PS4 Pro review: should you buy Sony’s 4K super-console?

By Alex Donaldson, Thursday, 10 November 2016 08:30 GMT

Another new PlayStation console arrives today, but is it an essential upgrade?

ps4_pro_2

“Given how the PS4 Pro will output differently and work in different ways depending on your display of choice, it’s certainly going to be a more worthwhile upgrade for some over others.”

Well, here we are – 4K gaming (well – kind of). Extra power. The year has flown by so quickly that September’s PlayStation Meeting reveal of the PlayStation 4 Pro feels like it was yesterday, but the launch is now here.

We’ve been playing with a final machine in a variety of settings – 1080p, 4K, VR, you name it – and now we’re ready to at least try to answer the burning question of the moment: is the PS4 Pro worth the $399/£349 cost of entry? Even that question has additional wrinkles to it, given how the PS4 Pro will output differently and work in different ways depending on your display of choice, but it’s certainly going to be a more worthwhile upgrade for some over others. Some are going to want it right away, while others are going to want to wait for a deal – if not on the upcoming Black Friday, then later.

So, buckle up, it’s going to be a little bit complicated… but let’s try to clear everything up. Do you need this upgrade?

How much does the PS4 Pro cost?

Before we get into performance and design and all that juicy stuff, let’s clear up what’ll likely be a major decision point for any potential PS4 Pro owner – the price. The PS4 Pro ships in one basic format unlike the previous PS4 releases that all shipped with varying hard drive sizes and the like.

It’ll set you back $399 / £349. That makes it a full $100 / £90 more expensive than the entry-level PS4 Slim model. You can also buy the new style of DualShock 4 controller that’s included with the PS4 Pro separately if want. That costs $61.99 / £54.99.

On the console side the extra cash over the Slim price will not only get you the increased power the PS4 Pro offers as its main selling point but also includes a 1TB hard drive – that’s double that in the standard-issue PS4 Slim.

If you don’t have a crushing desire to have a PS4 Pro off the bat because you already own a 4K TV or because you’re obsessive about performance, the PS4 Pro is a pretty expensive proposition. Just how good is the upgrade? Let’s go deeper.

ps4_pro_3

PS4 Pro at 1080p – how much of a difference does it make?

I want to start here, and my reasoning is pretty simple: while Sony’s goal with the PS4 Pro is to push 4K as a new standard (at the launch event they even had a man from Sony’s TV-selling division come and tell us about how amazing their range of 4K TVs is), many of you out there don’t yet have 4K screens. They’re expensive, and in some senses are more untested, with formats for things like HDR still being worked out behind-the-scenes.

So: what about if you just own a regular 1080p TV? What is the Pro going to do for you?

Based on our week of testing the first part of this answer is likely already pretty clear: your mileage is going to vary based on the game and what each developer chooses to do with the system’s power.

Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider remains one of the best examples of what can be done if a developer takes some extra time out to really focus on PS4 Pro. We had a great chat with developer Crystal Dynamics about this back at the PS4 Pro reveal event, but here’s the headline: boot the game on PS4 Pro and the options menu will get an additional setting for PS4 Pro enhancements.

There’s three settings here – High Framerate, Enriched Visuals and 4K Resolution. The first two options are both designed to be used at 1080p. The first provides a higher framerate, as its name makes obvious. Though this isn’t going to get the game to 60fps, it’s still a significant jump over the core game. The Enhanced Visuals mode significantly peps up the visuals of the game in the name of beauty and realism, but does so locked to 30fps. The final option is, of course, for those with 4K TVs who want the highest possible resolution, but this can also be downscaled to 1080p and has its own benefits on those sets.

“If we assume all games going forward will have similar benefits to games like Titanfall and Tomb Raider, the Pro seems a solid investment right now.”

In Tomb Raider on a 1080p TV the difference in both modes to the vanilla release is fairly pronounced. The frame rate adjustment is obvious, with the game at its best gaining what looks to be nearly 20 frames and often enough gaining 10 at the least. For a game like Tomb Raider that’s just fine at 30fps I actually found the enhanced visuals mode even more paletable, with the game drawing in some decent additional detail, especially on things in the far distance.

