The PlayStation Pro is here to take 4K gaming mainstream
It seems utterly crazy that Sony would launch a brand new console just three years after the launch of the PlayStation 4, but that’s exactly what's happening.
This is not the the PlayStation 5, though - this is the PlayStation 4 Pro, a mid-generation update and upgrade to the PlayStation experience we already know.
Before disappointment sets in, let us reassure you: the PlayStation 4 Pro is a beast of a console that brings 4K gaming (or near-4K - more on that below) into the mainstream. We've seen it in action, and here's what we think so far.
PS4 Pro design: birth of the triple-decker
the pedestal for vertical placement lifts the Pro off the shelf to make it look as though it's floating
That the Pro is part of the PlayStation family is unmistakable thanks to the stacked design. But this stack has three tiers - it's like a Big Mac next to the Quarter Pounder-like standard PS4. Perhaps that makes the new PS4 Slim a standard cheeseburger.
It's actually marginally wider and deeper than the original PS4 (and a tiny bit thinner), but it somehow looks more compact in the flesh. Perhaps that's something to do with the three tiers. One thing that just looks a little wrong to me is the placement of the light strip between the middle and bottom layers. For some reason that just looks peculiar in a way that I can't quite put my finger on.
Connections are almost identical to those of the standard PS4 - the only difference is that it has a USB 3.0 socket on the rear as well as the two on the front. The rest of the back panel therefore consists of an HDMI output, PlayStation Camera connection (there's a new, cylindrical version of the Camera now available), ethernet socket and an optical digital out (something that the PS4 Slim does without).
Oh, and the power socket appears to have changed from one of those little figure-of-eight ones to a kettle lead connection. Why? Who knows, but it shouldn't make any practical difference to anything.
Once again, the PS4 Pro is designed to to lie down or stand up, and the pedestal for vertical placement looks much smarter than that of the old PS4, lifting the Pro off the shelf to make it look from some angles as though it's floating.
And if you do stand it up you'll be able to get a closer look at the PlayStation symbols on the bottom that act as feet when the device is lying flat. They're a super-cute touch in our book.
PS4 Pro power: the 4K console revolution
The PS4 Pro's hardware upgrades at a glance
The leaks were spot-on on the spec front and the PS4 Pro is significantly more powerful than the original PS4 and new PS4 Slim. We're talking about a new grahics card and boosted processor, and between them they allow the PS4 Pro to output games and up to 4K resolution.
And yes, that does mean native 4K in some cases. The Last of Us, for instance, has a proper 4K at 30fps mode for Pro, and it looks lovely.
That's certainly not going to be the norm, though, and most developers are taking advantage of an innovative form of upscaling that's built into the PS4 Pro. It's being referred to as 2160p checkerboard, and it basically prodcuces a 4K image from half of the pixels. It's worth pointing out half the pixels of 4K is still significantly more than the 1080p resolution we're all used to, and combined with the apparently very clever upscaling method result in incredible image quality for games, more on which below.
Mark Cerny, Sony's console architect, says he's going to go into a lot more detail about how the PS4 Pro's upscaling works in the near future, but I'm already convinced by the demos I've seen.
PS4 Pro performance: the games look incredible
The 4K version of Horizon: Zero Dawn is incredibly sharp and detailed and makes the 1080p version look soft and murky
At the launch event in New York, Sony had a load of demos available aimed at convincing attendees that the PS4 Pro is the real deal. I was one of those attendees, and I am totally convinced.
Most of the games had had switches put in so that the differences between the standard and '4K' resolution could be easily demonstrated, and seeing the two versions of a game running side-by-side was striking on every occasion.
Horizon: Zero Dawn was perhaps the most so. I've seen this game up close and played it in the past and it looks glorious in 1080p. At least it does until you see it in 4K (or, more precisely, 2160p checkerboard). There is just so much more detail in textures - rocks viewed close-up looks up are dappled and far more physical-looking, foliage is sharper and better defined and distant objects stand out far more clearly. Switching back to standard 1080p what once looked lovely now seems far softer and murkier. Be warned: 4K will ruin 1080p gaming for you.
But the PS4 Pro's extra power isn't only for adding greater resolution. In fact, even those plugging one into a 1080p TV will see benefits as developers can use the power to add extra graphical bells and whistles such as more advanced lighting or water effects, improved anti-aliasing (which reduces jaggies) or any number of other improvements.
