Up until very recently, game consoles were a very simple proposition. You want to play the latest games without hassle or fuss? Just pop down to the store and grab yourself the current generation of PlayStation, Xbox or Nintendo and you’re good to go. The decision-making came down to which platform you picked. All three have games exclusive just to them. And as for games available on multiple consoles, sometimes one would perform better than another with the game of your choice, simply because of the different technologies involved. But all that’s been changing recently.
Those who have spent any time playing games on their PCs or Macs will be well aware of how a game’s performance depends on how powerful the computer is. You eventually reach a point where your current rig just isn’t powerful or up-to-date enough to run the latest and greatest games. That’s something that’s been fairly accepted in the PC and Mac world. It’s how desktop computers have always worked, after all. In the case of Windows PCs in particular, there’s often ways to upgrade your existing system to gain a bit extra raw power to handle the ever-increasing demands of modern games. You could easily be running a base PC system that’s five years old and just keep buying a new graphics card for it every couple of years to keep it reasonably current.
But game consoles are different. They’ve always been a “buy once, play forever” thing. If you had a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, then the thousands of games released for those consoles over their lifetime will all run as perfectly now as the day they came out. That’s the benefit of game consoles, after all. You’re basically buying a self-contained computer with a fixed-in-stone design that will always be current until the next generation of consoles comes out.
So when Sony and Microsoft released the Playstation 4 and Xbox One respectively a few years ago, most people that bought them figured that it was that “once in many years” purchase they’d be plugging into the TV and forgetting about. But both companies had other ideas.
Part of the problem with this console generation is that they were rushed to market before they were truly ready. The days when Sony would take a year to try to make their Playstation better than the competitors’ offerings are long gone. Not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with either the PS4 or Xbox One. They’re just simply not that powerful when it comes to running modern games when compared to even a modestly-budgeted desktop PC.
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Does that matter?
The thing is, unless you’re hooking your PC up to your big-screen TV via HDMI, you’re not really after the same experience. A game console lets you get home at the end of a long day, fire up a game and relax on the couch for some fun. You don’t want to be sitting at yet another desk to play games after sitting at one all day! But two things happened between the release of the two main competing consoles and now.
Firstly, games got exponentially more complex and demanding graphically. Massive, sprawling open-world games like The Witcher 3, for example, turned up on the consoles with its gorgeous movie-like graphics turned down a notch and was burdened by long, long loading times. That’s all down to the available technology inside the consoles themselves. We quickly reached a point where game developers had to start making compromises to get their game working smoothly on consoles. Keener gamers started realising that the PC was perhaps a better option, offering graphics and performance that outdid this latest generation of consoles for not very much money at all. Even quality laptops were giving the consoles a run for their money!
Secondly, 4K TVs started arriving – and getting extremely cheap incredibly fast. With game consoles also popular for use as video streaming devices, that presented a small problem – both Xbox One and Playstation 4 are 2K-only devices. TV technology outpaced both of these consoles so fast they were left with a dilemma – with no new generation on the horizon any time soon, how could they stay competitive in a 4K world?
Enter the upgrades
So for the first time in the long history of game consoles, both Sony and Microsoft started making plans to do the unthinkable. They wanted to release new versions of their current consoles with added power and 4K capability. It was a bold move, but not an unprecedented one – Nintendo had released an upgraded version of their massively popular 3DS handheld in 2014, after all. But Nintendo’s promise that all future games would run just fine on the original 3DS proved to be a little optimistic. Game studios started taking advantage of the extra power of the upgraded model, and those stuck with the original suddenly found newer games were suffering from poor performance. It went completely against the “if it’s for the console, it’ll run perfectly” concept that’d been around for decades.
Nevertheless, Sony dropped their bombshell in November 2016 with the launch of the PS4 Pro, an upgraded Playstation 4 in a much larger case than the just-released slim PS4. With an upgraded graphics processor, a faster-running CPU and support for 4K both with streaming video and games, it was not a massive step above the existing PS4. But it did solve the 4K problem. Kind of, anyway – for whatever reason, Sony chose not to include a 4K-compatible optical drive in the PS4 Pro, so 4K Blu-ray discs simply won’t work in it.
Microsoft, meanwhile, took a different approach. While it was well known they were working on a substantial upgrade to the Xbox One, they beat Sony to the market with an upgrade for the base console. The Xbox One S, however, is a different beast. It’s basically a hardware update of the existing console. It has slightly faster performance of the same basic hardware thanks to technological improvements. It also supports 4K streaming and Blu-ray and can upscale games to 4K as well (but unlike the PS4 Pro, they can’t be played in 4K natively). It’s also a sleek, compact console that uses a lot less power and runs quieter.