Another game that’s managed to make great use of the PS4 Pro is Titanfall 2. If you’re playing at 1080p the game can use the extra power of the machine to render it at 4K and then downsample the image to display that original 4K image at 1080p. Because a 4K resolution image inherently contains more detail, the difference is fairly striking. NeoGAF user kubinsky put up some early screenshots (naughty!) over the weekend that do a fantastic job of illustrating what a difference it can make, even to a game that has a solid FPS performance even on the regular PS4.

The key here is that when games are built to support it thus far the benefits of having a PS4 Pro even on a full HD display seem to be pretty obvious. The downside is that games without a patch will see no such improvements, really: I’m still at it on Street Fighter V, and I’ve recently been playing World of Final Fantasy. Both of those are without difference. We’ll talk more about individual games in more PS4 Pro coverage soon.

The real star of the show for PS4 Pro is 4K and HDR, features that are exclusive to 4K sets. With that said, I’d be quite happy to run my PS4 Pro on a 1080p screen based on my limited experience of doing so over the last couple of days. If we assume all games going forward will have similar benefits to games like Titanfall and Tomb Raider, the Pro seems a solid investment right now – even more solid if you have a TV upgrade on your radar any time soon. As with the PS4 slim, however, it’s expensive for an incremental upgrade.

horizon_zero_dawn_ps4_pro_4k_hdr_5

PS4 Pro at 4K – where the system shines?

While an awful lot of people are likely going to buy the PS4 Pro in the hopes that it’ll offer some significant boosts and improvements to games running on their 1080p Full HD displays, the real intention of the PS4 Pro for Sony is to drive 4K as the next big screen technology and encourage further adoption. As such, this is where the machine really comes into its own.

I start my home-based PS4 Pro 4K experimentation with an old game. The Last of Us Remastered is familiar ground and was a bloody good looking game on PS3 and PS4 both, and while its last-generation lineage is still visible it’s a good looking thing indeed on the Pro. As reported back at the PlayStation Meeting, The Last of Us Remastered can run at native 4K on PS4 – but only if you sacrifice frame rate for a locked 30fps.

As with Tomb Raider, I’m glad we get the choice – this is one aspect of PC gaming that I’d be happy to see transplanted to console. If it’s Street Fighter or Call of Duty I’m always going to choose frame rate, but for a cinematic experience like The Last of Us I think the loss of smoothness to be at 30 is worth it for the increased fidelity 4K offers. Few games will run natively at 4K, but The Last of Us Remastered shows what a difference such a bump can make to even older games.

True of The Last of Us and especially true of Uncharted 4 is something I stated after seeing Gran Turismo Sport demoed at the PS4 Pro launch event – HDR really is the ultimate difference-maker. HDR is more of a reason to upgrade TV than 4K currently, because while the upgrades offered by the PS4 Pro in games like Titanfall, Tomb Raider, The Last of Us and Uncharted are all pretty decent in the resolution and performance stakes, HDR is really the icing on top of those performance boosts that truly ends up making the quality of the image all the more impressive.

While I’m not exactly its biggest fan, I have to note that I felt that one of the better games at 4K was FIFA. There’s something about the increased resolution on offer that seems to do wonders for sports games, probably thanks in part to their zoomed-out cameras and TV-like perspectives on the action. From a distance, something of FIFA on PS4 Pro can look like a real game, until you notice the mad AI or get a close-up of a player.

Thus far I’ve generally found that the games that benefit most when running on a 4K TV with all the PS4 Pro’s bells and whistles are those that have a particularly strong sense of style. Ratchet & Clank looks absolutely ludicrous, the combination of its crisp visual style and the bright colour range allowed by HDR giving this game a look that feels surprisingly close to CG kids’ films. I never thought I’d have a reason to put Knack into my machine again, but it too looks rather striking on Pro for very much the same reasons. Rez and 4K and with HDR is mind-boggling, as you’d expect… though not as mind-boggling as in VR.

All these forward-compatible PS4 Pro patched games are nice and all, though there’s one aspect of the machine’s performance that I can’t fully judge yet, and that’s the games that are actually made for it from the ground up. Horizon: Zero Dawn looks amazing, Gran Turismo seems like it’ll also be a technical showcase and Mass Effect’s neon-lit sci-fi world feels a perfect fit for the combination of high resolution and HDR but judging these things at carefully-controlled events on TVs that cost multiple thousands of pounds is, of course, not ideal.

There’s an elephant in the room in the form of VR – we’ll report back on that.

