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Sony's making a big mistake by not addressing PS4.5 rumors

With stories flying of 4K, doubled GPU speeds and upgrades essential for PSVR, Sony needs to get back out in front of the narrative

Only a few weeks after Microsoft mused openly about the possibility of faster, more incremental updates to its Xbox hardware, it's now Sony's turn to be under the same spotlight, with rumours gathering that the company is going to introduce a "PlayStation 4.5" this year - an updated version of the PS4 with some kind of boost to its hardware that's designed to help the platform support 4K TVs, PSVR headsets or both, depending on who you speak to.

The "depending on who you speak to" aspect is important, because from relatively humble beginnings, this is a rumour that's grown and evolved into something of a monster. There's little doubt that Sony has a hardware refresh in the works, but what that will actually consist of is another question entirely. The earliest rumours, and not coincidentally those I think are most trustworthy, suggested that the main target of the refresh was 4K support - developers have supposedly been calling the new system "PlayStation 4K" - but didn't give any real details of what that would entail. The connection with PSVR is one that seems to have come organically from a range of assumptions by journalists or commentators online; if Sony is doing a more powerful PS4, and also doing a VR headset, doesn't it stand to reason that the more powerful PS4 is designed to drive a better experience for the VR headset?

"[Sony's stance] represents a fairly momentous PR mistake... There is an increasingly widespread assumption that PS4 hardware sold now will be deeply inferior to what appears later this year, especially for PSVR"

Through all this, Sony has remained absolutely silent - a "we don't comment on rumours" stance that's not unusual for a platform holder, but which, in this specific case, represents a fairly momentous PR mistake. With the "PS4.5" being covered not just in specialist media but by mainstream outlets, Sony finds itself with a potentially hugely damaging story spreading like wildfire and mutating as it travels, which it has done precisely nothing to get out in front of. There is an increasingly widespread assumption that PS4 hardware sold now will be deeply inferior to what appears later this year, especially for PSVR; there's certainly disquiet among the almost 40 million people who have bought PS4s, many of whom now believe that their consoles will be outmoded only a year or two after purchase.

Maybe that's actually true - in which case, Sony needs to accelerate its communication plans and get out in front of the story to explain what's going on, why it's making these decisions and how it's going to guarantee a good experience for its existing 40 million PS4 customers. More likely, though, it's not true, or is an utterly warped representation of the truth - in which case Sony even more desperately needs to tackle the story, which threatens to bring the PS4's thus-far uninterrupted PR love-in with the gaming public to a juddering, acrimonious halt.

My suspicion is that many of the rumours regarding PS4.5, though widely believed, are invented nonsense. That there's new hardware in the works is fairly obvious, but a refresh of the console's hardware after selling 40 million units or so isn't exactly an unusual step. Some changes to the PS4, mostly around cost but also focused on miniaturisation of components and so on, will have been on the roadmap since before the original hardware even launched. However, the idea that these changes are going to bring in major upgrades to the console's internal components stretches credulity - and would also, it's worth noting, stretch Sony's capacity to either cut the console's price or earn decent profits from hardware sales.

Here's a scenario that sounds more likely. Sony Corporation, as distinct from Sony Computer Entertainment, has a problem; people aren't upgrading their TVs. Sony has invested vast amounts of money in the creation not only of 4K televisions, but also of the recording and broadcast equipment required for 4K content - but the whole ecosystem has yet to catch on, and 4K remains largely something you only see at trade shows or in electronics store showrooms. 4K will almost certainly catch on, one way or the other - but if it doesn't get a boost soon and start being adopted in a major way, Sony can kiss goodbye to much of the investment it's put into the technology.

Ah! But Sony has an ace up its sleeve; PlayStation 4, the fastest selling console in history, already at 40 million units and likely to exceed 50 million by the end of the year. Existing PS4s can't play back 4K content - but Sony is unlikely to have forgotten the important role PS2 played in driving adoption of the DVD standard (or the admittedly less notable role of PS3 in getting people to buy Blu-Rays), and the 4K ecosystem could really, really do with the boost that would come from a few tens of millions of consumers owning a home console capable of playing back 4K media. Why not, then, refresh the PS4 hardware to add 4K playback capability, giving the console a new selling point and hopefully helping the rest of Sony Corporation to sell its TVs, cameras and broadcast equipment at the same time?

