Playstation 4 Pro:- Hardware Review

Player Cake!

Publisher Sony
Sony’s next phase in its PlayStation plan offers up a higher performing machine geared to UHD content but still within the same family. So just how does this sexier, more macho machine fit into the pack and is it worth the cost of entry? Let’s cover the basics.

What has changed?

The machine still sports the same APU configuration of a SoC design and this includes identical dual Jaguar Quad-core CPU’s handling the brains of the operation. These are running at a higher rate than the base PS4 and within this new machine itself when running in base PS4 mode, making it 100% compatible with all current and future titles that MAY not have a Pro designed patch. Although requirements state new titles need to have fully working Pro binaries and cannot revert to base mode. This is the real world though and in software/hardware theory rarely goes hand in hand with reality. Meaning that running all titles just like a vanilla PS4 is all in place as a core function for the few that WILL slip through the net.

GPU wise is where the majority (but not all) of the big upgrades and changes stem from, being designed as a duplicate extension by Mr Cerny himself giving us a butterfly design that mirrors the current PS4 with double the horsepower on the other side. This is a nice high level description but it will have some minor concessions and alterations to work. Allow me to explain: -

With the SoC architecture still designed around Uma construction and more specifically the AMD hUma method of shared memory benefits between the CPU & GPU it will not all be that simple as somethings have changed and the configuration, paths, busses etc will all have to be altered dependant on the mode in use be it Base PS4 mode or the new Super Saiyan Pro mode. To keep it as simple as possible I will split this into 2 sections, first up the boring Base mode.

BASE, how low can you go!


In this mode, the new Pro machine and vast upgrades covered later are all left idle or underused. As sad as this may seem, this is the obvious path to take for simplicity of use and is exactly what I stated would happen when the machine was revealed. With over 800 titles available for the PS4 the very nature of this design is to allow every single one of them to play and operate as they do right now on your current PS4. If Sony started allowing increases to this on better hardware it runs the risk of breaking that compatibility. Now many games may, in theory, be perfectly stable with the upgrades but having to test and confirm what is and isn’t would be a logistical and costly affair the likes of which would be far beyond the cost and return that any finance or director board would approve. And remember this is on an upgrade scale and shift far exceeding what Microsoft have done with the S console with it being the near exact same GPU only with a small up-clock, Compatibility is not merely tied to the CPU after all.

Instead handling the hardware to emulate and effectively down clock and “mirror” clock cycles as per the older machine is the cheapest and most sensible choice. We may see incredibly minor increases from the higher bandwidth or I/O ports in streaming for example but by and large it will be an apples to apples case on all titles running under this mode. As has already been borne out from my tests using a game with an unlocked frame-rate like Abzu, second son, AC Unity with NO patch applied you can see the identical results to confirm my suspicions. But the clean duplicated GPU described does not make 100% sense from a hardware architecture side, i.e. it cannot be as simple as just that, here comes that reality again. As the core memory of the system is the same physical Dram chips from Samsung, most likely down from 16 of them at 4Gb each delivering the 8GB total to 8 physical clusters on the new machine at 8Gb but whatever the configuration the total 8GBs of GDDR5 is the same. The machine also has an extra 1GB of DDR3 (as seen in the XboxOne) but this is used for background task switching and operation, possibly only for Pro mode at the start, swapped out with the 256Mb we have on the base PS4.

If the GPU was extended and doubled the way described it would lose access to half of its memory allocation, along with ROPS, TMU’s etc not to mention bandwidth due to the split. This is unlikely to be the case and raises the other question of IF the Pro has double the ROPS for example? very likely due to the vast pixel fill-rate now required for 4K buffers and 64 ROPS would be a good match for that, although not an absolute necessity or need. With half of that being identical to the PS4’s current tally of 32. But in this base mode having access to only 4GB of RAM would present a problem and as such the configuration is not as simple as described, something demonstrated by the extra DDR in the new system that must fit within the ring buses in some way to allow it to swap contents between the 2 RAM systems quickly on the fly, the abstraction layer control in full effect a topic for another time, but I have covered in some detail back when this generation started.

So, although the description is of a simple duplicated GPU in fact more is required for this to work seamlessly between these 2 modes. We can be sure that whatever the configuration is physically within the new system it will also include the Garlic and Onion split bus structure between the CPU and GPU caches, with possible benefits now on contention due to the DCC compression in the new machine and the higher bandwidth now afforded.

And this brings us nicely onto the mode we all want to see.

Go Pro or Go Home!


In this mode, every part of the new machine is unlocked and unleashed to improve games just how developers see fit. At a high level hardware spec this means that we now get:-

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All 8 CPU cores now clocked 33% higher @ 2.13GHz

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GPU clocked higher @ 911MHz over the 800MHzbase model

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Memory Bandwidth now wider due to chip speed up from 5.5GHz to 6.8GHz. 23% higher at 218GB/s all things being equal may see an increase of more than just the up-clock alone. Assisted further with the new hardware supporting DCC in-flight colour compression that can boost bandwidth by a further 30+% As all of this will go to the GPU as even with a slightly faster CPU it should not be as bandwidth constrained at the same approximate 20GB/s peak.

