Review: PlayStation 4 Pro Console

Product: PlayStation 4 Pro Console
Release Date: November 10, 2016
Manufacturer: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Original MSRP: $399.99
This product was provided by the manufacturer for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this product is available on Episode 504 of the podcast.

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It’s no secret that I haven’t been very fond of a hardware refresh of the PS4 after only being on the market for three years. The perceived popularity and dominance of mobile devices seems to have once again motivated console makers to adopt the trend of quicker upgrades than the model that we’ve all become accustomed to.

This is the same mindset that drove many critics and Internet lurkers to predict the “death of the home console” before this current generation began, and as we all saw, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The biggest questions we’re faced with now are “is 4K worth the investment” and “is the Pro worth getting”. Well, it’s complicated depending on your current situation.

Oh what a year it’s been. PlayStation VR finally came out and then a month later a newer, more powerful, PlayStation 4 followed. Since day one, our biggest concern was how Sony would convey the proper message to consumers, especially when many on the Internet posted their own, sometimes wild, predictions pertaining to features and how games would be supported.

Even now we’re overhearing conversations at stores claiming “I read on the Internet that you have to pay extra for your game to use the extra power” or “this is only for 4K gaming.” I’ve decided that to try and tackle such a complicated subject, that I’ll work the list of major features one at a time.

What’s in the box?
The PS4 Pro is a PS4 at its core, fully compatible with everything that works on the original PS4 today. Hardware features are essentially identical, with the one exception being the inclusion of an additional USB 3.0 port on the back of the console – FINALLY!

The look of the console remains close to the style from the original PS4, but now is directly in-line with the newly released slim model in terms of texture and color. The most noticeable difference is the third “layer” that many thought looked similar to a Big Mac. Physically, it’s a bit bigger than the original model, but it’s definitely not a significant difference.

Heat output seems about the same, but it definitely kicks-up a notch when playing a graphically intensive game at a 4K resolution. To me, the fan never gets louder than my original PS4 does though, and for me at least, I rarely hear it anyway since I either have the audio up enough or I’m wearing headphones.

The Pro includes a new power cable which is closer to what the original PS3 used in thickness and plug type, a Micro-USB cable for your controller, an HDMI cable which supports HDCP 2.2 for 4K and HDR, and the newer-style DualShock 4 controller which shows the lightbar at the top of the touch pad.

You may have noticed something missing from that list. Even though it’s pictured on the box, Sony has not included a vertical stand with the console, which is rather disconcerting since it’s in the picture and Microsoft includes a stand with the Xbox One S. As of this writing, I still can’t find a way to buy the stand.

… fully compatible with the standard PS4 …
The first thing I did when I got the Pro out of the box to get it hooked-up is what I always do with a new PS4. I installed a new, larger hard drive. The good news is that it’s just as easy as before, with the only difference being that the drive door is on the back of the console instead of the left side.

Even better news is that the interface supports SATA 6GB, and the drive that we’ve recommended all of this time is fully compatible. The drive was in and setup in minutes, and once the initial setup is done, you’ll quickly notice that nothing about the interface is any different on the Pro, because it’s still just a PS4.

The Pro runs on the same firmware, with the same CPU, now clocked faster, a GPU in the same product line, just faster with a newer, more streamlined design with more graphics pipelines, the same RAM, and unfortunately, the same Blu-ray drive. Yup, Sony decided to NOT support the newer 4K Ultra Blu-ray standard with their new 4K console.

This, my friends, is the most baffling and upsetting design decision of the entire PS4 Pro architecture. It not only gives their direct competitor a bullet-point in comparisons, but it keeps the Pro from being that one box to act as a complete 4K source for media. One thing that I like though is that the Power and Eject buttons are now physical, which should reduce the amount of static electricity issues that occur on the touch-sensitive buttons of original PS4.

Is there any difference in how it plays original PS4 games?
The simple answer is no. Sony has designed this new hardware revision to be fully compatible with the standard PS4, so if a game hasn’t been patched to specifically support the new hardware, the games will run exactly the same.

