Computers / Hands-on Review

PlayStation 4 Pro is The World's Most Powerful Gaming Console

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I am in a cave. It’s dark. Well, more like black. Pitch black, if we’re being honest; the darkest virtual cave in which I have ever found myself. I’m disoriented. I spin around, and off in the distance is a blindingly bright stream of light streaking down from above. The contrast is striking.

And I mean “contrast” in a literal sense; I have an HDR-capable TV (a Vizio P50-C1), and I’m playing Horizon Zero Dawn on a PlayStation 4 Pro. The game is gorgeous, especially on that TV. The 4K alone is a big deal (one we’ll get into in a bit), but more significantly: Horizon is one of a handful of games to take advantage of the system’s HDR capabilities.

That HDR, Though

You’ve likely heard the term “HDR” (or “High Dynamic Range”) by now, but what it means is complicated by the fact that two very different technological advancements have been conflated under the single term. “High Dynamic Range” itself refers to a high level of image contrast. It’s the ability to see very dark darks and very light lights at the same time. It also means that images that once appeared blown out or overexposed now have detail.

To make this more confusing, video games have been using “HDR” lighting effects for a while, but they do the exact opposite; they blow out the image. They create the appearance of contrast by making dark things dark and letting light things be too bright for your display to handle. This HDR is, in fact, HDRR, or “High-Dynamic-Range Rendering,” but it has been made obsolete by the new wave of actual HDR-ready displays. Thank goodness.

If you’ve read anything about HDR, you’ve likely heard that it’s a bigger deal than 4K. Let me throw my hat in the ring and agree with everyone else. 4K is cool, but more detailed images aren’t nearly as impressive as massively increased contrast or—and here’s the second part—a greatly expanded color palette.

Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is a puzzle game that is entirely unlike his breakout hit, Braid. It’s a low-key first-person game, one at which I am infuriatingly bad, but keep coming back to ever since the HDR update. It’s the game that I show to people when I want them to understand exactly what HDR means. The only way I can describe it: The SDR version is like having the Photoshop “Saturation” setting at 20%. In HDR, it’s 100%.

But the thing is: You can take advantage of these benefits if you’ve got a compatible display on the original PlayStation 4. Whereas you’ll need an Xbox One S to enjoy Microsoft’s turn at HDR, Sony added it retroactively to its old console. But that doesn’t undercut the other big selling point of the PlayStation 4 Pro: its significantly increased horsepower. The GPU in the new system is 2.3x more powerful than the one in its predecessor, which means increased performance at lower resolutions and—not a moment too soon—the possibility of 4K output on a home console.

Power Potential

Now, many of these 4K games are not native 4K. They use clever scaling tricks to hit that number, which pushes out four times as many pixels as 1080p, but the difference between the PS4 Pro’s high-quality scaling and a native solution is less noticeable than you’d think. But the step above 1080p, especially on a 4K display like mine, is absolutely a big deal.

I’m a particular fan of the decision to allow game developers to optimize their games their own way. Oftentimes, these Pro-compatible games will have at least two modes: Performance and Resolution. Sometimes there will be a third, which attempts to bridge the gap. In the case of The Witness, it’s a bit clearer: You can choose to play at an up-scaled 1440p at 60 frames per second or native 4K at 30. I tried both, and the former provides an objectively better experience. It’s also another reminder of the quality of that upscale, because the difference in detail is barely perceptible (though, admittedly, fine details aren’t a big deal in The Witness). But the leap from 30 to 60 frames per second is huge.

Whereas high-frame-rate films continue to unsettle audiences, video games have long been aiming for a 60+ fps experience. The difference in fluidity is stark; 60 fps feels (and is) more responsive. And it keeps going. A new trend is 144 Hz monitors, which are most useful for competitive play in fast-paced games, but it makes the point that faster really is better. (This is especially true in VR, where a rock-solid frame rate is required to keep players from getting nauseated. So, all PlayStation VR games run at frame rates ranging from 60 fps all the way up to 120 (the native refresh rate of the headset’s screen). With the additional power, developers can either increase the frame rate of their games or add extra details.