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1GB of DDR3 added into the system to allow background tasks to be switched from main ram. This will be used to speed up switching and more importantly free up RAM space from the GDDR pool, meaning...

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..In Pro mode developers get access to 5.5GBs rather than the base 5GBs amount. Required for the higher resolution output buffers and extra effects, performance, choice in 1080 mode, all dependent on the developer in question mind.

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And finally, the ALU’s of the GPU now doubled to 36 CU all improved ones at that, with other features present in Polaris, much better tessellation, primitive culling and Sony’s own changes like the ID buffer and dual 16-bit register tweaks I have covered already, some or all of which may appear in future AMD GPU’s, namely Vega and next year’s Scorpio.

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This means a near 2.3x increase of performance (maximum) on paper giving us the 4.2TFLOP peak throughput but many factors must be considered. I will be covering the machine and changes in far more depth in a forthcoming article but for now I will concentrate on the my thoughts on the machine and how it sits RIGHT NOW this side of 2016.


On the face of it


The machine itself looks like a PS4, shockingly, just with an extra layer on top, footprint is ever so slightly bigger and I/O has improved with a much needed rear USB3.1 port at the rear in addition to the dual front ports. It supports full Sata 3 now within the hardware which you can check out my tests on how and IF it is worth swapping out the standard 1TB 5400rpm Drive with a faster SSHD or faster SSD, link on the page.

So, with the base shipped model we have a machine that is around the same noise level as the old PS4, meaning if you like to play games and have the TV level on mute you will hear the machine. Like all actively cooled devices it has a varying noise level and although far from a noisy machine it is also not silent around 50-55db in use.

So now we know how it looks, runs and sounds what about the most important part, games? As covered it will play all and every PS4 title both physical and download with no issues and without a specific Pro patch they will be identical in visual, control and performance levels. But if patched then we can and will see various levels of improvements to each that I have already covered some from Rise of the Tomb Raider, Battlefield 1, Mantis Racing, Second Son, First Light, FFXV and much more. Title such as Dishonored 2 fall into the base level as I mentioned above, not all titles can and will utilise these benefits and in this case, we get a better performing title and nothing more. I am sure we will see titles that will be released that will gain nothing as even though Sony will request this they cannot and will not be able to Mandate this for every team as this is just not a practical path to take, but I have covered this already.

Many titles will simply bump the resolution using a combination of methods like Checkerboard, Geometry or developer specific options as we have seen with Frostbite AND Insomniac. Some will choice a fully native 4k output such as PES 2017, FiFa 17, Skyrim and Voofoo with Mantis burn racing. But these all fall into the area of titles expected that could hit native 4K, not simpler but less demanding visual titles than the vast AAA budget blockbusters.

These may also contain extra graphical features and performance improvements as we have seen. Others can have a combination of modes like Rise, Second Son and Paragon that output a better image at 1080 with faster frame-rates in the case of Rise up from 30 to 60hz, but this will all depend on team size, budget etc Nixxes are a very competent team for delivering well on hardware. I will continue to cover all titles now and in the future in much more depth.

Conclusion


The burning question is Do you buy a PS4Pro? and I am sure many of you now are watching this video with that already done and I am sure you are enjoying the benefits of image quality enhancements as super sampling is the key benefit. After much testing and dual play on both a 1080P and HDR 4K TV I still have the same view when the machine was officially announced, buying one this side of 2017 Without a 4K with or without HDR make no sense to me. All games being released now are not maximising the potential of the hardware or choices available, and this is understandable and expected. Even though making a Pro version is not a huge amount of work the expectation of us the consumer will be higher than what many will and can deliver right now, there is a difference between making a Pro updated version and truly using the resource. We need to give programmers, artists, designers and Sony’s own Software teams themselves more time to get used to the delights the hardware team have provided and in the next 6-12 months we will see games that will better demonstrate the choice it offers. If you do not have a PS4 and are looking to get into the game then the Pro is the only real option, the slim was never a great deal and now seems all but redundant in its existence due to the small gap between prices. If you have a 4K TV then it makes more sense now but the value of the machine will only expand over-time. The biggest issue that could reduce its value is that of Microsoft and the path it took (one which is the exact reverse of the plan I predicted on both sides) to delay its new premium console that will be far more powerful than the Pro with a complete back catalogue of X360 and XboxOne playable on the machine, a tempting proposition to upgrade or migrate users. Although this is all for another time.

The pro is a very well designed piece of engineering pushing the range of the current generation while still fitting into current development cycles with minimal impact, it will offer up I am sure wide leaps over its current PS4 base from its tailored hardware like the ID buffer, dual Ram and half-float throughput enhancements. This does not mean that the PS4pro will perform like a GTX1080 or such but it will enable engineers to tailor code, performance and features to the machine so that it can achieve better results with intelligent use of these specific features. 1st Party will of course be able to maximise this fully once they have time to learn and adapt but also the bigger 3rd party will certainly tailor portions to specifics that benefit. Even smaller studios as we have seen from VooFoo for example can use these features to achieve great results and that can only be a good thing.

I have much more to come on the Pro, games and a great deal more so please check my channel and site for more.