How PlayStation 4 Pro is evolving into a great 1080p games machine

Why you should upgrade your console - even if you don't have a 4K screen.

It was the first console designed to tackle gaming for ultra HD displays, and the first mid-generation 'refresh' offering a substantial boost to performance over launch hardware. Since its 2016 debut, PlayStation 4 Pro has delivered some exceptional results for 4K living displays - results that seem almost miraculous for a 4.2 teraflop GPU - but in the years since, the Pro has evolved in new, unexpected directions. While 4K was initially the focus for the machine, I'd now say that it's something of a gem for 1080p display users as well. In fact, if you've stuck with your standard unit, now could be a good time to upgrade.

Let's consider the evidence - and it begins with the specifications of the PS4 Pro itself. Having discussed the hardware with many developers, Pro has two fundamental issues in delivering pristine quality 4K gaming. GPU compute has doubled over the standard model, opening the door to temporal supersampling and checkerboarding solutions that - as seen in many titles - can look exceptional on an ultra HD display. However, developers have to address the reality that the extra compute power is not backed by a similar boost in memory bandwidth. Meanwhile, a mere 512MB of extra memory to service a 2x-4x increase in pixel density also causes challenges.

At the same time, developers are pushing their games harder than ever before. A good example of this is Just Cause 4 - when I looked at the game at launch, the price paid for solid performance was the use of aggressive dynamic resolution scaling. The standard PS4 is known as a 1080p gaming machine, but JC4's DRS could see the game bottom out at 720p. PS4 Pro has since been patched with a checkerboard-rendered presentation, but at launch, it mostly sat at 1080p - and it was the smoothest, most consistent performer out of all the console versions.

Avalanche Studios isn't alone in pushing the hardware. Namco Bandai's Tekken 7 and Soulcalibur 6 both target and achieve a solid 60 frames per second, but achieving this goal on PlayStation 4 required compromising on resolution - both are somewhat blurry sub-native games, while the Pro delivers 1080p with some additional graphical flourishes. Also built on Unreal Engine 4, Ace Combat 7 also fails to deliver native 1080p on the standard PS4 (you need the Pro for that) but more intrusive is the lack of consistency in the experience. The series was defined on PS2 by its rock-solid frame-rate, but on the latest iteration - which we highly recommend checking out, by the way - it's the Pro that delivers the goods.

Rich and John discuss the PS4 Pro 1080p sweet spot in the latest Digital Foundry Direct, plus updates on John's Twin Famicom restoration - and a visit from the postman.

Improved performance is being delivered by the Pro on key titles and it's a genuine boon. EA's Anthem has bespoke modes for the Pro's 1080p and 4K outputs, but in our tests, the full HD output offered by far the most consistent frame-rate of all four console builds, effectively locked at 1080p, 30 frames per second. Call of Duty Black Op 4's multiplayer? Again, of all the console builds we tested, the Pro delivered the best performance. Recent Castlevania 'spiritual sequel' Bloodstained also hands in easily noticeable frame-rate advantages: a clearly unlocked, variable frame-rate on PS4 has a much tighter lock on 60fps on Pro.

We're also starting to see titles that use the PS4 Pro's extra GPU power to deliver 60 frames per second gameplay up against 30fps modes on standard PS4 hardware. Performance modes that basically unlocked frame-rate have never really fared well on the Pro - the small upgrade to CPU power Pro delivers sees to that - but two recent examples spring to mind of literally game-changing performance upgrades found on the enhanced hardware. The most obvious is Rage 2, co-developed by Avalanche and id software - you get 30 frames per second on the base machine, but a nigh-on locked 60fps on Pro. And then there's Three Fields Entertainment's Dangerous Driving: good fun on a vanilla PS4, but frame-rate is doubled to Burnout-standard 60fps on Pro.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sony's enhanced console has delivered its best results with first party titles, where 4K display modes are invariably well supported - but the emphasis has rarely been on offering game-changing improvements to the standard PS4 experience. With that said though, the Pro-only 1080p60 performance mode in Shadow of the Colossus is simply breathtaking - and easily the best way to play the game. Similarly, God of War also offered up a performance mode - not a 60fps lock, but still a useful option to have. Days Gone launched with excellent checkerboard 4K support (which downsamples to 1080p nicely) while also helping to smooth out noticeable performance issues that manifested most prominently on the base machine.

Guerrilla Games also handed in some great Pro support in Horizon Zero Dawn. Users can downscale the checkerboard 4K mode on a 1080p screen, or alternatively select a performance alternative. This doesn't uncap the frame-rate and hope for the best like so many Pro options - rather it locks the entire game to 30fps from start to finish, while boosting native resolution as far as possible in doing so (around 1365p). Users of 1080p screens there will get the most consistent experience, plus some physical downscaling in addition to the game's use of temporal supersampling.

If you're looking to buy a PS4 Pro - and why not? - we'd recommend investing in a CUH-7200 model: the revision that finally sorted out the machine's excessive fan noise issues.

Looking back over the last 2.5 years of releases, PS4 Pro has had some 4K highlights but on the flipside, rising hardware demands from the latest games plus technical constraints have seen a trend for games rendering at 1440p, 1080p or at mid-points in between. And then there are the games with both 1080p and 4K output modes - bizarrely accessible only by choosing the matching option in the video settings on the Pro's front-end, with no information on different resolution or performance profiles delivered to the user. We've had baffling situations where 1080p display users were locked out of 4K downscaling in certain titles, prompting Sony to provide system-level super-sampling functionality in its 5.5 system software update.

This is where the waters muddy somewhat for Pro users. From our perspective, Microsoft has it right with Xbox One X: the games don't know what display is attached, meaning that any resolution or performance modes need to be highlighted in the game options, not hidden behind system video output settings. However, this has resulted in Pro having 1080p performance modes that simply don't appear on Microsoft's enhanced console.

Regardless, PS4 Pro games that don't support downsampling can now be forced to do so at the system level. It's good news in theory, but in practise sub-native 4K display modes scale up to 3840x2160 internally, then scale down to 1080p, producing a definite blurring effect. Red Dead Redemption 2 delivers a classic example of this double-scaling effect, which may explain why Rockstar ultimately chose to output native 1080p when the console is set-up for full HD output. In the process, you get improved performance too. As things stand, Sony's attempts to enforce 4K downscaling at the system level for 1080p display users is a useful option - but developers will need to code in their own downscaling modes for the best quality results on 1080p screens if their title isn't running at native 4K in order to avoid the double-scaling blur effect.

Ultimately, it may sound obvious that PlayStation 4 Pro - and indeed Xbox One X - deliver improved results over the vanilla consoles regardless of what display you may have attached. In fact, the basic improvement between Xbox One S and Xbox One X can be vast - much larger than the gap between PS4 and Pro. However, the X was designed for delivering experiences worthy of your 4K screen and by and large, it has delivered. PS4 Pro is much of a mixed bag - but while its fortunes in the world of ultra HD gaming have varied, it definitely seems to occupy a sweet spot of sorts when paired with a full HD screen, to the point where even if you have no plans to get a 4K display, the Pro is still a worthy upgrade for 1080p gamers looking to get the best out of their PlayStation 4 collection.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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