Sony’s PlayStation Meeting for 2016 was a short affair. It lasted only an hour, and it was quite a subdued event, very different from the one in 2013 which started off the console wars with a bang (Microsoft’s earlier event caught the public’s imagination in a very… different manner). Last night’s event was all about hardware – updating the PlayStation 4 family with the earlier leaked PS4 Slim redesign, as well as a brand new console called the PlayStation 4 Pro, some redesigned peripherals, and a bunch of questions that I’ll be going over in a separate column. For now, let’s get into the announcements that were made by Sony.
The event started off with Sony’s Andrew House talking about the transition from PS3 to PS4, and how it changed Sony’s marketing and product strategy at the same time. PlayStation 4 was all about getting people access to the new games and digital services that were springing up everywhere, as well as democratise access to these mediums through a unified platform available across various devices. That platform turned into the Sony Entertainment Network, and it’s brought the company much-needed success with music, movie, and TV show sales, as well as distributing original content. That’s essentially what the PS4 was – a media access device to gain access to Sony’s media offerings. The PS2 was a games console, and the PS3 was intended to become a media powerhouse. PS4 was both of those things, but didn’t go to either extreme as much as its predecessors did.
Sony’s Mark Cerny, the chief architect of the PS Vita, PS4, as well as the new PS4 Slim and PS4 Pro, also noted that the PS4 was intended as a springboard platform, giving rise to a new way for consumers to jump into console gaming and keep their library across upgrades. I’ve been talking about this for almost half a decade now – that both Sony and Microsoft are now looking into finding ways of making their back catalog playable on future devices, whilst also preserving the experience of the old ones. That’s achieved through emulation and virtualisation, two things which the PS4 does very well for PS1 and PS2 classics at the moment. For Microsoft, the Xbox One runs Xbox 360 games in a virtual machine using a wrapper to translate CPU commands from PowerPC to something x86 can understand. Nintendo is also doing this as well, making the Virtual Console a selling point for the Wii U, and sticking to the PowerPC architecture when they chose to design and launch the Wii U in the first place.
But we’re moving a ways away from the topic at hand. To start off, it’s the PS4 Pro, Sony’s new console.
PlayStation 4 Pro for 4K UHD gaming and media
The PlayStation 4 Pro is a new console from Sony that basically adheres to all of the rumored specs of the PS4 NEO, which was its codename during development. It’s equally suitable for gaming on 4K HDR displays as well as lowly HD monitors with HDMI from 2010.
It’s expected to launch on 10 November 2016 in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Europe, and Japan. Other regions will see their launches happen a little later, but everyone should be on the hype train before December rolls around. It starts at $399 in the U.S., and €399 in Europe for the baseline 1TB model. Since South Africa is considered part of the EMEA region, our launch price might be around R7000, quite similar to that of the original PS4 when it launched here in 2013.
The console is twice as fast as the outgoing PS4, with the bulk of the performance uplift coming from the GPU, which has been updated to match features from AMD’s Polaris architecture, currently shipping in the form of the Radeon RX 480, RX 470, and RX 460 desktop graphics cards.
Cerny makes a point to also note that they’ve also included features that aren’t in Polaris, which means that the GPU inside the PS4 Pro is a mixture of Polaris and AMD’s Vega architectures. It’s fairly far removed from the GPU inside the current console, but I’ll talk about that in more detail in a different article. There’s also clock speed improvements on the CPU side of things, and most of the other components stays the same – it has a hard drive, 8GB of GDDR5 memory, Blu-Ray support, and improved cooling.
The PS4 Pro’s housing needs to be a bit bigger to accommodate the improved cooling, as well as a larger power supply and power connector. It’s rated for a 310W power draw from the wall, so the old PSU had to go because it wasn’t beefy enough. Thankfully, for those of you who lamented the omission of the optical audio port on the PS4 Slim redesign, the PS4 Pro retains optical audio out at the rear. A new USB 3.1 Gen 1 port also appears at the rear, supporting transfer speeds of up to 5.0Gb/s. That might mean that the console uses a SATA 3.0 hard drive and connector, which also means it’ll allow SSD drives to stretch their legs a bit.
Wi-Fi connectivity now includes Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 AC 5.0GHz networks, which puts to rest one of the biggest complaints about the original PS4 – that its WiFi connections were too slow and too poor. This might speed things up a bit. Only a single HDMI 2.0 port is exposed on the back, which means that Sony still intends for PlayStation VR owners to use the PS VR video duplication unit that it connects to. That’s probably what that rear USB port is intended for as well.
The new PlayStation 4 Slim
We knew about the PS4 Slim from earlier leaks by people who managed to buy it early and post about it on social media. It’s essentially the PS4, just smaller, with less ports and a die shrink on the APU to save on costs, power draw, and heat. It’s about 40% slimmer than the original PS4 design, and comes with more robust buttons for powering on the console and ejecting disks. The hard drive is still replaceable, now accessed at the rear just like the PS3 Slim redesign.
