Feature

PS4 Pro Review: Should You Buy Sony’s New Console?

PS4 Pro is caught somewhere between a gaming revelation and a tiny, costly upgrade. It’s the most powerful game console ever made, but the improvements it boasts over the standard PS4 won’t be noticed or appreciated by every kind of gamer. If you’re a discerning sort–if your first instinct upon starting Uncharted 4 is to point the camera at the ground or wall to take stock of the texture detail, or if you have experience optimizing PC games–then PS4 titles released over the last couple years will look a smidge better than how you remember them. Whether patched to legitimately run at a higher resolution or merely upscaled to 4K from 1080p, a game’s crisp clarity will be felt, especially (I imagine) if you play like this for some time and switch back to a standard PS4 in a different room or at a friend’s place.

ps4 pro review

If PS4 Pro will be your first PS4, any improvements will be hard to contextualize, but there’s little question. With strong off-the-line first- and third-party support for improved visuals, this is definitely the PS4 for new buyers, even at a higher $399 (£349). What about upgrading to Pro without a 4K TV to play on? It’s an expensive bet, trusting that PS4 Pro patches will be plentiful, that slight improvements to lighting, texture detail, or foliage in a smattering of future games will accrue over time to make the $400 (£349) upgrade worthwhile.

Related: PS4 Pro launch games line-up

The recent release of PlayStation VR adds another layer. Owning one (or planning to) opens access to a swath of benefits that could arise from PS4 Pro’s improved hardware, but beyond the obvious first-party lineup, how developers will choose to use PS4 Pro–if at all–is still largely unknown. Again, support looks pretty good out of the gate. Battlezone, Robinson the Journey, Thumper, and others are fronting third-party VR-Pro support on Day 1. But how fleeting is this excitement? Market forces could (and likely will) dictate whether developers continue investing the time to add Pro support, or whether PS4 Pro owners are more likely to buy Pro-enhanced games as a vote of loyalty to their high-end system.

PS4 Pro can be mysterious, but most of the benefits to owning one are clear.

PS4 Pro is a Significant Hardware Upgrade

With the technological headroom added to PS4 Pro, it’s easy to see how the gap between Pro-enhanced games and their standard-PS4 versions could widen in the months and years to come. The most striking difference is in PS4 Pro’s graphics processing unit (GPU). Like the standard PS4, the Pro GPU is based on AMD’s GCN microarchitecture, but boasts 36 compute units–twice as many as PS4’s 18. Each is clocked at a bit higher speed (911MHz to PS4’s 800), altogether netting more than double the floating-point operations per second (FLOPS).

Heads-up: We’ll do our best to succinctly and accurately describe PS4 Pro’s technological upgrades, but for the final word in all things gaming technology and horsepower, we often turn to Digital Foundry for high-quality analysis. We encourage potential PS4 Pro buyers to supplement this review with other coverage.

Importantly, there is no linear relationship between FLOPS and in-game performance–there are simply far too many factors at play, including memory bandwidth, processor limitations, and optimization. PS4 Pro will not automatically render games twice as well or twice as smooth as the standard PS4. But in cases where a game’s framerate is unlocked (somewhat rare in console gaming) and the GPU is the limiting factor, the PS4 Pro should see significant performance increases. More importantly, the extra FLOPS mean extra headroom for developers to use how they see fit. For example, game makers could use PS4 Pro to target higher resolutions, a higher or more stable framerate, or greater environmental detail.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a good example of all three. Within the game’s settings, a PS4 Pro user can switch between all three outcomes at will, choosing to play at 4K resolution, at 1080p with a buttery-smooth 60 fps target, or in 1080p with “enhanced visuals.” Throughout the game’s early chapters, I found that these “enhanced visuals,” including better surface detail, weren’t apparent enough to make dropping from 4K’s intense clarity worthwhile. If a significant number of third-party titles offer a similar choice (between 4K and 60 fps) in the months and years to come, PS4 Pro is a no-brainer.

