he PS4 Pro is powerful, but lack of uniform support holds it back a bit
With the PlayStation 4 Pro, Sony looks to step into new territory by offering a mid-cycle, higher-power version of its successful PlayStation 4. On paper, the PS4 Pro certainly has the credentials to significantly enhance some existing and future PlayStation 4 games, but in practice, the results range from good to underwhelming depending on what game you’re playing and what kind of screen you’re playing on.
Physically, the PS4 Pro packs a lot of potential in a relatively efficient space. The additional 1GB of DRAM, the second GPU, and the extra power required to feed it don’t add as much bulk as you’d imagine, or from how it looks in pictures. At 11.6 inches wide, 2.2 inches high, and 12.9 inches long, it can fit into practically all the same spaces your launch PS4 can, unless it was a really snug fit already. It is significantly heavier though, by around 30%
In terms of inputs and outputs, the PS4 Pro sports two USB ports close together in the front and one more on the back. That third one in the rear is great for PSVR owners, since it allows them to hook it up to the PS4 Pro without using up a front facing USB. This both prevents you from having an unsightly cord constantly sticking out the front of your entertainment center, and keeps the front USB slots free for hooking up controllers or other peripherals. And unlike the recent slimmed-down PS4 revision, the PS4 Pro thankfully has an optical audio port. Dolby Digital headset users rejoice!
Overall, its weight, curved lines, and glossy-finished PlayStation logo give the PS4 Pro a substantial, premium feel, but the cheap-feeling and comically tiny physical eject and power buttons betray the aesthetic just a bit. They’re also a little tough to find until you get used to their odd placement at either side of the Pro’s middle “blade.”
In terms of UI and software features, this is mostly the same PS4 you know and love, which sadly means there’s no support for 4K blu-ray playback. On the upside though, the PS4 Pro supports the higher-speed 802.11ac wi-fi band (which is also on the revised PS4) and the faster SATA III hard drive interface. The latter will potentially allow you to pull much more performance out of a solid-state drive should you decide to replace the stock 1TB hard drive the PS4 Pro comes with. The swap is just a tiny bit trickier on the PS4 Pro than it is on the launch PS4 though, thanks to the somewhat finicky-to-remove panel that guards the access screw.
The 4K Factor
Of course the big new feature is the ability to output at 2160p - true 4K resolution - but the actual resolution of individual games is up to the developers. Because of this lack of standardization, I saw widely mixed amounts of visual impact when playing on 4K monitors.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Rise of the Tomb Raider, for instance, both look fantastic with the “enhanced resolution” option selected on a 4K screen. Lighting has a wider color range and everything looks significantly cleaner, especially around the edges. Particularly with Mordor, everyone who walked by while I was playing stopped to gawk, and that’s with what is now a three-year-old game. Properly supported, the PS4 Pro can work wonders.
On the other end of the spectrum is something like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which ups the resolution to an unspecified degree and upscales to 4K. Not only is it hard to find any appreciable difference in visual quality, but the higher resolution seemed to cause deeper framerate dips than I remember from when I played Mankind Divided on a standard PS4. And unlike some other games, there is no option to play in a lower resolution without forcing it by manually changing the Pro’s output back to 1080p in the system menu. Clearly, there are going to be cases where developers haven’t quite figured out how to best use the power of the Pro.
The PS4 Pro’s power isn’t just for people with 4K monitors – again, that is, if the developers choose to take the time to utilize it. When they do, there are some nice visual upgrades for the vast majority of us who don’t own a 4K set. The problem is, there’s no guarantee that developers will make those upgrades, and based on the existing PS4 games that have received their PS4 Pro patch so far, mileage is going to vary greatly.
Shadow of Mordor, Infamous: Second Son, and Rise of the Tomb Raider are good representations of what full-featured PS4 Pro support can look like. Each of them has a list of options in their respective menus, and two of them, Infamous and Tomb Raider, offer a high frame rate option. Especially in the case of Tomb Raider, this mode boosted performance dramatically over the standard PS4 version. Simply put, while the ambiguously named “enhanced visuals” option helps some shaders and reflective surfaces to pop a bit more, the difference was negligible compared to the roughly 50 to 100% increase in performance I witnessed in high frame rate mode. I’d love to see developers provide this option on every game going forward – but again, there are no guarantees.
The lack of consistency over what enhancements you're getting shakes my confidence.
That’s the big issue here: even with the games that leverage the PS4 Pro well, the lack of consistency and clarity regarding what enhancements you are getting from game to game, and even from mode to mode, shakes my confidence. Some games let you change video settings on the fly, others don’t. Some offer high frame rate options while others stick to enhanced visuals or higher resolution. Where higher resolution games are concerned, it’s unclear what resolution they are actually rendering at and what type of upscaling they might be using. Mordor in high resolution mode supersamples on 1080p TVs for a smoother image; do other games do that and just not mention it? I don’t know, and neither will you, which is a real problem. You can read articles, check patch notes, and read option descriptions, but most of the time you just don’t know what you’re getting until you start playing – and sometimes not even then. Even Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which is one of the first games to launch with Pro support baked in from day one, doesn’t indicate the Pro benefits in-game or even on the back of the box.
The PS4 Pro is a premium-looking machine that offers a lot of extra power for developers to exploit. But right now, even on a big and brilliant 4K screen, the differences are often not stark enough to make standard PS4 owners jealous. What’s worse, there’s simply no way to reliably know what enhancements you’ll have to choose from, which is a big problem for prospective buyers who understandably want to know what kind of enhancements to expect before they take the plunge. The PS4 Pro has the raw power to potentially deliver greatly enhanced graphics, and in time, with more support, it will likely do just that, but right now, it’s just too much of a crap shoot