This article was first published on November 7th as a review-in-progress. After spending more time with the console, I've updated it with more findings and a verdict. I first tested this console at a Sony event in the company of PlayStation representatives and developers. I then took it home to test for a week.
The latest PlayStation 4 had a few nicknames before Sony settled on ‘PS4 Pro’. “PS4 Neo” was a popular one, as were “PS4K” and “PS4.5”. I feel the last one is the most appropriate: this is an upgrade, not a proper level up like the PS5 would be.
That means you’re not getting a next-gen console, but rather the best possible version of a three-year-old machine. Sony calls it “the super-charged PS4”, which seems fair. It’s bigger than ever, with more power under the hood, and it can handle 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) video.
Sony’s biggest problem is Microsoft’s Xbox One S, itself a 0.5 upgrade. But while Microsoft generously added UHD Blu-ray playback during the refurb, Sony hasn't. The PS4 Pro is completely focused on gaming performance and fidelity.
The PS4 Pro is a bit familiar, but it’s also the most powerful gaming console you can buy in 2016. While it doesn't do enough to make existing PS4 owners rush out to upgrade, anyone about to join #teamSony is in for a treat.
Watch: PS4 Pro – video review
The PS4 Pro is a beast. It’s a little taller than original PS4, and clearly wider and deeper. The overall effect is more of a slab than a box.
I'm okay with this. The Xbox One S could afford to go smaller than its predecessor since the core specifications are the same. The PS4 Pro has a bigger engine – you can't stick a V12 in a Mini. Well you can, but that would be ridiculous.
In other design news: the parallelogram shape remains but the sharp corners have been rounded off. A chrome-effect PS logo at the top is the only thing that really stands out from the matte black plastic. It adds a premium vibe, which is just as well as the very thin power and eject buttons don’t feel luxurious at all.
The original’s two-deck design is now a three-deck. There seems to be no functional point to this extra deck, besides maybe confusing people into inserting games where there is no disc drive.
As before, two USB ports hide in a gap at the front, but Sony has – at last – added a third to the back. It makes me very happy to know that I can finally charge my controller without a cable sticking out the front.
The other connections are as before: Ethernet, HDMI out, Aux (for the PS4 camera), optical out, and power. Note that the power lead is no longer a figure-of-eight cable, but a kettle lead.
Under the hood, the PS4 Pro promises twice the power of its predecessor. That means the Pro can run games faster, with fewer framerate drops in intensive games. Most importantly, the PS4 Pro supports 4K and HDR.
A quick word on these, for the uninitiated: 4K refers to the picture resolution, and is roughly four times the number of pixels you get on a regular Full HD picture – about eight million pixels. Theoretically, that means finer detail and greater clarity.
HDR, or high dynamic range, means a wider range of brightness, contrast and colour. This technology has come along because traditional production and display technologies don’t show nearly as much information as our eyes can see. A higher dynamic range means a more realistic picture.
Related: What is HDR?
The fact that the PS4 Pro can handle 4K and HDR simply means better looking games. New PS4 games will have a ‘Pro’ option for enhanced visuals, and some older games are getting patched too.
Don’t worry about compatibility, because all PS4 games must work on standard and Pro consoles. That’s the rule – nobody gets left out in the cold. Otherwise, it’s entirely up to the developers how they make use of the extra power on the PS4 Pro.
For a list of PS4 Pro supported games, check out our PS4 Pro vs PS4 feature.
The PS4 Pro is noticeably quieter than the original PS4. There is inevitably more noise when the disc drive is spinning and the fan speeds up, but once everything is installed and you’re gaming normally, it’s barely audible from the sofa – and almost impossible to notice if you’ve got the TV on.
I downloaded a sound meter app on my phone. It’s not the most scientific measurement but good enough to provide an idea. I placed it over the console’s disc drive and recorded the measurement at the loudest point. The PS4 Pro measured 49dB, while my C-chassis (fairly recent) PS4 measured 53dB. For reference, the coffee table in my living room (to check ambient noise) measured 33dB. What this all means is that console’s sound won’t interrupt your gameplay.
This thing is also fast. The PS4 Pro boasts SATA 3 hard drive, an upgrade from the PS4’s SATA 2. Without going all technical, this means the Pro can transfer data at twice the speed. Big games such as Grand Theft Auto V and Hitman jumped into action noticeably faster, which is brilliant because loading screens kill happiness.
There’s a new controller. Well, a slightly tweaked one. It’s the one released with the new slim PS4, so if you’ve seen that, you’ll know exactly what to expect.
Functionally it remains very much the same. The analogue sticks, face buttons, Options/Share buttons and D-pad have been given a new grey tone to contrast with the black of the controller. It reminds me a little of the PlayStation 20th Anniversary Edition controllers, but that grey a couple of shades darker.
The touchpad is also now translucent at the top, which lets through a little of the light bar on the back of the controller. It’s an odd move, considering the general apathy (or even disdain) towards the light bar, but it does make it easier for players to see which colour they are in multiplayer matches.
It seems the tweaks are merely aesthetic – another point for the Xbox One S, which added tougher joysticks and a grippier texture. At least PlayStation has licensed third parties, such as Razer, to make ‘Pro’ controllers. Ironically, those look a lot like Xbox pads.
