Sony can guide 3rd party developers towards focusing on premium Full HD enhancements on the Pro, as opposed to half-hearted attempts at “4K.”
While we’re not about to start mourning the death of the PS4 Pro just yet, the launch of the Xbox One X does throw many of the PS4 Pro’s technical shortcomings into uncomfortably sharp relief.
The biggest question still unanswered is also the most fundamental: Just who exactly is the Pro for? And this question is harder to answer given the fantastic benefits Xbox One X games bring to the table.
When Sony first announced the PS4 Pro, 4KTV sets had yet to hit 20 percent market penetration While high-end 4K gaming on PC certainly claimed a lot of mindshare, at the end of the day, 4K gaming remains something of a high-end novelty as opposed to a format that everyday gamers have ready access to. Moreover, considering that around 40 percent of PS4 Pro purchases are made by people who already own a PS4, it’s simple to conclude that the majority of Pro owners have their new consoles hooked up to standard, 1080p displays.
While this might not be the case in 3-4 years, the Pro’s targeted “4K” resolution doesn’t really serve much purpose for the most Pro owners. But is that the only issue? Not by a long shot.
The real problem isn’t even that the Pro is positioned as a 4K console in a limited 4K market. The real problem is that it is simply not powerful enough to hand in credible 4K gaming experiences. Going by compute power, the Pro is roughly as fast as the R9 380X. Even AMD’s own (hopelessly optimistic) marketing positions cards in this tier as good options for entry-level 1440p gaming. Considering my real-life experience with that particular card, it’s much better-suited for handing in great 1080p experiences. I’ve also spent time with the RX 480–a card that’s notably faster than the PS4 Pro’s GPU. Even that level of performance is more suited to Full HD gaming experiences. I regularly use my R9 Fury to game at 1080p because, even at that level of performance, it’s hard to get a consistent 4K experience.
To put it bluntly, the PS4 Pro is not cut out for running AAA titles in native 4K. No amount of fancy frame reconstruction or dynamic resolution scaling is going to offset this hard fact. If resolution is the key concern, the PS4 Pro is arguably much better suited to runninng games at 1440p. This is borne out by the many developers who’ve opted to simply run their games at 1440p on the Pro. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t look that good on a 4K screen (I’ve tried).
Considering that the Pro struggles to hand in good 4K results, and that 1440p just doesn’t look that good on 4K sets, whats’ the best possible way to make use of its hardware? The answer is simple and it’d benefit the majority of Pro users, considering they’re connected to standard Full HD sets: run games at 1080p/ 30 FPS and dial the settings up to the equivalent of PC’s high/max. 60 FPS is largely off the table, considering the Pro’s lackluster CPU, but what games like Final Fantasy 15 and The Surge show is that the Pro can hand in visuals that are dangerously close to the maxed-out PC experience if 1080p/30 FPS is targeted. It is ironic that it’s the PS4 Pro and not the original PS4 that’d make a good fit for 1080p, but that’s just how things are.
While the Pro was originallly positioned as a “4K” console, the arrival of the Xbox One X makes it more than a little redundant. When it comes to multiplats at least, the Xbox One X simply offers a superior experience, without exception. The majority of games actually run in the neighbourhood of 4K, without the need for checkerboarding or frame reconstruction techniques in most cases. The Pro just doesn’t look like a plausible 4K platform in comparison, so why not double down on its strengths?
The Xbox One X, arguably, doesn’t have to do much to differentiate itself at lower resolutions because of how well it performs at 4K. And the higher price-point makes it clear that it’s a premium system for higher-res gaming. Compared to the One X, the Pro, frankly, looks like a poorly considered afterthought.
But if it were repositioned as a premium Full HD console, the Pro would arguably offer something that no other console does at present: a real, PC-equivalent experience. 1080p with enhanced visuals and a rock-solid framerate is something people dreamed of, even before the launch of the PS4. With the PS4 Pro, this is finally something within the realm of possibility.
It doesn’t even have to be grand marketing shakeup: 4K has, unfortunately, turned into a checkbox feaure that draws interest by its mere mention. Rather than explicitly repositioning the Pro as a premium Full HD console, Sony can guide third-party studios towards focusing on premium Full HD enhancements on the Pro, as opposed to half-hearted attempts at “4K.” Take The Witcher 3 for instance. As it stands, the console versions scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to visuals, offering up an experience that’s broadly on par with PC’s low and medium presets. Moreover, performance is also more than a little janky, with dips to around 25 FPS not uncommon. The Pro’s “4K” patch offers almost nothing in terms of visual enhancements apart from enhanced AO, all the while utilizing a checkerboard rendering technique that’s rife with artifacts.
If the target had been a premium (graphical settings set to PC maxed settings) Full HD experience, The Witcher 3 on the Pro could’ve offered visuals that stuck closer to the PC’s high-end settings and a rock-solid framerate to boot. For many people (including the majority of current Pro owners), this would’ve offered a more meaningful improvement than the “4K” patch.
With Microsoft making an aggressive 4K push with genuinely capable hardware, we think its time Sony re-evaluated the Pro’s market positioning. It’s really just not a good 4K machine. But, playing to its strengths, the Pro could turn into a premium platform for quality 1080p gaming, something that’d benefit everyone.