The launch of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Microsoft’s announcement regarding Project Scorpio has broken new ground in console gaming as it marks the first time that console manufacturers have introduced a new model mid-cycle that is designed to complement rather than replace the previous hardware. For the first time, consumers looking to replace their existing console will have a choice between a base level console and one that offers a significant step up in graphics and image quality. The move is intended to shorten the console lifecycle from the traditional 8-10 year timeframe to 3-4 years or even shorter. Sony and Microsoft hope to encourage gamers to upgrade on a much more regular basis while being safe in the knowledge that the software they have already invested in will still work on the new console they buy.
In many ways the console market will start to increasingly resemble both the Smartphone and PC markets thanks to regular hardware upgrades and software that remains compatible with legacy devices. Over the years, console manufacturers have incrementally added PC like functionality to their products such as hard drive storage, TV and video entertainment services, game downloads, and free to play gaming. This shift towards incremental hardware upgrades is an attempt by Sony and Microsoft to stave off competition from the PC gaming market by cutting the performance gap between the two platforms. Console gaming will never match the capabilities of a high-end gaming PC set up but console gamers will now start to be able to benefit from higher levels of graphical fidelity without having to wait 7 or 8 years for a new piece of hardware to emerge.
This all of course has consequences on how console games will look and perform on a consumer’s TV. Given the differing capabilities of the base level PlayStation 4 Slim and the PlayStation 4 Pro as well as the growing stratification of the TV installed base, a PS4 title will potentially look very different from one set up to another. Whereas in the past console gamers had the comfort of knowing that there was a uniformity to the visuals that fellow gamers were seeing, moving forwards image quality will become unpredictable and will be highly dependent on console hardware configuration, developer support for premium console features in their titles, and the type of TV display being used.
4K and HDR are two welcome additions to the PS4 Slim and PS4 Pro platform but they are not the only consoles that support the picture enhancing technologies. Microsoft’s Xbox One S, which launched in August, also is designed to support 4K video as well as HDR for gaming. Historically, game console technology has lagged behind picture quality improvements on flat panel TVs meaning that gamers have not utilized the full potential of their display’s image capabilities. The addition of HDR support for consoles arrives at the same time as TV vendors are starting to seed the market with HDR capable TV sets. While this is great news for those well-heeled gamers who upgrade to the latest TV technology, many will be hooking up their more capable consoles to a non-HDR 4K TV or worse a 1080p or 720p HDTV. Suddenly the capability of a gamer’s TV has a major bearing on the quality of image that they see.
Such big variations in visuals is of course fairly common in the PC gaming market as gamers often make incremental upgrades to their hardware but for the console space this is new territory. Another issue of course is how many households have the necessary TV to take advantage of these advanced features. Sony should have no major concerns about PS4 Pro buyers taking advantage of the 4K capabilities of their device as 4K TV shipments have been growing strongly across the world over the past few years and by the end of 2016 Strategy Analytics estimates that close to 20 million North American homes will own a 4K TV. HDR on the other hand is only making its introduction this year in high-end 4K TV models with less than 2 million households expected to own a capable set by the end of the year.
The above was written by David Watkins, Service Director for Connected Home Devices, Strategy Analytics. Strategy Analytics provides market intelligence focused on opportunities and disruptive forces in the areas of Automotive Electronics and Entertainment, Broadband Connected Home, Mobile & Wireless Intelligent Systems and Virtual Worlds.