Increases to PS4’s processing speed and memory are more modest. Each of the console’s eight Jaguar cores is up from 1.6GHz to 2.1GHz, and its 8GB of GDDR5 memory has a bandwidth increase from 176GB/s to 218. Again, it’s best to take these increases as a non-linear bump to the console’s development ceiling. We don’t know yet the full degree to which these changes will improve our games. But as a result, consider what PS4 Pro can do:

  • Upscale any 1080p game to 4K
  • Run some games at a higher native resolution than 1080p (for example, 1440p upscaled to 4K, or native 4K itself).
  • Run some games at a higher framerate than originally intended
  • Run games with increased environmental detail and better graphics overall (see Horizon: Zero Dawn and the aforementioned Tomb Raider)
  • Upscale sub-1080p games to 1080p

PS4 Pro’s technical upgrades have made the above possible, so any one of them is a point in its favor and speaks to greater capabilities on the whole. I’ve also noted snappier, more responsive menus. The PS4 was no slouch in its own regard, but with Pro, it’s rare to have even a fleeting hiccup when moving between tiles and apps. Alongside the abilities to capture and stream 1080p video or take 4K screenshots, PS4 Pro feels like the fullest realization of PS4’s features. One couldn’t reasonably expect further improvement from the same console family.

A few other hardware upgrades round out the package. An additional 3rd USB 3.1 port is situated on the backside of the console and is less physically guarded than the two up front. The biggest benefit is being able to hide your charging cable or PS VR connection. 5GHz Wi-Fi signals are now also supported. Where a LAN cable isn’t available or practical, the 5GHz protocol’s increased bandwidth means significantly faster download speeds.

Finally, the space-starved gamer will appreciate the 1TB hard disk drive. I eagerly await the day when solid-state speeds are standard, but doubled capacity is a breath of relief after having to comb through my games every few months for things I can delete. Game sizes have well outpaced the standard PS4’s meager 500GB.

PS4 Pro is Bigger and Quieter than PS4

The triple-decker design of PS4 Pro isn’t particularly inspired; the obvious gag is that with more power comes more layers. But its angles, color, and finish are also seamless, building upon the visual identity established by PS4, PS4 Slim, and PS VR’s processor box. Any of the above can look cohesive alongside each other in a living room setup, and the PS4 Pro is more about blending in than making a statement, with a couple exceptions. The console’s indicator light has moved from running across the top of the standard PS4 (when flat) to horizontal along the front. Whether blue, white, or orange (in Rest Mode), the new placement sleekly accentuates the console’s lines.

Other changes are minimal but appreciated. The full-matte finish is bland but totally resistant to finger smudges and far less revealing of dust. The Power and Eject buttons run along the bottom edge of the middle layer and are physical buttons as opposed to PS4’s touch-sensitive ones. It’s a success with regard to not accidentally triggering one or the other, but their placement is still odd, with the Power button directly below the disk tray while the Eject button sits closer to the USB ports on the far-right.

Any changes to heat flow or cooling aren’t apparent–by my approximation, the PS4 Pro and the standard PS4 generate similar heat at rest and load–but the PS4 Pro is notably quieter. My observation isn’t scientific, but I noticed the quieter operation immediately, both during the boot cycle and in gameplay. It’s as if the Pro’s cavernous shell reduces fan whine, or perhaps there is improved cooling at play that allows quieter fan operation. Regardless, I’m confident that current PS4 owners will notice and appreciate the change. It speaks to better build quality and proves less distracting in formerly loud games like Uncharted 4 and Final Fantasy XIV.

PS4 Pro appeared perhaps worryingly large in its debut, but the reality is anything but. At 295mm x 55mm x 327mm, PS4 Pro is only 20mm wider, 22mm deeper, and 2mm taller than the standard PS4. The difference is noticeable, but far from dramatic, and most upgraders should have no trouble working it into exactly the same entertainment setup, if so desired.

PS4 Pro Can Render Up to Native 4K

What Sony and game-makers tout as “4K Resolution” can mean many different things in practice. For games that have received PS4 Pro patches or boast Pro support out of the box, it could mean anything from 1440p upscaled to 4K, 1800p upscaled to 4K, or native 4K itself. Given how often the hardware-fueled “checkerboard rendering” technique is touted as a highly efficient way of achieving 4K-quality results, it’s safest to assume you won’t be playing a lot of games in native 4K, but that the vast majority of players in the vast majority of living room setups won’t be able to tell a difference. Wherever a game falls on the resolution scale, it’s a universal upgrade from PS4, even for 1080p content that’s merely upscaled.

