So what do we know about the rumoured PlayStation 4.5? In the wake of last week's post-GDC outing of the hardware by Kotaku, we have independently established that it's real and that Sony's R&D labs have prototype devices, and we also have more than one source referring to it as PlayStation 4K, the name we'll be using for now. And this is where things become slightly strange - because while more GPU power is being offered to developers, realistically it is nowhere near enough to provide native 4K gaming at the same quality level as current 1080p titles. The full extent of the spec is a current focus of enquiry for us, but realistically, it is simply impossible to cram the equivalent of today's top-end PC graphics hardware into a console-sized, mass-market box.
Everything we've heard positions PlayStation 4K as a machine capable of playing current and next-generation ultra HD media, while also offering support for other aspects of the 4K spec, such as high-dynamic range and a wider colour gamut - aspects of the 4K spec that could be introduced to gaming. However, in terms of additional computational power, we've got be realistic about what Sony can deliver with a mid-generation refresh.
Option #1: A new, more powerful PlayStation
What we might expect:
An APU with a higher-end Polaris would push graphics on - a 2x performance boost in GPU power compared to PS4 is achievable in a console form-factor. Possibly more - we really need to see the desktop PC equivalent parts first.
By default, Polaris has support for 4K, HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2 and HDR.
Console would not be cheap owing to the size of the processor - conceivably on par with PS4's £359/$399 launch price.
Possibly higher depending on how much Sony pushes the boat out in terms of processor size and memory allocation.
This PS4K could co-exist with a cheaper 'PS4 Slim' based on the older APU, again using 14nm/16nm technology.
The bottom line: In 2017, production technologies on 14/16nm should be more mature, and a significantly more powerful PlayStation could be released. But the pace of technological progress in the PC space isn't as rapid as it is on mobile. It took four dramatic leaps in chip production technology to make the generation leap between PS3 and PS4 possible. By 2017, there will have only been one viable jump in fabrication technology available to console manufacturers, and expectations should be limited. Actual 4K games will be in very short supply.
Option #2: PlayStation 4 evolved
What we might expect:
We'd see a new PlayStation playing host to the same titles as the current one, but with visual improvements.
Conceivably, older games may run more smoothly by default, or could be patched to access the newer hardware.
Resolution could be pushed beyond 1080p and could look good on a 4K screen, but native UHD visuals for triple-A titles are off the table.
Wouldn't be as expensive as the first option.
State-of-the-art 4K media support, but harder to sell to all but the most hardcore gamers.
The bottom line: Scaling up and enhancing the current PlayStation doesn't sound particularly exciting and we do have to wonder what the point would be of a PS4K with very little chance of servicing 4K gaming. However, this is the design that stands the best chance of offering a decent bump to system capabilities without introducing too much in the way of compatibility issues. Our gut feeling right now (nothing more) is that this is the form the current prototypes take.
Option #3: PlayStation plus
What we might expect:
Full compatibility with 4K screens, including next-gen media.
Complete 'no worries' compatibility with existing PlayStation 4 library.
HDR support for gaming on 4K displays - even if gaming resolution remains at 1080p.
Opportunity to lower cost as 14/16nm chips become cheaper.
Unlikely to alienate the existing userbase - any performance upgrade would be more 'nice to have' as opposed to essential.
The bottom line: PS4K could simply be a smaller, leaner version of the existing hardware, with revised 4K media and (potentially) HDR support. The option exists to overclock the existing architecture and perhaps unlock the full potential of PS4's APU. It would be like an 'Elite' version of the existing console - nice to have, but not a generational or even half-generational upgrade in terms of processing power. The question is, assuming a 2017 launch, would that be enough?
With M$ also rumoured to release a faster Xbox, looks like mid-generation refreshes are here to stay. I choose Option #3 - (slightly, if at all) upgraded hardware without breaking PS4 game library compatibility (higher clocks) and improved 4K/VR multimedia support.
Edit (19th April):
Revealed: Sony's plan for PlayStation 4K - codename Neo
The spec leak is genuine - here's everything you need to know.
We have been sitting on a number of details awaiting a second source before going to press, but events have overtaken us somewhat - Sony is now openly sharing this specification with developers and while Giant Bomb beat us to the punch, we have access to the same documentation. There is no doubt - this is real. This is the new, more powerful PlayStation 4.
The release window is unclear, but the schedule for hardware roll-out to developers is black and white: development kits prototype are on their way to studios now. A test kit (debug station, if you like) housed within a non-final chassis - which Sony is asking developers not to show - follows shortly. A second-gen test kit, again not based on the actual retail shell, goes out in June. Sony gives more intensive Neo briefings at its DevCon event in in May, while code submission for Neo-compatible titles begins in August.
Our concern was that PS4's low-level APIs may not be compatible with the newer architecture, meaning problems running older games, but it seems that this is not an issue. And the good news here is that Polaris' efficiency improvements could add still further to the expected increase in performance. Certainly, we should expect to see cumulative improvements to memory compression, which should help us to get more out of the constricted 256-bit GDDR5 interface. To the best of our knowledge, there were no such technologies in place on the original PlayStation 4.
Well, according to Sony's own documents, there is a focus on delivering 4K gaming content, though upscaling to UHD resolution is likely. Owners of 1080p screens can expect benefits too, explicitly stated as:
More stable frame-rates
Improved graphics fidelity
Additional graphics features
Sony describes 'forward compatibility' via patches, allowing developers to revisit their existing PS4 library and add Neo features to existing games. Sony has opened up more memory for Neo titles too. Quite why this extra RAM can't be given to games running in Base mode isn't revealed but Sony states that Neo titles will have access to 5.5GB of memory, with 512MB "only available" for Neo mode. Sony also reveals that the background media functions of the PS4 "might be" expanded - such as the addition of 1080p gameplay recording.