Massive but sturdy – PS4 Pro’s Design

Look. The PS4 Pro is absolutely massive. It weighs 3.3kg. That’s more than a kilogram heavier than the PS4.

It’s 3cm wider than the PS4, around 1.5cm taller, and around another 3cm deeper. The latter was actually a problem for me as it barely fits in my entertainment cabinet in my office, though after some re-jigging I managed to get it in. It’s a big old machine, but it’s well-built and sturdy and avoids the woes of having a power brick. A single kettle cable whacks into the back of the machine and you’re done.

Its size is a little problematic, and I’d of course love if it were a little closer to the original PS4’s size, but the important thing is that the pro is well-built. It feels sturdy and strong and performs well. While it still sounds like it’s attempting a vertical take-off any time a disc is actually spun-up, I’ve found the machine to be no louder or hotter than my launch PS4.

I’m still really no great fan of the weird sandwich slice design or the slanted edges of the PS4, though I understand that somebody at Sony must be a fan of that design and they want to keep one PS4 visual style throughout the entire console family. It works. I do think with the glossy hard drive bay gone this is a better looking PS4. In terms of the whole generation, I’d still put its sense of style behind the Xbox One S, but this is a close second, above all other console revisions this generation.

DUALSHOCK4_2_07_1473280900_tif_jpgcopy

PS4 Pro’s new DualShock 4 – The same, but different

This is just a quick note and hardly the most exciting thing in the world, but as with the PS4 Slim the PS4 Pro ships with the all-new model of the DualShock 4. Some people appear quite taken with this model thanks to its new and more defined colour-scheme, with the previous basic colours of two shades of black replacing the rubberized parts of the controller and the buttons with a dark grey colour. It looks better, I think.

The controller also features a small strip on the touchpad where the lightbar shines through – this means you can see what colour the lightbar is on the front of the controller without twisting it about to see the bar itself. This seems useful, though I have to admit outside PS VR (where, lest we forget, you can’t see the controller ‘cos you’re trapped inside a face-prison VR headset) there’s not many titles that use the lightbar to good effect. I appreciate the effort, though.

I’m just curious if the sticks will age as poorly on this new model as on previous ones, as I’ve had a bad history with Sony sticks wearing down far too quickly. Only time will tell there.

ps4_pro_side_shot_1

PS4 Pro – The Verdict (so far)

But… so far, so good. I’m impressed with the PS4 Pro from the limited time I’ve spent with it. I wasn’t certain Sony would be able to justify this sort of half-step upgrade, especially with the threat of Xbox’s Project Scorpio being so much more powerful if it lives up to their boasts. But once I actually got the PS4 Pro home and plugged in, I rapidly became more convinced.

I’ve always been an all-systems player, but I’ve been fairly disappointed with this generation of consoles. Sluggish, ugly UIs, underwhelming power… I’d begun to switch my habits towards PC. Last generation I was very happy to play the Mass Effect trilogy on a comfy couch and a controller on 360 even though I could’ve had the same games but better looking on PC. The difference, to me, was negligible enough.

This generation had been such that I’ve been assuming I’d be playing Mass Effect: Andromeda on PC. This has happened with other games: Square sent through Hitman on PS4, but I loved the game enough I picked it up on PC after the fact just for the performance boost. PS4 Pro might actually help to halt that shift for me.

The difference PS4 Pro has offered to a few of the games I’ve played so far has me thinking that’s no longer a foregone conclusion; if the improvement is as much as in Titanfall or Uncharted 4, I’m suddenly feeling a lot more tempted to return to Mass Effect’s universe, for instance, on a comfy couch.

The Pro feels well-constructed and sturdy, something Sony’s team has generally nailed this generation. I like the way it looks and feels, even if I’m still not a fan of the slanted design and even though it’s bloody massive. And yes – the performance is there – at least so far.

Do you already own a PS4? Decide carefully based on what you see above. If you don’t, the pro is a no-brainer: this is the PS4 to buy if you’re already in the market to buy one – you just have to track one down from a retailer. Amazon has them going. If you’re really lucky you might find one as a Black Friday Deal.

There’s much I haven’t had time to test in a matter of days, so let’s call this a review-in-progress. For now, however, consider the PS4 Pro cautiously and hopefully recommended – with any luck, support for the machine will be ongoing and strong.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments