PlayStation 4 Pro Review

by Andrew Reiner on Nov 09, 2016 at 02:13 PM

From a glance, Sony’s new PlayStation 4 Pro implies significant upgrade. The console is roughly the same size as the original PlayStation 4 hardware, but the altered triple-decker design makes it look like a bigger machine, almost like two PlayStation 4’s were mashed together into one.

Looks can be deceiving, however. PlayStation 4 Pro is not the next evolution of Sony’s long-running console; it’s a moderate upgrade designed mostly for people investing in 4K displays and want their games to take advantage of that new technology.

The Pro is a nice looking device, but it sticks to the conventions Sony established with the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 S. The new hardware is an inch longer and wider than its predecessor, and has the same black matte finish, but no longer a glossy racing stripe on top. The LED strip-light that visually shows the system is booting up or is on moved to the lower groove on the front of the unit. Sony also added a USB 3.0 port to the backside. The power supply is once again buried within the hardware, but the AC power cord is of a different, thicker design; meaning you won’t be able to simply use your previous PlayStation 4’s power cable to turn on this new device. The launch edition is equipped with a 1TB hard drive. Due to encryption issues, the internal hard drive from PlayStation 4 cannot be swapped into the Pro, but other internal solid-state drives can be used.

When the Pro boots up, you won’t notice anything different, other than a sharper and more vibrant version of the current PlayStation 4 dash, running at a true 3840x2160 resolution with either 2K or 4K HDR (depending on what your TV supports). The hardware allows for more powerful gaming experiences, with more than double the GPU power and a higher clock rate for the CPU, but the mileage varies for each game. Some developers are offering patches to take advantage of the Pro’s increased performance, but others aren’t enhancing their games at all. All existing PlayStation 4 titles (and all that will be released in the future) are compatible with Pro.

Sony announced that more than 30 games are optimized for Pro’s launch on November 10, and over 45 will be available by the end of the year. This may not sound like much, but when compared to the library available for Xbox One S, Microsoft’s 4K/HDR equivalent to Pro, it shows developers and publishers are pledging significantly more support to Sony’s alternative. The Xbox One S library consists of just five games with HDR/4K upgrades, and another three announced titles are on the way in 2017. When it comes to just game performance enhanced for 4K displays, the Pro is the easy choice. It blows the Xbox One S out of the water. That said, Microsoft’s forthcoming Scorpio console (due in 2017) could flip the scale again.

The selection of Pro-ready games at launch ranges from new releases like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Battlefield 1 to a wide selection of older titles like Infamous First Light and The Last of Us Remastered. Again, the enhancements offered are different for each game. Some deliver visual upgrades, others up the performance with smoother framerates and reduced load times. The developer determines how to take advantage of the hardware. All too often, the available upgrades are not listed for each game; you won't know how they are enhanced on Pro. A few titles I checked out offer options, such as Infamous: Second Son adding an option for HDR Rendering (on or off), along with Framerate (unlimited or locked at 30), and performance (higher resolution or better framerate).

I took a handful of Pro launch titles for a test drive, and walked away impressed by how much the 4K upscaling enhances the look of games. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Rise of the Tomb Raider are the perfect examples of old games that looks new again on the Pro. Super-sampling anti-aliasing is used to bring out the minute details in the character models and worlds. They looks fantastic, but in Mordor, players are frequently reminded of the past when prerendered cutscenes play at a much lower resolution and look significantly worse than the newly enhanced in-game graphics.

Infamous: Second Son is another game that makes good use of the Pro technology with a sizable 3.6GB patch that enhances the look of the game. Infamous: Second Son has always been colorful, but the vibrancy of the world leaps off of the screen on Sony’s new hardware, with lighting for both day and night cycles, clarity of detail on distant items, and small texture touches on buildings and signs. I used the game’s photo mode to compare a snapshot on a 1080p TV without the patch and a 4K display with it, and while both are beautiful, small visual differences are everywhere. This is one game where the eight million pixels of a 4K display (1080p TVs range from between one or two million) are taken advantage of.

PlayStation Pro is best used on 4K displays, but also delivers HDR support (also available on standard PlayStation 4 models) and performance enhancements and for 1080p TVs. Don’t expect these differences to be overtly noticeable, as they may just enhance color ranges or framerate bumps. Regardless, the Pro does make games better on standard TVs.

That begs the question: Is Pro worth the money? If you have a 4K TV, and you often find yourself marveling at graphical details in games (be it landscapes on the horizon or the detail on a character’s face), the answer is a resounding “yes.” If you don’t care about that stuff too much, there’s no need to upgrade, but I would keep an eye on how performance is altered for your favorite games. A better framerate or reduced loading times in a favorite title may be enough of a selling point for some.

Now here’s the bad news: While the PlayStation 4 Pro offers 4K support for popular multimedia apps like Netflix and YouTube, it isn’t equipped with an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player, the new disc-based standard for 4K movie watching. As of this June, Variety reported UHD disc sales were growing four times faster than Blu-Ray at its launch a decade ago. Not having a UHD player is a glaring omission from Sony, a company that has always embraced the latest in technology – from CD in the PlayStation, DVD in PlayStation 2, and Blu-Ray in PlayStation 3. Remember, the PlayStation 3 didn’t just sell for games; it was one of the best deals for Blu-Ray players on the market at the time.

Sony clearly thinks people will likely get their movies through digital formats, and that there may not be a physical market for them in the years ahead. It’s a gamble that could end up hurting the Pro. Microsoft equipped the Xbox One S with UHD, making it the more complete machine for movies and TV.

Neither the PS4 Pro or Xbox One S delivers a full 4K experience, and both have their own advantages and weaknesses. Pro is, however, the better option for games, and it looks like it is getting the support from developers and publishers to make it a sound investment if you greatly appreciate visuals in games. I have to stress the “greatly” here, as the enhancements, while apparent, are not a generational leap. In the larger picture, the PS4 Pro is a small step forward. It’s a nice step for people who have embraced the latest and greatest in display technology, but isn’t a difference maker in the world of games.