On September 7th both Apple and Sony held press conferences on opposite side of the United States, separated by just two hours. In both instances the two companies were revealing the latest versions of the existing product lines. The difference is that one refreshes their line-up on an annual basis; the other, a lot longer.
Despite showing off new hardware, the message from both comes across as focusing more on experiences that can result from improved hardware. The past isn’t left behind, though; there is an acknowledgement that not everyone will be upgrading to the new hardware.
There was the unusual and unexpected appearance of Shigeru Miyamoto on the Apple stage showing off Super Mario Run, but just because there is a new iPhone doesn’t mean that it won’t be playable on previous iPhones. Likewise with the reveal of the new PlayStation 4 Pro – at the depressingly Outlook invite-sounding PlayStation Meeting – upcoming games that support the upgraded hardware will still be playable on existing consoles.
Still, both press events were about moving forward, where Apple talked of having the “courage” to kill off traditional headphones in favour of wireless headphones, while Sony are keen to encourage gamers to upgrade to a shiny new 4K HDR TV that you saw on a Curry’s advert.
This all costs money, but whilst you’ll now have a technically inferior version, in practise you won’t be missing out much. Sony – and Microsoft, with its Xbox One/“Scorpio” – are going to great pains to reassure people that the PS4 Pro is an optional upgrade. If you only have a 1080p TV you might get a better frame rate in some games, but really the extra power is to enable the output of 4K game content and for that you need a 4K TV. It’s also nice that Sony will be making all existing (and slim) PS4s HDR compatible via an software update, following in the footsteps of Microsoft’s Xbox One S. But considering how few 1080p TVs have that feature, in practise it’s perhaps more of a reason for those already with a 4K TV to get an idea of how much better a PS4 Pro will look on their TV. Still, it’s a nice gesture, and free updates like this are always appreciated, even if in reality they’ll do very little for the majority.
Ultimately, the shift in getting the early adopters of the Pro to upgrade to a 4K TV will benefit others, as the increased demand will lead to increased supply which will help to eventually bring costs down. Sony have been very good at using their gaming systems to push their other technology in the past – after all, Sony’s Blu-Ray won out over HD-DVD – although it is bizarre that they left out a UHD Blu-Ray drive. The main assumption is that it is a cost saving measure, and the the Pro can still show 4K media content, albeit via streaming from services like YouTube and Netflix.
The naming choice of Pro is odd too. Certainly Sony needs a way to distinguish it from the standard PS4 model, but Pro is a poor choice considering how much Sony is trying to emphasise the continuing relevance of the standard model. Calling it the 4K would have immediately signalled to people that this other version of the PS4 is capable of displaying 4K content, and without making those with the standard model feel like they have an inferior version (though technically that is correct) or that they themselves aren’t good enough, or care enough, about video games to consider themselves “pro”.
Mid-generation refreshes of consoles are nothing new, Sony have been doing so ever since the PSone refresh, just prior to the release of the PS2, but this is the first time that they have fragmented their home console systems with discrete hardware variances, not just aesthetic tweaks. This is going to be a confusing proposition for many people, even for those who are very familiar with the gaming landscape. Some games will run at slightly improved frame rates on the Pro hardware, but the extent to which will also depend on what type of TV it is connected to, as the extra power required to drive a 4K panel – as PC gamers will take you – adds a lot of strain over 1080p gaming.
This brings to mind the difficulty Nintendo had with the New 3DS. Like the Pro it’s more powerful than its predecessor, but it is not a “new” console that comes with a new console generation. It can play all of the existing games and new games (with a couple of exceptions) and will still be compatible with the previous version of the console as well, but they might perform “better” on the new hardware. Although in the case of the Pro, “better” is being touted as looking nicer.
With Sony also refreshing the original PS4 model with a slightly slimmer new variant it means that, to use Microsoft’s marketing, no one will be left behind. What this seems to mean in practise is that Sony are providing people with options, rather than choices. Given a choice, everyone would rather go for the Pro – it’s better in every way, after all – but it costs more, and you might already have a PS4, in which case do you want to buy another PS4? Plus, you’ll want to buy a fancy new 4K HDR TV as well, to get the most out of the new console, and they’re still relatively expensive. But if you already have a 4K TV, or were waiting for that final push, now you’ll finally have the option to play console games in 4K.
What this means for the next console generation is unknown. Is this the end of the clearly defined generations? Or will it become like the mobile space, just drawn out a little longer, where after few years there is a minor update – in this case the PS4 Pro – followed by a major update, like the inevitable PlayStation 5?
Having slept on it after watching the PlayStation Meeting I still look at the PS4 underneath my 1080p TV the same way as I did before. Can it play the same games that I enjoy playing now, and the ones I’m looking forward to playing? Yes. Personally I’m not quite ready to make the jump to 4K; I would like to, but when I am ready, Sony have given me the option – and a great reason – to do so.