Here’s where things get both exciting and confusing – Microsoft’s “Project Scorpio” version of the Xbox One, which was announced at 2016’s E3 conference and is set for release at the end of this year.
Not much is known – yet – about the final form that the Scorpio will take. Microsoft promised a console with massively improved graphics and much more raw computing power. This translates to a console that shouldbe able to run games at a full 4K resolution, as long as they’re designed to take advantage of the Scorpio’s advanced capabilities. The problem? Just like with the PS4 Pro, it relies on game studios taking the time to come up with a special version of the game for the more advanced consoles.
What we’ve seen with the PS4 Pro so far are some real advantages added to games running on it. Including faster performance, improved graphics quality and, yes, 4K. But the PS4 Pro currently costs a lot more than the still-current standard PS4. And while it does offer some advantages to those with 4K TVs, if you’re still happy with your current 1080p HDTV you’ll see little more than minor improvements in some games.
Scorpio looks like it’s taking this a step further, giving game studios the power to really ramp up the performance of their games . But whether they’ll bother to do so to reach the full power of the Scorpio is uncertain. Yes, it will support 4K for non-gaming purposes – but so does the current Xbox One S, which is available now for as little as $299. You can bet that the Scorpio, on release, will cost at least as much as the $549 PS4 Pro.
The Nintendo approach
Veterans of the home game console market for far, far longer than either Sony or Microsoft, Nintendo have struggled to keep up with technology in recent years. Their Wii was hugely successful as a family-friendly game console. But the follow-up Wii U was a disappointment, trying to solve problems that didn’t exist in the first place.
The Nintendo Switch changed all that, with one very smart idea. While internally the Switch is not that much more powerful than the Wii U – though it can run games at 1080p “full HD” – the real selling point of the Switch is its adaptability. What you get is basically a gaming tablet with a gorgeous big screen that you can take anywhere and play (albeit with a frustrating two-hour battery life). But take that tablet home and you can plug it into the Switch dock that’s plugged into your HDTV, and you’re instantly playing on the big screen. Plus, you can do that while the game is running, with the video quality seamlessly upgrading from 720p to 1080p when you swap to the TV. The dual controllers on each side of the tablet detach and become handheld controllers for your TV, and the console charges its battery while you play at home.
It’s an absolutely brilliant idea – but make no mistake, when it comes to the power race between consoles, this one’s coming in last. Does it matter? In the case of Nintendo, probably not – after all, they have games that nobody else does, like Zelda and Mario Kart. They’ve made console gaming truly portable for the first time, too, letting you take your game with you as you head out to work to keep racing or questing while you’re on the train.
When it comes to the other stuff modern consoles do, though – streaming video in particular – the Switch falls short. While a Netflix app is promised, it’s not there yet. And unlike its two competitors, it can’t do 4K – not important for most of us now, sure. But Sony and Microsoft are thinking years into the future with their refreshed consoles, while Nintendo is firmly focussed on one thing – games, done simple and done right. The Switch also has no optical disc drive at all. Games are either bought on memory cards or downloaded, so it can’t play Blu-ray at all.
Which one to buy?
There’s no easy answer to the inevitable “which one’s the best” question. Which console you choose in terms of actual brand is going to come down to the games you prefer before anything else. For instance, if you want to play the Forza racing games, you have no choice but to go with Xbox. Your choice is just as clear if you want Uncharted (PS4) or Zelda (Nintendo). Sony arguably has the edge right now in terms of both console exclusives and raw tech performance. However, Scorpio may have the performance edge when it finally arrives.
We’d say for right now, games exclusives aside, if you want a low-cost console that’ll handle your 4K disc and streaming needs, go for the Xbox One S. If you want a more powerful games machine with more exclusive titles available for it but don’t care about 4K Blu-ray, go with the PS4 Pro. And if you don’t care about 4K at all, pick up the standard PS4 and save a ton of money! Furthermore, if you love the idea of gaming on the go but mobile phone games aren’t rich enough for you, Nintendo’s got you covered with the Switch. However, this one’s currently best for those who are primarily Nintendo gamers, since you’ll likely never see many of the more demanding games on it.
Already got a current-generation console and you’re on the fence about whether to get the PS4 Pro or wait for the Scorpio? Wait. We don’t know yet what the price of the Scorpio will be, but you can bet it won’t be lower than the current PS4 Pro pricing at launch. As competition kicks in, both will become cheaper – by which time you’ll have an idea of whether the upgraded games exist to justify one or the other.
If you’re already enjoying a nice big 4K TV in your lounge room, though, you’ll be doing yourself a big favour by picking up an Xbox One S (for streaming and Blu-ray) or a PS4 Pro (for 4K games and streaming) right now.