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The PS4 Pro makes console gaming more complicated, but will it make it better?

For decades, consoles have had one significant advantage over PCs: simplicity. While this has changed somewhat in recent years, thanks to increased console complexity and capabilities undreamed of in the days of the NES, consoles have still been marketed and sold as an easy way to get into gaming compared with PCs. Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro is going to change that, and not necessarily in a good way.

Ever since rumors leaked of a mid-cycle PlayStation 4 upgrade, there have been questions about what form the update would take and what it would offer to gamers who already owned a conventional PS4. We now have some answers to these questions, but they don’t paint a simple picture of the new hardware or its capabilities.

Take HDR (High Dynamic Range) as one example. Sony is unlocking that capability in all PlayStation 4’s via a firmware update, but you won’t see the improvement on any PS4 unless you own a TV that’s HDR-capable. (Sony supports the HDR-10 standard rather than the competing Dolby Vision or Technicolor HDR standards, and apparently has no plans to implement either of the latter.) If you don’t have an HDR-enabled display to start with, the best anyone can give you is an approximation, like the one below. There’s no way to actually compare SDR versus HDR footage to see if you think HDR is worth buying into without actually seeing it in person.

According to Eurogamer, having an HDR-capable display was critical to showcasing Sony’s new hardware in the best light:

On the top-end screens used at the event at least, HDR was hugely important to the quality of the presentation. The bottom line is simple – in some scenarios, HDR adds just as much extra detail as the additional resolution. In Horizon Zero Dawn, the skybox is transformed, on Uncharted 4, the beach on the island level we saw is washed out, completely lacking in texture until HDR is enabled. What’s clear is that the perception of HDR having an impact on colour vibrancy is only half of the picture. Yes, contrast is massively improved, but in turn, this allows for much more detail to be resolved in the presentation.

The PlayStation 4 Pro gives developers more hardware to play with, but it also gives them some significant freedom in how they deliver it. Crystal Dynamics will give players three options for Rise of the Tomb Raider, Ars reports: A 4K30 FPS mode with HDR enabled that balances quality settings and frame rate, a 1080p30 mode with a locked frame rate and maximum eye candy, and a 1080p mode with an unlocked frame rate that’s expected to deliver 40-60 FPS. A PC gamer examining these options will probably complain about being limited to three. Console owners can’t typically control such settings at all, but the bigger concern is with how these options are presented and communicating their meanings to PS4 Pro owners.

This is where we think Sony’s messaging fell short yesterday. Prior to the event, there was a great deal of speculation on what kind of benefits existing 1080p TV owners could expect from the new console. Sony opted to focus most of its presentation and game demos on 4K and HDR, which makes sense for showcasing the maximum fidelity of the platform, but doesn’t tell current owners anything about what they can expect. While 4K adoption is expected to increase rapidly over the next few years, NPD predicts just 10% market penetration by the end of this year. Focusing on 4K and HDR with the PS4 Pro may have been a way to signal that Sony is thinking about the future, but it left a lot of people wondering if they have to replace their televisions to get any real benefit from the new console.

One could argue that we’ve already seen the market handle this kind of transition before, when HDTVs, the Xbox 360, and the PS3 collectively came to market, though issues with the PS3’s hardware scaling caused early adopters some headaches in that case, too. I think it’s entirely possible that the narrow focus on HDR and 4K yesterday gave the wrong impression, and we may see plenty of titles patching in new support for 1080p and additional graphics detail that meaningfully improves both performance and image quality for conventional TV owners.

Sony has to navigate a tricky situation here. There’s nothing wrong with creating a console that shines in 4K (for more details on how the PS4 Pro achieves 4K, see our post on the topic) and in HDR. If consumers don’t see a meaningful benefit on the TVs they own now, however, they’ll be inclined to delay or defer the purchase until they’re ready to upgrade their televisions. That could hit uptake on the platform and ultimately doom the experiment.

It’s not a foregone conclusion, though. Sony should’ve included UHD Blu-ray on the PS4 Pro (or at least offered a SKU that had it), simply because it would’ve given the company a clean sweep of up-and-coming features. Sony claims to have dumped UHD because its own research suggested it wasn’t a compelling feature for PS4 owners — and that’s a bit troubling, given that Sony was instrumental in development of the standard. We’ll have to wait and see if not having UHD Blu-ray, specifically, crops up as a major reason people buy the Xbox One S as opposed to the PlayStation 4 Pro.

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