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Sony Plays Catch-Up With 4K, HDR PlayStation

At the Sony press event at E3 back in June, there was some measure of surprise from many observers about the almost total lack of discussion on updated or new hardware. Yes, there was quick tease about a new player within Sony’s current fiscal year ending at the end of March 2017, perhaps the rumored “Project Neo”, but that was about it.

On the other side of the fence, Microsoft made a great deal of news at E3 with its Xbox One S that includes 4K, HDR and Ultra HD Blu-ray playback at a starting price as low as $299. How and when would Sony respond?

The answer to that came last week at a press event in New York. The agenda was set by no less than Kaz Hirai, Sony’s CEO and former head of the business unit that includes PlayStation. As the event got underway, Kaz tweeted: “Our original name for this press conference is ‘E3 2016 Remastered.” Indeed, for the most part, it was. For once, the games took a back seat, serving only to show off the capabilities of the new console models.

Starting things off, Sony announced an updated version of the current PS4 model that will be smaller in the same way that the later version “PS3 Slim” models were smaller than the original PS3. Much as the Xbox One S is smaller than the original, the new PS4 is 30 percent lighter and 28 percent more energy efficient than the current model. The current CUH-2000 series model will get some extended life, as both previous PS4 versions will soon get a download to deliver compatibility with HDR. Expect the new product on Sept. 15 at $299 with a 500GB hard drive. Timing on the HDR upgrade was not announced.

HDR is one thing, but 4K/Ultra HD requires updated hardware. That is exactly what will be found starting Nov. 10 with the new PlayStation4 Pro (CUH-7000), priced at $399 with a 1TB hard drive.

What will make the PS4 Pro interesting is as much what it won’t do, as what it will do. On the plus side, the Pro will provide 4K playback from both 4K mastered games and non-native 4K content. This is due to a graphics processor that is over 2.25 times more powerful even though the CPU and memory are the same in both models. As with the base model, the Pro will also offer HDR playback of both native HDR and SDR programming and games.

With regard to non-game content, the PS4 Pro will provide 4K/UHD streaming playback from Netflix and YouTube, plus other services to be named later.

However, on the minus side, the PS4 Pro will not match the Xbox One S when it comes to optical media playback. While Microsoft added an UltraHD Blu-ray player at prices down to $299 (albeit with a 500GB HDD rather than the PS4 Pro’s 1TB drive), the PS4 Pro will not offer native 4K disc playback. Whether this will be important to a market constituency that is presumably game-oriented remains to be seen.

For all the information we heard, there are many items that were not discussed. Among them were the type of HDR format, though it is presumably HDR-10. That, in turn, would mean the HMDI output would have to be Version 2.0a in order to properly send the static HDR-10 metadata to the display. Particularly given that upgrade to the original PS4 is unlikely to be HDMI 2.0, the way that upgrade would be accomplished will be interesting.

Also not disclosed was a list of which titles will be available in native 4K and HDR at launch. Along with that, there was no mention of any other 4K content streaming services such as Amazon, Vudu, UltraFlix or a 4K version of Sony’s own PlayStation video service.

In the end, we have the basics on PS4 and PS4 Pro that will impact the market this selling season. At the very least it grounds the competition for gaming consoles between Sony and Microsoft. As is typical in these types of announcements there are a number of open items. As soon as we get the answers to our questions we’ll update this report.

Another tweet from Hirai reflected the fact that there are some unanswered product and service questions. “Sorry, the second half of the press conference was delayed until Spring, 2017”. That’s about the same time that we expect to get more details on the Xbox Project Scorpio and presumably what Sony’s high-end game console will be.