All images: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

There’s a moment playing Infamous First Light, as the heroine made of light climbs up a wall in pitch black darkness, that I fully appreciate the hype around the PS4 Pro. The woman is a multicolored bundle of light particles, and thanks to HDR, I can make out each particle and note the way they each cast their own vibrant glow on on the red brick wall. Normally, she’d be a big blob of light, but high dynamic range gives you details in moments of extreme brightness and extreme darkness. I’m looking at the next big step in video games, and it is extraordinary.

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But Infamous First Light is just one of a handful of games that takes full advantage of what the PS4 Pro can do. The new system from Sony features higher powered guts than the original PS4, and game designers can take advantage of those guts just as they would on a PC with a high-end video card. It means that games on the Playstation platform have never looked prettier, but it has also introduced a complicated element of PC-like fragmentation that the consoles have normally avoided. Depending on the game, it might now look dramatically different on a PS4 versus a PS4 Pro.

It’s not the first console to offer a minute upgrade that further fractures the console market. Back in August, Microsoft released the Xbox One S. Like the PS4 Pro, the Xbox One S is very much a mid-cycle stab at relevance designed to take advantage of all the 4K TVs in the world now. Besides games in 4K with HDR, the Xbox One S, included a UHD Blu-ray player to entice buyers. The PS4 Pro is banking on fans just wanting considerable visual upgrades to their games.

The PS4 Pro is larger (and louder) than the old PS4 or the new Xbox One S.

And the upgrades are substantial if your TV can handle them—though it’s not the 4K upscaling that makes the Pro worthwhile for hardcore Sony console fans. The real difference is in the color and HDR the PS4 Pro churns out. The PS4 Pro is capable of outputting an expanded color gamut, which means you are closer to seeing the reds and blues and greens of the real world versus the muted versions you normally watch on a TV. If your TV can handle more colors (look for a claim of “wider color gamut” in its marketing), then it’s such a difference that you notice it as soon as you flip on your PS4—the blue screen is just a bit bluer on the PS4 Pro.

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The Last of Us Remastered stands out as a particularly good example of what the Pro can do, and where its improvements aren’t so great. It’s a world 20 years into a zombie apocalypse and ivy and weeds have overrun civilization. All that ivy and those weeds look lusher and greener on the Pro compared to on the PS4. The look better approaches the “true” green of plants in the real world—a green most games, and older TVs, are incapable of reproducing. Meanwhile, the HDR is basically only noticeable on the game’s start screen.

The HDR effect is immediately noticeable in the start screen for the game. The curtain is just a blob of white fabric with HDR off, but a gorgeous pattern with HDR on. Also note the sky. Why HDR on you can see it is actually blue. PLEASE NOTE: Because both images are saved to a JPEG file this is more an approximation of how the images appear on a UHD set.

And that’s a problem you’re going to run into with a lot of games released before the PS4 Pro. While many have been patched for the upgraded console, and more patches are on the way, most titles simply weren’t designed with the PS4 Pro in mind, and in particular aren’t built for its HDR capabilities. So the rare games that do take advantage of HDR do so in subtle ways. You can see the lace of a curtain as sun streams through it in Last of Us, or you can better see a reflection off a window in Ratchet and Clank. HDR is most noticeable, thus far, in Infamous First Light. The game makes substantial use of light design—most of which was lost when playing on the old PS4.

It’s a much darker game with HDR on, but the details are also more realistic to the way light functions in the real world—which is exactly what the game designers wanted when making the game.

Unfortunately, most of the games getting a PS4 Pro boost aren’t seeing an HDR patch. The improvements are more subtle. Some games will simply render in true 4K now, while others will just take advantage of the improved guts of the PS4 Pro to provide more shading, wider color gamut, and improved textures.

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And it’s the kind of thing I personally hate to see in console gaming. The beauty of console gaming has always been its simplicity. You plug it in and you have an experience identical to your friend’s. It doesn’t matter what TV they have, or where they bought the console. All consoles for a particular platform have, until now, been created equal. Even the Xbox One S only provided minor changes for the very few compatible games. The difference between Gears of War 4 on the One S versus the One is difficult to see unless you’re really hunting for it.

The eject and power buttons are no longer right next to each other and indistinguishable sans microscope.

But when I play the PS4 Pro, I’m mindful of all those tiny changes. I’m also mindful of just how damn difficult it is to experience those changes first hand. 4K, HDR, and a wider color gamut are, collectively, referred to as UHD. Both the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro are capable of it, and in order to enjoy UHD you must have a UHD TV (you can find them for as low as $500), your HDMI cable must be fast enough (both systems ship with the right cable), and they have to plug into a TV port with HDCP 2.2—which is almost never labeled on TVs. You will have to go on a random home theater forum to figure out which port on your TV works.

But I have to admit, that when the PS4 Pro is plugged into the right port on a TV that can handle UHD, and when it’s playing a game patched for PS4 Pro support, then it’s a wonderful experience—One that nearly rivals that of the much, much more expensive PC gaming experience. A PS4 Pro capable of 4K costs $400. A video card capable of the same 4K output at 30fps or higher (like the Nvidia 1070) starts at over $400—and that’s just the card itself.

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If you really need to take full advantage of your nice new UHD TV, or you long for having the best visuals a console can possibly provide, the PS4 Pro will give you the best looking experience right now. If you just want a simpler gaming experience, save yourself a hundred bucks and buy the PS4 Slim.

README

  • Does full UHD, which means 4K resolution, a wider color gamut, and HDR. It’s gorgeous if your TV can handle it.
  • Only some games have been patched to take advantage of the PS4 Pro and each game takes advantage in different ways. Improvements are not universal.
  • Unpatched games don’t look noticeably different unless you sit up close and squint.
  • The PS4 Pro’s best features don’t work when plugged into PS VR.
  • The power button and eject button are now visible to the naked eye. Fumbling to eject a game should be a thing of the past.
  • It’s quieter than the PS3, but a little louder than the PS4, particularly when playing discs.