Rez Infinite primarily (but not exclusively) went the route of the former (as well as adding 4K support for those without the headset; thus far, HDR is not supported, but a man can dream, because Holy Cow, would that be amazing). Thumper went more for the latter, adding to the game’s background and making it more difficult in the process (forcing yourself to keep your eyes on the track when chaos reigns around you adds another layer of complexity, which is interesting in and of itself).

Then we come back to the breathtakingly gorgeous Horizon Zero Dawn. While its palette may not be as vibrant as The Witness’s, it’s still makes excellent use of color, and the additional detail available for players who choose “Resolution” mode over “Performance” are treated to—let’s be real—the best-looking game on any video game console out there. Like, whoa. Guerrilla Games has always been adept at making great-looking games, and Killzone: Shadow Fall was the visual standout of the system’s launch in 2013, but this is next level. The combination of detail and color (a post-apocalyptic world covered in green? Yes, please) just makes for something unique and beautiful.

A Few More Things About Power

Pretty much across the board, games benefit from that extra power. HDR especially, though it hasn’t been widely adopted yet, is going to be a long-term game changer, and it makes everything it touches instantly more appealing. The extra power, too, is beneficial, and the multiple options for taking advantage that exist in many games gives you, the player, more control over how you would like your experience to be. And, more often than not, in games that don’t give you a choice—something like the action game Nioh—it’s because the developer was always intending for an experience that was more in line with the Pro’s capabilities, and it allows them to more accurately realize their vision.

But now there’s a way that the PS4 Pro benefits the visions of those developers who haven’t made direct changes to their products. Just last week, Sony released firmware version 4.5, which includes, among other features, a PS4 Pro “Boost Mode.” This mode allows for some of the Pro’s hardware upgrades to function with games that were not directly intended to take advantage of them. By taking advantage of faster GPU and CPU speeds, games will see either increased frame rates or more stable ones, depending on how they’re designed. The level of improvement varies from title to title, but it’s a reason that even those without a 4K TV might want to upgrade.

Another reason? The technical upgrades to the Remote Play feature. Using Remote Play, you can access the games from your PS4 Pro on your Mac or Windows computer, which is cool, but you can also play games from your Sony Xperia smartphone, such as the Xperia X or XZ (due to brand synergy, this feature only works with Sony phones). While this was true of the original PS4, that experience—let’s be honest—wasn’t great. It worked, but it wasn’t much of a selling point, since the visual fidelity was compromised by the stream. Thanks to the improved processing (and, likely, the addition of a 5 GHz Wi-Fi band) of the Pro, the new console outputs a full 1080p signal at a higher and more stable bit rate, making Remote Play now the kind of thing you might want to use. If someone else needs the TV, and you don’t want to stop your game, it’s a convenient way to keep your session going.

Why This Matters

However, all this gushing over individual experiences misses, perhaps, the most significant thing about the PlayStation 4 Pro: its mere existence. Because the Pro is a sign of major changes in the way video game systems will be released and updated in the years to come. While some consoles from years back would have extra hardware that improved performance (such as the Sega Genesis’s 32X add-on), this is different. We generally get mid-cycle refreshes, usually in the form of a slimmer, sleeker system, and we did get that from Sony, as well, with the PlayStation 4 Slim (not its official name, though that’s what everyone calls it).

This time, though, we also got something unique. The PlayStation 4 Pro is not the PlayStation 5, though it is likely to push the release of such a console back by a few years, but it takes advantage of the tech industry’s rapidly improving technology. Consoles have long been stagnant as PCs push further and further ahead with each passing year. A PlayStation 4 Pro is never going to match the power available to those who buy graphics cards that are twice the system’s price, but as the price of stronger parts come down, it makes a lot of sense to take advantage of that.

It’s the harbinger of things to come. Later this year, Microsoft will be releasing a console currently code-named Scorpio, which will be to the Xbox One what the PlayStation 4 Pro is to its (still great) predecessor. It will be interesting to see what this all means for the industry, and whether we might see something similar from Nintendo a couple of years down the line (their New 3DS did do something in this vein, so that’s not implausible). But for now, we have just Sony’s new entrant into the field, the reigning champion in the fight for the Most Powerful Video Game Console.

Sony PlayStation 4 Pro Gaming Console

If you have any questions or insights, please post them in the Comments section, below.

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