Excitingly, some developers will even give you the ability to choose where to channel the Pro's extra power. With the PS4 Pro version of Rise of the Tomb Raider, for example, you can switch between a 4K/30fps mode, a 1080p unlocked framerate mode (you generally get 45fps+ apparently), or a 1080p/30fps mode that adds a load of extra graphical touches. And you can do this switching at any time from the pause menu.
I was actually only able to play the 4K mode during the launch event, but I find it hard to imagine I'll be able to resist that version when it comes to playing the game through on the PS4 Pro. Sure, next to a £1000+ gaming PC it lacks that final layer of sheen, but it still looks glorious, with the open scenery sections looking especially sharp and detailed.
PS4 Pro picture quality: don't forget the HDR
Days Gone looks absolutely stunning with HDR engaged
But resolution is just half the story. In fact, for immediate wow factor HDR possibly even trumps it, which means it's great news that every existing PS4 is getting HDR via a software update next week.
Still not exactly sure what HDR is? We've got a complete explainer here, but the short version is that it's a technology that increases contrast so that deeper blacks and brighter whites can be displayed in a single image. That might not sound terrifically exciting, but the results are revelatory.
The bikers vs zombies game, Days Gone, provided probably the best demonstration of the benefits of HDR during the PS4 Pro press event. We started off with main man Deacon standing in a barn that's pretty dark except for the bright sunlight streaming through an open door. Deacon himself is bathed in light, and with standard dynamic range he's seriously over-saturated - just pale and ill-defined.
A click of the HDR switch completely transforms the image. There are cuts and bruises on his face that were invisible before, and you can see the sweat glistening on his brow. HDR isn't exactly adding detail, but it is revealing detail that's hidden from you when playing the non-HDR version.
HDR has a massive impact on colours, too, as it avoids the washing off that's created by a game and console that's stretching beyond its contrast limits. As Deacon leaves the barn and goes outside into the bright light of day the standard dynamic range version gives you a rather pale, flat version of the sky above and the grass below. With the HDR version engaged the sun becomes a clear body in the sky, which is itself a vibrant blue and full of nicely defined clouds that previously blended into one another. The whole scene is significantly more vibrant and realistic, and that makes it all so much more immersive.
Finally in our Days Gone demo we get to see a scene at dusk. Deacon's watching from above as a huge horde of zombies emerge from a nearby building and begin feeding on pile of body bags below. Mmm, tasty. Deacon begins throwing molotov cocktails, and as each one lands the HDR mode makes the burst of fire pop from the screen in incredibly dramatic fashion. The whole experience is that bit flatter and murkier with HDR switched off.
Perhaps one of the most exciting surprises of the whole event was Mass Effect: Andromeda gameplay being revealed for the first time. There wasn't a huge amount to be learned about the game itself, but the short scene proved a great demonstration of what HDR can do for darker scenes.
In this demo we see the male character (named as Ryder and now revealed to be the brother of the female character shown at E3) entering what's called a Vault. Apparently exploration will form a much bigger part of Andromeda, and HDR feeds into that, particularly in dark environments such as this where you can actually see all of the detail as you navigate the alien tunnels.
It also makes the moments of light stand out dramatically from the rest of a scene, and as Ryder enters a large room at the end of the demo we see a beam of green light so bright it almost makes you wince. It's simply glorious, and you won't believe how much HDR can add to the drama of your gaming experiences.
Uncharted 4 benefits massively from the addition of HDR - there's so much more perceived detail and extra pop
And it's not just brand new games that are getting the HDR treatment - I saw Uncharted 4 running in both standard and high dynamic range, and that benefits enormoulsy, too.
Again, it's the increase in perceived detail that's most impressive. I was looking at one of the island scenes and the sand under Drake's feet is so much more textured, detailed and well defined with HDR switched on. Similarly the rocks and foliage in the background. And where the overall image looks rather flat when viewed in standard mode, every elements pops with HDR switched on.
Because the dark and light elements all stand out more strongly from one another there's an extra degree of solidity and three-dimensionality to practically everything you look at. Be in no doubt, HDR is a game-changer.
PS4 Pro: making PS VR prettier
The PS4 Pro also gives a significant boost to PlayStation VR games
It's not just games that you play on a TV that will be given a boost by the PS4 Pro - titles for the incoming PlayStation VR benefit, too.
