Sony revealed the oft-leaked "PS4 Neo", officially dubbed the PS4 Pro. Should you skip it?
The hulking PlayStation 4 Pro was revealed at an event in New York, and reactions have been mixed. The PS4 Pro's specs leaked months ago, and Sony confirmed that they were all real. Its hardware will push 4.2 teraflops of computational power, giving it a considerable boost against both the Xbox One and PS4.
So far, only a small handful of games will support Sony's new "enhanced graphics" feature, by which existing PS4 games will be boosted to higher resolutions and frame rates as a result of the extra power. And even then, there's little mention of the all-important 4K-native buzzword, as Sony themselves refused to commit to the idea that enhanced games will support the resolution natively. But does that really matter?
PlayStation 4 Pro vs. Xbox One S
Sony themselves were the ones to push resolution milestones as a marketing gimmick, and that narrative now dominates the landscape at both ends of the media spectrum. The PS4 Pro renders games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of Mordor at a sub-4K resolution. Regardless, reports state that the improvements are dramatic, making console games comparable to decent PCs for the first time. That said, there are only ten titles that will support the PS4 Pro's "enhanced" visuals out of the box, and there's no roadmap to state which games will receive boosts and when.
Glaringly, however, the PS4 Pro will not support 4K Blu-ray discs, something the cheaper, arguably prettier Xbox One S has been doing for weeks now.
The Xbox One S and PS4 Pro might be similar to regular consoles in price, but in reality, you're going to need to add a 4K HDR-capable television into the equation to get the most out of both consoles. If you're going all-in on the 4K revolution, surely you will want to maximize your investment, and you know, enjoy 4K HDR Blu-ray movies. The PS4 Pro's 4K Blu-ray omission is a perplexing oversight, especially considering Sony are part of the founding group of the Blu-ray Association with a major stake in the company that licenses the tech to other hardware vendors - including Microsoft.
Sources close to Microsoft's plans have confirmed to me that major existing Xbox titles will receive the full 4K-native treatment on Scorpio, without sacrificing existing graphical features in the process.
Sony's PS4 Pro seems at odds with the very idea of being a newcomer in the 4K ecosystem. Right now, the Xbox One S supports a wider range of content compatible with that 4K TV you will be investing in. And all that content will remain available for the launch of the next, vastly more powerful Xbox - Project Scorpio. It's highly unlikely that Project Scorpio won't feature 4K Blu-ray discs, given the precedent set by the Xbox One S.
If you're willing to wait, by announcing Project Scorpio so early ahead of a planned 2017 holiday launch, Microsoft can pretty much guarantee a much wider offering of visually enhanced, existing titles at launch as well. There's no way Microsoft would receive an announcement endorsement from the likes of Bethesda's Todd Howard unless games like Fallout 4 and the inevitable Elder Scrolls VI weren't already in the roadmap. Xbox head of planning Albert Penello also confirmed that Scorpio will power games at 4K, 60 frames per second on the TiC Podcast, while stating that the company won't force developers to hit any specific targets with their games.
I've seen plenty of detractors claiming that Scorpio-powered 4K games will be low in detail, but sources close to Microsoft's plans have confirmed to me that major existing Xbox titles will receive the full 4K-native, 60 FPS treatment on Scorpio, without sacrificing existing graphical features in the process.
The vast majority of average consumers looking to make the leap into the realm of 4K most likely don't already own a 4K TV, and if they do own a 4K, they are probably media enthusiasts. For Sony to ship a console that doesn't fully support the purchase argument for owning a higher resolution, vastly more expensive television, seems like a haphazard misfire.
When you consider the fact the PS4 Pro will only support "enhanced visuals" for ten titles out of the box, and that you will be resigned to 4K streaming when it comes to media consumption, right now, it's hardly a more enticing proposition than the cheaper Xbox One S.
For jumping into the 4K ecosystem, the Xbox One S is smaller, sleeker, with internal power and full support for 4K media. Unless you intend to buy both, why buy a PS4 Pro when we already know there's a more powerful, more capable console on the horizon in the form of Project Scorpio? In the short term, the Xbox One S is simply a cheaper, more feature-complete introduction to 4K content.
