With the PS4 Pro already on the market and the Xbox One X coming out later this year, it seems like the console gaming industry is obsessed with everything 4K-related. Meanwhile, Nintendo has dismissed the market as being “too limited” in its current state. I have to agree with the Big N here—right now, 4K isn’t that big of a deal.
4K is becoming a big deal even outside of the gaming sector. Most new TVs that are being advertised are “4K Ready.”. On top of that, many new high-end phones, tablets and laptops are all sporting 4K screens. Even streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have a bit of 4K content in their libraries. Taking all this consideration, it seems only natural that the gaming industry would be hopping on the 4K bandwagon too.
The thing is, it’s just not that simple.
Before we get into our modern situation, let’s bring the clock back to 2005: the dawn of the Xbox 360. Microsoft was the first to get the ‘next-gen’ started, with a big plan up its sleeve: ushering in the age of HD console gaming. Sony followed just a year later with the even more capable PS3. Both of these juggernauts seeked to wow the crowds with high-definition graphics, offering detail that was never seen before.The interesting thing is: it took a while for each of those systems to fulfill that goal.
The threshold for proper high-definition resolution is 1280×720, also known as 720p. While many first-party titles on the PS3 and 360 were able to achieve that natively, some even pushing up to 1080p, the vast majority of games did not achieve Full HD.Instead, these titles were usually rendered at sub-HD resolutions. It looked better than previous-gen visuals, but it still wasn’t ‘true’ HD. Now, let’s move on to the current generation.
The PS3 and 360 were set to usher in HD console gaming, but neither system fulfilled that goal completely.
Things got started back in 2012 with the Wii U. After holding back with the original Wii, Nintendo finally joined the rest of the industry in the world of HD gaming. The Wii U was a more capable system than the 360 and PS3, which led to the majority of its games being rendered in native 720p right from the beginning. Some titles even went up to 1080p. But, it was a year later with the arrival of the PS4 and Xbox One that the majority of people agree that the eighth-generation truly got started. These two new systems were not only much more capable than their predecessors, but they even outpaced the Wii U to a considerable degree. Interestingly enough, the power debate still wasn’t completely solved.
While the PS4 came onto the scene with great strength, the Xbox One had a tougher time. Sony’s platform was the most powerful. Unlike its predecessor, though, the PS4 was a very easy system to develop for. The Xbox One wasn’t too far behind, but the difference in capabilities manifested right from the start with the ‘Resolutiongate’ fiasco. Having launched alongside each other, both systems got the same multiplatform titles right from the start. The majority of these games ran at full 1080p on PS4, but the Xbox One versions were known for only hitting 900p, and in some cases, only 720p.
What makes resolution debate so interesting is that Sony and Microsoft already ushered in the era of HD gaming almost 10 years prior with the PS3 and 360. But as I just mentioned, not every game ran at720p. With the original Xbox One having trouble running some titles at 1080p and the Wii U usually sticking to only 720p, that means that out of the five ‘HD Ready’ consoles in the span of eight years, only one of them has been truly capable of full-HD gaming.
So, what does all of this have to do with the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X’s 4K-capabilities? Well, it seems like the console manufacturers are jumping the gun.
Like the PS3 and 360, the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X are promising experiences that they can’t fully deliver.
It’s taken console gaming almost a decade to achieve consistent 1080p, but since that’s only completely true for basically one system, you can say that we’re still not totally there yet. And, with the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, it looks like we’re going right back to square one in terms of promising the ‘full experience’ and not being able to truly deliver it.
Both the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X are mid-generation upgrades targeted at gamers who want to play in 4K, but neither can run every single game at the full resolution all the time. The majority of the games on Pro use the checkerboard rendering technique to “simulate” a full-4K resolution. The Xbox One X, while notably more capable, still doesn’t have enough power to run all of the games at the full resolution. It, too, uses =checkerboard rendering in addition to some titles using dynamic resolution scaling (basically, the resolution is reduced on-the-fly during complex moments in a game in order to keep the framerate stabilized). Like the PS3 and 360 before, the Pro and X deliver a ‘kind-of/sometimes’ experience.
The thing is, 4K as a whole just isn’t a huge deal right now. In the beginning of the article, I mentioned that a lot of modern devices are shipping with 4K displays and popular video streaming services have 4K content in their libraries. Despite these advancements, 4K is still a growing market. Not only do most people still only own devices with 1080p or even 720p displays, but when it comes to streaming, there are some folks whose Internet connections are barely good enough to handle HD content, let alone that of 4K. Most TV shows are filmed in 1080p and some are even still done 720p. You do have 4K Blu-Rays out there, which is probably the most plentiful amount of 4K content.
4K content definitely exists, but it still needs time to grow.
Beyond all that, there’s also the question: is 4K even necessary? The jump from standard-definition to HD was indeed big (just compare Wii titles to high-end PS3/360 titles). But what about the jump from 1080p to 4K? Well, it’s noticeable, but not to the same extent. The difference can be clearly seen on very large displays like movie theatre screens and giant monitors you’d see in arenas. There’s also a difference when looking at it on a small display like smartphones, tablets and laptops; because we view these screens at such a close distance, it’s easy to spot visual defects, thus the higher resolutions make everything nice and crisp.
What about TVs, though? Well, unless you only sit a few inches from a reasonably-sized TV, then the difference between HD and 4K will be very minor. Bigger TVs will show the most improvement, but it’s still marginal at best.
4K will eventually become the industry standard, but we just aren’t there yet. Rendering games at that resolution takes a lot of power—just ask any core PC gamer. It’s no wonder why the PlayStation Pro 4 and Xbox One X can’t handle the task completely. Nintendo has the right idea by not getting involved in the right now, because as Reggie Fils-Aime put it, the market is just “too limited”. As prices drop and more content is produced, the demand will grow. But, at the rate we’re going, that might take quite a few more years.