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PlayStation 4 Pro review: Plenty of power, not much to do with it

Sony’s new PlayStation 4 Pro is a powerhouse console, for now.

Time was, you could buy a video game console with the confidence that you wouldn’t feel the urge to buy a new one for a while.

Those days are gone.

While hardware manufacturers have long released new versions of game systems with slimmed down chassis and tweaked inputs, this is the first generation to give mid-cycle performance upgrades a shot. While Microsoft was technically the first out of the gate with the Xbox One S, that system’s biggest change was in its aesthetics, not its power.

But here, with Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro, the opposite is true. Retailing for $399, the new model is a thick, chunky, beast of a system that makes up for its bland looks with significantly improved horsepower and 4K capabilities. It’s undoubtedly a burlier system than the regular PS4 (which will still be available at retail), but is it one you need to own? Let’s find out.

Function over form

For a brand new console, the PS4 Pro hardware itself hasn’t gotten much airtime. That’s possibly by design, because it’s not much to look at.

Though it retains the stylish rhombus shape of the original PS4, the Pro has an added layer in the middle that gives it a slight height increase and makes it look like a matte black PlayStation sandwich. It’s heavier than the PS4 as well, though it’s surprisingly not that much bigger, with an overall footprint a bit smaller than the original Xbox One. It should fit in the same entertainment center spot as a standard PS4, albeit a bit more snugly.

Otherwise, its changes are fine if unexciting. You get one extra USB port (handy for PSVR owners) and Sony attended to the irritating “which one’s power and which one’s eject” issue that plagues the original PS4 by switching out the impossible-to-read white-on-chrome power and eject icons for white on black. It’s still a little confusing — the eject button is inexplicably off to the right of the disc tray, which sits right above the power button — but it’ll do.

Everything you’ll get with the PS4 Pro.

The 4K difference

Where the outside of the system is utilitarian, the inside is far flashier.

A faster CPU, double the GPUs and an extra 1GB of RAM generate 4.2 teraflops of processing speed. That’s roughly double the PS4. That also means it runs hotter, and sure enough, placing your hand behind the unit is a good way to burn your fingers. The fan blasts some seriously hot air out of the back. Sony also added some value by doubling the hard drive size from 500GB to 1TB.

The point of this power seems pretty straightforward — make games look and perform better — but the degree to which this is true is contingent on both game developers and the type of television you happen to own.  

The single biggest selling point of the Pro is its ability to output in 4K resolution. Using a technique called “checkerboard rendering,” game makers can turn 1080p games into 4K experiences, and the results are pretty astounding. If you own a 4K TV, you can play a number of current and older PS4 games in 4K; “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” and even the three-year old “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” boast substantially crisper visuals. And if your set and the game support HDR (high-dynamic range), you’ll experience a deeper contrast between light and dark. The PS4 Pro in 4K is, unquestionably, the prettiest way to play a console game in 2016.

The Pro can also stream non-game 4K content via Youtube or Netflix (that functionality went live on launch day). Unlike the Xbox One S, however, it cannot play Ultra Blu-rays as the disc drive doesn’t support the format. It’s a frustrating omission, especially since Sony created the Blu-ray format.

For the rest of us

It’s important to note that all PS4 games past, preset and future will work on both the PS4 Pro and the PS4. Sony refuses to split up its user base, so there will be no PS4 Pro exclusive games.

Likewise, the Pro isn’t just for 4K sets. If you own a standard HDTV — and that’s far away the majority of us at the moment — the Pro has you covered there as well … sort of.

Some games, like “Infamous: Second Son,” “NBA 2K17,” and a handful of games for the newly released PSVR, enjoy a variety of enhancements on non-4K sets. But good luck figuring out exactly what those enhancements are. Are you getting a slightly higher framerate? Improved lighting? Is that guy’s head a little less blurry, maybe? Who knows? You will, if you research it, but every game developer will tackle their Pro enhancements independently.

The entire PS4 lineup.

Results vary. “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” for instance, offers a best-case scenario by including a handy options screen toggle between enhanced visuals and higher framerate (from 30 to 60 fps). But “Battlefield 1?” I guess it runs better on the Pro, but I can’t say for sure because I literally have no idea what is being enhanced. “Mafia III” has slightly higher image quality and longer draw distance, maybe? “NBA 2K 17” already looks pretty amazing; I’m not sure what’s better when using a Pro. For a system all about enhancing visuals, Sony and third-party publishers make it weirdly difficult to figure out exactly how things are improving.

In part, that’s because it’s up to each developer to optimize and patch each currently released game to take advantage of the Pro. Some will go big, perhaps assuming that enough Pros will sell to justify the added development costs. Others will just nip and tuck a bit. There’s no standard here.

And frankly, we’re not talking about the sort of game-changing, high fidelity leap you get when you upgrade from a crappy onboard video card to a GeForce 1080 on a PC. For most games, the difference between the Pro and standard PS4 experience on a non-4K set isn’t quite worth the price of admission on its own.

Timing is everything

And so we come to the big question: should you buy one?

For $399, you’re getting the most powerful video game console currently available, and one that is future-proofed in the ever-widening world of 4K. More games, including huge first-party releases like “Horizon: Zero Dawn” and “The Last Guardian,” will ship ready-made for the Pro. If you’re already in Sony’s ecosystem or are starting from scratch and just bought (or are planning to buy) a 4K set, it is an easy, obvious upgrade.

But other than some shinier looks and moderate performance enhancements in a handful of games, there’s really nothing the Pro will do on a standard HD set, at least currently, that your run of the mill, $299 PS4 can’t.

There’s also the little matter of Project Scorpio. Microsoft’s upgraded Xbox One will reportedly run faster than the PS4 Pro, turning Sony’s impressive new machine into the second-most impressive machine on the market roughly one year from now. Such is life in the big leagues of modern console gaming, which is beginning to look an awful lot like the older days of PC gaming.

Unsexy as it is, this ultimately boils down to tech matchmaking. Without a 4K set, the $100 premium for the PS4 Pro is not worth it yet. The library isn’t there and it’s unclear what you’re getting for the money, other than some extra hard drive space and greater potential. Have the right TV, however, and it makes much more sense —  4K visuals are glorious, and the PS4 Pro’s performance boosts really do make a difference. Either way, one thing’s for certain: owning a home video game console just got more complicated.

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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.