Now we have the Xbox One X, unveiled at E3 2017, and the PS4 Pro, this really is the era of 4K gaming. PC gamers might argue it started in 2013 when the first 4K monitors arrived. But only now do we have the graphics hardware to play high-end games without stripping down detail levels so far a 2016 game ends up looking like one from 1999.
However, 4K gaming raises more questions than most tech-buying decisions. Questions like, “Will I have to remortgage my flat?”; “Will I even notice the difference?”; and “Are there more than three games I can play at 4K, anyway?”
Don’t worry, WIRED has the answers.
The cost of 4K gaming
So, 4K gaming, eh? I’m not sure my bank account is ready for this
It’s true: a 4K-capable gaming PC will cost you well over a £1,000 unless you spend weeks’ worth of evenings scouring bargain forums for cut-price components. And is that really how you want to spend your life?
However, Sony and Microsoft have come up with some cheaper alternatives…
The PS4 Pro was released in November 2016 and costs £350. The new-for-2017 Xbox One X costs £450 and is so much more powerful that cocksure Xbox head Phil Spencer says it’s “in a different league” to Sony’s box.
A £450 console matching a £1,500 PC sounds as believable as homeopathy curing cancer
Even Microsoft hasn’t said the Xbox One X will beat a gaming PC with a high-end Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU, which — by the way — costs £500 or more on its own.
A 4K console has a laser focus on gaming, though, and does get you the best performance for your money. Even if you are willing to stoop to buying secondhand PC graphics cards on eBay that arrive smelling of smoke and labradors.
Game consoles can get by with relatively low-performance CPUs and their stripped-back software has lower overheads, letting them squeeze out better results from similar hardware.
Consoles are also made with the knowledge they’ll sell in the millions, meaning Microsoft and Sony don’t need to make as much profit (relative to cost) per unit as, say, a desktop PC case maker that sells its wares in the thousands.
But I will need a 4K TV too, and they’re not cheap
Ideally, yes, you’ll want a 4K TV or monitor for a 4K gaming setup. Obviously. However, all that additional power doesn’t just sit there like an extra on a TV set if you plug-in a 1080p TV, planning to upgrade in the future. A faster PC or games console will still play games at higher or more consistent frame rates and with slightly reduced load times.
Both the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X also have a feature called “supersampling” that makes games look better at 1080p. This is a breed of anti-aliasing, which smoothes-out the “jaggies” you’ll normally see in a 1080p polygon-based game. After all, these jaggies tend to be far more noticeable than an extra bit of texture on a blade of grass you’ll see at true 4K.
Also, 4K TVs are no longer a ‘fancy’ upgrade. They’re the norm, and start at around £300. We’ll get onto why you want to spend a bit more later, though.
Xbox One X vs PS4 Pro: what’s the difference?
Why is the Xbox One X worth £100 more than the PS4?
Microsoft decided to go all-out with the Xbox One X. Perhaps it’s ego-bruised after all the reports the original PS4 was more powerful than the Xbox One.
There are numerous ways to judge raw performance, but let’s boil it down to teraflops. It sounds like jargon from a bad sci-fi TV show, but tells you the floating point performance of a system.
The Xbox One X offers six teraflops of power, the PS4 Pro 4.2. That’s quite a gap. This figure just begs you to compare the Microsoft console with the AMD Radeon RX 580 PC graphics card, which offers 6.17 teraflops and costs £330 on its own.
One-upmanship round 2: the Xbox One X has 12GB of GDDR5 RAM, the PS4 Pro 8GB. It’s 1.4 to 1.5x the console at 1.3x the price. Maths, baby.
Xbox One X vs PS4 Pro specs comparison
- Xbox One X: 8-core CPU at 2.3GHz | PS4 Pro: 8-core CPU at 2.1GHz
- Xbox One X: AMD graphics with 6 teraflops | PS4 Pro: AMD graphics with 4.2 teraflops
- Xbox One X: 12GB GDDR5 | PS4 Pro: 8GB GDDR5
- Xbox One X: 1 terabyte | PS4 Pro: 1 terabyte
- Optical drive
- Xbox One X: 4K Blu-ray drive | PS4 Pro: Blu-ray/DVD
- Xbox One X: £449 | PS4 Pro: £349
Teraflops still sounds like made up nonsense
The real-life difference: the Xbox One X is more likely to be able to play games at 4K with high-res textures without dropping the frame rate. The gold standard for any 4K system is 4K visuals at 60fps, and that’s not easy to reach.
There’s no magic 4K button Sony and Microsoft press to make this happen. They make the hardware and the developers spin plates on its little case, doing their best to balance system resources so they don’t all come clattering down. The Xbox One X should make this easier than the PS4 Pro.
One of the benefits of a PC is that you can do this balancing act yourself. You can choose the resolution. You can choose the texture quality. You can choose how flowy Geralt’s hair is in The Witcher 3. That last bit isn’t made up, either.
So the PS4 Pro isn’t as 4K as the Xbox One X? This is confusing
Sort of, yes. It’s still early days for the PS4 Pro, but quite a lot of specially enhanced games either run at a lower resolution, and are then upscaled for a 4K display, or run at a lower 30fps frame rate. Or both. Now, 30fps doesn’t appear choppy but won’t look super-smooth either.
As the Xbox One X isn’t even on shelves yet the verdict is out on whether Microsoft will do much better. But Xbox boss Phil Spencer does claim it’s a “true 4K” console.
Marketing spin! That creaking sound is my purse closing
It’s not just spin. And give Spencer a break, that’s his job. The Xbox One X also has a 4K Blu-ray player, where the PS4 Pro just has a standard Full HD Blu-ray drive.
