ultra HD Blu-ray playback despite having YouTube and Netflix in 4K/HDR. It’s essentially one of the potential big draws that swarmed the then-rumored PS4 Neo, and one hell of a missed opportunity in the final consumer product. Many are probably asking “WHY?” and the reason is simple: Sony has decided to leverage their Home AV market by making a standalone optical player instead (UBP-X1000ES), to prop up dragging sales. So there you have it, and expect that offering to be unreasonably expensive when it does arrive this spring.

Conclusion: Novelty for 4K* Gaming

The PlayStation 4 Pro has a lot going for it, and just as annoyingly, plenty of faults that don’t push the bar high enough. True, you’re getting a console that theoretically delivers on performance, outside of easily spending well over a thousand dollars to build a high-end gaming PC yourself. That said, there are unsavory kinks as a home entertainment juggernaut with the missing UHD/4K Blu-ray player, uncertain list of compatible games, and the realization that the same HDR benefits can be had on existing PS4s without the added cost — which is a far more substantial feature than 4K resolution anyways.

Speaking of that UHD Blu-ray drive, I also busted the chops on the Xbox One S back in August on principle. But even I can’t deny that product is a distinctly better all-around media machine when compared to PS4 Pro, the choice to exclude said functionality is a little baffling when you realize how Sony usually takes the reins in this arena. And this is the opinion of someone who thought Microsoft’s efforts were middling at best, because something is better than nothing at all.

Ultimately, the PS4 Pro will tempt you into giving that neglected 4K TV some needed attention and many will be happy, but the whole package is hardly an essential one.