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Do you need the PS4 Pro?

The PS4 Pro offers tangible benefits to games — but there’s a catch

My co-workers are asking me if they should want a PlayStation 4 Pro.

There's a reason for this. I'm probably the most all-in on 4K and HDR at this point (though closely followed by a few other staff members). I've got a good 4K- and HDR-capable television, the Samsung KS8000, which supports HDR in Game Mode — an important factor you should really look into before you buy a new set, by the way. I've got 4K and HDR enabled on my Netflix account, I own a small library of Ultra HD Blu-rays, and I've been doing as much research as I can about the differing 4K and HDR standards for a while now.

I'm also one of the more graphics- and tech-obsessed people on Polygon's staff. I like to learn about what hardware can do and how it does it, and about what different devices are capable of. I like getting into those details, even if they don't always matter to me, and I can generally see, say, lower-resolution alpha buffers and lower pixel-shader effect density.

This is the Venn diagram covered by Sony's new PlayStation 4 Pro, which comes out later this week. It’s the first PS4 to support 4K output, and also offers support for HDR10, though Sony also implemented some form of HDR capability in its existing PS4 models earlier this fall. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 4 Pro is also much more powerful than the launch system — in some ways more than twice as powerful — which allows developers to offer refined, more richly realized visuals. I’ve had one in my apartment for about five days now, and so my co-workers are asking: “Should I buy one? Should our readers buy one?”

And the answer right now is that I really don’t know yet.

Allow me to explain.

Everything not 4K

Not every change with the PS4 Pro is strictly related to 4K and increased graphical processing power.

First, the console features a new design, similar to the recently released PS4 Slim. At first glance, the PS4 Pro looks much bigger than the launch version of the PlayStation 4, but when placed side by side, this proves to be more a case of optics than fact. It’s about an inch wider, but just a centimeter or so taller.

PlayStation 4 stack (PS4, PS4 Slim, PS4 Pro) Scott Nelson/Vox Studios
PlayStation 4 Pro / launch PlayStation 4 Scott Nelson/Vox Studios

For some of my more opinionated co-workers, a small but appreciated improvement comes with non-capacitive, physical power and eject buttons on the system’s face. They’re very, very small, but they’re easier to use than the launch PS4’s still-easily-fumble-able touch controls.

The PS4 Pro also includes three USB 3.0 ports, which is one more than the launch console, which is good! But the system still doesn’t support external drives for installing games. This feels a bit ridiculous in 2016, especially given that the initial PS4 Pro only features a 1 TB hard drive — of which approximately 860 GB is available to users out of the box — on a system designed to play games at 4K. Native 4K assets are considerably larger than 1080p resources: The recent Windows PC release of Gears of War 4, a 4K-native version of the game, was a full 20 GB larger than its console counterpart.

Neither of these things are deal-breakers. But they are two of a few head-scratchers that make the PS4 Pro seem slightly less premium than it should, given its status as de facto standard-bearer for the PlayStation brand.

The PS4 Pro certainly doesn’t make the aggressive first impression that the launch PS4 did back in 2013, and I’ve heard some co-workers and friends remark that it isn’t an especially attractive console. That said, I think it’s ... fine. It’s not hideous. It sits in the dark in my entertainment center unassumingly, and I prefer the non-slanted profile and matte black surface without the cheap-looking glossy parts of the original console.

It’s actually impressive the PS4 Pro isn’t bigger, considering its improved hardware and more demanding power requirements. The system’s internal power supply is rated at 310 W, 80 W more than the 2015 PS4 models, and the power cable itself now uses the thicker, PC-style connector — though a two-pronged, non-grounded version — rather than the smaller figure-eight-style cord used by existing PS4 consoles.

Other nice quality-of-life improvements sit underneath the PS4 Pro’s chassis, the most noticeable of which is increased support for current wireless standards. The PS4 launched without the then-new 802.11ac standard, which was disappointing but not surprising. But it also confusingly launched without support for 5 GHz networks, which allow for much better sustained wireless speeds (albeit at a reduced effective range). The PS4 Pro has both, and the 802.11ac radio’s performance seems decent in my use so far. At the very least, it’s great that the system has it.

The controller included in the PS4 Pro’s retail package is the most recent revision, which doesn’t have any major improvements, though anecdotally it does appear to be more resilient than many of the launch PS4’s pads. And finally, thus far, the PS4 Pro under load is much quieter than my launch PS4 is, though this is a strictly by-ear assessment.

Moving from one system to the other

As the PS4 doesn’t support external storage, there’s been some hand-wringing over how current PS4 owners might transfer their existing content to the Pro — particularly with games that are no longer listed on the PlayStation Store. The good news? First, you can back up your original PS4 to an external drive through the PS4’s settings. Sony’s most recent big firmware also update added a transfer feature that allows you to move one PS4’s profiles, saves and installed games to another PS4 over a local network. It’s a fairly simple process that the PS4 Pro will actually ask you about when you’re setting it up for the first time, though it’s also available in the Settings menu.

