We’re about to have a moment, and it’s a moment that revolves around a number and a letter: 4K, a way of referring to how many pixels your television can display. The more the merrier, and the 4K “ultra high definition” standard cranks out exponentially more pixels than today’s 1080p standard—a colossal leap from roughly 2 million to 8 million luminous dots. 4K makes possible far crisper visuals, especially when scrutinizing slight details in a scene, say the trees or rocks on a mountainside backgrounding a panoramic sweep, or simply viewing images standing at a distance from a physically gigantic screen.
It’s also the no longer nascent standard both Sony and Microsoft want you thinking about as they zero in on mid-generational game console updates. Sony said a little about its new system earlier this year, then Microsoft divulged specifics about its Xbox One refresh “Project Scorpio” during E3 this summer, though it left the arrival timeframe ambiguously “late 2017.”
Now Sony’s put the spotlight on what it’s calling the PlayStation 4 Pro—a revamped PlayStation 4 with roughly twice the performance of the company’s already formidable original. It’ll be available this November 10, and priced at $399, costing no more than the original PlayStation 4 did when it arrived barely three years ago.
There’s no indispensable reason to buy a PlayStation 4 Pro
As Sony itself has said, this isn’t meant to be next-generation gaming, it’s simply a response to a shift in display technology. These new 4K-ish games will look better but play the same. You can thus ignore Sony’s “If you’re a gamer that wants to be at the forefront of innovation, PS4 Pro is for you.” Visually innovative, perhaps. But I think it’s reasonable to assume a majority no longer think of “innovation” as merely visual these days.
There’s also no reason to snub it
In no way does the PlayStation 4 Pro feel like an estranging device. Unless you hate options, nothing about its existence threatens your ability to enjoy the same games PlayStation 4 Pro owners will, in the same ways, on your garden variety PlayStation 4. As Sony’s said, the obvious visual enhancements aside, PlayStation 4 Pro games will function identically to their PlayStation 4 counterparts.
And no, this isn’t Sony trying to make consoles more PC-like. There are no upgradeable components here, no worrying about drivers and 3D setting overrides, or having to cobble together thermally tenable case configurations with fiddly liquid cooling tubes, fans and heat sinks. There’s simply a second tier of compartmental ready-to-play-ness on offer now, and you can take it or leave it without missing a jot of gameplay.
But there’s a double-dip here
4K TVs aren’t cheap. Yes, you can buy a decent entry-level 40-inch set for in the vicinity of $400 to $500. But 4K arguably finds its sweet spot on much larger screens. Scale up to 60 inches and you start to move toward four-figure pricing. Add the PlayStation 4 Pro’s $399 tag, and you could pay through the nose for 4K bragging rights.
Economies of scale will eventually drive 4K pricing down, but there’s a chicken-egg factor, and with 4K content still ramping up, it’s not yet clear Sony’s timed the PlayStation 4 Pro’s arrival to converge with a pricing shift.
This is Sony doubling down on streaming, not overlooking 4K Blu-ray
The absence of an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player in the PlayStation 4 Pro—an upgrade Microsoft’s said it’s hoping to include in Project Scorpio—doesn’t sound like a merely cost-saving measure. As Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Shawn Layden put it to me after the press event: “To be honest, we’re the streaming generation. That’s how we get our content, how we enjoy it.” In other words, Sony isn’t including 4K Blu-ray in PlayStation 4 Pro because the economics don’t make sense.
It’s a choice that resonates with me, an avowed videophile who’s nonetheless gradually abandoned physical media. My DVDs were boxed and sold off years ago, my Blu-ray collection represents a dwindling handful of showpiece collector’s editions, and my plans to invest in followup standards were nonexistent long before companies began taking stances on 4K Blu-ray’s merits.
I can only speak for myself, of course, and there’s some evidence already that Ultra HD Blu-ray could have legs. Whether it’ll be a console selling point in 2017 or not — assuming Project Scorpio arrives with premium pricing and streaming providers like Netflix start dishing out substantial 4K content — remains to be seen.
Microsoft’s Project Scorpio is at this point still a collection of claims, so with its 6 teraflops of GPU performance (versus PlayStation 4 Pro’s notably lower but officially designated 4.2 teraflops), we’re contrasting a hypothetical, presumably incomplete product with an imminent market-ready one. But let’s assume Microsoft’s going to meet or exceed that 6 teraflops figure. If Digital Foundry’s hypotheticals are accurate, it means Microsoft’s souped up Xbox One stands a much better chance of hitting native 4K resolutions at playable frame rates.
That could well mean Microsoft and Sony wind up trading psychological places in consumer minds. Due to power disparities, today’s Xbox One often has to run cross-platform games at lower levels of detail than Sony’s PlayStation 4. It’s impossible to say how much that’s impacted sales of the Xbox One, but the sense of being the system that offers an inferior visual experience, however slight, probably hasn’t helped.
Or does it?
Will the presumptive visual differences between these systems matter with pixel counts soaring by the millions? “I don’t think the questions about teraflops are terribly relevant,” says Layden. “Probably the most important spec on that sheet that you looked at is less about teraflops and more about November 10, 2016.” He may not be wrong if we’re comparing technical on-sheet disparities with off-sheet metrics like install base and platform momentum.
Sony has over 40 million PlayStation 4s in the wild not three years into its lifecycle. Contrast with Microsoft’s Xbox One, which recent estimates place at roughly half that figure. Set PlayStation 4 Pro aside for a moment. Even with Project Scorpio’s ostensible performance perks, it’s hard to imagine Microsoft’s Xbox One selling so well, month over month, that it manages to outpace Sony by sufficiently consistent margins to reverse the broad trajectories of this console generation. Assume for a moment that the performance disparities between Project Scorpio and PlayStation 4 Pro wind up meaningfully influencing consumer behavior. Assuming Sony’s hardware margins on this boutique system (and its downward-priced new slimline PlayStation 4) haven’t tied its hands, what’s stopping the company from making another performance leap in three or four years time?
Consoles aren’t becoming more like smartphones
Smartphones and tablets update annually. Leaving aside the question of alt-console experiences like cloud gaming or all the perennial prognostication about the death of locally complex set-tops, it’s hard to imagine traditional consoles ever matching mobile devices cycle for cycle. Consoles and mobile devices offers fundamentally different experiences, and for now, the evidence suggests sufficient numbers of people want both.
As Microsoft’s Phil Spencer put it earlier this summer, with consoles you’re talking more about “inflection points.” Right now that inflection point is 4K (with whatever’s post-4K likely a lot more than just three or four years off). “We’re right in the sweet spot of the cycle for the platform,” says Layden. “With 4K as a growing segment of the display market, yes, I think it was smart for us to extend our technology to take advantage of that growing 4K market.”
If he’s right, both Project Scorpio and PlayStation 4 Pro are reactions to the latest display technology sea change, not a shift to mimicking mobile platform cycles. Yes, related inflection points like virtual or augmented reality headsets could further impact the pace of whatever happens sooner than later. But this notion that mobile devices are now the market exemplar for every other form of entertainment misunderstands the distinctions between what’s possible or desirable in these yet disparate ways of thinking about interactive entertainment.