There is a possibility that publishers could allow their game to use the faster hardware though, as recently seen in the first game in the Batman: Return to Arkham collection that was recently released. Arkham Asylum averages twenty to thirty frames faster in most scenes on the Pro, even though there was no specific patch, nor any mention of Pro support in the game. Arkham City, also in the collection, does not show any change in performance on the Pro, so some are even wondering if Arkham Asylum exhibiting performance gains was an accident by the developers.

What happens when an existing game is patched to use the new PS4 Pro features? Do I have to pay extra?
Let me answer that second question first. No, you do not have to pay for a game to work with the additional features of the PS4 Pro. Also, Sony has guided developers to bake support for the Pro into every upcoming game, which will then be downscaled to work on the original and slim models. So in other words, after a couple more months, we probably won’t see anyone patching a game after release to support the Pro specifically.

Regarding patches that have already been released, the features they bring varies quite a bit depending on which game you’re referencing. For example, Knack adds two different options: run at a native 4K resolution, or at a faster framerate with additional assets in 1080p.

… better framerates, better overall rendering …
Other games simply add 4K resolution/upscaling, the methods of which will be discussed later on in this review. Some, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, offer a variety of modes – 4K resolution locked at 30fps, 1080p locked at 60fps, and “enriched visuals” mode, which runs at 1080p locked at 30fps, but includes new rendering methods which cleans up much of what you see, especially off in the distance.

And that’s what we’re dealing with in this launch window. Some developers simply have their own take on what, if any, features they want to add to their existing games. It seems very much like the move into VR for many.

Since it’s such new territory, and because Sony is leaving many possibilities open to developers, many are simply dipping their toes in right now, but that should change in the future, especially if Sony sticks to the mantra of every game supporting the features of the Pro at release.

How will the Pro benefit PlayStation VR?
This is actually an area where the Pro can show some very nice improvements. Since the VR headset is locked to what essentially equates to a 1080P display, the extra horsepower can be dedicated to things like better framerates, better overall rendering, better anti-aliasing, and even adding additional assets and effects.

Games such as Eve: Valkyrie, RIGS, and Robinson: The Journey among others are already improving with the Pro, and it’s certain that more will do the same in the future. For someone that may use PS VR quite a bit, a PS4 Pro, in my opinion, is definitely worth having, especially as the technology gets more mature.

What about 4K?
With video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vudu, and more starting to support native 4K, and with some other gaming devices like the NVIDIA Shield TV and the Xbox One S supporting 4K output, Sony felt the need to hop onto that train before being left behind.

For me though, an admitted AV geek and often an early adopter, 4K hasn’t really done much. I purchased a Vizio P55-C1, which supports native 4K resolution and expanded HDR at 1,000 nits specifically so I could compare and contrast material from the sources and hardware that I listed above. The hardware alone varies quite a bit, with the PS4 Pro and Shield TV supporting a true 4K output.

… quite impressive to say the least …
The Xbox One S uses a hardware-based scaler to get any of its content past 1080p however, and while overall the picture quality is very good, you will see some muddiness and macro-blocking in darker areas. It’s not a huge deal, but it does show the band-aid that Microsoft is using to beat most other hardware offerings to the punch.

The Pro though, does have enough horsepower to allow for some games, usually the ones that would be considered low-intensity, to run at a full 2160p/4K resolution without any additional help. Games such as The Elder Scrolls Online, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition, and Viking Squad all do that today.

But what you’ll normally encounter instead is a game that’s made to run at a resolution of around 1800p with the new hardware-based scaler taking the game the rest of the way to 4K. The scaler does allow developers to use a very impressive “checkerboard” upscaling technique though, and so far it’s been universally applauded by the hardcore analysts.

How they’ve implemented the hardware at such a low price is quite impressive to say the least. The feature set from ATI/AMD Polaris this GPU is based on hasn’t even been fully released on PC as of the time of this writing, and it won’t be cheap when it finally does.

Quite frankly though, 4K hasn’t really done anything for me so far, no matter what the source. It’s great that there’s such good support for those that have spent the money on a new, fancy 4K display. But even when I show material at 1080p and 4K to my friends not many of them see much of a difference, at least not enough to warrant spending a minimum of $1,200 for a feature-rich display. Yes, I know that there are some budget 4K displays out there. In my opinion though, why bother if you’re not getting full HDR support? But I’ll touch on that next.

