Surprised? Not so much.
Consoles are great for what they are: simple, cost-effective entry-points to gaming that are accessible to anyone who can get their hands around a controller, no assembly required. When it comes to the console versus PC debate, perhaps the greatest advantage a console has is just that: It’s not a PC. While it’s certainly arguable as to whether or not PC gaming is an expensive hobby, the platform certainly demands more from a gamer than a console. It’s clearly not a plug and play experience. Consoles, on the other hand, have historically been designed with precisely that in mind: they’re machines that run games.
You connect them to a display and they just work. Consoles don’t have to be good all-round performers. They’re not meant to browse Reddit while watching your favorite movie with a game open in a window. They just have to be good at playing games. High performance PC hardware wasn’t always as cheap as it is today, but because of the consoles’ focused nature, we’ve seen console hardware innovations over the years that have eked out much more game per dollar than a PC ever could. 32 MB Nintendo 64 cartridges held entire games like Goldeneye 007 and Ocarina of Time. Titles Killzone featured incredible visuals on the PS2, a platform that even the humblest smartphone has left far behind. The Wii brought motion controls to your grandma’s living room. And the very fact that the PS3 and Xbox 360 still get a handful of fresh release over a decade after they released bears testament to just how much can be accomplished if your hardware’s tailored to just run games.
Up until the seventh gen, with few exceptions (such as the original Xbox), consoles ran specialized, custom hardware without clear parallels in the PC space. However, custom hardware comes at the cost of greater R&D expenditure. Between spiraling development costs at AAA studios and the very real threat from mobile gaming, the loss-leader marketing approach manufacturers had adopted til then adopted just didn’t make economic sense anymore. It might seem counterintuitive (especially if you paid $600 for a PlayStation 3 at launch), but Microsoft and Sony never made much money off their console sales per se, instead realizing their profits from the cut they got on game sales. With the PS4 and Xbox One, and now the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio, the manufacturers have tried to turn their consoles sales into a revenue center. How do you manage that? You cut corners, of course, the most evident being that the consoles are cobbled together out of midrange, off-the-shelf PC hardware.
Hardware at the mid-end of what’s already on the market isn’t going to give you transformative “next-gen” experiences. This was a concern I’d raised quite a while back. Going by the PS4 Pro’s official specs, this is clearly not a situation that’s expected to change. The refresh is, at the end of the day, midrange PC in a little black box. But what kind of PC performance are we expecting here, though? Let’s have a look at the PS4 Pro’s GPU and CPU, since official specs are available.
GPU: Polaris 10 GPU at 911 MHz—roughly 30 percent slower than the RX 480
The PS4 Pro’s GPU component features Polaris 10, the same GPU at the heart of the RX 480 and RX 470. As with the RX 480, the PS4 Pro’s GPU is a fully-enabled Polaris 10 part, with the full set of 2304 shader cores. At 1266 MHz, the nominal boost clock of the RX 480, Polaris 10 is competitive with the GTX 970, a long-recommended pick for compromise-free 1080p gaming.
However, due to power and thermal constraints, the PS4 Pro’s GPU is clocked at 911 MHz. 30 percent lower performance puts it in line with something along the lines of the R9 380X. While the 380X is no slouch, this kind of performance profile puts limits in terms of what the PS4 Pro can accomplish in terms of visuals. While the PS4 Pro can certainly render games at resolutions higher than 1080p, visuals remain largely unchanged from the PS4 because there’s simply not that much additional GPU headroom available. While 1080p/60 FPS experiences are certainly possible on the PS4 Pro, it’s simply not capable enough to push the graphics bar much beyond where the PS4 is already at.
CPU: 8 Jaguar cores at 2.1 GHz—roughly on par with the FX 4300
The real rub is the CPU “upgrade.” While The PS4 Pro’s CPU is clocked roughly 30 percent higher than the PS4’s, the cores are still based on the low-IPC Jaguar architecture that suited to low-profile devices like netbooks and tablets than in a serious gaming system. With moderate visual settings, a GPU in the range of the R9 380 can easily approach 1080/60 in many games. The real reason why developers appear to be focusing on “4K” 30 FPS experiences with the PS4 Pro is that CPU bottlenecking prevents it from hitting 60 FPS in most titles. While it is an eight-core part, lower IPC and low clockspeeds put the 2.1 GHz Jaguar-based CPU in the PS4 Pro roughly on par with the quad-core Piledriver-based FX-4300, at 3.8 GHz.
To put this into perspective, the FX 4300 is a tad slower than the i3 3220 in Cinebench. With Cinebench, we’re looking at a best-case scenario with excellent scaling across cores. Most games continue to favor strong single-threaded performance, so real-life gaming performance with the FX-4300 is worse than the 3220. Even then, the 3220 itself is an entry-level Intel dual-core part from 2012. A substantially more powerful processor, along the lines of the i5 4440, is needed to reliably hit 60 FPS in AAA games when paired with the right GPU.
While the PS4 Pro’s CPU clock speed bump could well smoothen out some of the more appalling framerate dips on PS4 (like the infamous Corvega Assembly Plant location in Fallout 4), it’s not going to allow for meaningful 60 FPS experiences. Moreover, the weak CPU limits the scope for CPU-intensive technical features in future games, like advanced AI—the cardboard-thin veneer of interaction we see, even in titles like The Witcher 3, isn’t going to fundamentally change.
At the end of the day, while the PS4 Pro is a meaningful upgrade over the PS4, we don’t expect it to perform much different from a midrange PC. We’ll be doing a PS4 Pro-comparable PC build feature later next week. Stay tuned to see how it performs!