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Sony PlayStation 4 Pro review

Sony's mid-generation refresh analysed in depth.

A PlayStation worthy of the 4K display generation?

Whether it's embracing VR wholeheartedly or challenging the established console generation cycle, you've got to hand it to Sony - this company knows how to take risks. They don't get much bigger than PlayStation 4 Pro, a release that doesn't just ask you to upgrade your console, but your display too. Built primarily for the new wave of ultra HD 4K screens, the Pro offers both CPU and GPU upgrades over the current PS4. At its best, it offers stunning visual improvements over the same games running on base hardware, but even the more modestly boosted titles show clear improvements. Bearing in mind the entirely reasonable price-point, it's a highly compelling piece of hardware.

However, for those familiar with PlayStation 4, initially it may all seem to be perhaps too familiar. The console itself uses the same design language as the recently released CUH-2000 PS4 Slim, and booting up the console and navigating the menu systems produces an uncannily similar experience. There's no acknowledgement of any kind of upgrade at all, aside from the addition of 2160p support in the video output menus, along with a new information screen that scans your display and lets you know whether HDR is supported, and what content DRM systems are supported.

Clearly, Sony is making a statement that PS4 and Pro are of the same family, but this does result in some confusion. For example, there is no indication of whether the game you are about to load has specific PS4 Pro support or not. There's not even anything like a pop-up explaining that Pro upgrade patches may be available for titles in your library. Personally, I'd be far more likely to revisit games in my collection if a free 4K or high frame-rate update suddenly became available. This is a big missed opportunity that Sony should hopefully resolve.

Rich presents his video review of the PlayStation 4 Pro. How good is the system for 4K screens and what about 1080p display users?

Base PS4 PS4 Pro Boost
CPU Eight Jaguar cores clocked at 1.6GHz Eight Jaguar cores clocked at 2.1GHz 1.3x
GPU 18 Radeon GCN compute units at 800MHz 36 improved GCN compute units at 911MHz 2.3x FLOPs
Memory 8GB GDDR5 at 176GB/s 8GB GDDR5 at 218GB/s 24% more bandwidth, 512MB more useable memory

PlayStation 4 Pro: set-up and base PS4 game performance

As things stand, the migration process from moving from base PS4 to Pro is remarkably straightforward. As Sony's new console uses the exact same front-end system as the existing model, the same options are utilised - you can back-up your system to an external hard drive, then restore it on the Pro. Alternatively, hook up both consoles to your router via LAN cables and the entirety of your drive contents can be beamed across to the Pro (but be warned, this may actually take longer than the drive back-up option). We've been asked if you can simply rip out your old HDD and implant it into the Pro - this doesn't work as all drives are encrypted, and each individual PS4 has its own encryption key.

With all of our content mirrored across onto the new PlayStation, we decided to begin our tests by looking at the presentation and performance of existing PS4 titles. Rather famously, Xbox One S features a GPU overclock compared to the standard model, resulting in a small bump to performance that while not essential, is clearly nice to have. When I spoke to Mark Cerny about improved base PS4 performance on Pro, he ruled it out completely pretty quickly and this is borne out by final hardware.

The new Pro GPU shuts down half of its compute units and the rest are downclocked from 911MHz to the standard PS4's 800MHz. We used a Project Cars replay running on both systems to judge performance in like-for-like gaming conditions in a title that stresses both CPU and GPU, and saw totally identical results. Maintaining compatibility is Sony's key aim here, though we would have liked to have seen an option to unlock full Pro performance (or at least the additional clocks) on older PS4 games. There is some precedent here: PS2 introduced additional texture filtering for running PS1 titles via backward compatibility - it was an option, and it was signposted that using the feature was done at the user's risk.

Power consumption and noise

Base mode also throws up some interesting metrics based on power consumption - despite shutting down half of the GPU, the PS4 Pro uses more power to run base PS4 code than the new CUH-2000 PS4 'Slim'. It's still significantly more power efficient than a CUH-1000 launch model though, and the overall power consumption figures for the Pro are fascinating. The Pro's new processor is fabricated using FinFET transistor technology, so performance per watt is a big improvement compared to the original PS4.

