Sony is currently planning a new version of the PS4 with increased graphical power and games running at 4K resolution, developer sources tell Kotaku. We don't know whether current PS4 owners will be able to upgrade or if they will have to buy an entirely new device to benefit from this power boost, but from what we hear, Sony has started briefing developers.
Based on conversations with developers who have spoken with Sony, this 'PS4.5' will include an upgraded GPU both to support high-end 4K resolution for games and add more processing power that can enhance the games supported by PlayStation VR, the headset Sony will launch this spring. It's unclear if 'PS4.5' is an official name or just a nickname that developers have been using. One developer jokingly called it the 'PS4K' while telling me about the device.
In layman's terms, 4K resolution is around four times the pixel size of 1080p, which is the current standard for games on PlayStation 4 and competing consoles. The current PS4 can output 4K photos and videos, but cannot support 4K resolutions for games. With this upgrade, it would. Besides resolution, developers would have an opportunity to push more effects and other graphical tweaks to make their games look better, thanks to the new GPU.
A more powerful PS4 would also allow the machine to be more competitive with PCs in the world of virtual reality. With a higher-end GPU, the PS4 could more easily match up against the more expensive Oculus Rift and HTC Vive virtual reality headsets, which are designed to work with powerful PCs.
When contacted yesterday about this report, Sony declined to comment. "We can't comment on rumours or speculation," a spokesperson said in an email.
The circle of people who knew about this upgraded PS4 was small until recently. I first heard about the device from one trusted source, then two. Kotaku's Jason Schreier and Stephen Totilo were also able to independently verify the existence of these hardware plans with their own developer sources, although some of the details have been vague; one source told us that the device felt "exploratory" and that it may not even be released this year.
We've also heard that at this week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony held meetings with developers about the hardware and how it would work. As we were chasing down this story, coincidentally, Kotaku UK EIC Keza MacDonald overheard some developers casually talking about the machine while on line at GDC. They mentioned the name 'PS4.5' and discussed its increased horsepower, mentioning both 4K resolution and PlayStation VR.
Our sources aren't sure when this upgraded machine will ship to consumers, nor how much it will cost. The PS4's price dropped from $US400 to $US350 in the US and $549.95 to $479.95 in Australia last spring, and one source indicated that this new 'PS4.5' could let Sony keep selling PS4 hardware at a higher profit margin for $US400.
There are still lots of big questions surrounding the device. Will Sony allow people to trade in their existing PS4s to buy the new machine? How will developers cope with releasing games on multiple types of hardware? Could some games only support PS4.5, as is the case with the New Nintendo 3DS? When this PS4 goes on sale, will Sony continue to sell old PS4 hardware at a lower price? How can Sony manage all this without fragmenting the market?
Right now, we don't have the answer to those questions.
The PS4.5 may not be alone, either.
I've heard whispers about an upgraded Xbox One for a while now, and Microsoft has been public about the possibility. At a press briefing earlier this month, Xbox head Phil Spencer hinted to journalists that his company has been exploring the possibility of evolving hardware. "We look at these other ecosystems out there like mobile, tablet and PC," Spencer told the assembled press, as reported by Polygon, "and we see that they have a very continuous evolution cycle in hardware, whereas between console generations most of the evolution is making it cheaper and potentially making it smaller."
Spencer later walked back those comments while speaking on the Major Nelson podcast, pouring some water on the idea of a customisable, PC-like Xbox. "Am I going to break open my console and start upgrading individual pieces of my console? That's not our plan," he said. "There is something special about what happens with a console. You buy an appliance-like device; you plug it into your TV; it works when you plug it in. It's not like I'm going to ship a screwdriver set with every console that comes out."
Plans are always changing, and some of the details we've heard are fuzzy, but one thing has become clear: Sony is exploring the possibility of releasing a more powerful console way before the PlayStation 5. With both Sony and Microsoft possibly entering new territory, and Nintendo's NX on the way, this should be an exciting year for gaming hardware no matter what comes next.
Additional reporting contributed by Keza MacDonald, Stephen Totilo and Jason Schreier.
Illustration by Sam Woolley