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PS4 Pro review: Sony's answer to 4K HDR gaming and the Xbox One X

Edward Munn
17 Jul 2019
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
349
inc VAT

Want 4K HDR games but without the hefty price tag? The PS4 Pro is for you

Pros 
Improved game performance
4K Checkerboarding and native 4K aren't all that different
No exclusive PS4 Pro games
Cons 
Not worth the £100 extra just yet
No clear parity for how games use extra Pro capabilities
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The PS4 Pro is, for some, a peculiar stopgap in the PS4 lifecycle. Sony's current-generation console launched in 2013, so by now we should be ramping up speculation around the PlayStation 5. Instead, people are content with the extra power the PS4 Pro affords them. Some corners of the internet begin to dig for clues about what's coming next, but most people are either content with their bog-standard PS4, or the 4K capabilities of the PS4 Pro.

Microsoft's Xbox One X is also heading down the 4K path, delivering impressive levels of power for those who seem to be fussed by pixel count over game quality. Sony's tactic for 4K is different though. It's not a next-generation console with absurd innards. It's a refinement of what's come before to boost performance and improve player experiences across the same catalogue of games as the PS4. It even shares a similar slanted design to its non-Pro siblings; in fact, despite its revamped design, it's only a touch larger than the original PS4, measuring 295 x 327 x 55mm (WDH).

So what’s the “Pro” bit all about? That’s derived from its enhanced graphics, which make use of AMD's Polaris architecture to provide superior performance, support for higher, 4K resolutions, more stable frame rates and an improved VR experience for PlayStation VR owners. It's essentially been designed to make your PS4 games look even better in Full HD, and, if you have a 4K TV, do its absolute best to take them beyond that 1080p threshold.

PS4 Pro review: Is the PS4 Pro a true 4K gaming machine?

There's no real simple answer for this – it's both yes, and no. Most games on launch didn't have native 4K support and a lot of the more demanding titles going forward still won't. Instead, these titles make use of a proprietary 4K upscaling technique Sony has developed called "checkerboarding". This process effectively doubles the size of each individual 2 x 2-pixel block to a 4 x 4 one – filling in the missing information via an algorithm. Because of Checkerboarding, the PS4 Pro can run games at a 3,840 x 2,160 resolution while only having to really process the game at a 2K resolution.

Less demanding games, and titles that are superbly optimised like Wipeout: Omega Collection can run at native 4K. Some can even manage 4K 60fps, making the PS4 Pro a proper 4K-capable console.

The trouble with this approach is that it's not inherently clear which games will support native 4K over checkerboard 4K. The difference is almost imperceivable at a comfortable distance – with the non-4K image appearing ever so slightly softer than a true 4K one – but if you're picking up a PS4 Pro to indulge in your favourite game running at 4K, it'd certainly be nice to know. Thankfully Sony does have a list of supported titles on its website.

The biggest benefit of the PS4 Pro's release is the arrival of HDR (high dynamic range) support. This feature is also coming to both the original PS4 and its redesigned PS4 Slim counterpart, but when combined with a 4K picture, HDR on PS4 Pro is truly a thing of beauty. It delivers richer colours and improved contrast and, while it only supports HDR10 specification instead of Dolby Vision, it still sings. You'll need to make sure your TV can really make the most of it though; currently, Sony has no plans to adopt Dolby Vision support, so Vision-capable LG TVs won't be able to show the PS4 Pro off in it best light.

A post-launch firmware update to the PS4 Pro introduced a "boost mode" to its system settings, allowing the Pro to squeeze out that bit more from unoptimised games. This means unpatched PS4 games can utilise the extra power of Pro to improve frame rates and reduce loading times.

PS4 Pro review: Do I need a 4K TV?

From the handful of games we tested with the PS4 Pro during our review, it's clear the console offers a marked improvement in terms of overall clarity and you don’t have to own 4K TV to see its benefits. Every game we tested also looked and ran better at 1080p.

On a 49in 4K TV, Rise of the Tomb Raider looked absolutely fantastic. Not only did it look much sharper than a standard PS4, but the level of detail in Lara's clothes and her surrounding environments was superb. Ratchet and Clank impressed, too, with Ratchet's finely detailed fur one of its highlights. However, Ratchet and Clank was already a fairly handsome game to begin with, so it's more difficult to say just how much better it is on the PS4 Pro compared to a regular PS4.