Generally speaking, playing a fully enabled Pro title only takes around 10W more power from the wall than running a standard PS4 game on launch hardware (this will vary on a title by title basis - we used InFamous First Light as our test subject here), which explains why the rated power consumption has increased to 310W and why we have reverted to the 'kettle' power cord used on the launch PlayStation 3. It should be stressed that the 310W metric is almost certainly the rated capacity of the internal power supply - actual consumption is around half of that during standard gameplay on Pro-enabled titles.

In terms of the acoustic performance of the Pro, it has much more in common with the c-chassis PS4 than the Slim. We were hoping that the larger console may integrate a larger fan - typically, the larger fan, the slower it needs to spin in order to displace the same amount of heat. We've yet to put the Pro through exhaustive tests here, but we note a peak 55dB during inFamous First Light gameplay, but really it's not so much the loudness that's the issue as opposed to the pitch. The fan spins up and down and is clearly audible from across the room. Initial tests on heat again show a profile similar to the standard PS4. We'll have more on this to share later, but right now, it's fair to say that a fair amount of heat is kicked out of the rear of the unit and in common with any current-gen console, it should not be housed in an enclosed area.

A video overview of our impressions on PS4 Pro power consumption, temperatures and acoustics.

PlayStation 4 Power Consumption (Watts) PS4 Pro CUH-7000 PS4 Slim CUH-2000 PS4 Launch CUH-1000
Front-End (Online, Disc Install) 75 75 89
Front-End (Online, Downloading) 71 71 80
Rest Mode (Online, Downloading) 58 46 73
Project Cars (Base Mode) 104 84 140
InFamous First Light 155 (4K) 80 (1080p) 148 (1080p)

Is PlayStation 4 Pro really a 4K console?

We've tested a number of Pro titles so far, but the stream of patches and new titles is relentless and we still feel that we've barely scratched the surface, but already a couple of trends are emerging. Almost every title offers the ability to run at a higher resolution - resulting in a super-sampling effect on a 1080p screen (more on that later) plus the ability to resolve more detail running on a 4K display.

At its best, PS4 Pro's 4K outputs can be remarkably good. There are native resolution titles out there like Mantis Burn Racing and Skyrim Special Edition (which appears feature-complete compared to the base PS4 game and may even offer small enhancements), but the key to getting modern titles running at 4K on the Pro resides in next-gen upscaling techniques like checkerboarding. This is the process of turning a 2x2 pixel block into a 4x4 area and relies upon 2x 1080p resolution. Rise of the Tomb Raider is one the best 4K titles we've seen on Pro - it's checkerboarding, but only the most intense scrutiny reveals that it's not a native 4K game. In action it's simply beautiful.

Checkerboarding takes many forms and can resolve to multiple resolutions too - the InFamous titles scale up to 1800p (this still looks really good on a 4K screen) while Deus Ex: Mankind Divided actually uses both a dynamic scaler and checkerboarding. However, it's equally clear that many developers out there are not using this technique and the results are variable.

The big surprise is that Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4 Pro patch actually seems to be using conventional upscaling, though admittedly it does avoid most of the usual artefacts owing to its excellent temporal super-sampling anti-aliasing technique. However, base resolution is in the region of 1440p and while it remains a beautiful game, it does look a little soft on a 4K screen. The game's multiplayer section gets an upgrade though, it's boosted from the standard model's 900p to full 1080p.

It's much the same story with Titanfall 2 - it retains the dynamic scaler of the standard PS4 title, but tops out at 1440p resolution (and to be fair, it rarely seems to dip lower). Again, TSAA really helps here in avoiding upscaling shimmer but it is clearly softer than checkerboarding results.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered? We peg that at 2880x1620 - but again, it's helped out by a heavily post-processed presentation. It's softer than what we would expect from a 4K presentation, but it still looks like a clear leap over 1080p.

Tom and Rich sit down to play Uncharted 4 in its high resolution mode - we captured this at 4K. You also get to see multiplayer enhancements too.

