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Welcome to the final console generation as we know it

Engadget Engadget 8/09/2016 Jessica Conditt
© Provided by Engadget

PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny practically whispered into his microphone as he introduced the world to Sony's latest console iteration, the PS4 Pro. His voice was at odds with the setting: He stood at the center of attention in a New York City auditorium packed with journalists and fans eager to hear about the latest and greatest Sony gaming technology. Amid frantic keyboard tapping and camera flashes, Cerny described the PS4 Pro's upgrades like a museum curator detailing a magnificent piece of art he'd just acquired.

The Pro's GPU is twice as fast as the standard PS4, it can handle PSVR out of the box, it has a 1TB hard drive, boosted clock rate, and it supports 4K and HDR gaming. Even some older games, including Shadow of Mordor and Infamous: First Light, will be patched to support 4K and HDR features in a move that Sony labels, "forward compatibility."

Cerny called the PS4 Pro transformative, while PlayStation CEO Andrew House stressed that Sony wanted to ensure anyone playing on the new, beefed-up console would still be a part of the overall PS4 community.

"PS4 Pro is not intended to blur the lines between console generations," Cerny said.

However, despite Sony's best intentions, the PS4 Pro smudges this generational dividing line. Modern console generations have followed a fairly rigid pattern: standard console, "slim" console, rumors of a new console. Rinse and repeat for the next four to eight years.

Now, Sony and Microsoft have announced slimmer versions of the PS4 and Xbox One, but they've added another console iteration to the mix. Microsoft has Project Scorpio, a 4K, VR-ready console with juicier guts than the Xbox One. And Sony, of course, has the PS4 Pro.

Both of these consoles feel like a half-step forward. They aren't part of a new console generation, but they are distinctly more powerful than their predecessors. It's like Apple revealing the iPhone 6s a year after launching the iPhone 6. It's like Alienware, Dell or HP announcing a new gaming PC: It's fancier and faster, but it still plays all the games you already own.

These similarities to smartphone and PC upgrade cycles aren't an accident. They're a business plan.

"We think the future is without console generations," head of Xbox games marketing Aaron Greenberg said in August. "We think that the ability to build a library, a community, to be able to iterate with the hardware -- we're making a pretty big bet on that with Project Scorpio. We're basically saying, 'This isn't a new generation; everything you have continues forward and it works.' We think of this as a family of devices."

Even back in March, Xbox boss Phil Spencer compared the future of consoles to the PC market.

"We can effectively feel a little more like what we see on PC, where I can still go back and run my old Doom and Quake games that I ran so many years ago and still see the best new 4K games come out -- and my whole library is always with me," Spencer said.

Sony hasn't been as open about its shift to a PC or smartphone approach to console generations, but it's following Microsoft's lead. In fact, it may be at the front of the pack: The PS4 Pro is scheduled to hit shelves a full year before Scorpio. The Pro lands on November 10th for $400, while Scorpio is due to land at the end of 2017.

This is not the end of consoles. It's a moment of liberation. Microsoft and Sony can take advantage of faster iteration cycles to pump out more consoles, not fewer, though the changes in each new model may be incremental. (Maybe Valve was onto something with the Steam Machines after all.)

Despite Microsoft, Sony or Cerny's intentions, console generations are definitely changing -- but consoles themselves are not disappearing. The lines are just a little blurrier now.

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