PlayStation 4 Pro: Did Sony Play It a Bit Too Safe?

PlayStation 4 Pro: Did Sony Play It a Bit Too Safe?

We get technical about Sony's latest

S.G. Brown

Written by for Features on

As many gamers learned recently, the PlayStation 4 has now sold over 50 million units worldwide. However, the PS4 Pro numbers, while initially strong, have not been on-pace with the new standard Slim model. While the PS4 Pro is merely an iteration of the console brand and not the beginning of a generation of consoles, the novel machine has clearly hit a full-stop with some gamers.

PlayStation 4 Pro box photo
My PlayStation 4 Pro box in all its glory

In recent interviews, PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny explained how Sony was able to expand the PS4 Pro's graphical prowess without unfairly messing with the client base of the older model and the newer Slim model by nesting 2 identical GPUs (graphics processing units) in a butterfly configuration side-by-side. Simply put, much akin to a PC GPU SLI (slave link interface) configuration, two similar or identical pieces of graphical hardware chips are linked, nested on the motherboard and work together with the CPU, buffer, RAM and more to enhance throughput and what gamers will eventually see on their screens.

In general terms, throughput represents the maximum rate at which something can be processed. For gamers, this has become a benchmark that represents the amount of data transmission moved smoothly from one place to another such as a console or PC out to a screen. Specifically for console gamers, throughput is the result of a system's ability to process and display our games onscreen with fidelity and at an acceptable frame rate. Of course, particular technical specifics are much denser than any simple explanation of hardware efficiency could be but for our brief discussion of the PlayStation 4 Pro, how all of this configured hardware has been technically able to process and run our games becomes less important than how our games will perform overall on that specific console.

Basically, the difference between the PlayStation 4 Slim and the PS4 Pro is power: the Pro has a faster CPU and a more powerful GPU when utilized. We'll get back to this thorny contention in a bit. Other differences between the Slim model and the Pro include the ports on the back of each console. The Pro has an updated HDMI (high definition multimedia interface) output port and an optical audio out port with an additional USB 3.0 port for peripherals such as Sony's PlayStation VR.

Gravity Rush 2 screenshot
Gravity Rush 2 is even more of a rush in 4K

Internally, both consoles share an AMD Jaguar x86-64 bit 8-core CPU; which on the PlayStation 4 Pro has had a near 30% clock-speed boost effectively increasing throughput and limiting bottlenecks in concerted performance with its overclocked dual GPUs. Additionally, the PS4 Pro has an added 1GB of DDR3 system RAM which has been intended to be utilized by back-end features, UI, and other non-gaming apps to free up its faster GDDR5 RAM for better and smoother gaming performance. These specific power boosts on the PS4 Pro were designed to accommodate its new 4K upscaled output functionality.

Unfortunately, neither the PlayStation 4 Slim nor the Pro has an internal Blu-ray drive for physical media capable of 4K output. While both consoles are now fully able to render HDR (high dynamic range) output, each user must supply an HDR-compliant screen. HDR refers to more dynamically rendered colors, hues and contrasts for more natural representation of imagery. Visuals are more closely rendered in natural hues and color contrasts and depth than screens without this feature. Of course, to enjoy the PlayStation 4 Pro's upscaled 4K output with HDR enabled, you must also have a modern 4K screen.

When the Pro runs the majority of the 700+ titles currently available on PS4 without specially coded instructions, it simply shuts down one of the two GPUs for a simulated parity with the newest base model PS4 Slim (now the only other sold model of the console). What this essentially means is that Sony wanted to maintain PlayStation 4 Pro game rendering parity with all current and previous models while not splitting its user base nor requiring game developers to write code for multiple and separate console iterations. This simple fact also means that unless game developers write and release updates to their library of games, the PlayStation 4 Pro will likely be unable to enhance game performance or graphics. In fact, many non-updated PlayStation 4 titles running on the Pro have also been shown to struggle with frame rate, frame-pacing and buffering issues hindering overall smoothness. Keep in mind, the PlayStation 4 Pro was designed to make use of upscaled 4K rendering for modern HDR 4K televisions.

The Elder Scrolls Online screenshot
The Elder Scrolls Online's Coldharbour on PS4 Pro will make you shiver

In essence, the jump from 1080p to 4K is approximately 4 times the number of pixels rendered onscreen. However, the PS4 Pro simulates 4K output through its custom upscaling rendering mode known as checkerboarding. This mode of rendering presents crisper details, increased texture detail and better specular effects at less system cost and overall workload than other rendering solutions. For the unfamiliar, specular effects are represented by mirror reflections, refractions, caustics and special lighting effects. The PlayStation 4 Pro is a well-designed machine and can run games at their best potential but only when developers have incurred the expense of further development costs. Initially, Sony had bravely pronounced that all forthcoming PlayStation 4 game titles would be Pro compliant post system launch and would offer better gaming features such as optional higher frame rates and enhanced graphics. After purportedly facing pushback from the development community, Sony had cleverly amended their original declaration essentially to: maybe developers might make use of the available advanced console hardware capabilities of the PS4 Pro...

That's the seriously confusing and difficult contention with the PlayStation 4 Pro: its success depends almost completely upon third-party developers. In other words, without proper and enthusiastic support for Sony's newest hardware, the PS4 Pro includes components, firmware, and features that gamers might never enjoy nor benefit from. Simply put, when the Pro automatically shuts down or fails to initiate its secondary GPU (without specific coding instructions), why would Sony even include a linked GPU? Why didn't Sony envision a user base that would embrace enhanced graphics or performance for all PlayStation 4 games, past, present and future?

Oddly, Sony put a very high premium on not alienating its installed gamer base while still timidly offering its PlayStation 4 Pro iteration with a greater yet vague feature set. To this end, the PS4 Pro will nerf its performance to align with the Slim model when not specifically instructed to utilize its more advanced hardware. This boggles my mind: the PlayStation 4 Pro seemingly replicates the efficiency of its lesser peer as default performance unless written instructions have unlocked its potential hardware enhancements? All Pro hardware upgrades shall remain dormant when running a non-Pro enhanced game or app while also attempting an upscaled 4K output to a modern television? If the base Slim model cannot functionally output to a 4K screen while the Pro downgrades its enhancements to emulate any base model PlayStation 4, how could it maintain smooth upscaled 4K output? It can't reasonably be expected to do that.

Final Fantasy XV screenshot
Can the PS4 Pro make fishing in Final Fantasy XV actually fun?

If the PlayStation 4 Pro had natively enhanced 1080p visuals and frame rates out of the box and alternately offered 4K upscaled output to modern screens then it would be a mandatory upgrade for any serious gamer and those individuals wanting to stream 4K video content where available. At present, Sony must be relying on the self-incurred expenses charged to developers for any past game updates and those forthcoming games that might take advantage of the Pro's better hardware to generate a moderate acceptance of their newest console iteration. Oddly, if all of the Pro's features had been unlocked by default, developers would enthusiastically embrace its features. Now, they have to pay extra through development cost and delays to get the PlayStation 4 Pro to even work properly.

PlayStation 4 Pro teardown video 12:45
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