PS4 Pro review in progress - "The Pro has to clear a hurdle: confusion about what it actually does to enhance your games"

Fast facts: 

  • PS4 Pro release date: 10 November 2016.
  • Features: upgraded PS4 with enhanced GPU, including 4K output and HDR.
  • What's in the box: HDMI cable and USB cable, mono headset, AC power cord and the new DualShock controller.
  • HDD size: 1 TB.
  • Price: $399/£349.

[This is a review in progress for the PS4 Pro. We'll update it as more games are patched and released with support, and as we spend more time with the console.]

The PS4 Pro doesn't feel like it's in a great place at the moment. Sony has positioned it as a super-charged version of the PS4: it plays the same games and functions the same way, but with more graphics. It boasts an enhanced GPU, caters to 4K resolution, and enables HDR (High Dynamic Range).

But despite its potential for far prettier visuals, the PS4 Pro has to clear a massive hurdle: consumer confusion about what it actually does to enhance your games. After going hands-on with a Pro and testing out multiple games, I'm convinced that only a certain subset of aficionados will even comprehend what the pricer Pro offers them, and even fewer will be able to justify buying one if they already own a PS4.

One of the biggest selling points is HDR, and if you're not sure exactly what HDR does, don't worry: as a general concept, HDR is incredibly confusing to understand. Our pals at PC Gamer have a comprehensive guide to what HDR means for gaming, but here's the short version: HDR allows for a wider range of colors and contrasts to be displayed, with the end goal of making the image more lifelike.

The benefits of HDR are immediately apparent, but only if you're viewing them in person on a screen that's been correctly calibrated. That's what's so bizarre about HDR: unless you're viewing it on an HDR television, no side-by-side screenshot can clearly illustrate the actual difference in visual fidelity that the technology offers. It'd be like trying to experience VR through a static image - it's just something you have to see for yourself on the hardware that supports it.

If you don't have a TV with HDR support, that's already less incentive to pony up for a PS4 Pro. But the extra computational power does allow for better-looking games in theory, with a slew of games getting patches for improved textures, draw distances, aliasing, better lighting, higher framerates, and increased resolution. And while that all sounds excellent, I'm not sold that these improvements make the selected games look demonstrably better. When booting up inFamous: First Light, the graphics certainly looked beautiful, but they didn't outshine my memories of what the open-world city and fancy particle effects looked like when I played through Fetch's story last year.

That's the problem with trying to pinpoint what exactly looks better thanks to these patches: you're not always sure what you're looking for, and in combing over the visuals with such scrutiny, you might turn up imperfections that you wouldn't otherwise notice. Playing a post-Pro-patch Uncharted 4, I wondered if my perception that the game looked even better was just a placebo effect - which I imagine will be the case for most buyers, unless they decide to set up one TV with a PS4 and another connected to their new PS4 Pro, then play all the supported games side-by-side. You're really going off your memories of these games, and by my estimation, the PS4 Pro improvements don't shatter through those memories with pristine visual power.

It almost feels like what happened when audiences went to see The Hobbit in 48fps - the improved technology had an adverse effect on the overall experience. While trying to decipher what exactly looked better about Uncharted 4, I started noticing what felt like flaws in its undeniably gorgeous visuals. Nathan's hair was still one giant chunk of mane. Blades of grass are still 2D images jutting out of the ground. The framerate didn't feel noticeably different. In Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, I wasn't struck by how different anything looked - but I did become painfully aware of how atrocious the pre-rendered videos looked by comparison to the enhanced in-game renders. 

Another question to ask yourself is: am I really going to replay a game to experience moderately improved visuals? Go ahead and peruse the PS4 Pro confirmed games list and see how you stack up - but personally, I don't see myself going back to games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Helldivers, The Witness, or Knack just to try and suss out exactly what looks better. Of course, if you haven't played these games before, or waited until now to buy a PS4, then you obviously have more incentive to give their PS4 Pro patches a go and experience their worlds in peak form. It also gives me pause that the PS4 Pro enhancements are all on a game-by-game basis, with no standardized expectations for what kind of improvements the Pro enables. What you get is what you get, if you get anything at all. 

As for the console itself, it's not winning any beauty contests. I think the double-decker design looks like a big ol' ice cream sandwich, while my coworkers think it resembles a club sandwich or a Big Mac (clearly we were hungry that day). For anyone who confused the Power and Disc Eject inputs on their PS4, you'll be happy to know that their orientation has shifted from being stacked on top of each other to opposite ends of the disc tray, and now they're actual buttons that click in (though their icons are still incredibly tiny).

Regrettably, there are still a mere two USB ports on the face on the console, but another port has been added to the back of the system (which is handy for keeping your VR set-up connected). The biggest improvement from a usability standpoint is the 1TB hard drive, which doubles the storage space of an out-of-the-box PS4, though you're actually only able to work with 860GB of that increased space due to the OS. For movie buffs, it seems a bit ridiculous that the PS4 Pro, which revolves around championing 4K technology, doesn't support 4K Blu-ray Discs, though it does automatically upscale standard Blu-rays.

So far, the PS4 Pro recalls some of the same pitfalls the Wii U faced. Just as the Wii U's suffix confused mainstream buyers as to whether or not it was a truly new console, the Pro's upgrades will confuse core consumers who don't have a full grasp of how 4K and HDR benefits gaming, let alone own the technology that supports it. And in the same way the Wii U's GamePad functionality went underutilized by everyone but Nintendo, the onus is on developers to harness the power of PS4 Pro with specialized patches. 

Sony will likely incentivize studios to crank out Pro patches, but who knows how many resources will go towards developing enhancements that will only benefit a fraction of the audience. If you've been waiting until now to pick up a PS4, or obsess over graphical power and need to know that you're getting the best of the best, a PS4 Pro could make sense as a way to future-proof your console, as 4K and HDR increasingly become the gold standard. But for now, I personally feel just fine sticking with my regular PS4.

Click over the page for our full breakdown of the PS4's specs, games, features and more. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucas likes his games like he likes his music: eclectic. With all the weird and wonderful stuff he's played over the years, the two of you are bound to feel the same way about something!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In former lives Leon's been a scientist, a musician and teacher, stints that included a shoe full of liquid nitrogen, a small tour of Germany and oh GOD so much marking.

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