We'll give you bottom line buying advice
It used to be that when console makers refreshed their products mid-generation, the one thing they would never do is improve game performance. They’d make consoles cheaper, quieter and smaller, but everyone got exactly the same gaming experience.
There have been some exceptions over the years however. For example, Nintendo’s “New” 3DS console has more processing power than the original model. Not only does it run games more fluidly, there are a small number of games that only work on the New 3DS and not the original!
Many thought this was a weird move by Nintendo, but now the big mainstream console names have done exactly the same thing. Not with a handheld device, but with the full-fat living room gaming machines we all love. Call them “Pro” consoles or “Elite”, it’s all the same. They cost more and make a long list of promises, but are these upgraded home gaming consoles for you?
What’s For Sale?
First off, let’s talk about the actual products that are being offered. At the time of writing, there are two major consoles with upgraded versions. The Playstation 4 and Xbox One both have significantly upgraded versions known as the Playstation 4 Pro and Xbox One X respectively.
There are also slim models of these consoles – the PS4 Slim and Xbox One S. These slim consoles are smaller and quieter, but have exactly the same performance as the first PS4 and Xbox One to roll off the assembly line.
What Makes Pro Consoles Different?
The first thing you’ll notice about the upgraded consoles is the price. They cost significantly more than the standard models. So where has that money gone? Mainly into the CPU (Central Processing Unit) and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) components. These consoles have significantly better graphical power and a moderate amount of additional general processing power.
Why? Officially it’s thanks to the rising popularity of 4K TVs. That is, televisions with a resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, compared with the 1920×1080 of HD televisions.These elite consoles have been sold specifically as a companion to 4K TVs, claiming that they can render games at the detail level these new screens are designed for.
So, can they?
The Truth About 4K Gaming
The short answer is that it depends, but in general they simply can’t. There are a small number of graphically simple games that render in raw, native 4K resolution. However, for the most part modern titles are rendered at a lower resolution and then “upscaled” to 4K using a high-quality method.
Is the image quality superior to that of a base console? Absolutely! Is it 4K? No way. Would you notice the additional detail? That largely depends on how large the TV is and how far away you’re sitting during gameplay. Most people are not going to notice the difference between HD and 4K during gameplay, at the typical distances one sits from the television.
Of course, you could simply go to a local retailer and see if it makes a difference for you personally on a demo unit.
Are They Worth it for Full HD Gaming?
So what if you don’t own a 4K TV or are happy with the normal HD resolution? Are there any other benefits? There’s quite a bit of merit to this point of view. These consoles make rather mediocre 4K gaming machines, but very competent HD ones. For games that are specially written to take advantage of the higher specifications, you may often have a choice as to how that extra power should be used.
For example, the PS4 game Nioh lets users choose a higher detail mode running at 30 frames per second or a less detailed setting running at 60 frames per second. This gives the user a choice between eye candy and fluidity.
For games that are not patched to take specific advantage of the higher horsepower, you’ll still see better performance. While most games target 30 frames per second on the base devices, they tend to miss that mark when things start getting busy. The elite console versions have enough extra grunt to smooth out those rough patches and make for a better overall gaming experience.
Consoles like the PS4 Pro even offer a type of downsampling applied across all games. This basically renders the game at a higher resolution than normal HD and then downsamples it. Producing a crisp image without the jagged edges that often result in modern 3D graphics.
How much a given game benefits at HD resolutions on these consoles will differ from one title to the next. So it’s worth checking if the games you really want to play work better or not.
Bottom Line Buying Advice
Everyone is different, which means there can never be universal consumer advice for anything. Still, there are some clear cases where “pro” consoles do and do not make sense to buy.
If you have to buy a new console for whatever reason and don’t care about having a quiet, small and power efficient machine, then it’s better to buy the uprated consoles. They provide an objectively better gaming experience. So as a new buyer who values performance, the difference is undoubtedly worth it.
If you currently own a working base model console and are looking at these devices as an upgrade, then the argument is much less compelling. To be honest, modern AAA games are very well optimized for the base console hardware. Yes, the pro versions provide an objectively better experience, but that’s not the same as saying the base model experience is bad.
You need to ask yourself if you are unhappy with the way games look and play on your current setup. If the answer is “yes” then perhaps they are right for you.
It’s also worth considering that both the Playstation 5 and next Xbox are likely to be backwards compatible with current generation games, while offering far more performance than the “pro” consoles you can buy now. This is an even stronger reason for base model owners to hold on to their existing machines.