Since its announcement, plenty of people have raged about the fact that the PS4 Pro doesn’t have a 4K Blu-ray player. I was one of those people, and my stance hasn’t changed: I think it’s a mistake. Without UHD Blu-rays, you’re left with streaming, which I’m told is the future. That argument doesn’t hold up right now, because, at least in the UK, the average internet connection is not fast or stable enough for 4K HDR streaming.
Then there’s the matter of content. Your favourite streaming subscriptions only give you TV shows to stream in 4K and HDR. The 4K films must be paid for separately – at the same prices as UHD Blu-rays – and they don’t even offer HDR.
Basically, the only source for 4K HDR movies is UHD Blu-ray, which means the PS4 Pro will not scratch that particular itch. Your only option is to get a dedicated player, or an Xbox One S.
Sony argues that the omission of the UHD Blu-ray component is down to the popularity of streaming, but this conveniently ignores the fact that Sony has made its own 4K Blu-ray player.
So why no 4K Blu-ray player? The only compelling argument for this omission is the price. The Xbox One S sports a 4K player but is fundamentally the same machine that launched three years ago. Sony, meanwhile, has piled in the upgraded components, and they're not cheap.
For the equivalent graphics on PC, it’ll cost you a lot more than the £350 Sony wants for the 1TB version. Suddenly the lack of 4K Blu-ray is more forgivable.
For this argument to hold up, the gaming experience would need to be significantly enhanced – and it is.
I played Gran Turismo Sport, Uncharted 4, The Last of Us Remastered, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Horizon Zero Dawn, all on 4K and HDR-compatible TVs. The results were very impressive, but differed depending on the game.
The Last of Us Remastered looks better than ever in 4K and HDR. Textures on the clothing are finer. Colour shading is more subtle. There’s much more of a kick to sun beams and shadows are both murkier and yet contain more detail. Revisiting Joel and Ellie on the PS4 Pro is almost like playing the game for the first time.
Then there’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, a newer game and already a stunner. This game’s PS4 Pro mode ignores HDR entirely, and instead focuses on detail and framerates. You get to choose between visual fidelity and stability. Stick with 1080p and you can run the game at 60fps. I chose the 4K option, which is capped at 30fps. That slight drop in smoothness was worth it for the lush scenery.
I was most blown away by Gran Turismo Sport, which runs at 4K (using 1800p checkerboard rendering) and HDR at 60fps. Ferrari red is accurately rendered, which is a big deal because it wasn’t possible until now, and always appeared a little too orange. It’s a subtle thing, but when everything looks a little more realistic, it all adds up.
Less subtle is the matter of contrast. Sun glinting off a shiny bonnet ought to make you squint, and here it definitely does. Combined with the fine bumps and scratches on the metal, that’s the most lifelike video game rendering of cars I’ve ever seen.
All this, and the PS4 Pro is only just getting started. I’m really looking forward to the flood of games that will make full use of all this extra power.
Related: Xbox Scorpio vs PS4 Pro
The standard PS4 is perfectly capable of handling PlayStation VR, but it does sacrifice visual fidelity for framerate stability, which is important to protect users from nausea. The PS4 Pro has more power, and with great power comes great VR. That’s the theory anyway.
Sony says you’ll benefit from more detail and better rendering in the headset. One of the “Pro” patched VR titles is Battlezone, which is supposed to have enhanced resolution and in-cockpit lighting and reflections. In practice, I’m not sure I noticed any difference. Then again, it’s not really a game that lends itself to visual critique.
For a bigger visual challenge, I tried Batman Arkham VR. This game didn’t get a patch but I was curious anyway. I didn’t notice any improvement in definition, but I did notice fewer texture pops, as the game benefitted from the Pro’s faster rendering. Loading times were better, too.
The problem with these titles is that they were built with the standard PS4 in mind. I’m certain that upcoming PSVR or PSVR-compatible games will benefit from the extra power.
After trying Gran Turismo Sport on a 4K HDR TV, I tried it in PSVR. What I experienced was detailed and stable – way better than the blurry mess that is DriveClub VR.
The annoying thing about using PSVR with the PS4 Pro is that the VR’s processing box doesn’t pass through HDR. It has no problem with 4K, but if you have that processing box connected, the image on your TV will not be HDR. You’ll have to unplug the VR and connect the PS4 Pro straight into your TV. Every time. That’s very annoying, especially for anyone with a nicely integrated entertainment centre, built to hide away cables.
The PS4 Pro has some niggles, but it also offers the power that you’d struggle to find out of a high-end gaming PC. If you’ve yet to adopt a console of this generation, I’d say it’s a no-brainer. You won’t find better graphics on a games console this year.
But what if you already have a PS4? That’s a less obvious choice, considering the PS4 also gets HDR – without the 4K – which narrows that gap quite a bit. As an original PS4 owner, I am sorely tempted to upgrade, but then again I'm an AV geek.
Then there’s the Xbox One S, which doesn’t have the sheer grunt of the PS4 Pro, but does offer a 4K Blu-ray player. If you want an all-round media machine, Microsoft has a distinct advantage in that arena. Another thing to consider is the proper next-gen consoles. Microsoft has its next Xbox in the pipeline, codenamed Project Scorpio, and that’s bound to be a clear step up.
Ultimately, it depends how much importance you attach to that extra step towards realism. While I don’t feel the PS4 Pro is an essential purchase, it is the best games console on the market.
The super-charged PS4 is the best games console right now.