The PS4 Pro can only stream 4K content, not play it from discs. That may not appeal to everyone when some consider audio cassettes more cutting edge than Blu-rays, but all standalone 4K Blu-ray players cost hundreds of pounds.
A 4K Blu-ray will also have much better image quality than a Netflix stream, resulting in less colour banding and subtler rendering of those tricky shadow scenes in films. But let’s get back to gaming.
If it’s so powerful and feature-packed, how come the Xbox One X is smaller than the PS4 Pro?
That’s one for the engineers. Managing the air flow of modern consoles is an art, and when it goes wrong it’s very expensive. Anyone remember the Xbox red ring of death saga? That was caused by excessive heat leading solder points to fail.
The PS4 Pro uses a conventional fan-based cooling system, but the Xbox One X has a more involved liquid-cooled setup. It’s not a classic desktop PC-style water cooling rig, where pipes constantly cycle a litre or more of coolant around the system. Instead, the Xbox One X has a sealed vapour chamber that uses just a small amount of liquid to disperse heat around the heatsink area by the processors. You don’t have to worry about it spewing blue water all over your sofa should something go wrong.
So the Xbox One X can do everything?
There’s that creaking sound again
As bold as the Xbox One X is, it doesn’t have any VR support. Buy a PS4 Pro and you can plug in a £350 PSVR headset, which has already surpassed expectations, selling a million units. It’s a lot of fun.
With a gaming PC, you can choose between Oculus Rift or HTC Vive for VR. Both are more expensive but of higher quality than PSVR. Rumours suggest Microsoft is working on an Xbox headset, though, so the game’s not over yet. But we’re getting off topic now – even with a monster PC, VR isn’t 4K as there are no 4K headsets out yet.
The benefits of 4K gaming
Is 4K really all that different from 1080p, anyway?
Ah, here we have one of the most common questions from people not keen on spending an extra £400 or more when the PS4 and Xbox One don’t seem that old: “Is 4K worth it?”
At 1080p, the image is made up of just over 2 million pixels. At UHD, the actual 4K resolution we get in consoles and TVs, the image is just under 8.3 million pixels. Even if the image is rendered at 1440p and upscaled, we’re still dealing with 3.7 million pixels of real image data.
The difference eliminates the jagged edges of diagonals and offers scope for a massive increase in texture detail. Right now we’re in an awkward transition stage between 1080p and 4K gaming, though. Higher-res textures mean paying an artist to make these assets, or faking the process with something like ansiotropic filtering.
So far, PS4 Pro-enhanced games tend to look sharper, but not radically more detailed. And current performance in games suggests that console doesn’t have the power to handle very high-res textures in a AAA game at 4K, anyway.
That change in sharpness shouldn’t be underestimated, though. The vanilla Xbox One and PS4 don’t even render all games at 1080p. A surprising number are rendered at 900p and then simply upscaled to 1080p, making them appear slightly soft.
So PS4 Pro is 4K fake news. I get it
That term got old quick. Sony’s approach makes a lot of sense: getting you image quality that will be close to or indistinguishable from 4K in most people’s lounge gaming setups at a reasonable price.
4K or UHD? OLED or QLED? WIRED explains the differences in TV tech
For those desperate for ‘real’ 4K, the Xbox One X is the better console choice. And with a gaming PC you can be sure you’re getting true 4K because you’ll set the resolution yourself. PC-style also gaming makes the benefit of 4K most obvious. A 30-inch 4K monitor a foot or so from your face will take up more of your field of view than a 55-inch TV 8ft away.
The benefits of 4K will improve in the next couple of years, too, as more projects start with 4K in mind, and as 4K user base grows. It’s much like the transition between any console generation, except that because this one seems to be entirely optional for now, it’ll be a slower one.
There’s also a good argument for rendering games at, say, 1440p rather than 2160p (4K), and using the “spare” power for improved lighting effects and better textures. Resolution is just one aspect of visual fidelity. But then the internet would probably explode into a ball of flame, so we’ll keep quiet.
Yes, let’s. What about HDR?
HDR, high dynamic range, doesn’t strictly have anything to do with 4K other than that these newer standards are flowering at the same time. You can read more about high dynamic range in our HDR feature. It increases detail in the lightest and darkest parts of an image and provides deeper colour.
HDR is supported by the Xbox One X, PS4 Pro and gaming PCs. And it’s a key reason, alongside better motion handling and contrast, you might want to spend more on a 4K TV. Not all TVs support HDR, and ones that don’t do it justice can make the image look flatter.
Enough. What about the games?
The PC is easily the winner in terms of its access to 4K games. Even some ancient games can be played at 3840 x 2160 on a PC. For example: not just 2016’s Skyrim: Special Edition, but its predecessor’s predecessor, 2002’s Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, too (with the help of a little mod). A lot of the most popular PC games also get user-made mods that improve their visuals for modern hardware.
How the Xbox One X helped Forza 7 shine on older consoles
You have no such control over the resolution of PS4 and Xbox games. There’s a growing cast of enhanced games for these consoles — you’ll find plenty of lists of them online — but right now the majority of older titles will simply be upscaled in quite a basic fashion. Don’t expect any 4K exclusive games, either. Sony mandates that PS4 Pro games work on the standard PS4, so no one misses out.
Thanks to the difference in power, we’ll see more native 4K games on Xbox One X and more sub-4K games bumped up to 4K using checkerboard upscaling on the PS4 Pro. However, as Sony has already set the standard for these 1.5-gen consoles, Xbox One X owners are likely to benefit from slightly better frame rates and slightly sharper visuals rather than radically different visual quality.