There wasn't a huge amount of detail on offer, but I did get to chat to the guys behind Farpoint, easily one of the most exciting VR games in development at the moment, and they explained that the extra power of the PS4 Pro is being pumped directly into the resolution. In fact, they're doubling it.
Framerate remins the same at 60fps and there are no new specific special effects, but the whole image is made significantly sharper and more crisp, and that adds an extra layer of realism to an experience that was already hugely immersive.
PS4 Pro 4K video: no 4K Blu-ray player
You can watch 4K video from Netflix and YouTube, but not from 4K Blu-rays
These days we all do much more with our games consoles than simply play games, and the good news is that the PS4 Pro will be able to stream 4K video from Netflix and YouTube.
The bad - and surprising - news is that the PS4 Pro will not play 4K Blu-rays.
I've pondered that decision in more detail here, but the long and short of it is that's going to be a bigger deal for some people than for others.
Sure, I'd have liked to have it on board, but presuming Sony had settled on a £350 retail price and either 4K Blu-ray or higher resolution gaming had to go to make that happen, I personally think the right decision was made. Whether Sony should have bundled in a 4K Blu-ray player and launched at a higher price point will be debated for a long time to come.
PS4 Pro accessories: a new controller and camera
The new version of the DualShock 4 gets a lightbar on the touchpad
In another, blink-and-you'd-miss-it development, Sony has also taken this opportunity to slightly redesign the DualShock 4 controller. It's not a major reworking by any means, but the light bar - currently on the back of the pad - has been altered so that it is visible from the face of the controller.
Thankfully, Sony hasn't pulled this off by putting in an extra light (and therefore putting more strain on the DS4's battery), but by making the top of the front's touchpad transparent. Look carefully at the picture above and you'll spot the narrow see-through strip running along the top.
It always seemed a bit amusing that the lightbar would be used to deliver instant information (flashing red for low health, for example) considering its position meant you couldn't really see it, and now that's been rectified by the front-facing window.
The only other difference is that the new DualShock 4 can transfer data over USB as well as Bluetooth. That's not going to have a huge impact, but it coud make connecting one to a PC less of a faff as you won't have to go through Bluetooth pairing to make it work.
In the hand the new DualShock feels no different, and that's no bad thing. Sony's existing controller is arguably the best out there right now.
There's a new PlayStation camera, too, which will be thrust into the limelight when the PSVR comes out as it's required for head tracking. The new model is identical to the old one in terms of specs, but is a prettier, cylindrical shape that can be more easily angled to make positioning much easier. It'll cost £54 when it launches on 15 September.
Finally, Sony's also launching a new version of the excellent, hugely popular Platinum Wireless Headset. Apparently this model gets much better virtual surround sound and more premium build. It certainly looks good in the flesh. That will set you back £129 when it launches "this holiday".
PS4 Pro: Price and release date
This is what you'll get when your PS4 Pro turns up on 10 November
As mentioned above, the PS4 Pro is going to be available for £350 - and I'm pretty darn chuffed with that.
Now clearly it's a good chunk of change, but given the extra processing power and what that does for your games, I'm actually pleasantly surprised that the PS4 Pro isn't going to cost more. That 4K Blu-ray compatibility appears to have been sacrificed in order to hit that price is a shame, but I don't think it's the end of the world.
As for when you can buy one, you can place a pre-order right now for delivery on the launch date - 10 November.
PS4 Pro: the early verdict
The PS4 Pro is a seriously tempting proposition to anyone who takes their gaming seriously
I'm not going to beat around the bush here: to me, the PS4 Pro looks absolutely superb. Sure, you can get HDR on a standard PS4 or PS4 Slim, and that's entirely awesome, but it's when HDR and 4K (or pseudo 4K) are combined on the Pro that you get the real leap in graphical quality.
Those looking for an all-singing, all-dancing 4K machine might rue the lack of a 4K Blu-ray player and might look to the Xbox One S instead, but if gaming is your priority there's no doubting that the PS4 Pro is a head above. Whether you might want to wait for Xbox's Project Scorpio is another matter - if Microsoft is to be believed it's going to be another big step up in gaming performance. On the other hand you'll be left waiting another year and there's no telling at this stage what Scorpio might cost.
Given that the PS4 Pro's price is a good deal less than expected, I'd say that any serious gamer who has or wants a 4K TV should be extremely excited about the PS4 Pro.
Of course this isn't a final verdict - we'll save that for when we can test it more thoroughly - but if you can't wait for that and want to place your pre-order now, I wouldn't blame you at all.