Of course, these discussions are complicated by the solid PlayStation content offering, you know, games. However, unless you're already particularly well-invested, I feel that Sony failed to make a compelling argument for the PS4 Pro in its announcement that the standard PlayStation 4 didn't already make. And given the anti-climatic reactions and delayed announcement, I'd argue that they know it. Still, none of this means Xbox has any room for complacency.
The Console War has ended
The Console War is over, ladies and gentlemen. Say hello to the Ecosystem War, by which Sony vs. Microsoft will pivot to an Apple vs. Samsung-type battle, with each company launching new devices more frequently, and at different times.
In the Ecosystem War, Microsoft is way out in front of Sony, with far more paying Xbox Live subscribers when compared to PSN Plus. Not only that, but Microsoft has already begun leveraging its dominance with Windows to engage PC gamers further, offering swathes of new, free tools in the form of Clubs, Game DVR, Looking For Group, and more, baked directly into the Windows 10 operating system. You can also bet that native Beam streaming integration is on the way too.
None of this means Xbox can afford to be complacent, and thankfully they have shown no signs of behaving as such. That said, Microsoft's strategy is ambitious, but also very broad in scope. They run the risk of putting across a diffuse message. Sony, on the other hand, has been unwavering in emphasizing games since the PS4's reveal.
Even if Sony seems to have far fewer AAA exclusives than Microsoft so far, the company has been diligent in snapping up powerful exclusivity deals, and pushing a long-term roadmap of incredible-looking first party titles. Sony is also offering a cloud-streaming subscription service in the form of PlayStation Now, and a far more accessible incarnation of virtual reality in the form of PlayStation VR. Both of these features are pretty flawed in their own ways, but they at least represent a firm base upon which to expand.
Global Internet infrastructure might not be good enough for cloud streaming yet, and, at least for now, VR is likely to remain in the realm of fun gimmicks rather than must-buy addition for the average gamer. Still, Sony should be praised for adding these pillars to its gaming ecosystem as the companies switch to a digital, content-driven battle for supremacy.
As Sony provides humble attempts at cloud-streaming games and console VR, Microsoft's ecosystem innovations have gone down a different road. We have backwards compatibility with Xbox 360, which will ensure Scorpio has the largest selection of games at launch in the history of games consoles. Not only that, but the Windows 10 Universal Windows Platform will ensure Scorpio has the broadest set of apps, functionality and services a console has ever seen. And finally, Microsoft is leveraging its dominance in desktop computing to bring PC and Xbox gamers together, through initiatives like Xbox Play Anywhere, and the various Xbox social apps.
Microsoft has one over on Sony simply through the phrase "Xbox Scorpio has 6 teraflops to PS4 Pro's 4.2" but the company would benefit from showcasing the performance delta as soon as possible.
Not all of Microsoft's attempts to innovate have been plain sailing of course. Crackdown 3 holds the promise of cloud-powered destruction physics, although the game has completely missed its planned summer multiplayer beta. Cross-play UWP pioneer Fable Legends was famously cancelled. The futuristic, but problematic Kinect 2.0 has tragically fallen by the wayside. And of course, by revealing Scorpio so early, there are plenty of questions Microsoft has left unanswered.
Project Scorpio will power high-fidelity VR, but how? Who is providing the headset? Will Microsoft build their own or use Oculus Rift? We also have no idea really how much better games will look on Project Scorpio in the real world. How much is this "monster" going to cost? All we have right now are promises and speculation, while Sony is steaming ahead on these answers today.
Microsoft has one over on Sony simply through the phrase "Xbox Scorpio has 6 teraflops to PS4 Pro's 4.2" but the company would benefit from showcasing the performance delta as soon as possible. Xbox has a lot of momentum through amazing-looking titles like Gears of War 4 and Halo Wars 2, new features like Clubs and Looking For Group. But soon, headlines will be dominated by things like "Battlefield 1 receives enhanced graphics update on PS4 Pro today," while we wait around for, presumably, an E3 2017 reveal of Scorpio.
