Yesterday, I attended the PlayStation Meeting in New York, where Sony announced both the PlayStation 4 Slim and the PlayStation 4 Pro. In the latter case, being there in person allowed me to see what many could not in their Twitch and YouTube streams: if the PlayStation 4 Pro provides a measurable difference in PlayStation 4 gameplay.
My answer is: Yes and no.
Scaling the System
The PlayStation 4 Pro is everything the rumors made it out to be. It's an updated PS4 with a new GPU, improved CPU, and an extra stair step on the design of the PlayStation 4 Slim. The system can upscale the images it produces to 4K and has high dynamic range (HDR) color support. (The latter feature is coming to PS4 via a firmware update.)
The basic use of Pro mode for games seems to be activating the system's built-in upscaling technology and HDR support. The sly dodge of Pro Mode is that most developers have already created in-game assets at a higher resolution than the current PlayStation 4 can display, so they don't have to revisit their games to redo models or textures.
The PS4 Pro can output gameplay for 4K televisions, but players on current 1080p TVs will still see a benefit from supersampling: rendering an image at one resolution and then scaling that image down to a lower resolution. This tends to produce a smoother, cleaner image overall, meaning even those without a 4K will see a tiny boost in image quality.
The PS4 Pro can also detect which type of display it's connected to, meaning developers have the option to tailor the game's output to each display type. While you might see a cleaner image or higher frame rate on a 1080p TV, on a 4K TV the output will likely be focused on the resolution boost.
Implementing "4K" Gaming
Sony has not forced developers to use the additional processing and graphical power for any one feature. The benefit of this is that developers can used the PS4 Pro's power to do whatever they want. The problem is that developers aren't held to any standard.
Uncharted 4 and Infamous: First Light were primarily focused on showing off the power of HDR, both offering a toggle in demo so we could see the difference between the original presentation and the Pro mode versions. First Light was the better example, with the Neon colors and lighting showing deeper contrast while in Pro mode. Uncharted 4 looked much brighter and sharper, but I found myself somewhat skeptical as the non-Pro image looked far duller than I remembered the game itself being at home. Either way, HDR provides a much stronger contrast, showing details that simply aren't present in the non-Pro mode.
Mass Effect: Andromeda used the power of the PS4 Pro on image quality, providing a sharper image, while holding onto a 30 FPS lock. Shadow of Mordor and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare all looked largely like the same games running on PC, afforded the cleaner IQ that many PC owners are used to.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was also running in the standard 4K resolution with HDR support at the showcase, but more impressive was Crystal Dynamics' details of other selectable graphics options. Rise players on PlayStation 4 Pro can choose between the 4K HDR @ 30 FPS standard mode, a 1080p30 mode with maxed visual settings, or a 1080p mode with an unlocked framerate. Rise on PS4 Pro leans closer to the kind of options that players expect on PC, even if they lack the fine-tuning options.
Horizon: Zero Dawn and Days Gone were the clear winners at the PlayStation Meeting showcase. Both games are absolutely stunning in Pro mode and the developers were able to toggle 4K and HDR to show off the image quality improvements. The difference between non-Pro and Pro mode visuals was readily clear. In Horizon, Aloy's bright red hair and armor shone against the soft greens of the swaying foliage. The clouds in the skybox had real shading to them, with the sun peaking out from behind them in HDR mode. In Days Gone, the level of detail and the enhanced contrast means being able to see every writhing zombie as they sprint in your direction.
Marketing the Pro Experience
Horizon: Zero Dawn and Days Gone offer what's the clearest selling point for the PlayStation 4 Pro: "Here's how PlayStation-exclusive games would play on PC, if they weren't exclusive to PS4." That's a compelling sales point compared to showing off a multi-platform game like Call of Duty, but it leans heavily on Sony being able to consistently produce these great exclusives. The PS4 Pro is aimed at enthusiasts who care about image quality and frame rate, but those enthusiasts likely have a PC already. The market for console-only players who care about these visual bells and whistles seems small.