Skyrim: Special Edition is one of the few early games actually being rendered in native 4K, and the results are striking. We’re using a screenshot slider below to highlight the difference between native 4K on PS4 Pro and 1080p on a regular PS4. Please click the link to enlarge–we encourage that you take every step to maximize the image and appreciate the differences, including zooming after clicking the link. Do note that our screenshot sliders are sized at 1080p and should not be taken as a true representation of how these games would look on a 4K display.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

The NPC is noticeably blurrier in the 1080p shot, and the clarity of the rocks and ground texture in front of the player is night-and-day. The sword and tree branches to the far-right are similar examples. The battle-worn steel and depth of the sword blade becomes more apparent in 4K, and the finer needles and stems of the pine tree’s branches become more apparent.

Continued on Page 2…

@page

With Uncharted 4, the exact resolution bump is unknown, but even at sub-native 4K, the results speak for themselve. Notice how Nathan’s beard stubble is clearly defined in 4K, how the wrinkles on his face become blurrier in 1080p, and how the seams and stitching on his left shoulder are crisp and obvious in 4K.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

This shot from the opening chapter of Rise of the Tomb Raider is like Skyrim in that virtually everywhere you look, 4K is an obvious boost in clarity. In action, Tomb Raider is one of those titles where you can immediately feel the difference and it feels like playing a luxury product. From Lara’s jacket to Jonah in the background, from the rocky outcroppings above her to the ice covering them, the 1080p screenshot from the standard PS4 is downright blurry in comparison, leading one to believe Tomb Raider is at or near native 4K.

 CLICK TO ENLARGE

These two comparisons from inFAMOUS: Second Son aren’t quite as pronounced. Look carefully at the wood planks beneath Delsin, his hat, and the background details for a sense of Second Son’s higher resolution and improved contrast. In the second shot, look to the yellow window frame and the orange cart in the parking lot for comparisons. As always, please click to enlarge and know that only a 4K display can accurately represent how PS4 Pro renders games.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

CLICK TO ENLARGE

The fact that resolution changes aren’t as apparent for every game speaks to inconsistent native rendering and techniques. With inFAMOUS, especially, I was hard-pressed to notice a resolution difference. But inFAMOUS benefits from Pro in other ways. It has starker lighting, a more stable framerate overall, and the option to reach for an even higher framerate by disabling 4K. And with the more obvious examples, where the native resolution gets close to 4K or even hits it, I could feel the difference in gameplay. We’re talking slight degrees in the grand scheme; a vast majority of gamers likely won’t notice or care about the bump. For my part, the crisper image is admittedly subtle at a sitting distance of 6.5 feet from a 55-inch screen, but I did feel like I was having the luxury experience that PS4 Pro represents.

Some PS4 Pro Games Have Better Graphics

Developers have been somewhat coy with details about what exactly their PS4 Pro patches change in the weeks leading up to release. Understandably, perhaps–there’s little context or collective knowledge about terms usually reserved for PC gaming here in the PlayStation Universe, among the average PlayStation fan. Nevertheless, a discerning eye can make out changes beyond just a resolution bump.

Take the shots below (which aren’t perfectly lined up–sorry about that). On the ground in front of Nate, grass is clear and more vivid, which suggests improved anisotropic filtering. With greater degrees of anisotropic filtering, surfaces viewed at an angle are rendered with more accuracy and detail. Meanwhile, the specific cliff face that Nate is facing, in the distance, looks to benefit from a jump in texture detail, akin to moving from Very High to Ultra in PC gaming lingo.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Eidos Montreal has been more transparent with what’s under the hood of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The game’s PS4 Pro patch increases the resolution while also improving reflective surfaces, lighting, and anti-aliasing.

The first comparison shows off the reflective surface improvement on Jensen’s combat rifle. The dynamism of the sun’s reflection is improved on PS4 Pro, and you can make out finer details in the gun’s brushed metal finish. Again, think Very High to Ultra. The second shot is a better example of the resolution bump; check out the iron sight and the golden, metal beam we’re aiming at.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

CLICK TO ENLARGE

It’s a bit frustrating that changes like these are inconsistent across titles. The discerning PS4 Pro owner will probably have to stay plugged into news surrounding their most anticipated games for any clarity regarding what enhancements, if any, PS4 Pro support will add. For now, there are a few common threads: games with PS4 Pro enhancements beyond a resolution increase tend to receive improvements to lighting (inFAMOUS, Deus Ex, Battlezone), texture detail (Killing Floor 2, Outlast 2), shadows (Horizon Zero Dawn, Titanfall 2), and anisotropic filtering (Horizon Zero Dawn Uncharted 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider).

All 1080p Content is Upscaled to 4K

Across the board, even for titles that have no dedicated PS4 Pro patch or support, PS4 Pro upscales to 4K, essentially duplicating pixels in a predictive fashion to fill in the gaps between 1080p and 2160p. While far less impressive than the results of dedicated support, at the very least, virtually everything will benefit in at least a tiny way from PS4 Pro.

Below, from Rise of the Tomb Raider, we see an upscaled 1080p-to-4K image on the left and a 1080p shot from a standard PS4 on the right. The angle’s a bit off, but if you blow things up and get down to the dirt on the left or rocks on the right, there’s a smidge of a difference to make out.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Again, it’s not much–and 1080p upscaling alone should not be the reason you invest in this console–but on a 4K TV, it’s helpful mitigation that’s certainly better than stretching a 1080p visual to fit.

Since we have the assets, here’s the same comparison, except between 4K on PS4 Pro and the same upscaled 1080p from above (this time, on the right).

CLICK TO ENLARGE

@page

PS4 Pro Also Benefits PS VR

Despite a successful launch to positive buzz and acclaim, the fact remains that PlayStation VR touts the lowest-resolution image of the three major consumer VR headsets. But with the hardware’s extra headroom, developers have room to play on a game-by-game basis. Rebellion’s Battlezone is among a smattering of early titles to benefit in some way, with a recent patch adding support for super-sampled resolution, more dynamic lighting, and higher resolution specifically on reflective lighting. Crytek’s Robinson: The Journey is confirmed for Pro enhancements, but as of writing, they haven’t been clarified.

Others include:

  • Driveclub VR
  • PlayStation Worlds VR
  • Tumble
  • The Playroom VR
  • Rez Infinite

Screenshots of PS VR, compressed and twisted as they are, happen to be a pretty poor representation of the virtual reality experience. But knowing full well that some games will receive enhancements through patches, I was most curious whether PS VR games and menus receive any baseline resolution jump, akin to PS4 Pro’s universal upscaling of 1080p content.

The answer borders on placebo effect, but I did feel a slight increase in crispness in Batman Arkham VR. I’ve tried to capture a moment, below, that represents this, but even the slightest difference in head position or viewing angle can change the 3D surroundings. We encourage you, as always, to click the hyperlink to enlarge the comparison, while recognizing that VR is especially ill-suited to demonstrate via screenshots.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

CLICK TO ENLARGE

The most telling details, for me, are the Batsuit’s legs in the first shot and the blue GCPD flag (far left) in the second shot.

VR gameplay can also take place in Cinematic Mode, where 2D gameplay is presented on a virtual movie theater screen. Here, in Gone Home: Console Edition, we stand in the front entry of the home. Taking a screenshot in this mode directly captures the 2D image as if on a TV, not in VR, and any difference seems imaginary or position-based.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

With regard to future support, PS VR is an even bigger question mark than the Pro itself. At least with PS4 Pro, we can expect the usual annual supply of first- and third-party games, from which Pro enhancements could emerge. With PS VR, the annual game volume will already be far smaller. If Pro support for VR games lags behind the mainstream in any meaningful way, we could be looking at fleeting, inconsequential enhancements. At this time, PS VR is not the reason to own PS4 Pro.

