It’s a weird feeling. Less than a year ago I thought this generation was just getting started with the likes of the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Now, Sony has for the first time in its history offered an alternative mid-generation upgrade for those who feel that the PS4’s performance and graphical quality are inadequate. While Sony’s messaging has been ok at best, I mostly got excited for the PlayStation Pro through my own research. After playing around with it for a month with its various supported games, I can now give an accurate reflection on whether or not I feel the PlayStation 4 Pro is a necessary purchase.
I only tested a few games for comparison’s sakes on a 1080p screen for the review, but most of my review will be based on playing on a 4K HDR Television (Sony 800D) and a PlayStation VR headset.
The PlayStation 4 Pro is a response to many things. It’s a response to the accelerating evolution of tech and the beginning of incremental upgrades that companies like Apple and Samsung have introduced over the years. It’s a response to the rise of PC gaming and the need for more powerful hardware sooner in a console’s lifetime. It’s also a response to the market and staying ahead of the competition. What Sony have managed to produce is a relatively affordable, supercharged PlayStation 4 with twice the GPU power, an overclocked CPU (producing 30% more performance) and 1 GB of extra RAM. Sony have also introduced an upscaling method checkerboarding, which upscales a base resolution to hit 4K with an almost native-like quality. However, 1080p owners will not be left out. The Pro also offers super sampling, which basically downscales the native image to create a cleaner image at a 1080p resolution (removing shimmering and jagged edges).
Now this is all well and good, except I had to research all of this myself. It’s safe to say Sony did a lousy job or convincing us to buy this thing back at its September Meeting. In fact, I had to research HDR, 4K televisions, super sampling, checkerboarding and all the other technical mumbo jumbo because Sony were so tight-lipped about everything. Moreover, everything Sony showed at its meeting were mostly streamed over the internet, probably on 1080p screens. No one can appreciate 4K resolutions and HDR (which are rarely supported on streams) without seeing it first-hand. I don’t believe that Sony couldn’t have thought of a better way to market it, because VR also has similar problems, but Sony did an excellent job or sharing its message in that regard.
Note on HDR: There are two types of HDR: HDR10 and Dolby Vision). The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One only support HDR10. So first you need to find a television that supports HDR10 (not that Sony explained this to anyone clearly). Also I wish there were more HDR supported games. So far I’ve only played Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and the Last of Us: Remastered but know that only Ratchet and Clank and Infamous are the only other games that currently support it. It’s a shame because it’s my favourite graphical feature of the Pro.
When I first saw the reveal of the PlayStation 4 Slim, I honestly thought it looked ugly. Comparisons to burned pancakes were pretty accurate. When Sony unveiled the PlayStation 4 Pro at its September meeting, it looked even worse in my mind. However, now having the console on my shelf, it actually doesn’t look too bad nestled amongst my other consoles and cornucopia of gaming statues. Sony went for a simple clean look and I think it works. While yes, it is larger than the original PlayStation 4, it is still considerably smaller than the original Xbox One and in some ways smaller than the Xbox One S. The light bar going across the front looks very sleek too. The power and eject buttons have been swapped for a kind of rubbery feel which feels odd at first, but now I prefer it to the PS4’s touchy sensor buttons. Sony has also included an extra USB port on the back, which is perfect for PlayStation VR owners who were forced to plus their headset into the front ports on the base PlayStation 4 creating an ugly affair. However, it’s not all celebratory for PlayStation VR owners. The processing unit that comes with the PlayStation VR does not support HDR, which requires constant swapping of HDMI cables if you want to return to those HDR-supported games.
A few things are immediately noticeable when you switch on the PlayStation 4 Pro, either on a 4K television or a PlayStation VR. Firstly, the UI is a lot cleaner. Sony has opted for a native 4K resolution for its UI, creating a vibrant and a crisp feel. There is also a noticeable improvement on PlayStation VR, where the UI is a lot less pixelated than it was on the base PS4.
Install times are lightning fast. While I was loading up 10+ games onto the Pro, the installation had finished before I could even take the next game out of the case. I also found WiFi in general to be more stable and consistent, which is nice seeing as though this generation both companies cheaped out on WiFi cards with their original offerings. The PS4 Pro features an enhanced WiFi card capable of utilising a 5 GHz signal rather than just the normal 2.4 GHz, so if your router supports this frequency you’ll certainly have a better time with less interference and a stronger signal. Another surprising feature is how quiet the unit is. My PlayStation 4 could sound like a jet engine at times; here I couldn’t even tell if my Pro was on. There is one persistent issue that I have experienced since owning the Pro though. On about five occasions the audio would completely cut out for no apparent reason (lasting for a few seconds). This happened to me on Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Titanfall 2 and Dishonored 2. Due to the fact it was a common issue across multiple games tells me it is related to the PlayStation 4 Pro and seems to be a bug. Again, it’s rare and doesn’t last long, but it can be an annoyance.
