So the PS4 Pro is here and the traditional hardware cycle has been smashed.
Thanks to modern development tools and a PC-related architecture, Sony has evolved a truly backward-compatible console, one that plays the same games as its sibling but with enhanced graphical capabilities.
It’s a fantastic achievement and a bold experiment on the part of PlayStation, one that Microsoft will have its own stab at next year with Project Scorpio.
Some improvements will be offered to those using traditional Full HD TVs, but to appreciate the full majesty of the PS4 Pro you’ll need a 4K TV, preferably one supporting high dynamic range (HDR) as well.
In short, the success of the PS4 Pro is inextricably linked to the take up of 4K TV.
So just how many 4K TVs are there in the UK? We spoke to Nick Simon, account director of Consumer Electronics at research firm GfK. The latest data tells us that cumulative sales of 4K TVs had gone past 2m by the end of September 2016. GfK estimates, based on last year’s data, that another 1m will be sold before the end of the year. So that’s around 3m 4K TVs in the UK.
That’s a huge acceleration in sales over the 200,000 sets that were sold in 2015. That rise is driven by falling 4K TV prices, as mainstream, rather than just high-end, models switch to 4K resolutions. The accompanying price reduction has been similarly dramatic, with the average falling from circa 1,500 in 2014 to around 750 in the first nine months of 2016.
We’ll have to wait until the CES tech show in January to see just how widespread 4K models are going to be in 2017, but we’d be surprised if there are many Full HD TVs left standing. That should mean the majority of the 6m sets annually sold in the UK next year would be 4K.
By comparison the PS4 had sold around 3m units in the UK back in March, though that figure should have grown to at least 4m by the end of the year. The big question is how many of those 4K TVs have ended up in households containing PS4 consoles – as existing PS4 owners are undoubtedly the core target market for Sony when it comes to initially selling the PS4 Pro.
We know (from UKIE statistics) that the core of console gamers consists of men in their twenties and thirties in the lower middle, or skilled working classes. We’re not able to find similar data for purchasers of 4K TVs to date but large, high-end TV sets have traditionally sold to older, richer consumers – after all these were largely 1,000+ devices.
So there’s more 4K TVs out there than you might think. But they might not be in the hands of gamers.
Number of 4K TVs that GfK Entertainment predicts
will have been sold in the UK by the end of 2016
The 4K TV market is just hitting its stride but it seems to be gaining mainstream traction by default rather than out of any great enthusiasm on the part of consumers. That’s in part due to a lack of content to date for the high-resolution TV format.
Netflix UK has a handful of good TV shows, largely self-made, and a few movies; while Amazon Prime has a similarly limited selection. The BBC is talking about adding 4K to iPlayer but that’s still a way off. Either way, consumers will also need to pay for a fast, fibre internet connection, if it’s available at their home.
Then there’s the new Ultra HD Blu-ray format but as PS4 Pro has chosen not to support it, that only brings more confusion to the 4K debate. Ultra HD discs are supported by the Xbox One S, which should then appeal to home cinema enthusiasts. Either way, it’s hardly a mass market proposition to date, with only a handful of films on sale in the UK.
Thus, 4K TV owners have little 4K content to enjoy on them. So hopefully they’ll be overjoyed to see the 4K-capable PS4 Pro.
PlayStation has had its hands full of late, what with PSVR and PS4 Pro launching in close succession at similar prices. The big question is whether the message is getting out to consumers about what the PS4 Pro offers. As it’s far from simple.
Most big games will get updated to run at 4K resolution, most by rendering at a middle-ground native resolution of around 4m pixels and then upscaling that to the full 8m pixels of 4K. Putting this detail aside the results remain impressive, with a crispness and detail which rivals that of a high-end gaming PC. That’s the easy bit.
This image is further enhanced by the addition of HDR. In our experience, this is as much a draw as 4K. However, only the more expensive 4K TVs support HDR in any appreciable manner (600+) and only the very top-end models (1,000+) are bright enough to get the top industry specification, UHD Premium.
Oh, and by the way, Sony has patched HDR into the regular PS4 as well. So some consumers, with the right TV, might want to give that a go before splashing out on the PS4 Pro. Meanwhile, Microsoft has added HDR to the Xbox One S, but not to the Xbox One.
If all that wasn’t enough for consumers to get their heads around, the PS4 Pro also offers enhancements for regular Full HD TVs. This can take the form of more stable frame rates, additional graphical effects or details, and super-sampling techniques which smooth out the whole image. These will vary considerably from game to game, though, and will be seen as refinements by most consumers. Who, in addition, may need to play with graphics settings to get the best experience for them.
There is a danger, then, in overselling the PS4 Pro to Full HD owners, which could be a PR nightmare for both Sony and retailers. Some upgraders simply won’t see a 350 difference between the PS4 and PS4 Pro on a typical HD TV. Demoing the difference in stores could overcome this, but the temptation will always be to show the new console at its best, which is in 4K with HDR.
In short, PlayStation 4 Pro only reliably shines on a 4K TV, preferably with HDR.
4K and HDR are undoubtedly the future for console gaming. The inevitable churn in the TV market, and rapidly-declining 4K prices, mean that practically everyone’s next TV is a 4K TV. There are quite a few sets out there today, and some of those have good HDR support, but there are many, many more PlayStation owners in the UK than fully-fledged 4K/HDR TVs.
That may mean the PS4 Pro is a slow burner in terms of sales, with consumers buying in when they upgrade their TVs. It’s even possible that the PS4 Pro can actually drive 4K TV sales itself, rather than simply satisfying a demand for 4K gaming. Either way, it’s generally accepted that where the early-adopters go, the mass-market will follow.
At what speed remains to be seen, but right now the PS4 Pro looks like a snow plough, bravely cutting a crystal clear 4K path through a frozen tundra of Full HD TVs. The only question is will enough consumers follow before Project Scorpio, and eventually the true next-gen, arrives.
But what about the Xbox One S?
Microsoft already has a 4K console of course, in some respects. The recent Xbox One S supports 4K resolution, although only by upscaling the usual graphics output to match the TV’s resolution. It does, however, support HDR, allowing for more striking images for those with a compatible TV.
The Xbox One S also includes an Ultra HD Blu-ray drive, which can play the latest generation of disc-based movies. Sony omitted this hardware from the PS4 Pro, instead preferring to concentrate on streaming video services, with 4K Netflix available at launch, presuming consumers are willing to pay the extra (12 per month) for the 4K version of the service.
What is 4K?
4K is the new TV standard that’s replacing the Full HD TV sets of recent years. While a Full HD set has 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (around 2m in total), a 4K TV has four times that number with 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (around 8m in total).
Given that smartphones pack 2m or more pixels into a screen just 5 inch across, it’s hardly science fiction to put 8m pixels on a large 50in living room TV. The 4K standard, also referred to as Ultra HD, is similar to the resolution you see in a modern digital cinema, so if it’s good enough for a screen that big, it’s good enough for the living room.
What is HDR?
High dynamic range (HDR) TV has a wider contrast ratio than typical TV sets. That means darker sections should be really black, with more detail in dark shadowy scenes; while bright areas of the screen are seriously bright, like a light being shone in your eyes at the extremes.
While a typical TV today produces around 300nits of brightness, a top-end HDR TV will put out 1,000nits. That means when the sun glints off a character’s armour, you’ll get a far more realistic effect.
Yet not all HDR TVs are born equal, with many current models struggling to hit 500nits at best.
Consumers will also benefit from a wider colour gamut, providing more realistic colour and more finely graduated colour palette onscreen.