It looks like Sony's hugely popular PS4 will be getting an upgrade in hardware in the near future, despite not even being three years old. It won't be the 'slim' treatment that consoles usually get part way through their life cycle, a change that normally just makes the console more pleasing to the eye, the form smaller and more inline with contemporary design. This time around, the PS4 will reportedly be getting a hardware upgrade that will enable it to play games in 4K or Ultra HD at a stable (and possibly increased) frame-rate. Should the reports be true, and we have good reason to suspect they are, this will mean a boost in the capabilities of the console. Many of the current games for the console run at a resolution between 900p and 1080p, and an upgrade to 4K/Ultra HD would quadruple the pixel size of the console, meaning we'd see a major difference in picture quality, amongst other things.
Until a few days ago, things were coming through the grapevine but nothing specific was set in stone. Now, thanks to GiantBomb, we've received a ton of information that looks credible.
According to the report, this new PS4 is referred to internally as the NEO, which is probably just a codename, similar to Morpheus (now we're just waiting for Trinity). In terms of hardware upgrades, the NEO will have a more powerful CPU and a vastly improved GPU, with a slight upgrade to memory. To be more specific, the current PS4 has a CPU comprised of 8 Jaguar Cores that run at 1.6 GHz, and the NEO will have the same amount running at 2.1 GHz. The current PS4's GPU is an AMD GCN, with 18 Compute Units at 800MHz, whereas the new console reportedly has 36 Compute Units at 911MHz. Memory is practically the same, but has 218 GB/s of memory bandwidth instead of 176 GB/s.
Unless you know tech, these will be confusing numbers that might not make much sense, but thanks to Extremetech and their benchmarking skills, we know that the processor is 31% faster, the GPU is more than twice as powerful, and the system as a whole has 24% more memory bandwidth.
All of this talk of 4K doesn't mean that the console will run specifically for 4K gaming. The NEO will be set up to support 4K, but not all games are required to natively run at that resolution. Games for the new console are required to have a minimum resolution of 1080p, which is classed as full HD. Provided you are on at least a 1080p TV, which most of us are nowadays, you should see higher or more stable frame-rates, along with higher visual fidelity. The frame-rate for games on the NEO must either meet or exceed the frame-rate of the game on the original PS4. This is welcome news, as it means we won't be getting beautiful looking but choppy games on the new console. Whether this sort of rule is entirely possible to enforce remains to be seen.
Now, many owners of the current PlayStation 4 could rightly be worried about the possibility of having to buy a new console so soon after they bought the last one. Worry not, because it has also been confirmed in the GiantBomb leak that this PS4 is not designed to be a replacement for the current machine, but is more intended to exist alongside it and use the same user environment. This echoes what Nintendo has done with the New 3DS, but with one key difference: the New 3DS has a few games that are only compatible with that handheld, but the new PlayStation will not. Instead every future PlayStation 4 game will have a "Base Mode" (to be played on the original console) and "NEO Mode" (for, you guessed it, the upgraded version).
This means that the NEO is an option for anyone who wants to have a prettier and smoother gaming experience, but they will not have a leg up on the standard PS4 users. Of course, this also means that any peripherals, including the controller for the PS4, will work with the NEO and vice versa, so you can't use this as an excuse to buy a fancy new steering wheel for yourself.
Expanding on the last point, Sony will reportedly not allow developers to split up the player-base over PSN, and developers are not allowed to offer NEO-exclusive gameplay options or special unlockables. The one difference is that as long as games have the same features on both systems, the NEO will be permitted to run an improved version, but this doesn't apply to online modes. A good example here is that a 4-player local co-op game on the PS4 could be turned into an 8-player local co-op game when played on the NEO. All this applies to PSVR games, too.
Should you choose to upgrade to the latest PlayStation, you will of course be able to transfer your profile across easily enough, but you won't be able to be logged into both consoles with the same profile at the same time. Game saves should be interchangeable between the PS4 and NEO via either cloud storage or USB, but Sony is going to leave it up to developers to ensure that this feature works okay. Every game released from October of this year onwards for the PS4 will need to have support for both the standard PS4 and the NEO at launch, and games released in late September will need to have a day one patch that brings them up to scratch with the NEO. Games released before September are also allowed to be patched, but it's not required. This is all up to the developers. We have, as an example, heard on the grapevine that Eidos Montreal has received NEO dev kits, as they're considering patching NEO support into Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
The upgrade in hardware could also have a considerable effect on the PlayStation VR, making it a closer contest in terms of capability when compared to the PC headsets, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Resolution is even more important when wearing a headset, so an increase of resolution for VR would also make PSVR games look considerably better. Considering this is one area where Sony's VR option lags behind its PC-based counterparts, this is great news for people wanting to jump on the VR bandwagon but who don't want to leave the PlayStation ecosystem.
Having said all that, it should be mentioned that the specifications makes no suggestion that the external processing box of PSVR will be built into the new console design. We're also curious as to whether NEO will allow for the new larger Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs that offers better resolution for films (and potentially more space to cram your game on), although given the restrictions placed to ensure vanilla PS4s are thoroughly supported, we doubt Sony would allow games on Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs.
The last two things, the elephants in the room, are value and release date. Will the increase in power be enough to warrant what reportedly will be a $399 upgrade?? While the most dedicated core PlayStation player might consider the investment worthwhile, there will be plenty of people who don't think an increase in pixels and a slightly smoother frame-rate will be worth investing a potentially hefty chunk of change. With the PSVR on the horizon too, and with the considerable costs of getting on board the good ship VR, it might end up being an expense too far for many. At least in the short term. With that in mind it makes sense that most rumours point to a release in early 2017. Sony might be thinking that this is enough space between the PSVR and PS4K, giving wallets enough time to recover between purchases.
We're sure to keep getting news coming through about the NEO in the next few months in the lead up to E3, and we are yet to have any official confirmation from Sony despite it being all but confirmed (and via multiple sources). An announcement is inevitable at this point, and of course, we will keep you updated with any NEO related news that comes our way in the weeks and months ahead.