The Big PS4 Pro Analysis Post
Despite being a retro enthusiast, I’m also a massive tech fan as my side project has suggested. As such I recently picked up a Playstation 4 Pro and ran it thoroughly through its paces. I tested most things I could think of: different games, different hard drives, different TVs (yes, 1080p and 4K HDR), and I kept my launch PS4 to compare with everything. With that in mind, I think we should open with getting the simple decision out of the way for those that apply, because a majority of this post is about changes and upgrades for existing owners – which Sony is hesitant to admit is the true target for the Pro. If you do not own a Playstation 4 and want to purchase one this holiday season, the decision is really up to you. A slim is a rock solid purchase for anyone who doesn’t own a 4K TV (and possibly even for those that do) and it’s completely serviceable. I was pleased with my vanilla PS4. If you want to upgrade to Pro you simply need to consider how much that $100 is of value to you for potential future proofing (although Sony has vehemently sworn to not allow Pro exclusive games), the prospect of better performance with VR, support for 4K and HDR, and games can run/look better if support is added. Games press likes to pretend this is a no-brainer, but frankly $100 is almost two games (possibly 3 around the holiday season) and if you don’t plan on upgrading to 4K or VR, there’s little reason to pick the Pro if saving money or getting more games is your priority. I’d also like to interject that articles comparing the Xbox One S and Playstation 4 Pro are completely without value. I have both and they should not be compared. The Xbox One S upscales to 4K (but at no visual difference to games), adds HDR (and I have yet to see anything too impressive), and supports 4K Blu Ray, so in truth it’s an Xbox One that adds 4K Blu Ray support and HDR. The Pro is a hardware boost that makes games either run faster or look better (or both), improves resolution beyond 1080p before upscaling to 4K (more on that later), and adds a much more substantial HDR in games that have supported it. Astoundingly, however, the PS4 Pro does not support 4K Blu Ray movie playback. For that reason it’s not apples to apples, that comes next year with Scorpio. It’s also a weird time for PC gaming because not only is HDR almost devoid of this conversation on PC (4K PC monitors don’t currently support HDR), but I feel important factors for myself like surround sound and even quality of the port are a consistent issue on PC whereas this is much less the case on current consoles. With all that in mind, here’s my analysis of the Playstation 4 Pro.
Let me just come out and say it: the Playstation 4 Pro is a solution that doesn’t really have a problem. The 4K/HDR boom is here – at least from a marketing perspective – and as an early adopter let me tell you for the record that it is a money sinkhole. Have you ever plugged a PS2 into a standard def TV and then an HDTV? The PS2 looks pretty sharp and vivid, especially with component cables, on an SDTV until you move it to the HDTV where it starts to look blurry and out of touch with current technology. This is absolutely the case with 4K. Your 1080p visuals are amazing and look perfectly fine until you grab a 4K TV and suddenly it doesn’t look so good anymore. You need to get a beefy graphics card to render Mafia III in 1440p (2K) or 4K so that it no longer looks blurry and low resolution. Even games that look fantastic, like Titanfall 2, Infinite Warfare, or heck even traditional Blu Rays have this new grain that seems to be added and reduces quality. It’s not that they weren’t there before, you just didn’t see them because you didn’t blow the image up to 4 times the size. Upscaling doesn’t really help as all 4K TVs do it (some much better than others), but also because consoles and video cards can also do this and bypass your TVs upscaler by doing its own pre-upscale at the hardware level. This just makes the image compatible, it doesn’t improve it in any way, which doesn’t sound impressive but scaling is very important as opposed to zooms or simply blowing up an image. As such, the Playstation 4 Pro is more about making games render at higher than 1080p quality, getting an extra bump of scaling up to 4K, and showing you a gorgeous image. This seems like a step forward until you put a 65″ 1080p TV running a game on the PS4 and a 65″ 4K TV running the same game on a Pro and notice that it’s hard to tell the difference. This is especially true with games that receive a graphical bump but no HDR or framerate increase (like the Call of Duty titles that are supported). Sure, move Infinite Warfare on a PS4 over to the 4K TV and it looks a little rougher, but if you had never purchased the 4K TV you would have never needed the Pro anyway.
