Saturday 27 May 2017

PS4 Pro review: Too many pixels may not be enough

PlayStation's latest upgrade gets a lot right but is it a machine before its time?

The PS4 Pro (right) alongside the PS4 Slim
The PS4 Pro (right) alongside the PS4 Slim
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

PIXELS, pixels, pixels. Do you know your 1080p from your 2160p? Would you know 4K resolution if you saw it? And what’s all this fuss about high dynamic range?

The tech world has always loved its buzzwords but the confusion created around ultra-high definition 4K just about takes the biscuit. And when games consoles enter the picture, you could be forgiven for giving up entirely.

Sony proudly proclaims the new PlayStation 4 Pro as “the world’s most powerful console”, capable of “dynamic 4K gaming” – two statements that are undeniably true but loaded with caveats.

You probably know the story by now – instead of waiting a few more years to launch PS5, Sony has opted for a mid-generation refresh. Call it PS4.5, if you like, though PS4.3 may be more accurate.

Contrast that approach with Microsoft’s plans for the Xbox range. In August, it revamped the Xbox One modestly (call it Xbox 1.1 perhaps). But Xbox Two (or Scorpio to give it its codename) is touted as a dramatically more powerful 4K monster to launch before next Christmas.

So Sony’s got the drop on Microsoft for now – or does it? Colour me sceptical but my belief is that only a small subset of gamers will appreciate the advantages PS4 Pro has to offer right now.

In contrast to the usual cycle of hardware updates (PS1 to PS2, etc), the new machine sports a similar design to the basic PS4, built on effectively the same components, with the exception of the graphics processor. Coupled with a small uptick in the CPU and memory clock speeds, the upgrades enable PS4 Pro to spit out 4K resolution to your ultra-high definition TV screen.

Ah yes, don’t forget the UHD TV. If you don’t own one, the benefits of PS4 Pro recede even further into the distance.

Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2

It’s quite true that developers can employ PS4 Pro’s power not just to boost screen resolution but also to smooth out gameplay and increase frame rate. So on a conventional HD screen, you will see a marginal or sometimes quite noticeable improvement in titles such as Titanfall 2 or Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. But there are examples such as Watch Dogs 2, Last of Us and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided that actually run worse on PS4 Pro while connected to the HD TVs that most gamers own.

Sony has also mandated that will be no PS4 Pro exclusives. The new console is part of the PS4 family and everything must be compatible. That’s a solid idea in theory but it means developers cannot exploit the extra grunt to do something interesting beyond pushing extra pixels around the screen.

The AI can’t get smarter, the levels can’t be bigger, the number of characters on screen can’t increase, the online functionality can’t work more seamlessly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for brighter, shinier things too. But like the tiresome graphics-card race in the PC world – spending €200 every year to add a few more frames per second, etc – there comes a point where you bump up against the law of diminishing returns.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Remember Sony’s breathless promise of “4K gaming”? Just a handful of current titles actually run in true 4K resolution of 2160p (five-year-old Skyrim, ironically, being one).

Most actually run at far below that or use tech tricks to boost resolution. The excellent Digital Foundry research team calculate that a leading light such as Uncharted 4 comes out at 1440p, for instance. Paradoxically, Uncharted 4 and the like still look absolutely beautiful, it’s just that they’re only a bit more beautiful than the games running at 1080p on a basic PS4.

Here’s another key consideration: high-dynamic range (HDR) has almost as much influence on the visual appeal of games as does 4K resolution. But there are two things to remember – Sony has enabled HDR on the basic PS4 as well as on PS4 Pro but your TV needs to be HDR-compatible for it to work.

And in late 2016 HDR compatibility is still a mess thanks to in-fighting among manufacturers. You can buy a small, cheap 4K TV for less than a grand but to get proper HDR (and the full effect of 4K in general on a bigger screen) you’ll need to fork out a good deal more than that.

The PS4 Pro will at least tell you when your TV is connected what exactly it’s capable of (HDR or not, 2160p, etc).

Many people had high hopes that the injection of steroids from PS4 Pro would provide a welcome boost to Sony’s excellent but somewhat grainy PSVR headset. Alas, here again is an area where the new console produces little if any discernible difference in existing virtual-reality games. Titles such as Robinson: The Journey do show up with a small resolution enhancement but most go unchanged to most eyes.

More annoying is the fact if you keep the PS4 Pro plugged into the PSVR, it won’t send HDR to your TV. You have to rummage around to hook the TV directly to the console for those times you need HDR (and that would be most of the time). How Sony let that through is beyond me.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

Outside of gaming, Sony made the strange decision to forego inclusion of an Ultra-HD Blu-ray player. For such a staunch backer of physical media in the past, Sony now expects us to rely on 4K streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

As you can probably tell by now, my advice is to wait a while on the PS4 Pro before jumping in. It’s clearly a fine machine but for most people the tangible benefits remain scant until affordable truly HDR 4K TVs come down in price.

That should change in the coming year, of course, along with a stream of new, properly 4K PS4 games.

On the flip side, the €400 PS4 Pro costs just €50 more than the 1TB-sized basic PS4 (or €100 more than the standard 500GB PS4). So you could look on it as a future-proofing exercise for the modest outlay of €50 extra.

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