We're still years away from the next generation of game consoles, but both Sony and Microsoft are taking half-step measures to fend off more powerful and increasingly less-insanely-expensive gaming PCs.
For Sony, it's the PlayStation 4 Pro. Announced last week and out this November, the console brings a big power boost to the PS4 platform, upgrading the GPU to allow for games to run at a mix of native and upscaled 4K resolution. It looks awesome, and the US$400 price seems spot on.
As for Microsoft, the recently-released Xbox One S isn't really its contender in this fight. Although it'll upscale games to 4K and run 4K media, Microsoft's bigger bet comes in holiday 2017 with Project Scorpio, an upgraded Xbox One that promises even more power than the PS4 Pro, along with VR support.
For serious console players, that means you have a decision: PlayStation 4 Pro this Christmas, or Project Scorpio the next? Here's our early look at the factors that could sway your big choice.
Power: Scorpio's big promises
Sony's PS4 Pro is official, and we know that it brings a big bump of graphics power over the standard PS4 model. The Pro uses an upgraded AMD Jaguar/Radeon chip that provides 4.2 teraflops of graphics processing capabilities – a massive leap up from the 1.84 teraflop GPU in the original PS4 (both have 8GB RAM).
That will primarily be put to use pumping out higher-resolution gameplay. Some games may run in native 4K resolution, while others will be upscaled, albeit likely from settings higher than 1080p to start with. We saw Sony's impressive "2160p checkerboard" method put to use at its PS4 Pro event last week, and to the average set of eyes, you wouldn't know it's upscaled.
Even if you don't have a 4K TV, you'll still see enhancements in texture detail, effects, character and environmental models, and more. In other words, it will make good-looking PS4 games look potentially downright spectacular.
As for Project Scorpio, all we have for now are specs and raves from handpicked developers, as seen during Microsoft's E3 briefing this year (see above). Microsoft says the Scorpio console will be able to pump out 6 teraflops of graphics power, with native 4K resolution promised. Digital Foundry's analysis of the teaser video suggests the console may have 12GB RAM, a nice 4GB bump over the Xbox One.
However, Digital Foundry's video also says that native 4K resolution across the board is unlikely given the expected hardware, and that the console is likely to rely on some upscaling as well. Still, 6 teraflops is a fair bit more than 4.2 teraflops, and if they're both using AMD chips that developers know how to program for, then we should see even more impressive graphics with Scorpio. Based on promised specs, it takes the nod here.
Likely Winner: Project Scorpio
VR: Real questions
Sony's PlayStation VR headset releases next month, with the PlayStation 4 Pro following a month later in November – and the two are designed to work in perfect harmony. Sure, the standard PS4 will do just fine with pumping out solid VR games, but frame rate stability and graphics quality are make-or-break elements with virtual reality, and the Pro is set to give those elements a useful boost.
We've not yet got loads of information on specific upgrades for many PS VR games but Farpoint, for example, has double the resolution when played via the Pro rather over the standard PS4. The initial game lineup already looks really spectacular, too, bringing a mix of big franchise spinoffs and enticing indie fare later this year.
Meanwhile, there's a big question mark for Microsoft's VR plans. The E3 video had Bethesda's Todd Howard talking about bringing Fallout 4 into VR on Scorpio, but what kind of headset will we be using? Rumours have suggested some kind of Oculus Rift compatibility will come for Project Scorpio, and the Rift is a more powerful headset than PlayStation VR.
Whatever the case, we may see the Rift or some other headset work with Project Scorpio in late 2017. Or if it misses the launch, then maybe in 2018. But the PlayStation VR will be running on PlayStation 4 Pro in just two months, and comes with an exciting cache of early games – plus it'll have at least a year to establish itself with players. So until Microsoft replaces that question mark with an explanation (or better yet, an exclamation mark), Sony has our vote here.
Likely Winner: PlayStation 4 Pro
Media: Scorpio stays Blu?
