Analysis – Don’t Count On A 4K Future Quite Yet

by Jeff Cork on Mar 25, 2016 at 01:31 PM

Last week, Kotaku reported that Sony was planning a new version of its PlayStation 4 hardware, which could play games at 4K resolution. Before you speed over to your nearest big-box retailer and throw your wallet at a new television, however, keep a couple of things in mind. First, while a few anonymous sources have said that such a device is in the works, it’s not anything close to an official confirmation. Indeed, playing games at 4K is just one of several possibilities. But more importantly, such a console simply isn’t viable considering the current state of the market.

On its surface, the idea of running games at 4K resolutions sounds great. Right now, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 top off at resolutions of 1080p, which is 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. A 4K display bumps that up to either 4,096 x 2,160 or 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, depending on which of the two standards you’re using (DCI 4K or UHD-1, respectively). 

The Tech Is Expensive…And Big
Want to build a new PC that supports 4K and does it well? Prepare to spend some cash. A GeForce GTX Titan X video card can run you upward of $1,000 alone. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s an important point. Digital Foundry ran an excellent feature that speculates on several possible hardware configurations and strategies for a so-called PlayStation 4.5, including one designed to push the GPU significantly over the existing PS4 hardware. As they call out, however, the numbers seem unrealistic for a mid-generation hardware refresh. 

It’s unlikely that Sony would – or could – produce something that could compete with the bleeding edge of PCs. High-end gaming rigs are big, heavy beasts that need space and airflow to keep their components from melting their way into the Earth’s core. Consoles are typically based on technology that’s hit the sweet spot between performance, price, and production availability, which isn’t necessarily where hardcore PC enthusiasts call home. It’s more likely (which shouldn’t be confused with meaning “likely”) that Sony would instead make a more modest improvement to the hardware in this reality. Keeping it at a $399 price point while goosing the GPU and adding the necessary faster RAM would be tricky, even considering updated manufacturing techniques that would be available in 2017.

Not Enough People Own 4K Displays
Let’s pretend that manufacturing costs aren’t prohibitive. Who’s going to be able to play these 4K games? Right now, the current install base for 4K displays sits at around 10 percent, with even bullish projections estimating it will take four years for the tech to hit a 50-percent market share. 

Compare the current state of 4K to where HD was in 2006, when the PlayStation 3 launched. By then, several dozen networks were broadcasting content in that format. It seems small compared to the options available to us today, but it was a good start. Now look at 4K. Aside from a few select Netflix shows, some YouTube videos, and video rentals from Sony’s Video Unlimited, you don’t have much to show off on your spiffy new set. Streaming video in that format requires a pretty fat online pipe – Netflix recommends 25Mbps or faster – so you’re also at the mercy of your ISP. 

ESPN is dipping its toes into the 4K waters, filming some events in that format, but they aren’t regularly broadcasting in that resolution. The network was an early adopter of HDTV, and its sports broadcasts wowed viewers with how crisp and bright the then-burgeoning format looked. Where sports go, it seems everyone follows. For the time being, the network is on the 4K sidelines, slowly edging onto the field. 

Sony has helped spur emerging technology along with its consoles, helping to bring CD, DVD, and Blu-ray players into homes, but not with a hardware revision. Mid-generation updates have traditionally been reserved for incremental upgrades such as incorporating Ethernet ports into the PlayStation 2 slim, or shrinking the form factor and creating quieter units. Introducing something as substantial as 4K gaming support to the PlayStation 4 seems like a big stretch.

VR Booster?
One of the driving factors in a decision to develop more powerful hardware could be connected to Sony’s VR push. The hardware demands of rendering gameplay at 90 frames per second is significant, and several developers expressed their dissatisfaction about the console’s power relative to the Oculus Rift and its PC-powered counterparts. As it stands, developers have to make compromises in visual fidelity to support the peripheral, which is something that competitors don’t necessarily have to worry about. 

The PlayStation VR also requires an external processor that, at least in this stage of the hardware, is about the size of a Wii console. That’s a bulky add-on; perhaps Sony is trying to work on an integrated solution, and it’s being misinterpreted as being a straight-up hardware upgrade?

It’s possible that Sony is indeed working on some kind of insanely powerful PlayStation 4.5 that will somehow play 4K games without taking up a mini-fridge-sized footprint or warming up your house like a space heater. Plausible? Nope. While it’s true that, yes, there are 4K displays that you can actually own, don’t expect Sony Computer Entertainment to be the company to roll out the red carpet for the fledgling technology – especially not in the middle of a console cycle.