The process itself is smooth, though getting from the starting line to the actual transfer process felt a bit like a comedy of errors.

  • First, each system must have the PS4’s most recent firmware update.
  • Second, you’ll want to sync any trophies from the old system with the PlayStation Network before you start the transfer process.
  • As you begin the transfer process, you’ll need to sign in to every PSN account you want to transfer from one console to the other, and decide whether or not to make the PS4 Pro your primary console.
  • Note that both PS4 consoles must be connected to your network in the same way. For instance, a wirelessly connected PS4 cannot transfer to a PS4 hooked up via an Ethernet cable.

A final observation/suggestion: Ideally you’ll have your PS4 consoles connected via Cat 6 cables to a gigabit network, because the transfer process can take a long time. I needed about two hours to transfer 375 GB from one console to the other.

Gaming at 4K

First, a note: 4K, and HDR, are standards that are really only now coming together. You can read more about the problems this presented to both Microsoft and Sony prior to the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro in my impressions of the Xbox One S from August.

In some ways, the PS4 Pro is easier to recommend than the Xbox One S was.

The biggest reason? There’s not a significantly more powerful version around the corner. The PS4 Pro is likely to be Sony’s flagship hardware for a few years, if the system’s launch timing versus its immediate predecessor is any indication. You’re not going to be left with the less powerful version as quickly as Xbox One S owners will.

The original PS4’s overall processing power sat at 1.84 teraflops. According to Sony, the PS4 Pro is rated at 4.2 teraflops. The PS4 Pro’s graphics hardware also supports more advanced instruction sets that, theoretically, can dramatically increase efficiency with certain types of calculations, and it includes special fixed-function hardware to enable the system to more effectively reach resolutions higher than 1080p.

The bulk of the PS4 Pro’s increased power comes in almost double the GPU resources, and the GPU element of its system-on-a-chip has seen a clock speed increase as well. The system also has slightly faster RAM, and more of it — an additional gigabyte has been added for system functions, and an additional 512 MB of its GDDR5 memory pool is available to developers, for a total of 5.5 GB of graphics memory available to games.

That may not quite be a generational leap in hardware capability — the jump from the PS3 to the PS4 was in the neighborhood of an 8x improvement with a seven-year gap between them — but it is significant. It’s enough to provide noticeable improvements to graphical quality across the board.

Currently, the most consistent benefits offered in games supporting the PS4 Pro are resolution improvements, though some games, such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, offer higher-fidelity effects and and lighting. Others, like this year’s Hitman, offer a significantly improved frame rate in addition to what appears to be a higher rendering resolution. Some titles also offer high dynamic range (HDR) color, which allows for extremely deep blacks and brilliant, vivid brights — a visual difference that makes a much starker impression than 4K often does.

PS4 Pro features Sony

The PS4 Pro’s increased power should be a particular selling point for PSVR owners. The console’s increased hardware power can offer better visual fidelity and maintain higher or smoother frame rates for supported titles.

If it seems like I’m being vague here, it’s because I am. I don’t actually know all the graphical improvements that the PS4 Pro’s supported titles are offering, because what has been released has often been somewhat vague, and many titles with announced PS4 Pro support haven’t gotten patches yet, such as Battlefield 1 (at the time of this writing). EA has told me that Battlefield 1 on PS4 Pro supports “4K rendering,” though this is somewhat misleading, as the game uses a dynamic scaling system on every console that will likely keep the game’s resolution much, much lower. Meanwhile, HDR support may be on the horizon for the game, but it’s not there yet, and there’s no timetable for when it will arrive.

And that’s the wrinkle here — according to the PlayStation 4’s chief hardware architect, Mark Cerny, by default, the PS4 Pro does not offer improvements to existing PS4 software without a patch. This is apparently in an effort to guarantee compatibility of legacy software, as changes in hardware clock speed could, per Cerny’s example, cause problems. Unlike the more organic (and considerably more minor) improvements that Microsoft’s Xbox One S can provide to games, PS4 titles must explicitly be developed with the PS4 Pro’s hardware improvements in mind in order to benefit from them, or be patched at a later date with support.

Thus far, Sony and third parties are demonstrating that they can patch older games — for example, Monolith updated 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Sony is promising around 40 games with PS4 Pro support for the system’s Nov. 10 launch. Absent from the list? Some of the PS4’s biggest third-party titles, including Destiny, and games with known performance problems, such as Bloodborne.

That said, some of the PS4 Pro’s updated games make it all seem worth it. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, for example, is stunning in HDR and running at, well, if not native 4K, then something approximating it.