Microsoft seems confident that Scorpio will be sport significantly superior visuals to the PlayStation 4 Pro, but is that confidence in tune with reality? Xbox fans can only hope, it seems.
Microsoft already showed its hand at E3 back in June. If they are able, they have the opportunity right now to definitively take the narrative away from Sony for the first time in years, and they should make use of that opportunity as soon as humanly possible and provide answers to some of these burning questions.
Choosing a side in the Ecosystem War
Out of the box, the PS4 Pro is a side-grade at best for existing PS4 owners. Unless you own a 4K HDR TV already, the enhanced visuals on games like Call of Duty Infinite Warfare alone, in my opinion, don't make a compelling case to jump into the 4K ecosystem, given the lack of 4K Blu-ray disc support. Do you really want to buy a 4K TV to see extra pixels on maybe three titles while you wait for more to arrive? Even if you're interested in hitting the entire line-up of enhanced PS4 Pro games, there's no defined cadence of when new titles will gain the upgrades.
Surely over time, the PS4 Pro will feature a library of content that will widen the resolution gulf between Xbox and PlayStation even further. But, if you're going to invest in a 4K TV, there's a major feature you are missing out on by linking that investment to PlayStation. Microsoft was smart in cornering the 4K Blu-ray portion of the market early with the Xbox One S, locking down early adopters of the format with the cheapest 4K disc player out there. The vast majority of your games will look identical on the Xbox One S as they do on the PS4 Pro, at least for the foreseeable future (and the S is just kinda beautiful). But even then, unless you're really into movies or saving desk space, the Xbox One S doesn't provide many tangible benefits to gamers.
The PS4 Pro needed to be better than the Xbox One S in every way, and sadly for Sony, right now, it just isn't.
I feel like PlayStation 4 Pro jumped the gun. In racing to solidify its ecosystem's differentiator as resolution master, Sony launched a console that is essentially, already obsolete. Project Scorpio will be the generational leap we're more accustomed to as console gamers, and will benefit from the ecosystem Microsoft has spent this generation building with Windows 10. By getting developers on board early, the console will enjoy a bigger line-up of enhanced games at launch, and you can bet that Microsoft will also ship Scorpio with all-new titles that showcase the console's capabilities.
Don't forget; Project Scorpio is the first major launch effort fully spearheaded by Phil Spencer, who seems far savvier than his predecessors when it comes to nailing consumer desires. The Xbox One S was a huge, consumer-friendly play in the right direction, and will doubtless take Xbox to another monthly sales victory in the US. The PS4 Pro needed to be better than the Xbox One S in every way, and sadly for Sony, right now, it just isn't.
From UWP, Project Centennial, to the new system features, Play Anywhere, Beam acquisition, and backward compatibility, I feel like this entire generation has been leading up to Project Scorpio. Project Scorpio will enjoy the largest out-of-the-box library of games, apps, and services in console history. Project Scorpio is the six teraflop, definitive idea of what an "Ecosystem War" console should look like.
Looking even further into the long term. We have the inevitable consumer version of HoloLens to look forward to. Microsoft is building even more Azure data centers around the world in its battle with AWS which will doubtless have the consequence of lowering local XBL latency even further. And the company is even building state of the art undersea cables to prioritize its own transatlantic traffic - ideal for a cloud-powered gaming future.
I'm by no means suggesting Microsoft are on to a sure-fire winner with Scorpio, there are plenty of factors this article is already too long to consider. The PS4 Pro will doubtless pick up price cuts to make it even cheaper than Scorpio towards the end of 2017. And Microsoft can have all the services and teraflops in the world, but none of it matters without killer games upon which to showcase it. Still, the evidence, the momentum, feels fully in Microsoft's favor.
The Xbox One S and PS4 Pro represent a point of inception, by which many will be choosing where to invest for the coming 4K ecosystem. When you take in everything the company is doing across the entirety of the Windows 10 ecosystem, Xbox One S, and the promise of Scorpio, jumping ahead with Xbox never made more sense.