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Sony says the PS4 Pro is 4K-ready, but will it actually render games at 2160p?

During yesterday’s messy PlayStation Meeting event, Sony’s Andrew House officially announced the PS4 Pro — a mid-generation refresh that’s catering to the burgeoning 4K market. The $399 asking price and the early November release date are exciting, but the announcement left us scratching our heads. How can Sony pull off 4K UHD gameplay with these specs? Why doesn’t it have a UHD Blu-ray drive? How will this update compare with Project Scorpio? The console market has never been more confusing.

Let’s get the specs out of the way. The CPU is still an eight-core AMD Jaguar, but it’s clocked faster for this new machine. The GPU is a custom AMD Radeon setup that can hit 4.2 TFLOPS. It’s still sitting at 8GB of GDDR5, but the memory bandwidth gets a bump. A 4K/HDR-capable HDMI output, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, 802.11ac WiFi, and three USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports are built-in, but the optical drive is still stuck with regular Blu-ray — not a single mention of UHD Blu-ray support.

The leaks from earlier this year point to a 2.1GHz CPU clock speed, 36 compute units at 911MHz, and slightly improved memory bandwidth at 218GB/s. These particular specs haven’t been verified just yet, but they compare poorly with the numbers being thrown around by Microsoft for Project Scorpio. Considering it’s already a question whether Microsoft can deliver 4K gaming across the board, Sony’s situation is even more precarious.

I spoke with ExtremeTech’s own Joel Hruska about the feasibility of native 2160p games on this hardware, and he was highly skeptical. If the leaked information is right, we’re looking at a graphics setup very similar to a RX 480 with a lower clock speed. On top of that, Joel’s concerned about the memory bandwidth. It’s faster than the baseline PS4‘s memory, but 300GB/s or more is more inline with what we’d expect for reasonable performance at 4K.

As it stands, Joel and I are in agreement that we might be in for another PS3-like situation with Sony’s resolution claims. At the start of the last generation, Sony made a big deal about the PS3’s 1080p capability, but very few games ever rendered natively at 1920×1080. With the PS4 Pro, 2160p is a possibility, but we could end up seeing most AAA polygonal games sticking to a 1440p or 1080p target, and then upscaling to 4K.

Mark Cerny — PS4 platform architect — emphasized hardware innovations and streamlined rendering techniques over brute force when he was breaking down the PS4 Pro on stage. And since the custom GPU is using some AMD tech that’s “beyond” Polaris, it’s possible that Sony might be able to pull off the unexpected. Even so, Cerny kept his wording vague in a few key areas — deftly avoiding lofty claims that could be tested for veracity. That level of cautiousness doesn’t fill us with confidence.

While the 4K chops of this new console are still in question, the potential for better overall image quality is not. When connected to regular HDTVs, the additional horsepower can be used for higher frame rates, longer draw distances, and even supersampling. And if your television is capable of displaying HDR, all the better.

Upcoming games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Horizon: Zero Dawn will obviously take advantage of the faster internals, but some older titles will be getting in on the action as well. The likes of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End will receive patches that will let the games take advantage of at least some of the benefits of the PS4 Pro.

For now, I’m sticking with my trusty 1080p HDTV from 2011, so I won’t see the benefits of HDR and higher resolutions any time soon. However, the potential for improved performance and fidelity on 1080p displays. and the PSVR is certainly intriguing. I’ve placed my PS4 Pro pre-order, even though there are numerous questions still to be answered.

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