There's other issues that stand in the way of marketing the PlayStation 4 Pro easily. On a 1080p television, a Pro mode game will look better, but not worlds better, like the jump between SD and HD. A better use of power at the 1080p level would be to push for 60 FPS, but many of the games at the showcase seemed uninterested in that idea.
On a 4K television, the visual jump looks much larger, but the ownership of 4K televisions is much lower than their 1080p counterparts. According to a report by Strategy Analytics, one in eight North American homes - around 11 million homes - will have a 4K TV by the end of 2016. That number is rising quickly because 4K televisions are relatively cheap these days, but you have to keep in mind that you need a 4K TV with HDR support and low input lag, which bumps the price up. You can find a 4K TV for around $600-700 right now, but one that supports HDR and has low input lag can push that to around $1,000 easy. And that's only at 50 inches.
So you're talking $400 for the PlayStation 4 Pro and another $1,000 for the TV. Sure, you can knock off around $200 if you have an old PS4 to trade in, but that's still $1,200. Getting people to get to spend that much for gaming is an uphill battle, given that comparable PCs can come in at much less.
Worse, showing off the magic of PS4 Pro's presentation is hard. Not everyone's PC can handle a 4K YouTube video. Sony released a trailer to show off the Horizon: Zero Dawn in 4K, but even if your computer can run it, your monitor is unlikely to support HDR. Add in the fact that developers have different implementations of Pro mode and Sony will have trouble with not only a consistent message for PS4 Pro, but showing off evidence of its power to consumers.
Playing The Long Game
I'm not seeing this as a huge problem for Sony though. In fact, if the system doesn't immediately take off, I don't see Sony raising any real alarm bells at all.
The truth is the PlayStation 4 Pro isn't a full-on new console, it's a spec upgrade for the existing PlayStation 4 similar to the New 3DS XL. With an installed userbase of 40 million PlayStation 4 systems worldwide, Sony has a solid base to build from already. Potentially, those sales could accelerate a bit with the PlayStation 4 Slim targeting a $299 price point. And while the PS4 Pro doesn't make sense as a purchase for an existing owner, for new buyers, $399 still looks like a solid value.
The PlayStation 4 Pro is about looking ahead. As a Trojan horse, it allows Sony to push some of its Bravia 4K televisions. A lack of 4K content has been an issue for 4K TV sales and making it easy for developers to support Pro mode means a whole lot more available content in a short period of time. Sony makes 4K content easier to find, high-end consumers and early adopters haver more of a reason to jump in.
More importantly, the PlayStation 4 Pro is about setting expectations. This system begins to normalize the idea of a incremental upgrades on home consoles. Like annual smartphone upgrades, the Pro is just the PS4, but slightly stronger. With the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio, both platform holders are looking to untether consumers from the expectation of one box for 7+ years. Microsoft has already made statements addressing the concept.
"In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so," said Xbox boss Phil Spencer back in March. "We're allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs. It allows us to focus on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform."
It's clear Sony is toying with the idea as well.
The real question is what happens 2-4 years from now? Does Sony offer the PlayStation 5, or another "Pro" upgrade? Sony is walking the fine line of keeping existing PlayStation 4 owners happy, while trying to also market the PlayStation 4 Pro. But if this idea of model spec bumps continues, what happens to this console generation in 2018 or 2020? While the company is forcing developers to support the classic PlayStation 4 for now, I can easily see a future where the fourth generation of PlayStation 4 leads to an end of support for the first generation model.
Right now, the PlayStation 4 Pro is a system you can buy that will make your PlayStation 4 games looking a bit better. It is also the beginning of something different for the PlayStation brand and potentially home consoles in general. So while the PS4 Pro may not set the world on fire this holiday, I think Sony will be fine with it, because having the Pro out on store shelves at all is an important strategic move.