And herein lies part of the problem. While some games such as Ratchet and Clank simply “support” the PS4 Pro and adjust to the new output settings automatically, others, such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, have a multitude of different options available. While a little confusing at first, I found the games that provided different graphics options actually gave me a clearer idea of how I was using the console compared to the titles that adapted automatically.

Zip over to Rise of the Tomb Raider's options menu, and you'll be presented with three different “Enhanced Fidelity” options: High Framerate, Enriched Visuals and 4K Resolution. The first option, as its name implies, prioritises frame rate over visuals, kicking things up to nearer 60fps rather than capping the game at 30fps. Enriched Visuals keeps the 30fps cap in place but enhances the graphics for a “lusher, more realistic experience” according to Crystal Dynamics. 4K Resolution, meanwhile, is the only mode that will display the game at 3,840 x 2,160 at 30fps on compatible 4K TVs.

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Having tried out these modes on our KS7000 TV, the 4K Resolution option was definitely the best. The other modes looked noticeably softer and less detailed up close, and the TV was clearly having to do some of the upscaling legwork. On the whole, though, both still looked excellent in motion and the option to go for a full 60fps at a lower resolution was very much appreciated.

Whether you should buy a 4K TV specifically for the PS4 Pro is debatable. Yes, it looks stunning, but in Rise of the Tomb Raider at least, I wouldn't say the difference between the 4K mode and lower resolution Enhanced Visuals setting was actually that dramatic. From a normal viewing distance, I was hard-pushed to tell the difference between the two modes, and it was only when I sat very close to the TV that the 4K mode started to look obviously sharper.

If anything, the Enriched Visuals was slightly easier on the eyes, as the softer edges did a better job of hiding signs of motion blur and jagged edges. Plus, it was also able to render a lot more environmental detail than the 4K mode, giving it a fuller, more PC-like appearance.

The same applies to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Here, you only get the option to turn HDR on or off, and having played it on both our 4K TV and a standard Full HD TV, the difference in overall visuals was fairly minimal. Where I really felt the difference was the frame rate. Whereas Mankind Divided is quite choppy on a standard PS4, it didn't seem to drop a single frame on the Pro, with intense fight sequences gliding by without a hitch.

As a result, I'm not convinced I need to rush out to buy a 4K TV right now just to take advantage of the PS4 Pro's higher resolutions. You'll still get plenty out of it on a normal Full HD TV for the time being, and given the rather hodge-podge approach to PS4 Pro support at the moment with several games being very unclear about how they're actually using the console's extra horsepower, it's hard to say how much benefit you'll actually see on a 4K TV compared to the Full HD one you already own.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the PS4 Pro will not play 4K Blu-ray discs, putting it at a disadvantage compared with the Microsoft Xbox One S. It can still stream and output video in 4K, though, so you’ll be able to watch higher resolution Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and YouTube content, but those wanting to play proper 4K Blu-ray discs will have to buy a separate player, the cheapest of which right now is, ironically, the Xbox One S.

PS4 Pro review: Is it worth upgrading?

The PS4 Pro is a better version of Sony's current gen console than the standard PS4. The question is, should you buy one? The answer to this question isn’t straightforward. Right now, the answer for most people will be no.

The PS4 Pro brings improvements, but they're fairly minimal in the grand scheme of things. A few visual improvements here and there do not justify a £350 upgrade for PS4 owners, or a £100 premium over the PS4 Slim for new buyers. Sony has long-since confirmed there will be no PS4 Pro exclusive titles, so you don’t need to worry about missing out on any particular games, either. I'm certainly not tempted to pay an extra £350 for the privilege.

On the other hand, for those who already own a 4K TV — and the number of people who do will inevitably increase in the coming years — it’s an easier sell. Games look a touch better right now, and as time wears on developers will begin to develop for the PS4 Pro first, and the PS4 second, rather than the other way around. If you care about the way your games look, then go for it.

The PS4 Pro is a great product, as any small upgrade to a console as successful as the PS4 was inevitably going to be. It’s also, however, disappointing that it isn’t a more significant step forward.

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