Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro ($399) is striking a major blow in the mid-cycle console war. Instead of being content with offering high dynamic range and 4K streaming like the Xbox One S, Sony went full hog and is offering 4K gaming. The result is a viewing and gaming experience unlike anything you've seen before as a console gamer — just be ready to invest in a 4K television.
With the PS4 Pro, Sony has doubled up on the stacked design of the original model. For all intents and purposes, it looks like someone cut a PlayStation Slim in half and placed one of the halves on top of a PS4 — like a techie double-stuffed Oreo cookie. That triple-decker design adds a bit of bulk to the PS Pro at 7 pounds and 15.6 x 11.6 x 2.6 inches, which is much larger than the original PlayStation 4 (6.1 pounds, 10.8 x 12 x 2.1 inches).
The PS4 Pro has a pair of USB 3.0 ports along the front with another along the rear. The back of the console also holds a HDMI-out port, an optical out, an Ethernet, an Auxiliary and a power port. As far as Wi-Fi, the Pro has been upgraded to 802.11 ac, which is a big step up from the PS4 802.11n and will definitely come in handy for quicker digital downloads.
My favorite part of the design is the textured matte black plastic finish. It's a lot more sophisticated than the mishmash of glossy and matte materials the original system used. Similar to its predecessor, the Pro can be positioned vertically or horizontally to save space in your entertainment center.
Accented with a single chrome PS emblem in the center, this console is more interested in blending into your living room than drawing attention to itself. That's what the games and apps are for.
New Console, New Controller
The PS4 Slim and Pro both ship with Sony's latest take on its DualShock 4 controller. Outside of a small LED strip built into the touchpad, there aren't that many glaring differences. The new controller gets rid of the shiny surface surrounding the D-Pad and face buttons. The D-Pad buttons are also now a matte gray instead of a shiny black. The device retains the raised texture along the back and sides, which deliver a firm, comfortable grip for those extra-long gaming sessions.
Specs: A Small Step Up
Sony didn't reinvent the wheel to enable high dynamic range or 4K, they just tweaked it a little. The Pro has the same AMD processor as the original PS4. The main difference is the PS4 Pro's CPU has been overclocked to 2.1-GHz, compared with the Slim and PS4's 1.6-GHz.
The Pro also features ramped-up memory bandwidth for more efficient performance. As far as the GPU, it still has eight cores, but incorporates many features from AMD's new Polaris architecture, raising the TFLOPs from 1.84 to 4.2, which doubles the Pro's power, compared with either the Slim or the PS4's power.
4K and HDR: A Match Made in Gamer's Heaven
If you don't have a television with high dynamic range (HDR), I highly recommend you make the investment — regardless of the resolution. HDR boosts the brightness, delivering more range between lights and darks. Combined with the 4K resolution of the 65-inch Samsung KS9000 SUHD 4K TV I tested the console on, I found it hard to tear my eyes away whether I was gaming or just watching Netflix.
That meant when I watched Cottonmouth fire a rocket into the Genghis Connie's restaurant during "Luke Cage," the resulting red, orange, yellow and white plume of fire danced in the night sky as if reveling in its own beautiful destruction. The mother-of-pearl on the gangster's gun gleamed knowingly, and I could see every scratch and nick on the well-worn piece. Watching flowers bloom in the "Moving Art" documentaries was a fount of lavish pinks, golds, oranges, reds and purples so vivid, I felt as if I could pluck them from the screen.
So what's it like to actually game in 4K HDR? Right now, it's a mixed bag. Rise of the Tomb Raider looked great — Lara's brunette mane flows like gossamer as she runs and guns her way to victory. In-game textures were sharp and realistic, especially the waterfalls — which produced fine mists that created subtle rainbows in the lush green hidden valley.
However, newer titles such as Watch Dogs 2 could use a bit more love. Standing still, the textures look great — the wear and tear of age in a nearby brick wall was impressive, even the places where someone did a slapdash repair. I could even see every knitted detail of my hipsterish fox sweater. But when I started running, I noticed a sort of outline appearing around my legs as the system rendered the ground beneath me. And during driving missions, I noticed definite drops in frame rates.
I think these problems will be more or less be smoothed out when titles built with native support for 4K and HDR come to market. But for now, it's something to keep in mind.
While it's definitely cool that the Pro can game and stream Netflix and Hulu in 4K, I'm still puzzled why Sony made the decision not to support UHD Blu-ray — a feature that the Xbox One S has. When the PS3 debuted back in 2006, the ability to play Blu-ray discs was a defining feature that actually helped kill the rival HD-DVD format. Maybe Sony's looking toward streaming as the future of media, or it wanted to cut consumer costs down. Either way, it's a noticeable absence.
