Microsoft has caused a lot of speculation lately with its plans to shift the Xbox brand to a universal gaming platform that could enable cross-platform play across different devices and consoles, potentially even with the Xbox One's rival console, the PlayStation 4. One of the implications of this is that Microsoft would separate its software from the Xbox One hardware, potentially allowing the company to release incremental hardware upgrades to the Xbox One platform within the current console generation. Think of it like annualized smart phone releases. Same operating system (which for Microsoft is now Windows 10 across the board), but multiple versions of hardware running it.
It's now looking like Sony could beat Microsoft to the punch though with a new hardware model that's being referred to as the PlayStation 4.5 (or the PlayStation 4K by some). According to some of the rumors and reports over the last week, the stock PS4 successor could represent a much more significant update than what we've seen in the "slim" versions of previous generation consoles... but exactly what is it?
According to Kotaku who broke the big scoop last week, the PlayStation 4.5 is a new model of PlayStation 4 being developed by Sony that features new graphics hardware to provide more processing power and increase game resolution up to 4K. Part of the reason for this increase in graphics power seems to be to better support PlayStation VR, bringing its overall experience closer to that of competitors like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive which are designed for use with high-end PCs. Rumors even suggest that Sony discussed the new console with select developers at GDC 2016 last week - the event where Sony announced the price and release date for the PS VR.
Eurogamer's Digital Foundry offered up three possibilities for what the PS4K might be once it's officially revealed by Sony: A wholly new PlayStation console with better hardware than the PS4, a PS4 upgrade that features 4K media handling and improved graphics for existing games, or a "PS4 Slim" that takes advantage of the necessary hardware redesign to tweak the graphics and add limited 4K support. While rumors so far focus on enhanced graphical hardware, in the end this could work out to more than just a more advanced GPU. Even if the core power of the console wasn't upgraded, graphics improvements could include other hardware upgrades such as HDMI 2.0 support and the addition of a UHD Blu-ray drive - something Sony as a whole will want to promote for their TV hardware sales and home video purposes.
The big question is which of the options that Digital Foundry mentioned is the PlayStation revamp is most likely to be realized. Digital Foundry believes option 1 (the entirely new console) may not be very likely and that's the obvious assumption given how relatively young the current consoles still are.
"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."
Most likely, we'll see something closer to a "PS4.5" than a true "PS4K" because the latter name suggests native 4K gaming instead of just a hardware refresh with a few added features. We'll likely see better support of UHD, possibly with a new optical drive - similar to Sony's inclusion of a Blu-ray player in the PS3 when that technology was still new, helping to drive adoption and giving consumers an option that provided both a Blu-ray player and a gaming console. This support could be more on the media side of things, though there will probably be a few bits of the 4K standard that find their way into games to make them look better (even if they're not running at native 4K).
Assuming that the Sony's new console - which multiple sources have since claimed is very real - is just an update to the PS4, how will fans react? Slim consoles of previous generations sold well and Sony was able to reduce costs as parts become cheaper to manufacture and assemble over time, and in the case of PS4 this upgrade would potentially offer a boost in graphics, frame rates, and possibly even a few new functionalities as well. Given price points of consoles, it can't be too powerful of an upgrade since that could potentially split the community and not all fans would want to upgrade until the true next console generation if there ever is such a thing. And will developers wanting to take advantage of having more console power, will they be required to offer scaling options like PCs in order to support different versions of the PlayStation 4 console? As Sony refuses to comment on rumors and speculation, we might have a bit of a wait before we know for sure.