We should also expect to see developers attempting their own 4K upscaling solutions - Insomniac's rolling out its own temporal injection technique in Ratchet and Clank and it's well worth checking out. A beautiful 1080p title for base PS4 hardware looks clean and crisp at 4K.

So is PlayStation 4 Pro really a 4K gaming console? We should expect to see variable results in the launch period and based on what we've seen so far, that's exactly what we get. At its best though, the results can look stunning - and it's not as if we're limited here simply to older titles. Rise of the Tomb Raider and Call of Duty Infinite Warfare both checkerboard up to 2160p and provide some remarkable results for a box with limited GPU power compared to the latest and greatest PC graphics hardware.

Elsewhere, results may seem a touch soft, but the presentation of, say, Uncharted 4, is still a palpable, worthwhile upgrade over the 1080p seen on base PlayStation 4 hardware. For a 350/$400 console, I'll take it, and it's also worth noting that future software we've seen previewed shows that Pro's 4K credentials just look stunning. Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone emphasise that cutting-edge software can provide a great 4K experience.

We couldn't resist. We played Rise of the Tomb Raider on PS4 Pro and on PC using Titan X Pascal. Both at 4K.

A key part of the 4K package is HDR - high dynamic range. What I've seen so far reveals far more detail in scenes, ranging from subtle improvements all the way through to night and day improvements. The PS4 Pro has an HDR mode in the front end (with automatic/off selectables) but there's no guarantee that the title itself supports the feature. In fact, most of them don't right now.

Where HDR is an option, you'll generally find a toggle within the game's options screens - as seen in InFamous First Light, Deus Ex Mankind Divided and Uncharted 4. Due to limitations in the mediums we have available, we can't really show you the difference, but it's also worth bearing in mind that HDR results vary dramatically from one display to another.

At the Sony press events so far, we've seen games showcased on the cutting-edge ZD9 display, one of the best and the most expensive screens money can buy. Revisiting Uncharted on our mid-range Panasonic DX750, the improvements are actually rather more subtle, more correct if you like. Buying an HDR screen for gaming is a bit of a minefield at the moment, and getting a game-changing experience from HDR seems to scale in line with the amount of money you're willing to pay.

What about 1080p gaming?

With the emphasis on Pro support going towards high resolution modes, the big worry with PlayStation Pro has been that there's not much here to excite 1080p gamers who are not yet ready to upgrade their displays. It's a fair point because while there are some great, inexpensive 4K screens out there like the Samsung KU6400 we reviewed recently, HDR technology is still in its infancy - so there are some good reasons for sticking with full HD. What does the Pro offer here?

The bottom line is that it's going to vary on a per-game basis. At the most basic level, you should get super-sampling as standard - the process where a higher resolution image is downscaled to 1080p. It may not sound particularly thrilling, and the boost to image quality basically depends on how good anti-aliasing was in the base PS4 title to begin with. Titles like Uncharted 4 are already extremely clean, but the difference in others can be dramatic.

Rise of the Tomb Raider has real issues coping with sub-pixel detail, resulting in shimmering and pixel-popping that severely detracts from what is otherwise a simply beautiful game. PS4 Pro, running in super-sampling mode, cleans up nearly all of the artefacts and looks simply sensational. Furthermore, games operating with dynamic resolutions also see clear benefits - Titanfall 2 is a key case in point here.

Sony's technical requirements mandate that PlayStation 4 Pro titles should operate at the same frame-rate - or better - than the existing standard PS4 title. This is a pretty tall order actually, and we've already seen one title - Mantis Burn Racing - that has occasional frame-rate drops in native 4K mode, where the base PS4 1080p mode remains smooth (VooFoo Studios tells us they are addressing this). Meanwhile, Uncharted 4 appears to drop frames in a highly similar manner to the existing PS4 title - no real improvement then, but not worse from what we've seen so far.

However, there are performance improvements. On the more incidental level, Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered appears to stick more tightly to its 60fps target while retaining the 1620p internal rendering resolution - so you are getting more performance and increased image quality. However, some games do see the developer stick to 1080p rendering, instead pushing the Pro's GPU to pump out more frames.