The PS4 Pro is compatible with PlayStation VR, but there still aren't a ton of PS VR-optimized titles for gamers to take for a spin. Although the graphics and text seemed sharper as I blasted my way through hordes of enemy drones in Battle Zone, it wasn't a substantial leap from using PSVR on a standard PS4. Same goes for PlayStation VR Worlds, which, despite being a first-party title, didn't deliver much of a notable difference. The frame rates on both titles were smoother, but not enough for me to tell you to purchase the Pro instead of the PS4 just for VR.
Starting in 2017, every PlayStation 4 game will be Pro-enabled. That means highly anticipated games like Horizon: Zero Dawn; Detroit: Become Human; and Days Gone will play in 3840 x 2160 and HDR on 4K TVs and could get smoother frame rates on 1080p sets. In the interim, Sony has patched several fan favorites to sate your 4K appetite until 2017.
Approximately 30 titles, including The Last of Us; Uncharted 4: Remastered Edition; Rise of the Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition; Shadow of Mordor; and Infamous: First Light will be receiving patches. Even if you're still hanging on to your 1080p set, you can expect higher frame rates for smoother gameplay on certain titles.
The PS Pro's interface is identical to the PS4 and PS Slim. Amid a blue background with white and gray ribbons swirling around, you'll find tiles for the PlayStation Store, recently played titles, TV and Video, Library, What's New, PlayStation Vue and music centrally located. Icons for PlayStation Plus, Notifications, Friends, Settings, Trophies and the time sit just above the tiles.
The Quick Menu and Share Menus have been overhauled to take up only a portion of the left side of the screen when launched, so you don't have to stop gaming. Overall, it's a slick, easy-to-use interface that most gamers can jump right into.
PlayStation continues to be the king of sharing. It's still the only console that can stream to YouTube as well as Twitch. It's also the only system that can share screenshots and video to Facebook and Twitter. Xbox One owners can only tweet. Another PS exclusive is Share Play, which lets you cede control of your game for 60 minutes to a friend in another location. This can be a lifesaver when you get stuck on a difficult level. Thanks to the Pro's increased performance, Share Play will now stream in 1080p instead of 720p.
The console's Remote Play feature, which lets you stream your games to a PC or PS Vita, can also output in 1080p. Not to be outdone, Microsoft recently launched the ability to stream Xbox One games to a nearby Windows 10 PC.
The PS Pro ships with a 1TB hard drive, which should be fine for first time PS4 owners. However, if you're like me and already own a PS4, you might have already swapped out that smaller drive for something a bit more substantial. You'll retain this ability with the Pro as well, although it would have been nice if Sony finally allowed gamers to save their games to an external hard drive, like the Xbox One and Xbox One S. But c'est la vie.
Similar to the PS4, you can swap out the included drive for either a 2.5-inch SATA hard drive or an SSD. Whatever you choose, just make sure it's 9.5 millimeters thick or less. Instead of sliding off the top portion of the PS4, access to the hard drive is relegated to the back of the system. After removing the plastic plate concealing the hard-drive caddy, it's a simple matter of removing a screw, removing the hard drive and installing the new one.
Not ready to swap out the hard drive? You can simply transfer your precious gaming data from your old PS4 to the Pro by connecting the two systems with an Ethernet cable and follow the prompts when the system asks if you want to swap data. Just be sure all your game saves and trophies are synced to PlayStation's cloud service — just in case.
PlayStation 4 Pro vs Xbox One S
Although both the PS4 Pro and Xbox One S allow you to play games and watch movies in HDR, the PlayStation Pro is the only one that will let you do games in 4K. The Xbox One S' 4K is limited to streaming content from Netflix and Hulu or playing UHD Blu-ray discs. It should be noted, however, that the PS Pro cannot play said discs, which might be a misstep on Sony's part — especially since the Pro is $100 more expensive than the starting configuration of the One S ($299). However, there are various PS4 deals that help bring the price of Sony's console down.
Sony has raised the bar for console gamers with a system that can reasonably compete with members of the PC master race. For $399, the PlayStation 4 Pro delivers bona fide 4K gaming with a gorgeous injection of color, thanks to HDR. And when you're not gaming, you can watch Netflix and Hulu in 4K. If you were on the fence about buying that 4K TV, the PS4 Pro makes a strong argument for making the leap.
However, if you're looking for a 4K entertainment hub, the Xbox One S might be your best bet. Starting at $299, the console also streams content in 4K as well as supports UHD Blu-ray — a feature the PS Pro lacks. And while the One S doesn't support 4K gaming, it does offer HDR, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Overall, the PlayStation 4 Pro is the console to buy if you have a 4K HDR TV and want to take your console gaming to the next level.