It lacks optical audio out, something that’s going to annoy a lot of owners who might want to swap out their old PS4 for this version, especially if (like me) they output audio to a home theatre system, or to high-end headphones. That’s where the PS4 Pro is supposed to come in, but you could also just keep using the original PS4 instead. There’s no feature differences between them anyway.
The PS4 Slim is set to launch on 15 September 2016 across the world with a starting price of $299 or €299. That converts to about R4700 today (the rand trading at R15.75 to the euro). One nice thing about this launch, if you’re not upgrading, is that all PS4 consoles, including the Slim, will get a firmware update that enables HDR capability for HDR displays. Microsoft’s Xbox One can’t do that, because they needed to implement a clock speed boost with the Xbox One S to slip HDR capability in. On the plus side, the Xbox One S supports UHD 4K Blu-ray playback, while the PS4 Slim does not. Hmmm.
Both consoles will also ship with the redesigned DualShock 4 controller, complete with updated buttons and paint, new rubberised analog sticks, and a small modification to the touchpad that lets light from the LED shine through to allow you to make use of lighting effects from your games.
Unannounced by Sony on the stage, although on display for journalists at the event, were redesigns for the Platinum PlayStation wireless headset, as well as the PS Camera. The Platinum headset is only a minor update in terms of materials and paint, while the PS Camera gets a complete overhaul. It’s not longer bulky and unsightly, and the slimmer form factor means it’ll blend in to more home theatre setups more easily. The stand it rests on is detachable, and serves as a monitor mount for your TV or desktop monitor if you can’t fix the camera anywhere permanently.
On top of all the other changes, Sony announced that the PS4 Pro would be compatible with Netflix 4K content, and would get its own customised Netflix app, designed to suit 4K displays. There’s also a 4K Youtube app in the works, as well as others from Sony’s own SEN, and its third-party partners. Expect a 4K Plex app to pop up eventually, but only after they figure out how to get H.265 HEVC playback working.
Game updates for the PS4 Slim and PS4 Pro
Mark Cerny also went through a short list of confirmed titles that either had some special sauce for the PS4 Pro, or otherwise jazzed things up for existing PS4 owners free of charge. The two bonuses here are 4K rendering, and HDR (high dynamic range) support. Faster or smoother framerates sort of play into it as well, but just like the Xbox One S, Sony isn’t saying if PS4 games played on the PS4 Pro will run better with just a basic compatibility patch. That will be up to developers to implement if they so desire.
The following titles have confirmed forward compatibilty with the PS4 Pro, which means that they’ll have launch day patch support to run on the new console.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Killing Floor 2
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Infamous: First Light
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
Watch Dogs 2
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Mass Effect Andromeda
Final Fantasy XV
Skyrim Special Edition
Of these titles, some of which are still unreleased, Uncharted 4, Infamous: First Light, and Shadow of Mordor will all have a patch that enables HDR support on existing PS4 consoles and the PS4 Slim. Shadow of Mordor in particular takes a further step and will enable higher levels of anti-aliasing as well as smoother framerates on the PS4 Pro. Rise of the Tomb Raider also gets a framerate boost, and it now runs at 60fps on the new console.
Other PS4 Pro-compatibile titles listed here will typically ship with a high-res texture pack for the PS4 Pro, or a resolution upgrade to native 4K, or HDR, or some combination of the three. Sony allows game developers to decide where they want to go with this, which leads to the haphazard way of how these benefits are implemented on specific titles. The only game here that doesn’t benefit from anything at all is Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 – its patch merely allows it to run on the PS4 Pro.
Future PS4 titles made for PS4 Pro will also render the game in 4K (sometimes upscaled, sometimes native resolution), and will offer greater detail, either through higher-quality textures, an improved framerate, or extra geometry and detail not otherwise seen in the game, when playing it on a 1080p display.
And now for some gameplay trailers!
Sony showed off some new footage of Horizon: Zero Dawn being played on a PS4 Pro. The demo was clearly a live one, because there’s a section of gameplay where a dinosaur’s head clips into the ground.
Activision also made an appearance to talk about Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and revealed a new mission called “Operation Dark Quarry”. The setting is somewhat familiar – you and your team of crack shots have to investigate a distress call coming from a nearby mining station that has been knocked off course. It plays a bit like DOOM and Dead Space in some ways, but your main enemies aren’t aliens.
Mass Effect Andromeda? Mass Effect Andromeda! Try not to drool on your keyboard while Bioware takes you through a gorgeous 4K tech demo. Does this game look amazing, or what?!
That’s all from the PlayStation Meeting for 2016. It was a little underwhelming overall, but the calm nature of the event means that Sony doesn’t need to shout about their products because they know they own the market from now until the Xbox Scorpio launch in late 2017. Microsoft is going to have a difficult time countering these announcements, and by the time Scorpio launches, Sony will have had a year to sell PS4 Pro without any competition.
If the PS4’s first year’s sales success can be repeated, they’re going to be sitting pretty with 20 million units shipped by the time holiday 2017 rolls around.