If 4K is important to you though, know that the PS4 Pro will definitely suit your needs, well, except if one of those needs is to play 4K UHD Blu-rays, because Sony decided not to support that format. Yes, I’m bringing this up again, because it quite frankly is the dumbest design decision that could have been made on hardware that Sony is pushing as your one-stop destination for all things 4K. Obviously, I’m paraphrasing.

To expect that 4K streaming will be good enough seems a bit odd at this time, especially since the bandwidth from physical media will always trump streaming. And then there are the many folks that are still under data usage caps, which will be a huge factor with the heavier UHD content hitting that quota every month. Not only that, but they’ve given their biggest competitor an easy to defeat bullet-point, which just makes many consumers even more confused.

So, anyway, I’m personally not sold on 4K so far. I’d much rather have 1080P with 3D and HDR, but that’ll never happen.

… all of this tech is still in its infancy …
What’s so great about HDR?
First, read this.

HDR is truly such a tough thing to explain because a screenshot won’t show any of it, we don’t have the correct equipment to record it, and unless you have a display that supports it, even if we posted HDR content, you still wouldn’t be able to see it.

Also, a lot of displays may be advertised as HDR Enabled but many of the cheaper models only support it in limited fashion. You need to make sure that the display supports an expanded color palette and active lighting zones, hopefully over 100 zones. The biggest problem though is that all of this tech is still in its infancy, and many manufacturers are doing their own thing.

Adding to that complexity is that there are two different HDR standards that are gaining traction, even though many displays only support one or the other. Mine supports both, which was essential for running my tests.

HDR10 is definitely the most supported standard so far, but Dolby Vision sports better quality. For games though, it seems as if HDR10 is going to be the target for the foreseeable future, so if you’re in the market for a new display, I’d target that standard for whatever you decide on.

The biggest benefits of HDR are twofold. First, active lighting zones now go a huge step further from a bright light source simply looking brighter like it would on your current display. Instead, the backlighting actually GETS brighter, which is why you want more than 100 active zones for this new lighting technology. A bright source like a spotlight or the sun will literally shine brighter, and the difference is staggering.

The other benefit though is the expanded color palette. For a very long time, displays have only supported what’s called the RGB color space, as did most cameras until recently. The best example is if you’ve ever seen a Ferrari in its native ‘Ferrari Red’ on TV, in a movie, in a game, or even in a picture.

… wait until the new sets are announced for 2017 …
None of those delivery methods were actually representative of the actual color, so the only way to see the actual color would be if the car was sitting in front of you, and you’d be surprised ay how different it truly is. HDR however, offers a much wider color palette than the traditional RGB color space, and the difference is immediately noticeable.

The best example that I’ve seen so far in games is the new Ratchet & Clank with insanely deep colors and showing a much deeper look throughout. You don’t even need to see them side-by-side because the difference is that drastic.

But when it comes to the PS4 Pro, HDR isn’t a selling point, because EVERY PS4 now supports HDR output which is a tremendous offering. But the catch-22 is that there aren’t any non-4K displays that support HDR, so if you want that feature, you still need to spend a decent amount of cash on a new display.

This is why I keep saying that people should wait until the new sets are announced for 2017, because the technology will definitely get better and more mature, and prices for those better features will definitely decline.

What about the streaming apps?
I feel the need to bring this up as well, because if Sony isn’t going to include support for UHD Blu-ray and instead declare a desire to support 4K streaming, the expectation is that out of the box the apps should support those advanced formats. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case yet, and that’s a huge disappointment. Breaking each of them down:

Netflix: Netflix supports 4K streaming, but unlike the other two devices that I currently use, the PS4 app still does not display any HDR content, and Netflix actually supports Dolby Vision in a few instances. Apparently, it’s on Netflix to update their app, so here’s hoping that they do something about this at some point.