This might sound like another caveat, and in a way, it is: For the most part, the PS4 Pro doesn’t have the graphical muscle to natively render current-generation, AAA-quality games at 4K. But as someone with a 4K television who has played a number of PC games this fall on that TV, I’ve found that the difference between, say, 1080p and 1440p resolutions — somewhat less than double the pixels — is more noticeable than the jump from 1440p to 4K resolutions. Put more simply, the PS4 Pro won’t output many native 4K games, but games are still going to look noticeably better on your 4K television with a Pro than with any other system out right now.

People without a 4K TV are still getting much better-looking games, when they support the Pro. For example, Uncharted 4 “downsamples” from its higher-resolution version — that is, it generates a higher-quality 1080p scene from the 4K(ish) original, which leads to much better image quality and additional detail. (You can see an example above taken from Titanfall 2.) Running on a Pro, Uncharted 4 also boasts better lighting and effects than it did earlier this year on the original PS4, whether at 4K or 1080p. Meanwhile, as noted before, IO Interactive’s Hitman, which has frame rate problems on both PS4 and Xbox One, ran much, much more smoothly on the PS4 Pro in my limited time with the game.

For most people with new 4K TVs, the PS4 Pro will be their first true shot at 4K gaming, and in that respect, it’s proving so far to be a great way to put my TV through its paces. Unfortunately, right now, that’s the only way to experience 4K using the PS4 Pro.

4K video — and what the PS4 Pro doesn’t offer

This is where I feel most at a loss to talk about the PS4 Pro, because currently, Sony’s new console doesn’t support any 4K video options. At all.

Most immediately, the PS4 Pro is shipping without support for UHD Blu-ray. I’ve spent the last several months with a 4K TV and all of the 4K-capable video options available, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Vudu and UHD Blu-ray, and the latter is easily my preference. 4K support on the streaming services is getting better — notably, almost all of Netflix’s flagship shows are streamable in 4K if you pay for a higher-tier plan that enables it — but HDR is largely absent. Vudu supports HDR, but currently only in Dolby Vision, a proprietary HDR format that neither the Xbox One S nor PS4 Pro supports.

Also, the bandwidth requirements for 4K/HDR video streams are considerable, and well above the average broadband speeds available in the U.S. This isn’t a problem for me, but it does mean that users in various markets will not have 4K video available to them on the PS4 Pro.

Meanwhile, UHD Blu-rays offer guaranteed 4K and HDR support at bitrates that are often six times that of modern Blu-rays, with much more efficient video codecs. The picture quality, even compared to streamed 4K content, is drastically better — but the PS4 Pro will never support the format. The drive inside the console cannot be upgraded.

The benefits of streaming over physical media is a debate to be had later, though, because right now, there is no 4K video streaming option on the PS4 Pro. The PS4’s Netflix app has not been updated with 4K support at the time of this writing, though it may be by the time the console launches this week. But there’s been no word as to whether or when Amazon Instant Video will be updated on the PS4 Pro to support 4K and/or HDR. Vudu also hasn’t announced any plans to support 4K on the PS4 Pro, and even if the company released an app this week, it still wouldn’t support HDR10, the standard the PS4 Pro uses for HDR.

Pro, but less than Premium

And so we come back to my initial uncertainty. I’m not exactly sure yet what the PS4 Pro is in its entirety, because it’s not quite cooked yet. I can tell you that you’ll get some games that look considerably better than they would on a normal PS4 or Xbox One, at 4K and even at 1080p — but I don’t know how many games will implement that support. Sony has committed to PS4 Pro support for all of its first-party releases in 2017, at least, but the third-party front is less clear.

That isn’t to say I don’t expect the PS4 Pro to be supported. I do, if for no other reason than that this iterative console upgrade cycle is obviously the direction that home systems are going with Microsoft’s Scorpio console on the horizon for next fall. Developers already support improved resolution and effects on the PC, so the work to take advantage of more powerful hardware has largely been built into the production pipeline of modern game development.

As the owner of a 4K TV, I’m happy to have something that can more clearly take advantage of it. But I also have other devices to play back the 4K video content that the PS4 Pro either currently doesn’t or never will support. And until the PS4 Pro is a more fleshed-out device, it doesn’t quite feel like the premium product it seems like it should.

If you don’t yet have a PS4, then the Pro is an easier recommendation. The price difference between the PS4 Slim and the Pro is $100, for more than double the hardware power. If you can afford the difference, it would be silly not to go with the more expensive system, regardless of whether you own a 4K television.

But if you have a PS4 already, it’s harder to say. And I’m left unsure of how I should recommend one to someone who isn’t willing to dive into 4K content headfirst.

Photos by Scott Nelson/Vox Studios