It’s certainly not impossible.
The PlayStation 4 Pro is finally upon us. We’ve been, well, opinionated in the past about the relevance of a mid-cycle refresh. Like it or not, the Pro as a gaming console is here to stay (at least it has to make way for yet another incremental update. Or cloud gaming. Or…let’s not get into that.) In any case, what people are talking about right now is the PlayStation 4 Pro’s 4K-Blu-ray support–or lack thereof.
This is particularly relevant in the context of how both Sony and Microsoft have been promoting their new consoles: These are consoles that have been designed with 4K content in mind, running games that broadly fit within the visual profile of current AAA titles, but at higher resolutions than either the PS4 or the Xbox One. Unlike traditional generational updates which often bring with them massive increases in the scale of games and new rendering techniques, the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio are much more focused. 4K consoles for 4K content. Microsoft appears to rolled with this message: both the Xbox One S and the Xbox Scorpio can play back 4K Blu-ray content right out of the box.
Why, then, doesn’t the PlayStation 4 Pro support playback of 4K Blu-ray content? According to Sony, this feature omission was made in light of the increasing move towards 4K streaming. With a lot of people (at least in the demographic that’s in a market for a 4K TV) having access to high-bandwidth internet, and with the wild success of streaming services like Netflix, Sony’s perspective at least, is that the majority of 4K media content will be consumed through streaming. There are significant problems with this assumption.
First off, not all PlayStation markets have access to the kind of bandwidth you’d need for 4K media streaming. High-speed fibre connectivity is increasingly common in the Americas and East Asia. But still, less than 25 percent of the US population has high speed internet access at above 15 Mbps. It’s relevant to note that Netflix recommends a 25 Mbps connection for 4K streaming. The vast majority of people simply do not have access to the kind of connectivity that’s needed for acceptable 4K streaming experiences.
Even if 4K streaming becomes a widespread possibility, compression (literally) softens the impact. From personal observation, a 20 Mbit 4K stream of The Man In The Castle on a 55-inch 4K TV is, quite frankly, subjectively not that much richer than 1080p or even 720p playback. While there are instances–stills or slows pans, in particular–where the difference is discernible, a lot of the time, fine detail (which is the point of higher resolution) is nowhere in sight. A full-fat 4K experience, unhampered by excessive compression, is simply not deliverable down a 20 Mbps connection, even factoring in compression efficiency gains from utilizing HEVC. Netflix knows this. Manufacturers including Sony know this. But 4K’s the hot topic right now and the only way to keep it that way is to deliver 4K content, whether or not it’s horribly compressed. Nothing kills a platform (or a feature tickbox) like a dearth of content.
As a result of all this, while 4K streaming content does provide a reasonable step up over standard Full HD content, it’s just not an ideal way to access 4K content. Much like the PS3, which for a long time was among the cheapest Blu-Ray players on the market, the Xbox One S is a bargain-priced 4K Blu-Ray player for AV aficionados, with a free console thrown in. The world is moving towards streaming, but until the day everyone has unlimited access to a gigabit downlink at all times and everywhere, there will always be a market for offline solutions that offer the best possible image quality. 4K streaming solutions may offer convenience, but the overall experiential quality is nowhere near to the output you’d get from a 4K Blu-Ray.
Sony may have omitted 4K Blu-Ray support by simply underestimating market potential. This could put them in an awkward position where even the Xbox One S–the most redundant piece of hardware this side of the iPhone 7–offers a better value proposition in terms of entry-level AV functionality. But is that it? Is Sony really going to out a new console without 4K Blu-Ray playback even as they heavily promote their own line of 4K TVs? Do they have an option at this point?
A patent filed by Sony sets the context for this: apparently, all Blu-Ray players, version 1.0 and version 2.0, are technically capable of reading off of 4K Blu-Ray discs. However, version 1.0 players are not guaranteed to have the necessary technology or processing power to decode 4K HDR video (which didn’t exactly exist when early Blu-Ray players hit the market). Sony actually filed a patent for an error-correction technique that prevents older generation Blu-Ray players from playing back content from 4K Blu-Rays. Just imagine people playing hideously choppy 4K Blu-ray movies on their PS3. The horror.
But with the PS4 Pro, usability isn’t a concern. While the Pro doesn’t exactly feature the world’s fastest CPU, video decoding is one area where wide, multicore setups really shines. If it’s hardware decoding, this is a piece of cake for a GPU of the PS4 Pro’s caliber. A lack of processing power isn’t what’s stopping the PS4 Pro from supporting 4K Blu-Ray playback: the Xbox One S packs substantially slower hardware and is set to support 4K Blu-Ray playback out of the box. Rather, as we’d mentioned, it’s likely due to Sony’s short-sighted vision (or, of course, their desire to sell 4K Blu-Ray players).
In theory, it’s very much possible for Sony to release a firmware update that rolls back their patented, incompatibility-inducing error-correction on the Playstation 4 Pro. In practice, we’re not quite sure how this would play out. If Xbox One S sales pick up on account of its being a great, cheap 4K Blu-Ray player (something Microsoft’s not been afraid of parroting), we wouldn’t be surprised to see Sony add the 4K Blu-Ray support that by rights the PS4 Pro should’ve had from the very start. There’s quite a bit of irony in this: Back in 2013, Microsoft’s poorly thought-out decision to position the Xbox One as a media platform and not as a dedicated gaming platform had a lot to do with the Xbox One losing out to the PS4 in terms of sales. Now, Sony’s coming under fire for not incorporating a potentially useful AV feature.