When Sony announced the PS4 Pro it drew many a gasp of breath. Not because of its faster central and graphics processing, but more for its timing. This was the machine many expected to be pitched against Microsoft's Project Scorpio, a 4K gaming powerhouse due at the end of 2017. But Sony's revelation was that its mid-generation upgrade would be coming in 2016 - just in time for Christmas.
Sony has seemingly adopted a mobile phone-style business plan – something that is likely to become the norm, we were told by a PlayStation executive during its New York launch event. Instead of waiting for a PlayStation 5 in 2020 (based on a usual seven-year cycle) we'll get mid-cycle updates.
So where does that leave us? Is the PS4 Pro worthy of an upgrade so soon after the original console launched? Are its beefier bowels worth the extra wonga?
Sony PlayStation 4 Pro review: Is it worth the extra money?
- 4K resolution and higher frame-rates for some games
The answers to whether the Pro is worth it really depends on what you want from your gaming and what home entertainment kit you have (or plan to buy).
In more simple terms, if you don't have a TV capable of serving 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR) content and have no imminent plans to update, you don't really need the PS4 Pro.
If, however, you are 4K and HDR-ready then this is the games console you've been waiting for.
Sony PS4 Pro review: Design
- 305 x 275 x 53mm body
- 1TB hard drive (user upgradable)
- Optical Blu-ray drive (not UHD Blu-ray)
Although the PS4 Pro follows a similar design aesthetic to its smaller, slimmer brother, it is far from it in looks. Presumably to house the extra tech or, more accurately, the airflow required to dissipate the heat they'll generate, the Pro is massive. It's considerably bigger than the original launch PlayStation 4.
PlayStation players used to poke fun at their original Xbox One owning peers, citing that it looked like a Betamax player from the 80s. Now Microsoft fans can get their own back. The Pro looks like it's not just been beaten by the ugly stick, it's been shot in the face by the ugly shotgun and run over by the ugly steamroller.
The sandwich-style, three deck casing does nothing to hide its girth and the only blessing is that it can lurk in a TV cabinet, mostly hidden thanks to the matte black finish.
We do like the light strip around the front, to show what mode the console is in – that was omitted on the PS4 Slim (and on the top of the original model) – and the latest DualShock 4 comes bundled, the one with the additional light bar on the touchpad.
But it's what's inside that really counts. The Pro's appeal is in its components – and even in the early days of its life, the internal tech makes a massive difference for what you can get out of it.
Sony Playstation Pro review: Specifications
- AMD Jaguar x86-64 octa-core CPU at 2.1GHz
- 4.2 teraflops of GPU power
- 8GB DDR5 RAM (218GB/s), plus 1GB DDR3 RAM for system apps
In spec terms, the Pro isn't as powerful as the forthcoming Project Scorpio, but it trounces anything else on the market already.
The Pro's CPU is similar to that in the standard PS4, but has been clocked at 2.1GHz (over the PS4's 1.6GHz) so is around a third faster. The RAM is also faster - there is 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, as before, but it had a bandwidth of 218GB/s. There's also an additional 1GB RAM for system applications to not interfere. That allows develops to use more oomph during processes.
Finally, and most significantly, the graphics processing has been seriously upgraded. The new AMD Radeon GPU has 4.20 teraflops to play with – considerably more than double the power of the graphics chipset in the standard PS4.
That's what drives the PS4 Pro's headline features and its main raison d'être. This is a console entirely designed for higher fidelity graphics and better image representation full stop. It plays the exact same games as any other PlayStation 4, with exactly the same user interface and control system, but it runs them better.
That's because it is capable of presenting a game's graphics in 4K – not always native 4K, as we'll explain in a bit, but up to the required 2160p to make the most of your shiny new 4K TV.
More importantly, perhaps, is that it does so with high dynamic range (HDR) picture tech and the combination of higher resolutions, brightness and a much wider colour gamut makes for some stunning visuals. There are several games (at the time writing) that have been patched to offer enhanced graphics for PS4 Pro and the difference in quality is palpable.
Sony PS4 Pro review: 4K HDR games
First-party games, such as Infamous Second First Light and Ratchet and Clank, have already been upgraded to make use of both 4K and HDR, as has Warner's Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Many other homegrown and third-party titles will also have updates before you can get your hands on a Pro, but these were the ones we played most for testing purposes.
We also played Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare in 4K HDR at a dedicated PS4 Pro event in London, so have a good general idea of the improvements on offer.
Different developers will utilise the extended technical abilities in different ways. You'll even get different options in the same games. For example, you can play Infamous in 4K at 30 frames per second or opt to stick to the original 1080p at a higher frame rate of 60fps. The latter is smoother, but the former is crisper and has more detail. The HDR element is constant regardless and it is that which impresses more, we feel.
Infamous First Light and the main game it is an off-shoot of, Second Son, are showpieces for HDR picture tech. They use light and neon effects beautifully and if you have a TV capable of displaying both the wider colourfield and higher brightness, it explodes with colour and tingles the back of your eyes. Indeed, at its maximum brightness – on a TV capable of 1,000nits of brightness, say, as is required for LCD sets to achieve the Ultra HD Premium certification – you might even find it a little uncomfortable at times. It shouldn't dissuade you, though, as it looks spectacular.