"It's not that more rapid, incremental updates to consoles aren't possible or even desirable; the model Microsoft hinted at for future Xbox consoles...is something that is probably inevitable for future consoles. The thing is, that's not a model you can switch to mid-lifespan"

Note that I'm talking here about "4K content", because in this scenario, we aren't necessarily talking about 4K games; in fact, it's vanishingly unlikely that any PS4 hardware update would play games in native 4K resolution. If there's a clever chip around that can inexpensively do high-quality upscaling of HD content to 4K, perhaps that could be included in the new hardware and existing games upscaled to the new resolution - but this would not be remotely the same as upgrading the PS4's GPU and all the rest of its internals to output native 4K from games. In fact, the innards of the PS4, from the perspective of videogames, could remain exactly the same; the console would gain the ability to play back 4K video content, or display various other content at 4K resolution, without actually changing any of the internals that play videogames.

If that sounds like a terribly boring PS4.5 compared to the rumours of a system with a GPU twice as fast as existing PS4s and what have you, well, it is. Consider the alternative, though; a genuinely significantly upgraded PS4.5 would create a two-tier system among PS4 owners, essentially allowing some players to enjoy better frame rates or nicer graphical effects than others. That in itself is anathema to console owners, as the whole unspoken but absolutely vital contract between a platform holder and its customers is "this will last for years"; console owners sacrifice the bleeding edge performance PC owners enjoy in favour of a stable, reliable, long-lasting platform. It's even worse if you throw PSVR into the mix. The existing PS4 actually drives PSVR very impressively indeed (and I think much of the "Sony needs PS4.5 for PSVR" narrative derives from the inaccurate assumption that PS4 isn't up to the task of VR), but if Sony pushes out a new version of the hardware that's enhanced for VR, the extremely strong implication is that existing PS4s will give a sub-standard VR experience. That's bad with normal games, but absolutely devastating for the company's VR ambitions; poor framerate in VR means headaches, nausea and vomiting, and if Sony is going to ship an upgraded console in order to provide "better" VR, they may as well start shipping complementary sick bags to every existing PS4 owner who buys a PSVR headset.

It's not that more rapid, incremental updates to consoles aren't possible or even desirable; the model Microsoft hinted at for future Xbox consoles, which could be something more like a mobile phone contract (paid in installments, with a new console arriving automatically after 24 months, or whatever) is something that is probably inevitable for future consoles. The thing is, that's not a model you can switch to mid-lifespan; it's got to be the clearly indicated and communicated intent of the console from the outset. Sony could do it for PS5; but throwing out an incrementally updated PS4.5, springing it on existing owners out of the blue, would be a misstep that could honestly be on par with Microsoft's catastrophic initial Xbox One reveal.

Again; I don't think that's what's happening here. I suspect, based on the reports we've seen and what I've been told in private, that the updated PS4 will make very little difference (if any at all) to the gaming experience; a videogame played in a PS4.5 will run pretty much exactly the same as a videogame played in a PS4, and that goes for VR as well. The difference will be in video output options and media playback capabilities, aimed at providing a buttress to the Sony mothership's ailing 4K plans. The problem is, I'm guessing; an educated guess, but not half as educated as I'd like it to be. I'm guessing because Sony's letting this rumour run wild. It's time for them to get out in front of their own story and explain their plans - not because we're "entitled to the truth", or whatever, but for the simple commercial reason that nothing is more valuable to a platform holder than the trust of its customers, and right now, many of Sony's PS4 customers simply aren't sure what to think.

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Latest comments (15)

Aleksi Ranta Category Management Project Manager A year ago
its ultimately more choice to the consumer. Buy the "regular" PS4 if only interested in gaming the normal way, yes its good enough for that. Buy the slightly upgraded one if deciding to step into the VR world, but really you wont notice a difference with regular games.

I wouldnt call this a big mistake like the article headline makes it out to be....I suspect the only people really really upset about this are the ones who are not content with nothing but the latest, fastest and most up to date hardware.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
The PS4 has a 28nm AMD chip and is using up 150W of power. Even AMD's latest designs are all 28nm chips. Which means that if a PS4.5 was to be more powerful, Sony would need to pump considerably more than 150W into it. Which would make the PS4.5 bigger and louder.

Next up in the pipeline for early 2017 is AMD's 17nm process, which could give Sony the desired processing boost without putting out more heat than the current casing can handle. It is worth mentioning though, that this switch goes hand in hand with a switch in CPU architecture. It is still x86, so it is not the end of the world, but it could cause further delays.
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Mark Hughes Software Developer, 4J StudiosA year ago
....I suspect the only people really really upset about this are the journalists who think they have a juicy news story, but can't get any information out of Sony about it :-)
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Show all comments (15)
Joćo Namorado Project Manager, Portugal TelecomA year ago
I'm pretty sure this will be, if anything, a revised model with no changes in specs (the now standard slim model), or at best a model with a 4K Blu-Ray drive and 4K output just for movies.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.A year ago
Klaus, those are supposed to release in Q2/Q3 of 2016 from what I read. Or has Arctic Islands (Rx 400 series) been recently delayed to 2017?
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I agree with the author, Sony is taking pre orders for the VR, ( which sell out in a matter of minutes even if you are on a waiting list) so it would be wise to give the consumer the full story. Will the VR work fine and well with the existing PS4, or will people need to double their purchase price and buy a upgraded PS4 as well.