The inFamous ports from Sucker Punch offer this functionality, and initial tests with First Light show the game running much more smoothly - the first stage showing a 50-60fps turnout. Much has also been made of the Pro version of Rise of the Tomb Raider with its unlocked frame-rate mode. Again, we've only spent a short time with it, but the performance uplift is tangible and worth having.

Some titles are concentrating on 1080p visual improvements only, Epic's Paragon raising resolution from 900p to full HD and adding additional visual features into the bargain. We're also told that Mass Effect Andromeda has both an 1800p checkerboard mode and an enhanced 1080p mode - a situation we hope to see deployed on other Frostbite titles (thus far, patches for FIFA 17 and Battlefield 1 have yet to materialise).

From our perspective, sitting down with PlayStation 4 Pro on a 4K screen with a suitably optimised title really is quite an experience - but we are clearly in a transition point from one display technology to the next, and it's almost certain that more Pros will be connected to full HD screens than 4K displays in the short term.

We hope to see more developers take the route seen in Rise of the Tomb Raider, offering a range of presets, but with the CPU only seeing a small increase in power compared to the GPU bump, we can't expect PS4 Pro to be able to hand in 60fps presentations for all base PS4 titles running at half the frame-rate.

Sony PlayStation 4 Pro - the Digital Foundry verdict

Has PlayStation 4 Pro managed to live up to its marketing? By and large, yes. At its best, it is capable of producing compelling results at native 4K. Stack up Rise of the Tomb Raider on Pro against an ultra high-end PC and run them side-by-side and you'll see that most of the 4K clarity is there, much of the detail is there and frame-rate remains the clearest differentiating factor. But the fact that a 350/$399 box is capable of even competing is a remarkable achievement.

It's clear that the key technologies are in place to ensure that PS4 Pro can work very nicely in the 4K world, but launch software shows that the transition isn't going to be entirely smooth. Many titles are operating at resolutions much closer to 1440p - a pixel-count we'd previously established as a better fit for the core hardware based on established rendering techniques. The fact that Uncharted 4 doesn't reach 4K or even 1800p isn't a great turn-out bearing in mind how the Pro is marketed and the title's status as the flagship PlayStation 4 technology showcase. The thing is though, that it still looks really nice - modern rendering techniques are making the seemingly definitive link between pixel count and image quality much more of a grey area.

Mass Effect Andromeda walkthrough and guide How to complete every main mission and more. Mass Effect Andromeda walkthrough and guide

We expect Pro implementations to improve over time, and the first party Sony titles we've seen in the pipeline (Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone) looks simply sensational, but it may be some time before developers fully get to grips with the new hardware. But on the flipside, even in the here and now, even with so many different high resolution mode variations in the titles we've looked at so far, the bottom line is clear. Not much more money is buying a whole lot more power.

If you don't already own a PlayStation console and you're looking to invest, the Pro is a no-brainer. You're getting over twice the GPU power, a faster CPU, future-proofed display and streaming media support - and twice the hard drive space. The price-point is keen enough that it's going to take some seriously aggressive bundling deals to make the standard PlayStation 4 look appealing.

But if you already own a PS4, the choice of whether to upgrade is a tricky one. There are no system exclusives, the library is the same, and existing games will only run better if developers go back and patch them. If you own a 4K screen or are considering a purchase, the upgrade will be highly worthwhile, but what's clear is that there's little here likely to make your existing console obsolete. With an installed base rapidly approaching 50m users, that's probably a very good thing. But with that said, if you read Digital Foundry, if you appreciate image quality and performance as we do, it's really difficult to overlook the fact that there's a system out there that's better than what you have now - and if more titles follow the approach to enhancement seen in the likes of Rise of the Tomb Raider, PlayStation 4 Pro becomes an essential purchase.

If you're curious about the improvement that 4K brings to PlayStation gaming, please consider supporting the Digital Foundry Patreon. In addition to supporting the DF team, you'll get access to high bandwidth 4K video, better representing the quality of the system's ultra HD output.

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