It's worth noting that current PlayStation 4 and PS4 Slim hardware (i.e. not the Pro) are now also capable of HDR presentation. But these earlier consoles can't throw the extra detail into the mix, nor the extra frame rate. That's where the PS4 Pro comes into its own.
Sony PS4 Pro review: Checkerboard 4K explained
Of course, considering the GPU isn't as powerful as a 4K PC graphics card (which will set you back much more than the entire Pro) developers will invariably cut a few corners when rendering at ultra high-def resolutions. Many games will use checkerboard 4K rendering which is better than upscaling, but not quite native.
A full Ultra HD resolution (3840 x 2160) contains almost 8.3-million pixels, almost four times as much as the 2.07-million displayed by a 1080p TV. To render every single pixel independently, the amount of data flowing through the processors would be enormous. Instead, developers can cleverly utilise checkboard 4K rendering, which takes a small 2x2 block of pixels and extrapolates it to a 4x4 equivalent, thereby upscaling the image but adding extra detail in the process.
There will be some native 4K games, such as The Last of Us Remastered, but we await to hear how many more are coming.
We're also convinced that as developers have more time with the Pro, the enhancements to their games will become more pronounced. Whether that means there will be PS4 Pro-only titles, we're not sure. Sony swears blind there won't be, but who knows in future?
All we know for now is that plenty of publishers and studios are keen to exploit the machine, and that's great news for those looking for an ideal companion for their 4K HDR telly.
Sony PS4 Pro review: Does PS VR benefit?
PlayStation VR is another beneficiary to the extra processing power on offer. Rather than add HDR or 4K resolutions, neither of which are displayable on the headset, virtual reality developers can up the frame rates of the games, improve in-game draw distances or details, or generally enhance textures.
We played Farpoint on a PS4 Pro, for example, and it looks better than the standard version we experience at E3 earlier this year.
Sony PlayStation Pro review: What's missing?
Less positive is how the PS4 Pro works as a media player. At launch we were promised 4K HDR Netflix and YouTube and, at time of writing, we're waiting for those apps to be updated in order to give you our impressions on what they offer (ok, so Netflix is 4K capable, there's just no HDR quite yet). We've used both services on other devices and our TV itself (an LG OLED 65E6V) so know they can be fantastic, but we'll wait until they are playable on the Pro before casting judgement.
What we're disappointed in is that for all its 4K gaming and potential video streaming talents, the PS4 Pro is not capable of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray playback. Not only is this baffling considering Sony is a main driver of 4K video content and a big proponent of the new disc format, it hands a considerable advantage to the console's current major rival, the Xbox One S.
Those looking for a great all-round 4K machine will probably plump for one of those instead. It might not be capable of 4K gaming, but it does have HDR and, more importantly, the UHD Blu-ray spinner. If you only want one box under your set, that's a compelling argument.
As we're handing out negatives, we're also dismayed that Sony settled on a 1TB hard drive for its Pro console edition. Considering games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare are weighing in at over 60GB these days, without the update for 4K, you'll soon fill your drive. You could only store around 16 CoDs on it, for example.
Indeed, we upgraded our drive for a 2TB 2.5-inch Samsung equivalent – currently around £90 on Amazon. Thankfully, the process to swap drives is quick and simple, the longest part is downloading and reinstalling the system software. But surely for a true pro gamer machine you'd want the very best already in place?
We've been told that the drive and standard Blu-ray deck were chosen to keep cost down, and we are definitely impressed by the £349 price tag, but we'd have been happy to pay the extra £50 or so for the total upgrade. Perhaps that's somewhere down the line. Another mid-generation upgrade maybe? If it's good enough for mobile phones, after all…
Caveats aside, there is absolutely no doubt that the PlayStation 4 Pro is the best games console we've ever seen. Its graphical nous is unparalleled in the home machine market – only PC gamers can boast better – and developers are seemingly more than happy to support it.
We also have no problem whatsoever with mid-generation upgrades. After all, this console costs less than a premium smartphone, and consumers seem more than happy to swap those once every two to three years.
We wouldn't imagine anyone without a capable 4K HDR TV will want to upgrade - you get very little extra benefit on a standard 1080p telly - but if you're really dedicated to your gaming, it might be worth updating your set anyway. And if you do, the PS4 Pro is the console to match it with.
Just keep an extra space in your AV cabinet for a 4K Blu-ray player or, dare we say it, an Xbox One S too.
From £349, Amazon
Sony PS4 Pro: Alternatives to consider
More power than you need? Want a UHD Blu-ray drive instead? Perhaps Microsoft's approach is even more tempting. Here are the PS4 Pro alternatives (ignoring a custom-built PC rig anyway).
- From £279, Amazon
If you don't have a 4K TV then the Pro's extra abilities might be lost on you. The PS4 Slim will play all the same games but it's a smaller and cheaper access point to Sony's setup.
- From £230, Amazon
Microsoft is proving to be a thorn in Sony's side. Not only is the One S console better looking than the original - and it's tidier than the PS4 Slim - it also offers a UHD Blu-ray optical drive, which no PlayStation offers. However, the One S isn't as powerful as the PS4 Pro, but its price point reflects that. Indeed, with an increasing catalogue of tempting exclusive titles, such as Forza Horizon 3, it's worth bagging an Xbox One to complement the PlayStation.