If you dont think consumers care if VR is 400 to 500 rather than 800 to 900, then you arent paying attention. Sony's one big advantage here was price and build in hardware base. If the rumor of 4.5 is true, all that goes out the window.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 1st April 2016 4:36pm

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senar koraltan Product Owner (with game/digital design, project management & commercialization skills) A year ago
agreed!
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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer A year ago
uhh, PS3 had a MAJOR impact on the popularity of bluray, I think the writer forgot the HD-DVD vs bluray, which was still undecided up until the PS3 arrived, then bluray won... And you're also incorrect about PS4 not being able to play 4K content, it can do video and small/simple games in 4K..
I too think that it will be a revision with 4K bluray support and BETTER 4K video/upscaling support..
Let's not forget PS3 also had some technical improvements with some revisions.. but then again, the last PS3 was an abomination and should never have seen the light of day with it's cheap manual bluraydrive (whomever came up with that should have been fired on the spot)..
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Marcus Feital Front End Developer A year ago
I might be missing something here, but as I understand the rumors started with devs having a hands on with this new 4.5 console or being consulted about it by Sony. What is the point to do that if the only update is a new 4K video output? Do they have to do that in order to have a new video output, that might not have anything to do with games, and in such a way that it is not clear if this will happen anytime soon or if it will happen at all?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Marcus Feital on 2nd April 2016 1:56am

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! A year ago
@Mark: and to complete your thought (lol): and then, some of said "journalists" go make up stories and/or cough out "opinion as fact" pieces as click-bait articles just to keep their readers "engaged" and posting replies until the next update... it never ends these days with that sort of stuff...
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.A year ago
Mark and Greg have a point, this is "dog bites man", not "man bites dog". The rumours seem to be of Sony doing business as usual R&D.
With a standard architecture they must always be trying new processors etc. and giving them to devs to see what difference it makes. They then have to decide at what point it makes sense to release an upgrade or next gen.
If PSVR customers could get better value from their devices with an upgraded PS4 then I don't see why they shouldn't be given the option.
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Maciej Sobocinski Assistant (teacher/researcher), Czestochowa University of TechnologyA year ago
IMHO, releasing a 4.5 that's actually "stronger" than a standard 4, and makes a significant difference in the experience of the user, would be nothing more than a suicide. Making "slims" or other variants of consoles with only slight upgrades never hurt no one; It felt a bit unfair that my "old" 360 is 10x louder then the "new" ones, but other changes included the magic ON button and the possibility to plug kinect without the extra cable - but it was still the same console, so I didn't really give a damn. I also didn't blame anyone when Xbone was released and games stopped coming out for my console - come on, it's what, 7, 8 years old? But investing money (and in Poland a new console IS serious money) in a new console just to see it become obsolete after a year or two, would definitely turn my nerd rage on.
OK, PS is a strong brand, with loyal customer base and all, but everything has it's limits, and I'm not entirely sure if Sony can afford pissing of millions of people that already own a 4. I also don't think that a cheap hardware upgrade from 4 to 4.5 would be possible in any way, it's not N64 and we're not in the nineties anymore, as pointed by several people talking nanometers above. So I think that the customers (not the journalists) *might* be upset with news like that, and Sony's "we don't comment on rumors" is not a bad strategy after all, especially compared to what MS did when the Xbone was in plans. It's usually smart to think before you speak.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.A year ago
I agree that they shouldn't have a policy of commenting on rumours but let's say this speculation is correct. Producing a 4.5 version would not make the PS4 obsolete in the way a PS5 would. It would allow those who could afford it to enjoy VR and 4K without in any way affecting PS4 owners. The benefit of the closed system is that Sony can guarantee any new titles would run on both.
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Aleksi Ranta Category Management Project Manager A year ago
@greg I heard a rumor that microsoft is working on a follow up to their console, in some shape of form.
I guess those are articles for next week.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me UpA year ago
But what if they knew that the rumours made you write about them, when you wouldn't otherwise be doing so?

Unlock all cheat codes just lead to a lack of interest in the game!
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