The PlayStation 4 Pro will stream 4K video from the likes of Netflix and YouTube, just like the Xbox One S. But here's the real surprise: Sony opted not to bundle in a 4K Blu-ray drive on the new console, which means it won't run the top-quality Ultra HD discs.
That's shocking coming from early Blu-ray backer Sony, and it gives Microsoft an unexpected advantage this autumn and going into next year – especially since the Xbox One S is arguably the most affordable and worthwhile 4K Blu-ray player on the market today.
So it creates an interesting opportunity/conundrum for Microsoft: should they put a 4K Blu-ray drive in the Project Scorpio box and remain the company offering that physical media perk, or skip it the next time around and shave some of the cost from the Scorpio box? No doubt, all that extra processing power will already run up the price tag, and Microsoft will have to make a tough call here. Given that it's a possibility, however, Microsoft gets the nod for now.
Likely Winner: Project Scorpio
Games: Pick your pleasure
While many games are multiplatform, it's the exclusive games that really define any console – and if we had to pick between the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, we're saying it's Sony's win.
Games like Uncharted 4, Bloodborne, The Last of Us Remastered, Ratchet & Clank, and Resogun seem more appealing on the whole than, say, Halo 5: Guardians, Killer Instinct, Ori and the Blind Forest, and the annual Forza entry. We like a lot of the Xbox One's exclusives and occasionally love some too, but Sony's seem more consistently awesome.
In a year, we might feel differently. Microsoft is sure to have a new Halo game ready for Project Scorpio, an ever-glossier Forza Motorsport, and maybe even another Tomb Raider exclusive if they can hold onto Lara. And if the console truly is much more powerful than the PlayStation 4 Pro, then it could make a real difference when it comes to multiplatform games… much like the original Xbox had an edge over the PlayStation 2 back when.
We'll see, right? Our gut tells us that Sony has cultivated a more exciting blend of exclusive mega-franchises and enticing indies so far this generation, and that may well continue into next year and beyond.
Likely Winner: PlayStation 4 Pro
Compatibility: All in, apparently
We know now that the PlayStation 4 Pro will play all existing PlayStation 4 games, with an easy process provided to transfer over games and data, and that nearly all of the accessories should work as well. Some games will be boosted to feature improved graphics on the Pro, while others may just be upscaled by the system.
Scorpio will likely do much the same. Microsoft's E3 teaser made multiple promises that the same Xbox One games and accessories will work on Scorpio and that it won't be a full generational shift that leaves current Xbox One owners in the dust. That's great, although we don't know yet about visual upgrades for existing games. Based on what we know right now, it's a draw.
Likely Winner: Draw
Admittedly, we can't be very decisive right now. The PlayStation 4 Pro is real: we've seen it and we've played a little bit of it, but we certainly haven't put it through its paces enough to know its strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, Project Scorpio is nothing more than specs and speculation, along with a bundle of hype.
If the Scorpio specs pan out, it will surely be the more powerful console, although keeping it in the same family as the Xbox One means it probably won't be a significant leap over what the PS4 Pro offers.
At best, it might be able to hit native 4K more often than Sony's console, or provide steadier frame rates. Maybe it will even trump the PlayStation VR with its own VR offering. We just don't know for sure right now. Based on specs, Scorpio surely seems to have more processing power to tap into, but it's a year out still. Also, it could cost a lot more money! (Or not.)
Given that both consoles are designed as extensions of each company's current box, it makes sense to look at what Sony and Microsoft have done so far this generation. Sony's had the more focused gaming console, while Microsoft has tried to be more of an all-in-one entertainment machine. Sony has had more interesting exclusives overall, while Microsoft has struggled a bit to recapture its Xbox 360 glory in that regard.
If you love the PS4 and want more power, then you'll probably love the PlayStation 4 Pro. If you dig the Xbox One and have the same kind of upward ambition, then you'll probably be set with Project Scorpio in a year or so. On the other hand, if you didn't already get a current-gen console or you're thinking of switching teams, then you probably ought to hold tight for a bit and see how this all unfolds.
And if you're totally lost, worry not: we'll help point you towards your next console.