Opinion: PS4 Pro is a forward-looking console without the power

(Image Credit: Sony)

Historically, consoles feature lifespans of 7 – 8 years before hardware limitations become an issue. Now, just three years after their debut, we're looking at significant upgrades to both the PlayStation and Xbox as new advancements in technology heralds a new era of immersive entertainment. 

This generation of consoles launched during a transitionary period between 1080p and 4K, and the long-awaited debut of VR. At their launch, and to some extent still, hardware capable of providing enough power to deliver these experiences just wasn't feasible for console gamers (even PC gamers, who are more cutting-edge with their upgradeable rigs, have been slow to adopt so far.) 

It won't be a shock to many gamers to hear the current Xbox One should have been a bit more powerful to hit 1080p more often than its usual 900p output – I'm sure even the most hardcore of Xbox fans would agree this was a strategic failure. The visual difference between 900p and 1080p is minuscule, but whoever can deliver the higher numbers puts themselves in a better marketing position.

Next year will bring a radical change in what games can achieve in scope and fidelity.

The original Xbox One – although behind the PS4 in raw power – was a more forward-looking console but it’s taken almost three years to deliver some features. The console promised cloud processing to deliver improved AI and visual effects, Windows software and integration, Cortana, second-screen functionality, Kinect, and similar innovations which differentiated it from consoles of the past. Sony delivered a console which didn't push boundaries in terms of innovation, but instead focused on providing simple hardware with enough power for this generation. 

Now we're on the cusp of 4K and VR, which is cutting this generation short and providing the Xbox team with a chance to learn from its mistakes. Boldly announcing they're going to deliver the most powerful console in 'Project Scorpio' next year with no gimmicks; it's clear the company is pulling no punches and taking a Sony approach to delivering where it counts and leaving developers to innovate. Sony, on the other hand, appears to be following the mistakes of the Xbox team. 

After months of leaks, we saw the 'PS4 Pro' yesterday. The console, as it sounds, is a beefed-up version of the current PS4. We also saw the 'PS4 Slim' which features an identical spec to Sony's existing console in a slimmer package – which should provide some comfort it won't be entirely defunct just yet. PS4 Pro is where Sony's future is, however, and that's what I'll be focusing on as it's the console you wouldn't expect to be replaced within the next few years (or risk annoying the early adopters.) 

The best place to start is the specs, in particular, how many teraflops the console is capable of. While teraflops don't give the complete picture of overall performance; it's a good indicator. At 4.20 teraflops, the PS4 Pro is a substantial upgrade over the 1.84 teraflops available in the non-pro PS4 models, but it's not enough to maintain 4K resolution in most games (similar to Xbox One's struggle to maintain 1080p.) 

Guerrilla Games' art director, Jan-Bart Van Beek, said their demo of Horizon: Zero Dawn wasn’t actually running at native 4K resolution, but that it was “so close” it’d be hard to tell. When you look at 1080p and 900p games today; it's just as hard to differentiate. Some people would argue the small trade-off of a slightly lower resolution is worth it for a higher or more stable frame rate. 

Where the extra power will be welcome is for VR gaming; where the original PS4 is going to struggle to maintain high fidelity at sufficient frame rates. This is all well and good, but VR is still in its infancy, and it's going to be at least a year before we see a decent roster of games. Over this period, Microsoft will have released Project Scorpio with its 6 teraflops delivering native 4K performance and support for VR through a partnership with Oculus. 

I'll hand credit to Sony, they're kicking off the future of gaming but at the detriment to PlayStation and its customers with a half-way device that's going to disappoint gamers when their new console doesn't take full advantage of their new 4K TV and becomes inevitably compared to Scorpio. HDR will make a difference to gamers with supported TVs, but that's something which is being enabled for original PS4 owners.

Whoever can deliver the higher numbers puts themselves in a better marketing position.

The world isn't ready for what the PS4 Pro aspires to be – 4K hardware is expensive, VR is finding its feet, and content for both is lacking. Sony would have been much better off waiting a bit longer before triggering new hardware and delivering a device which is going to last. 

Xbox, under its new stewardship, is making far more sensible and understandable decisions. Instead of debuting a new 'Pro' console, the company has taken an Apple-like 'S' approach and refreshed the current hardware in the 'Xbox One S' with a smaller body, HDR, and support for 4K video (with a 4K-capable Blu-Ray player, unlike the PS4 Pro) but with the announcement that a more powerful console will arrive next year – to ensure gamers know what's on the horizon before they invest. 

Following the release of Project Scorpio, Sony will have to release a new console to support native 4K gaming. If you're a PlayStation gamer, you're better off waiting, or expect your PS4 Pro to be outdated in just over a year. Some of your games might have some better lighting or extra foliage over your current PS4, but next year will bring a radical change in what games can achieve in scope and fidelity. “I feel pretty good about the decisions we’ve made,” Microsoft’s senior director of product management and planning, Albert Penello, told Polygon

In terms of power, Penello is confident the power gap between it and the PS4 Pro will be obvious. 

Do you think Sony should have waited to launch a more powerful console? Let us know in the comments. 

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