With the games themselves, performance on paper is supposed to be better. In fact, Sony apparently restricts developers for releasing a Pro game that runs better (in terms of fps) on the base hardware. From my experience, most games run the same but of course there are a few titles which offer a higher framerate mode. However, I have two issues. Firstly, I do think that Sony should’ve chucked in a slightly stronger CPU. The CPU in the Pro is the same one in the base hardware but overclocked for 30% increase in performance. However, it’s not enough to provide 4K/60fps gaming in most cases. A more powerful CPU would have further future-proofed the console as well as putting it in a stronger position against the inevitable Xbox Scorpion release next year. My other question is why Sony just didn’t open the CPU in non-Pro support titles to take advantage of the increased performance. The Xbox One S has shown this to work on titles like Project CARS, which had a more stable framerate because of the better CPU performance from the Xbox One S. Similarly, Return to Arkham City has an unlocked framerate option. On the Pro, the game hits a higher framerate, despite not being a Pro-supported title. Games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3 would’ve benefited nicely from the extra performance to ensure you don’t get those occasional hiccups in framerate. However, this is more wishful thinking than anything.
For what it is, The PlayStation 4 Pro is actually well priced. It is approximately the same as when the PlayStation 4 first launched. For hardware only three years old and with twice the GPU power, it is a good price. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy one. You may be happy with the graphical presentation of games currently on the PlayStation 4. You may feel that you spent a lot of money on PlayStation VR and feel you got your money’s worth. Either way, PlayStation 4 Pro still feels in many ways a lot like its predecessor, and a little bit like an unnecessary purchase. To me, it’s like the iPhone to the iPhone S series. I mean I bought the 7 this year, do I really need to upgrade to the 7S next year? It’ll have more features and probably a better camera, but the overall core experience and practicality is still there.
I have tried a number of titles across PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, PlayStation 4 Pro on a 1080p television and on a 4K television. Some games have decided to use Sony’s checkerboard rendering technique for producing an almost native 4K image. This seems like the route most developers are taking and I am honestly impressed with the results. Titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Watchdogs 2 all checkerboard from a base 1080p resolution to a 4K output. It makes images crystal clear and for titles like Infinite Warfare, it looks gorgeous. For 1080p users, all these games offer supersampling, effectively removing any shimmering or aliasing from the image making scenes look just as good as they do in those bullshots that have plagued the industry. However, it isn’t the same as a generational leap, so going in expecting such might be a bad idea. HDR could be that generational leap though. The changes HDR can do image quality with regard to lighting, contrast, detail and colour is in most cases eye-popping. However, not all games support it. At this stage it seems to be Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Final Fantasy XV, Ratchet and Clank and The Last of Us: Remastered and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End that have HDR compatibility. Hopefully more games adopt HDR in the future.
Aside from upscaling, as promised some games actually hit native 4K. The Last of us: Remastered, Skyrim: Special Edition, Elder Scrolls Online, FIFA 17 and at times, Infinite Warfare, can hit that benchmark we all want it to hit and the results are nice. I wouldn’t expect these titles to be common though.
Some developers offer various modes for players. While Infamous: First Light/ Second Son, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy XV offer a 4K mode, you can also sacrifice resolution for framerate in other modes. Rise of The Tomb Raider for instance boasts an enhanced 1080p mode which looks fantastic for the most part. The enhanced graphics mode in Rise of the Tomb Raider also leaves the shimmering the PlayStation 4 Pro is trying to eliminate. Regardless, it is nice the option is there.
Supersampling has also been a godsend for PlayStation VR. On top of the cleaner UI, games generally look more crisp with noticeable improvements in titles like RIGS: Mechanised Combat League. Crytek decided to take it an extra step further and improve the colour, draw distance, texture filtering and enhanced textures to Robinson: The Journey, and the results are impressive. The higher CPU also ensures framerate is stable, as smooth performance is a huge necessity for VR gaming.
There have been reports that some games run worse than on the base PlayStation 4 than on the Pro. When we are talking a drop of a couple framerates I can personally never tell. I can notice the difference between 30 and 60 and anything that drops way below 30fps. However, I played the Last of Us: Remastered, Skyrim: Special Edition and Final Fantasy XV and did not experience any noticeable drops.
For a full comparison of a slew of PS4 Pro games versus the base PS4 stay tuned for an upcoming feature article in the near future.
So is the PlayStation 4 Pro worth the purchase? It’s a hard recommendation. I am one of the earliest adopters out there, I like my games looking as good as they can and I like revisions on hardware rather than huge leaps. PlayStation 4 Pro ticks all these boxes for me. It takes advantage of my 4K television by giving me clear and crisp resolutions, it gives value to my PlayStation VR and improves the experience in more ways than one. The system itself is quieter, faster and more powerful, and it’s the same price as the base PlayStation 4 originally was. However, it is the holiday season, plus the PlayStation VR came out a month ago. I would recommend buying a 4K HDR TV if you were going to buy a Pro as well. However, you can just buy a Pro and still get some benefits from a 1080p television while you save for your next upgrade. The games are there. All the major games released in the last few months have Pro support, including some older favourites, and it seems almost every upcoming major title coming to PlayStation 4 will support the Pro. If you have a PlayStation 4 already and no 4K television, there is no reason to upgrade for the sake of it. The experience is exactly the same across both systems. The Pro is just slightly more refined.