Other Things to Know About PS4 Pro

The frequent PS VR user should know that it is possible for the processor box to pass-through 4K video from the PS4 Pro, albeit only in the YUV420 color format. Without initially knowing the difference between YUV420 and RGB color formats (nor even of their existence), I found that my 4K TV actually only supports the former. Both are selectable as different resolutions (“2160p – YUV240” and “2160p – RGB”) in PS4 Pro’s Video Output Settings, and I appreciate the move on Sony’s part. As Digital Foundry notes, “2160p YUV420 is interesting in that this allows PS4 Pro to connect to older 4K screens that lack the full HDMI 2.0 implementation. By reducing chroma information, the required bandwidth drops down in half, allowing HDMI 1.4 screens to get a full 60Hz signal.”

The PS4 Pro experience will be educational for many, especially those who have rarely ventured outside the relative simplicity of console gaming. I haven’t touched on HDR10 support in PS4 Pro because 1) the standard PS4 also supports HDR10 and 2) my 4K TV does not. But for the PlayStation diehard looking to truly maximize their experience, the PS4 Pro’s potential is only being leveraged to the fullest when played on a 4K display that supports 3840×2160 @ 60Hz, full HDMI 2.0 compatibility (for the RGB color space), and High Dynamic Range (HDR10). As of writing, a mid-tier, oft-recommended model–the 55-inch Samsung KS8000–sells for $1,100 via Amazon.

It’s possible to benefit from PS4 Pro when playing content on a standard 1080p display, and many are probably wondering if the upgrade is worth it for those benefits alone. Unfortunately, the answer is still pretty unclear. Ratchet & Clank and inFAMOUS Second Son both render up to 4K before downsampling to 1080p for noticeable anti-aliasing solution. In the slider below, Ratchet’s body and the rock in front of him are the best examples, though just about everything gets polished to a sheen in the supersampling.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

However, this support is conditional, not universal. Only games with dedicated PS4 Pro support, not every title, will downsample in this way. One could safely expect first-party titles to support super-sampling going forward, but it’s not been guaranteed, nor is there any indication that third-party titles will follow suit.

For context, here’s the difference between that supersampled 1080p image and true 4K on the left:

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Super-sampling can give impressive results, but it’s no substitute for the greater detail granted by higher resolution. As such, PS4 Pro isn’t a heartfelt recommendation for a gamer without a 4K TV or any plan to purchase one in the near future. As a value proposition, 4K gaming goes a long way toward justifying that $400 (£349) upgrade, especially when upscaling applies across the board.

The Many Faces of PS4 Pro

From one lens, PS4 Pro is an unrequited success. There is no element in which it is not the same or better than the standard PS4, and some of these upgrades aren’t minor. 4K gaming (if not native, near enough to pass for it) is a small revelation–a visual treat that pops right away and quickly sets in as the new normal. There’s early evidence that a bevy of PS4 games, both first- and third-party, will not only render at a higher resolution but receive enhanced graphics. Those upgrades are marginal, for the moment, but like with any new hardware, there’s room for growth. Provided you already own a 4K TV, at $399, there’s no more cost-effective way to reach this image clarity.

For a first-time PS4 buyer with a capable display, PS4 Pro earns our strongest recommendation as the new gold standard in console gaming. For everyone else, the picture is more complicated and PS4 Pro starts to move into “luxury purchase” territory. If you have a 4K TV and a standard PS4, you’re not playing the very best version of the latest games. For some, that knowledge will be enough to make an upgrade worthwhile. But for many others, the things that make PS4 Pro special will go unnoticed or unappreciated. I suspect the vast majority of current PS4 owners aren’t bothered much by their current 1080p picture or chomping at the bit for Uncharted 4 to look just a smidge better.

From a VR perspective, PS4 Pro really has yet to show its hand. I feel like much was made of Pro’s existence being part and parcel with PS VR hitting a glass ceiling, but if that’s the case, the rewards have yet to manifest. Far and away, PS4 Pro’s most apparent benefits come via 4K upscaling, 4K rendering, and marginally enhanced visuals. Frankly, PS VR owners who are targeting the Pro for VR benefits alone should wait for more of them to manifest. Here’s hoping they do, at a volume and degree close to traditional games.

This unique moment in gaming makes PS4 Pro non-essential for many. Yet on the cusp of technological progress, with 4K on the brink of becoming standard, it’s a worthy torchbearer. If you’re ready to jump in, PS4 Pro is a near-perfect companion.