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4K gaming: what can PC learn from PlayStation Pro?

Checkerboarding, upscaling, temporal anti-aliasing, dynamic resolution. Let’s give credit where it’s due: at its best, PlayStation 4 Pro’s utilisation of these techniques produces some impressive results for 4K displays – no mean feat considering that the Pro’s GPU is relatively underpowered compared to today’s mainstream PC graphics hardware. And this led us to wonder – what if those techniques were rolled out in the PC space? Could the cost of admission to the world of 4K gaming drop dramatically if the techniques championed by Sony worked just as effectively for PC gamers?

Going into these tests, the objective was simple. We wanted to match or improve PS4 Pro’s 4K outputs on PC, using an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 – the firm’s best GPU in terms of price vs performance. Yes, out of the box we have a power advantage over Pro, and we would be using all of the tools at our disposal for best results – including aspects not available in the console space, such as overclocking. However, the received wisdom is that this card isn’t powerful enough to power 4K gaming, and we wanted to put that to the test.

Of course, there is an element of smoke and mirrors here. A lot of PS4 Pro’s 4K rendering techniques don’t actually resolve a full native ultra HD framebuffer, and yes, there is a resultant cost in terms of the quality of the presentation. The question is the extent to which you’ll notice the downgrade in real world conditions. Stack up a native 1800p image up against a full 4K framebuffer on an ultra HD screen and the difference should be obvious. Certainly, when you look at the zoomer images on this page, the softness on the lower resolution image is apparent, though perhaps not as much as it should be. However, whether we’re talking about 27-inch or 32-inch PC monitors, or large living room UHD TVs at normal viewing distances, the extreme pixel density of the displays makes the difference much more subtle in real world conditions.

And then there is a fundamental compromise in today’s LCD technologies. They use a system known as ‘sample and hold’ in refreshing the panel, the result being that resolution in motion is significantly lower, making the difference between upscaled and native internal rendering resolutions in fast motion more difficult to ascertain. Sony’s internal PS4 documentation for developers highlights 1800p as a good resolution compromise if native rendering is not possible. Looking at the results seen in 1800p titles like The Last of Us Remastered and No Man’s Sky, the results are clearly impressive and a significant leap over a 1440p output.

The bottom line is that native 4K output may be preferable in terms of pristine crispness, but often, when we carry out our pixel counts, PS4 Pro’s ‘Faux K’ upscaling and checkerboarding techniques look much better on our 4K screens than the numbers would suggest. And for the PC, tapping into this can be problematic: beyond full HD support, many UHD TVs only accept 1440p and full 2160p output, when our tests suggest that 1800p rendering is a good target for mainstream GPUs like the GTX 1060.