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Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro reveal was a confident step forward

Engadget Engadget 8/09/2016 Timothy J. Seppala
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It's been a good year so far for Sony Interactive Entertainment. Yesterday's PlayStation Meeting continued the momentum from E3 and showed us the next step in its plan for home console domination: the PlayStation 4 Pro. The company's strategy was simple: show, rather than tell. The big news, if you own a fancy UHD display, is that Pro will play nicely with all those extra pixels and show off your screen's HDR capabilities.

Unlike with the Xbox One S, Sony also spelled out the benefits of buying a Pro, even if you don't own a 4K TV. The new, beefier machine will make existing games look and perform better on the 1080p TV that's sitting in your living room right now, and it can also give PlayStation VR games a facelift, too. All for $399 this November 10th. Sony's always had the edge on Microsoft with this generation, but a strong finish to 2016 feels like the gap could be widening.

Over at Microsoft HQ, the company is banking on you either buying an Xbox One S right now or waiting for its high-powered console, code-named Project Scorpio, next fall based on little more than blind faith. Faith that its scant offering of (sight unseen) HDR games will drive you to buy a One S. Faith that Microsoft still knows enough about high-spec hardware, faith that it can get developers to support the Project Scorpio and faith that your investment in its experiment won't go to waste. That was the pitch during its E3 keynote earlier this summer, at least -- all without a price, release date or Scorpio hardware to actually show off.

Insomniac Games' Spider-Man looks particularly awesome on the PS4 Pro hardware.

In terms of HDR gaming on Xbox, Forza Horizon 3 will launch September 27th and there hasn't been a single demonstration of what impact the increased color gamut will have. Gears of War 4 comes out in October and barring a handful of theater presentations on the industry-only E3 show floor, it's been kept away from the public gaze. You can't even download HDR-enabled trailers for either from the Xbox Marketplace to get an idea of what the console's biggest game-related feature will look like. Microsoft will have the bragging rights of being first with HDR, sure, but at some point you need to reveal your longer-term hand.

And that's precisely what the competition did. Sony delighted in showing off exactly what benefits HDR has for its gaming system. Even watching the event stream at home, the benefits were pretty obvious: games that are typically very dark (like Infamous: First Light) showed extremely bright pops of color and much more detail. In person, it'll look dramatically better.

Demos for Days Gone, Infamous: First Light and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided all graced the stage of the PlayStation Theater. There were also announcements that this year's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Modern Warfare Remastered will support HDR as well, and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and The Last of Us: Remastered will be upgraded to HDR via a patch. An internal source at Epic Games told Engadget that Paragon will also receive a patch that adds the feature, too. All this to say, there's going to be something running in HDR for pretty much any gaming taste. And Sony's not been shy about showing it off.

Microsoft's other promise is that Project Scorpio's raw horsepower is going to be enough to win you over next year, with no evidence of what it can do or how much it will cost. "We know it's important to deliver an experience that demonstrates the power gap between [the PS4 Pro and Scorpio] at a price that makes sense to console gamers," Microsoft's Albert Pennello told Polygon. "The performance delta will be obvious." Of course, that's pretty easy to boast about when so little is known about Scorpio and specs are likely to change from one day to the next.

Again, Sony's tactic was to let the games speak for themselves, rather than show off a motherboard and blather on about specs and buzzwords. Next year's Horizon: Zero Dawn looked incredible, as did Rise of the Tomb Raider, Uncharted 4, Spider-Man, Watch Dogs 2 and pretty much everything else from the sizzle reels and live demos shown onstage. Sony was keen to explain the benefits of the Pro for folks without 4K TVs as well: more detailed imagery and overall better performance for the games you already own (or will own). People's memories aren't reliable, and things like the Scorpio's 6.2 teraflops of power mean close to nothing next to the sight of a tough ginger lady riding a pin-sharp robotic brachiosaur.

Sony also extended its lead on virtual reality. On certain PS VR titles, the Pro's hardware can double the pixel count resulting in better looks all around. Sony used clear examples to illustrate the Pro's value proposition rather than pie in the sky platitudes. That hardware is basically ready, and the PS4 Pro will put headsets on, well, heads by the holidays. This clarity is the same basic strategy that's put 40 million-plus PlayStation 4s in homes since 2013. Exactly what Microsoft's VR plans are for Project Scorpio, however are still largely a mystery.

If Microsoft has one joker to play it's the fact that Sony's consoles don't have a UHD Blu-ray player stuffed inside them.

There is, however, a common problem that affects both Microsoft and Sony: Each company is making a bet that, for the first time ever, we don't need exclusive software to persuade us to buy a console. Sony has been adamant that the Pro is not replacing the standard PS4 (that's the PS4 Slim's job). Instead, the Pro exists for folks who want a little extra power from a machine or have a new display to connect it to. Microsoft's company line isn't much different. Aside from VR titles (which we still know nothing about), all Xbox One games will supposedly play on any version of the hardware, be it Scorpio, the One S or the Xbox platform on PC, yet despite similar approaches, Microsoft can't seem to keep up with Sony's onward march.

If Microsoft has one joker to play it's the fact that Sony's consoles don't have a UHD Blu-ray player stuffed inside them. The Xbox One S does, and Project Scorpio seems certain to. The $399 1TB One S includes the next-gen physical media format because internally, the console is barely different from its predecessor in terms of power. Sony doesn't have that advantage with the Pro. The UHD Blu-ray drive was likely a sacrifice Sony made to hit $399 while still dramatically bumping specs everywhere else.

That makes the question of which console to buy this fall a little tougher: Do you want to play games, and watch higher-resolution Blu-rays? Sony's console offers gamers a distinct choice. Whether you're going to upgrade your TV or not, the Pro has clear advantages over the PS4 of today. That's something I couldn't say when I reviewed the Xbox One S. Your move, Microsoft.

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