Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why the PS4 Pro is actually better for 4k than a PC

The title is, perhaps, a bit too extremist for what this post is actually about, but blog post titles ought to be relatively short, and it's hard to summarize the subtleties in a short sentence.

Many hard-core PC gamers are eager to laugh off the PS4 Pro as a 4k gaming device, and consider a top-of-the-line PC a clearly much better choice. However, owning a PC with somewhat similar specs to the PS4 Pro (i5-2500K overclocked to 4.2GHz, GTX 970, 16 gigs of RAM), I have to say that in many cases the PS4 Pro may actually be the better choice when it comes to 4k gaming, unless you want to spend something like 2000€ on a PC.

How so?

The reason is not because the PS4 Pro would somehow be more powerful than a top-of-the-line PC (after all, its graphics chip is somewhere around the Radeon RX 480 in prowess, which is approximately equivalent to a GTX 970, possibly a tiny bit less). The PS4 pro might barely fulfill the minimum specs requirements of a "VR ready PC".

No, the reason is a bit different.

You see, on the PC side games very rarely, if ever, are especially optimized to be run at 4k resolution on a slightly older PC (eg. one with the specs of mine). They are mostly just optimized to run at 1080p, perhaps 1440p, and with simply support for 4k resolution (ie. 3840x2160) and that's it. They don't have special optimizations specifically targeting 4k resolution while still being capable of being run at that resolution on a slightly slower PC.

This means that if you want to run a game at 4k resolution, it will require roughly four times as much prowess from your PC than when running at 1080p. (Or, to state it in another way, if your PC can run the game at 1080p while using only about 25% of your GPU, then it might be able to run it at 4k.) With modern games this is quite a hefty requirement, given that very typically they will take anything between 50 and 100% of the GPU when running at 1080p, unless you have a really top-of-the-line most recent GPU.

On the PS4 side, however, the situation is different. That's because more and more games are being specifically optimized to be run at 4k resolution on the console, using all kinds of optimization tricks. Tricks that you seldom, if ever, see on the PC side. This allows the games to look better on a 4k display without compromising much of the graphical quality. I have yet to see a single PC game use these same optimization techniques, even the simplest ones.

Some games render at a resolution that's somewhere between 1080p and 4k, and then use various upscaling techniques (which may in many cases be of higher quality than just a raw doubling or upscaling of pixels). Such (sometimes odd-sounding) resolutions include things like 2400x1350, 2880x1620, 3360x1890, and 3200x1800. And yes, many of these games do look better than if run at 1080p.

"Hey, stop right there", you might say. "You can do that on the PC as well! Just select such a resolution in the game and let eg. the graphics card upscale it for the 4k display!" Great idea, except that there are no such resolutions available in most games! You see, most PC games only support a certain list of "standard" resolutions. There aren't many resolutions between 1080p and 4k available. At most something like 1440p might be an option. You don't have many options to optimize the rendering resolution specifically for your PC.

Secondly, PC games usually don't really care what the resolution of your display actually is, and thus don't offer any advanced upscaling techniques. They simply leave it to the display hardware (either the monitor or the graphics card) to do the upscaling, and that's it. They do nothing themselves.

Moreover, some PS4 games go even beyond that, and use even more clever optimization tricks to be able to run at 4k with higher quality. For example, at least one game uses the trick of rendering geometry (polygon edges) at 4k but textures and shaders at a lower resolution (1080p). Sure, it might not look as good as if everything were rendered at 4k, but it certainly looks better than if everything were rendered at 1080p, and it doesn't require as many compromises in image quality. I have yet to see a single PC game offer anything even resembling this kind of optimization. (Who knows, maybe in the future some PC games will start doing things like this, inspired by PS4 games, but so far I have yet to encounter or hear of even one.)

As strange as it might sound, I actually prefer playing games on the PS4 Pro now, at least if they have been specifically optimized for it, because they will look better than the exact same game would look on my PC, even though my PC is a bit faster. It might be a bit faster, but because games do not use 4k optimizations, I can't run them at 4k using the same graphical quality.

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