Amazon Video: Amazon seems to be very stingy when it comes to which platforms get 4K and HDR support and so far, it seems that the PS4 is not one of them. This isn’t just limited to games consoles though, as I still can’t even get the Amazon Video app on my Shield TV. As of right now, according to Amazon, 4K content is only available through the following:

  • Amazon Fire TV (2nd Generation)
  • Roku 4, Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere +, Roku Ultra
  • Samsung Ultra HD TVs (2014 or later models)
  • Sony Ultra HD TVs (2014 or later models)
  • LG Ultra HD TVs (2014 or later models)
  • Vizio Ultra HD TVs (2014 or later models)

while HDR is only available through “select models” of the following products:

  • Samsung SUHD TVs
  • Sony Triluminos 4K TVs
  • LG OLED and Super UHD TVs
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Android smartphones
  • Roku Ultra and Roku Premiere+ streaming media players

The lists above point to the absurdity of this whole endeavour at this point in time as Amazon doesn’t even list which “select models” support the Amazon Video streaming HDR.

Vudu: Vudu is another interesting one and on the PS4 Pro it’s a bit weird. It will actually show if you own a movie or TV show in UHD, but it still doesn’t support playback at anything above their HDX format which is 1080p. I’ve only been able to view 4K content from Vudu via my Shield TV or by directly casting to my display. Here’s hoping that changes soon though.

… this is a complicated subject …
YouTube: Even though YouTube recently added support for HDR, the only way to view any of that enhanced content is with a Chromecast Ultra, but the PS4 app does support full 4K resolutions, and it does it very well.

Hulu: The newest service to offer 4K content is Hulu, and while they currently don’t offer anything with HDR support, the good news is that the PS4 Pro app supports 4K playback. There’s not a lot of content yet, but one of the stars of the available lineup is most or all of the James Bond movie catalog in 4K, including Spectre, and it all looks outstanding. There’s very little to no noise in the picture at all, and excellent color.

HBO Now: As of this writing, the official answer from HBO is “No, HBO NOW does not currently support streaming at 4K resolution. We will continue to investigate 4K video support.”

What if I don’t have one of these fancy new displays?
If you don’t want a new display, is the Pro worth it? Well, it can be, but that really depends on game developers in the future. There are already some games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and The Last of Remastered that will offer Pro-specific rendering modes for 1080P resolutions. These offer higher quality shadows, better rendering techniques to clean the visuals up, and better framerates.

Unfortunately there’s no mandate from Sony for offering this type of support. We’re already seeing benefits in a few other games at 1080p with the Pro though, so it does seem like developers are aware of what many PlayStation gamers want. The framerate boost/stability in a few games already can be a strong argument for the upgrade to the PS4 Pro, but again, it depends on what your individual expectations may be. The Last Guardian definitely benefits from the additional power.

Conclusion:
As you can see, this is a complicated subject. Quite frankly, the decision to get a Pro is an easy one if you don’t already have a PS4, and that decision is “Yes, definitely get the Pro.” But if you already have a PS4, that decision becomes much more difficult depending on what you want your PS4 to do.

If you play a lot of PS VR content, I’d say that the upgrade is worth it. I’ve already seen some nice benefits in some games, and in the short-term, it feels like those benefits will keep on coming in new titles.

If you don’t care about 4K and/or HDR, or if you don’t want to buy a new display in the foreseeable future, it really comes down to which games will support better rendering/features in 1080P. It’s definitely there today, but there’s nothing beyond hope as to how much support will be offered in the future.

The one thing that does offer a good deal of solace though is the fact that Sony is definitely on-board with supporting the Pro moving forward. I can actually see it being the only hardware offered as a PS4 in a couple of years. Also, developers seem happy with the hardware in general, and that can definitely help influence them to continue to support the expanded features.

Don’t get me wrong though, besides the terrible decision to not add support for UHD Blu-ray, this hardware is ready for the future, and it’s an impressive set of features for the price that’s been set. The hardware is definitely up to the needs of gamers no matter what display tech they own or plan to own for at least a few years to come.

What’s actually lacking at this point is that very display technology though, but that’s not Sony’s fault, and the fact that the PS4 can actually support up to 10,000 nits of luminance shows that they’re actually thinking of the future as well.

Score:

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Written by Glenn Percival

Glenn Percival

Just a guy that loves games, movies, Golf, Football, and Baseball.

Podcast Co-Host, Editor-in-Chief, Video Producer, and whipping-boy

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