Come this November, Sony will have the first 4K gaming console on the market, the $399 PS4 Pro. But Sony's souped-up console will really be just an incremental upgrade that won't even do certain things that the entry-level Xbox One S can. By the time Microsoft's powerhouse Project Scorpio arrives next year, the PS4 Pro is going to be absolutely crushed.
Let's start with the limitations of Sony's shiny new gaming box. While the PS4 Pro's improved graphics chip will indeed be able to run games in gorgeous 4K with support for High Dynamic Range (HDR), its benefits for games may be only skin-deep.
Titles such as For Honor and Days Gone looked absolutely stunning when I got to see them up-close during a pre-release PS4 Pro demonstration, but they didn't appear to be running any more smoothly or to have any special Pro-exclusive features. While the Pro is advertised as being capable of faster frame rates, the developers I spoke to at the PlayStation Meeting gave me the sense that Sony's new system is designed mainly to make games look better, but not necessarily run better.
Also, for a console being billed as a robust 4K entertainment machine, the PS4 Pro will lack a 4K Blu-ray drive. The Pro will have special 4K streaming apps for YouTube and Netflix, but fans of high-quality physical media will be out of luck.
You know which system does have a 4K Blu-ray drive as well as 4K streaming? Microsoft's $299 Xbox One S. The entry-level Xbox also has HDR support for select games, such as Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3, meaning that true 4K gaming is the only feature that's really exclusive to the PS4 Pro.
But Xbox One S isn't the rival console that Sony has to worry about. Next year's Project Scorpio could make the PS4 Pro look like an absolute joke.
It's hard to make a fair hardware comparison between Scorpio and the Pro, because specs are still pretty vague for Scorpio. We know that the PS4 Pro will have a faster 8-core processor and a boosted graphics chip that offers 4.2 teraflops of power (which means 4.2 trillion calculations per second, for those interested). Scorpio’s graphics processor, on the other hand, boasts a faster 6 teraflops, a similar 8-core CPU and a significant boost in memory speed.
But Microsoft's ambitions say far more about Scorpio than any fancy numbers do.
For example, the Scorpio reveal video hints that the console may be able to handle Fallout 4 VR, a virtual-reality experience currently limited to high-end PCs tethered to an HTC Vive headset. Sure, PlayStation VR is right around the corner, but it might look like a kids’ toy if Scorpio can handle something equivalent to the Vive or Oculus Rift.
In a June interview with Eurogamer, Xbox head Phil Spencer all but confirmed that Scorpio is essentially designed to mimic a very powerful PC.
"We went out and talked to developers explicitly about what it takes to build a 4K PC game, to make sure Scorpio was a spec that they could look at," Spencer told Eurogamer.
Microsoft also seems pretty confident that it has a PS4 Pro killer on its hands. In a new interview with Polygon, Xbox's Albert Penello said that "the performance delta will be obvious" between the two consoles.
Xbox head of marketing Aaron Greenberg was quick to flaunt Project Scorpio in response to a tweet listing the PS4 Pro's specs, and the official Xbox account made a not-so-subtle brag about the 4K Blu-ray and HDR capabilities of the cheaper Xbox One S as soon as the Pro got announced.
Will Scorpio be more expensive than the PS4 Pro? Almost definitely. But Microsoft seems to be building its next console into something existing Xbox One owners will want to upgrade to, which is not something that can be said about Sony's relatively unambitious 4K machine.
There's no denying that PS4 is currently leading the console war — just look at the 40-million-plus PlayStations in gamers' living rooms. But we're now entering a weird and wonderful new world of mid-cycle console upgrades, and Microsoft is making a much more graceful transition.