The most surprising thing about Sony’s announcements for the PS4 Pro and the PS4 Slim wasn’t about tech specs (those leaked early this summer.) Rather, the surprising thing was a missing feature. The PS4 Pro will not feature an Ultra-HD Blu-Ray player defying pretty much everyone’s expectation for the device. Despite some optimistic reports that it could could be patched in with a firmware update, Sony was quick to dismiss the possibility outright. The omission is pretty shocking for everyone familiar with Sony’s strategy over the years, and I’ll outline why, and what this might mean for Sony going forward.
Sony’s strategy has always relied on new media formats
If you go down the product line, this is clear. The PS1, though not an early CD-player (the first commercially available CD players were sold in 1982, and the PS1 didn’t launch until 1995) was one of the very first consoles to use a CD-ROM for game storage, and be marketed as a multimedia device. Sound quality was quite good and early-generation consoles are still sought after by audio hobbyists to be used as dedicated CD players.
The PS2 was launched as a very early DVD player (the format came out in 1999, and the PS2 in 2000), and at the time it was one of the cheapest DVD players available, leading to many people purchasing the device primarily for DVD and secondarily as a game console, and unlike its competitors the Gamecube and the Xbox, it could play DVDs out of the box without any additional hardware.
The PS3 launched as one of the earliest Blu-Ray players, and was easily one of the cheapest available at the time of its launch, and by far the most fully-featured (unlike other Blu-Ray players available at the format’s launch, the PS3 gained future features like 3D-support via firmware updates.) At the time, many questioned the wisdom of the inclusion, because the expensive Blu-Ray laser was largely responsible for the extremely high launch price of $499 and $599 for 20GB and 60GB respectively. Many put the decision to the fact that Sony (along with Phillips) designed the format and thus had a large stake in its success. In the end, the PS3 was successful despite its high launch price, and the install base that the PS3 allowed was a huge part of the format’s victory over HD-DVD.
For the first time, Sony is choosing not to include a new optical storage medium in their console.
Sony’s main competition, Microsoft, offers 4k Blu-Ray in their budget console
The X-Box One S was released for $299 back in August in the very early days of the 4k Blu-Ray format. It is currently the cheapest available 4k Blu-Ray player. Since one of the primary benefits of owning a PS3 over an Xbox 360 was the PS3’s Blu-Ray drive, it seems the tables have turned.
This is particularly odd for few reasons. The first is that the Xbox One S released in August in the very early days of the format. The PS4 Pro won’t release until November, and in that time, the drive (that currently cost around $40) will likely have gone down in price. The second odd thing is that the Xbox One S, as a budget console, isn’t even the direct competitor of the PS4 Pro, it’s the competitor of the budget PS4 Slim. Microsoft’s competitor for the PS4 Pro, Project Scorpio, is going to be released sometime in early 2017, and will almost certainly have a 4k Blu-Ray drive.
A primary selling point of the PS4 Pro is 4k compatibility
The PS4 Pro is being heavily marketed on two video technologies: 4k, and high dynamic range (HDR). HDR is now available on all PS4s, so that’s not really a selling point for the new model. 4k on the other hand is exclusive to the PS4 Pro. It’s most likely that game support for 4k will be limited, as 4k gaming requires 4x the power as 1080p to hold comparable frame rates, and as the specs show, the PS4 Pro is about twice as powerful as the original PS4. Titles that make use of 4k will likely be HD remasters of past-generation games. The Last of Us: Remastered has already been announced to receive a 4k patch.
4k video on the other hand is only supported through streaming. This is less than ideal because streaming video is compressed to save bandwidth. That compression happens with an obvious drop in quality. This is already true and apparent if you compare 1080p sources, say a Blu-Ray of The Avengers with a Netflix stream of the same. It’s very strange that they’re using 4k as a selling point when they console doesn’t support a high quality source. It’s likely that many who seek the highest quality of video may resort to ripping or pirating 4k Blu-Ray sources and playing them from a hard drive.
What does this all mean for Sony?
A few things in my opinion. Firstly Sony is not afraid of Microsoft’s Xbox One S and Project Scorpio eating significantly into their market share. They don’t think that those seeking 4k Blu-Ray who might grab an Xbox instead to have an all-in-one device are significant enough to pose a threat. This might be true right now. Sony has a huge, commanding lead over Microsoft as far as sales in this console generation. In addition, the number of people with 4k TVs remains low. However, there are at the very least 3 years left before the PS5 is coming out. In that time, 4k TVs and Microsoft consoles could pick up a lot of momentum if left unchecked.
Big picture wise, it shows that Sony is complacent and wants to play it safe. They think that saving $40 on a Blu-Ray drive is more important than maintaining feature parity with their competition. That is the part that worries me. An attitude of complacency doesn’t mean good things for the future of the Playstation brand.