There are two exceptions that justify the upgrade, completely removed from 4K, and they are big ones. The first is frame rate. Traditionally consoles have remained a 30 frames per second (fps) ordeal when we upgraded to HD (before that it was 60 fps, but that’s irrelevant to this article). Sure, exceptions like Call of Duty and often racing games did exist, but that was at a visual hit. Most developers would program the game at 30 fps and ship it to consoles. On PC there was enough of a hardware push to update that to 60, which adds this incredible smoothness to games that I can clearly see, but I respect those that say they cannot. Many were hoping that as consoles grew stronger we would see a movement to 60 fps as a standard, but that really didn’t happen and it appears that even in the case of the Pro many developers are comfortable still ascertaining 30 fps with much prettier visuals. Even on PC that’s been the case as games like Mafia III released with only 30 fps and the update patch to add 60 fps proves nearly impossible even with powerful hardware. There are exceptions, like Rise of the Tomb Raider on PS4 Pro, where you can opt to get rock solid 60 fps in lieu of upgraded visuals (or super visuals with 30 fps, your choice) and the difference is impressive. Some feel that visuals are better while others feel framerate is better. To me, it depends on the game and sadly most Pro patched titles do one or the other, but do not give you the option of both.
The second upgrade is High Dynamic Range or HDR. This is a buzz word that has been over used, over sold, and annoys at least a certain population of readers. To put it directly, HDR increases the color gamut, color depth, contrast, and brightness to make for a more realistic image. I don’t know that I truly agree that it looks more realistic, but it definitely dazzles the eyes. The trouble with HDR is that the implementation of it has been spotty at best and in some cases, like Gears of War 4, I can barely tell the difference. From the handful of titles I’ve played on the Pro, that is not the case here. The difference is crystal clear and astounding to the eyes. For those of you crying foul at me mentioning the HDR slam on Gears 4, please know that Forza Horizon 3 on XB1 does have an impressive HDR upgrade as well, but still not as drastic as I’ve seen on the PS4 Pro. I have included a photo of HDR taken from my phone camera of the screen (as capturing HDR is a feat most consumers aren’t capable of and readers don’t have HDR monitors to see it anyway), but this does not do the upgrade justice. Unfortunately HDR is a fickle beast. It’s not universally compatible, it’s implemented in odd ways on different TVs, and you need a 4K TV to get it because TV manufacturers are only implementing it on those screens for now. It can easily be stripped by surround sound receivers, cable splitters, amplifiers, and even the Playstation VR, so if you want it you pretty much have to go console directly to TV. In order to get a game up and running with an HDR signal that is detected and displayed, it sometimes seems like you’re trying to get 1,000 heads to bow in unison, but when you do the results shine. I think this is why everyone is holding so strongly to HDR because it’s a visually arresting difference as opposed to a 4K signal versus a 1080p signal, which is much more subtle. You need to know that currently only a handful of TVs and a handful of games support it, so the results I’m seeing in Uncharted 4 came at a near $2,500 price tag that I just can’t see most justifying. For those that do, you’re in for a treat. Alright, enough about theory, lets get into the console itself.
What’s in the Box?
Who wants an unboxing video? To sum it up the same items, literally, that were included in the launch PS4 (and most likely the Slim) are included in the Pro. Simple alterations exist like the HDMI cable being 2.0 high bandwidth compliant and the Dual Shock 4 being the newer one that has more pronounced buttons and thumb sticks that don’t wear away with use. Aside from an ethernet cable, which I found unnecessary because the upgraded wi-fi card in the system showed some impressive 100+ mbps speeds with my Google Fiber wi-fi router, you get everything you need in the box. The setup is relatively simple, but those that already own a PS4 need to go through some additional steps if you want to move your data/profile (this is important) over to the new console and also if you want to change the hard drive. The first thing you want to do on your original PS4 before ever hooking this up (or selling your PS4) is go to the Settings -> Playstation Network -> Primary PS4 -> Deactivate. You MUST deactivate your previous console before moving to this one and activating it as your primary console, something that was never covered in any of the documentation in the box. You can activate/deactivate primary PS4s as many times and often as you like provided you are doing it from the console. If you happened to have already sold your console and didn’t deactivate, you can log into the PSN on your PC and do it, but this requires you to deactivate every console on your account and reactivate them manually from each console. For some of us with multiple PS3s and even jailbroken PS TVs/Vitas, this is not something we want to do so please deactivate your system before getting rid of it.
