First Click: Is it time to get a new PlayStation or Xbox?

September 8th, 2016

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Sony has confirmed what we've been expecting for the past month: it has two new PlayStations ready for release this year. But while these are new consoles, they're not a new console — not the PlayStation 5. Rather, the PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation 4 slim are revisions on the existing PlayStation 4, the former giving Sony's three-year-old machine slightly better technical specs, and the latter redressing it in a slightly thinner body.

If you recognize this approach, it's because Microsoft, Sony's main console rival, is doing exactly the same thing. Microsoft released a thinner take on its Xbox One console last month, and an upgraded version of the machine, codenamed Project Scorpio, is due next year. All four consoles promise improvements over their parent machines — in price, storage, even graphical capabilities — but when it boils down, they're still playing the same games as the vanilla PS4 and Xbox One. The question, then, is this: should you buy a new console in the next two years?

To answer that question, let's reframe it slightly. Do you need to buy a new console in the next two years?

Project Scorpio is coming next year

Simple answer: no. If you have a PS4 or Xbox One that isn't broken, haunted, on fire, or messed up in some other way, you do not need any of their mutations to continue playing regular games on your console. The PS4 slim and Xbox One S are both simply the same console you already own, albeit jammed into a smaller, cheaper, neater package. We've seen this before from the same manufacturers in previous console generations. Just as the PS2 begat the PS2 slim, the Xbox 360 became the Xbox 360 S, and the PS3 made way for the the PS3 slim (and the PS3 super slim), the PS4 slim and Xbox One S will become the new console standard in stores worldwide.

The question here is easy to answer: get one of these machines if you don't yet have an Xbox One or PS4, but don't bother ditching your old machine if you do. The Xbox One S adds support for HDR, 4K Blu-ray and 4K streaming video, but for people still years away from a 4K TV, the one major variation is hard drive space. The most expensive Xbox One S edition comes with a 2TB hard drive, four times the size of the original Xbox One's 500GB version, and a particularly enticing proposition for me. I haven't bought a physical copy of a game in about two years, relying instead on digital downloads that force me to perform complex juggling acts with my installations every time I want to play something new. I'd prefer to add an external hard drive (or install a bigger internal one in my PS4) than spike it in favor of a machine that performs the same, even if it does have a suave streamlined design.

The PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio are more significant divergences, promising 4K capabilities and upgraded graphics for some games, but even then they're not true forks in the road. While the beefier PS4 Pro will allow for 4K resolutions and higher frame rates, Sony has explicitly promised that the console won't play host to any exclusive games. "PS4 Pro is not intended to blur the line between console generations," PS4 chief architect Mark Cerny said at Sony's announcement event, explaining that it was the company's intention to "take the PS4 experience to extraordinary new levels." It exists to make games look fancier and let developers show off some of their snazzier coding tricks, rather than as a platform for new levels, mechanics, or stories.

Microsoft has offered similar assurances, albeit with a caveat: while standard Xbox One games will run on all versions of the console, only Project Scorpio will be able to support VR games. Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, confirmed the distinction in an interview with Engadget last month, specifying that although Microsoft is "not going to have console-exclusive games for Project Scorpio," the company didn't think of VR gaming as console gaming.

This is a clear split between Microsoft and Sony, whose base-level console, even if bought in 2013 at launch, will be capable of running virtual reality games using the PlayStation VR headset. Microsoft says it's not worried about Sony's year head start with the PS4 Pro, and has promised that its Project Scorpio will have an "obvious" power advantage over its upgraded rival, but it's been cagey about more specific details. In an interview with Polygon, Xbox representatives criticized the lack of a 4K UHD Blu-ray drive in Sony's machine, but could only say that it was Microsoft's "intention to deliver" one in its own upgraded console — even though it already includes the drive in its Xbox One S.

Get a ps4 slim or Xbox one s if you don't have a console

It's still a mysterious prospect, but Scorpio has the strongest claim to being the most essential of the four updated consoles. It's also not for sale. Microsoft has yet to make its move in the virtual reality sphere, but the prospect of "high-fidelity" VR games for Xbox One owners is more of a draw for me than upscaled versions of games I've already played. The key is what it means by "high-fidelity" — in limiting VR to Scorpio, Microsoft may be splitting its player base, but it's also allowing the console to house more fully featured VR games than its PS4 counterpart. Where Sony's VR games will need to run on vanilla PS4 consoles, developers will be able to tailor their VR experiences for the more powerful Scorpio, conceivably making them bigger and better looking, and closer to the kind of games you might see on Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

The problem with Scorpio will be the timing: people interested in either better console graphics or console VR capabilities will have had a year with the PS4 Pro, a console that supports both. In that case, the question of whether to upgrade is one of how long you can hold out. I'm already wavering. While I know I don't necessarily need a PS4 Pro — especially without a 4K TV — I do want one, if only because of the noise. My PS4 sounds like it's gearing up for a vertical take-off whenever I load a game, and while it's not unbearable, the constant background fan whirr during Netflix sessions becomes super-obvious when I turn the console off. I'm hoping that the three extra years in development have given Sony time to make a smoother, quieter machine.

And it's that desire that'll define whether you should get a new console in the next two years. Manufacturers are driving to push console generations longer and longer, revising their big black boxes into increasingly smaller boxes along the way rather than replacing them outright. You've had a black box under your TV for three years now. Do you need another one? No. Do you want one anyway? You tell me.

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