To transfer your data you have a couple of options. The first and probably the easiest is to transfer your original console and all its data over to the new PS4 Pro via ethernet cable. This is also an ideal route because it prompts you to deactivate your system as part of the process. All you do is boot up your original console and make sure it’s on the newest firmware (currently 4.05 at time of writing) and once it’s loaded and signed in, you then want to switch your TV input over to the PS4 Pro and boot it up. If you go through the setup process and sign into your PS4 Pro it will ask you if you want to transfer and to connect the cable. If you don’t do it this way, make sure to activate your Pro as your Primary PS4 and then go to Settings -> System -> Transfer Data From Another PS4. Keep in mind this will wipe all data from your Pro’s hard drive and any un-synced trophies could be lost (so sync trophies first). Otherwise, all your account data, users, applications, save data, and screenshots/video captures will move over. Yes, my copy of P.T. moved over. The process moves at a speed of 100-150 GB per hour so plan accordingly.
The other option is to back up your data to USB hard drive and restore it once you’ve set up your Pro. This is much more versatile and necessary if you want to move an upgraded hard drive in your original PS4 to your Pro, but it also has a higher chance of you getting stuck and if the USB hard drive fails you could be out of luck. First of all, as I said before, deactivate your original PS4 as your primary before doing anything else. Then go to Settings -> System -> Backup and Restore. Follow the prompts to backup your hard drive, it moved for me at a rate of about 80-100 GB per hour. After it completed the backup I then deleted everything but my saves and the application P.T. so my whole hard drive only had like 10 GB taken up and backed it up a second time on a smaller 16GB pen drive so I had a backup of the backup (and of course P.T. still intact). If you are replacing the hard drive, make that swap before you even boot up the console the first time. You also need to get a full version of the newest update (currently 4.05) from Playstation (here) and copy it to your USB (follow the instructions on the page). Then start up your system with the USB drive plugged in and the controller hooked up with a USB cable as well. It will ask you via prompts if you have a fresh firmware file in a USB drive (and I had flickering on my screen during this part of the process on both the Pro and PS4), so select OK and then it will set everything up for you and boot to a new startup screen (flickering should be gone by now). Skip the setup and go directly to Settings -> System -> Backup and Restore and restore your USB storage. This process will take about as long as the backup process did. When it’s done you simply need to activate this console as your Primary PS4 and you’re now up and running.
The benefits I have seen are somewhat substantial. The Pro had a 1TB HGST 5,400 RPM drive that runs SATA II (3.0 gb/s), which I replaced with a 1TB HGST Travelstar 7,200 RPM drive that suns SATA III (6.0 gb/s) that is now supported by the Pro (launch and slim PS4 still only support SATA II). There was a noticeable difference with load times. On the vanilla PS4 I loaded Black Ops III about 6 seconds (15 percent) faster using the 7,200 RPM drive vs. the 5,400 that came with it. That jumped to 8 seconds (almost 20 percent) faster with the SATA III connection on the Pro, although I don’t know if the Pro’s hardware has anything to do with this (but probably not). To test a non-Pro updated game I used Bloodborne, which saw a less impressive but somewhat similar bump in load times of about 12 percent from 5,400 to 7,200 on vanilla PS4 and then about 14 percent when thrown into the Pro. It’s not a drastic change but it matters. I’m certain we may see even more significant changes if using a hybrid or SSD, but I haven’t tested that.
But What About the Games?
Okay so the whole reason you bought this was pretty much to see the games, right? Well I tested a bunch of Pro updated and non-Pro updated titles and found varying results. Please note that as I said at the beginning of the article, it’s not this drastic change like we saw with the Xbox 360 compared to the original Xbox, so curb your expectations appropriately. Furthermore there are only a limited number of games that have been updated. Whenever I launched a game that had was not patched or launched with Pro support, I saw no difference. No benefits to the way the game ran, looked, etc. The PS4 Pro simply downgrades to a traditional PS4 when you play a non-supported game (but still upscales to 4K). Below are some extremely brief impressions of what I experienced when booting up and running a game for about 30 mins.
- Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Infinite Warfare, and Modern Warfare Remastered: All of these received Pro patches that talk about improved resolution, textures, and visuals all while maintaining 60 fps. This is true, those games were smooth as silk the whole time. Black Ops III and Infinite Warfare were hard to notice any difference, although as someone who played both on his 4K TV through a regular PS4 before getting the Pro I can confirm it’s an upgrade. It’s similar to what you see when you run a Blu Ray and then the same movie on a 4K Blu Ray (all 4K Blu Rays you buy come with the Blu Ray version right now, as if to show you the change): looks grainy in 1080p and then the grain is gone and a bit sharper in 4K. There was some grit on the camera when running these titles on a 4K TV in the regular PS4 that is now gone, but you don’t really see that if running a regular PS4 on a 1080p TV so I fail to see much of the value. The visuals look nearly identical to me despite the fact that I know it’s rendering higher. Modern Warfare Remastered seemed a little more impressive. The visuals seemed to have a clear overhaul and upgrade that made everything look sharper and more crisp. It was like the bump from “medium” to “high” on PC games. This may be affected by the fact that I’ve been seeing Modern Warfare in its original 720p presentation for years and only have like a month with Remastered, but it’s what I saw. None of these titles had HDR.
- inFamous Second Son and Last Light: Basically the same game running the same engine so no shocker that things looked similar with both games. This was a bigger bump. A bunch of textures and details seem to be increased in detail, but it’s all minutia. Even more impressive is the addition of HDR, which especially with the special abilities dances across the screen. This is particularly impressive with the neon ability in Last Light but don’t discredit the amazing lighting you get in Seattle with Second Son as well. It may see an increase in resolution, but it’s hard to tell, and I know the framerate is still 30.
- Ratchet & Clank: Same as inFamous, bump in textures and addition of HDR (equally impressive in the bright world of this action platformer) but doesn’t look to run any better framerate (30) or increase in resolution. I’m pretty sure that’s the same as detailed on the Playstation blog.
- Uncharted 4: Now here’s the example you’ve been waiting for. This game was overhauled for the PS4 Pro. Sure, it doesn’t run at 60 fps, we’re still seeing 30 fps here, but everything else is updated. The resolution is clearly higher (it runs now at 1440p or 2K with an upscale) and the details seem sharper and more crisp for it across the board. This game was probably mastered in 1440p and downscaled for the PS4 release. It also has the most impressive showing of HDR I have seen yet. The moment you flip it on it’s drastically apparent and the game is stunning with it. If you have this on a 1080p TV, the resolution is bumped from 900p to 1080p on the Pro.
So that’s a handful of games, but you can see many more here (although some of the lists of changes aren’t always accurate so consult the developer’s blog for explicit changes). Basically it seems that we get little bits of updates and uprezing on third party (although there are some thankful 60 fps bumps in games like Rise of the Tomb Raider), and with Sony 1st party we get a full implementation of HDR, which is the most impressive change.
Finally the other enhancement, which I find equally cool, is the ability to take 4K resolution screen shots and stream to both YouTube and the PC app at 1080p60. Granted, this doesn’t matter much with the many games that are only running at 30 fps, but people on YouTube tend to flock to a video running at 60 fps even if the game in question is a 30 fps game (there’s no difference from 30 fps in this case).
The whole reason I bought the PS4 Pro was a combination of impulse buy (it was sitting in the glass on launch day when I was out at a retailer) and the fact that I have a 4K TV with HDR so since I’ve sunk so much money into such an expensive setup why not also upgrade my PS4. Most of the changes outside of HDR seem to be slight and in my humble assessment arbitrary given they spawned from upgrading to a 4K TV, so if you stick with 1080p you don’t need the upgrade and the visuals don’t appear to be improved much despite the massive bump in resolution. If you have a 4K TV (especially with HDR), if you want the newest and hottest thing, or if you just want the peace of mind that you are playing the best version of a game, then this is for you. If you have a 1080p TV and a PS4 that looks great and you are happy with, stick with that. 4K seems to be unnecessary and HDR is not common enough in games or TVs to justify the upgrade, despite my conceit that it’s an amazing upgrade. I’m pleased with my PS4 Pro purchase and my setup is better for it, but very few are in the same situation as me. Cheap 4K TVs this holiday season will introduce so much input lag they may be unplayable with intense video games so you will need to spend some serious money to upgrade and if you plan to stick with a 1080p TV to hook this up to I just can’t justify it. Case in point: my wife never noticed I changed systems because it looked almost the same, booted up to the same menu, and gave no indication that it was upgraded hardware in the least. Like I said, peace of mind.