The world of gaming consoles has become a little weird, if I have to be honest. It used to be that a console was a console and you’d only get something better with a new generation. In fact, the whole idea of gaming technology “generations” is largely thanks to consoles. It’s hard to split computer gaming into generations because it’s much more incremental, with few distinct dividing lines.

So you’d get something like the PS1 and every single PS1 ran their games the same way. When the PS2 came out, that represented a half-decade leap in technology. But all PS2, from the first to the last models made, ran games with the same graphics and performance.

Make no mistake, however, consoles have always had hardware revisions, although it wasn’t always marketed to consumers. Just taking the Sega Megadrive (or Genesis) as an example – there were multiple revisions with different sound chips and other internal changes.

Starting with the modern 3D consoles like the PS1 and PS2, we’ve seen mid-generation refreshes where the same console is made much smaller, quieter, and cost effective.

Now, however, console makers are putting out mid-generation refreshes that actually upgrade console hardware significantly. This changes how well the actual games run, but at almost double the cost of the base machines. So the big question is whether it’s worth it to actually buy an elite console or not. PC gamers are used to evaluating specs and choosing custom visual settings. If you are a pure console gamer, then things are not quite as clear.

A Two-Horse Race

As things stand right now, there are only two elite console revisions available on the market. The first is the Playstation 4 Pro from Sony, which was the first example of such an upgraded console. The other major player is Microsoft, with their Xbox One X.

Because Microsoft got to shoot second in this duel, the Xbox One X is technically superior to the PS4 Pro but, as you will see, that’s not as important as you might think.

What Do You Get for Your Money?

The significant premium you pay to own one of the elite consoles brings several advances. The most important components to have received a big kick in the pants is the GPU and CPU.

The GPU is the component responsible for drawing what you see on your screen. More powerful GPUs can create more sophisticated graphics at higher detail levels. The GPU also plays a part in how smoothly graphics can be displayed, but is not the only part involved there.

The CPU is the component responsible for everything else, including some functions that the GPU relies on to do its job. Specifically, in games the CPU runs the game simulation, the physics engine, and Character AI.

So here is the most important thing you need to know about these elite consoles. While the GPU components have received a major bump in performance, the CPUs are merely faster, but no more sophisticated. This means that the aspects of the game that rely on the CPU won’t show much improvement. It makes sense, because taking advantage of more CPU grunt might involve rewriting the games in fundamental ways. So it’s logical to focus on direct visual upgrades.

The 4K Fallacy

The main impetus behind the elite console options is the increased adoption of 4K displays. These displays have four times the pixels of 1080p HD displays. Rendering graphics at that detail level requires a lot more graphical grunt than the base consoles were designed for. However, people are now replacing their HD sets with 4K ones, so both console makers use this as a sales tactic to pitch their new consoles.

Here’s the problem – they aren’t really 4K consoles. At least not for the most part. You see, in order to count as true 4K gaming, you need to render the game at the native 4K resolution of the display. In practice, almost no games are rendered at this resolution. Instead, you get some lower resolution, which is then run through something called an “upscaler” – an imperfect process of sharpening up the detail in a video feed so it appears to be of a higher quality, or at least looks good on a high-resolution display.

The results are actually not half-bad. The PS4’s upscaling method, in particular, has received quite some praise. The thing is, what you’re really getting here is a specialized gaming upscaler that prevents your TV’s built-in upscaler from potentially messing up the picture. What you are NOT getting is a true 4K experience. Yes, games may render at resolutions greater than Full HD, but rarely at 4K.

Now, there ARE games that render at a true native 4K on these consoles. These are usually last-generation remasters or games with relatively simple graphics that can be rendered at 4K. The reason we should be so skeptical of 4K gaming claims is that there is still no amount of money you can spend on a gaming PC that will give you an acceptable 4K experience – that is, with all the visual AAA eye candy while also providing at least 60 frames per second. These computers have GPU that cost twice as much as a console by themselves, which is why you shouldn’t buy either of these consoles simply because you have a 4K TV! Speaking of frame rates…

xbox elite

Frame Rates

Just in case you don’t know, the “frame rate” is a measure of how many frames a game can render in a second. Cinematic films run at a rate of 24 frames per second. However, for games to be playable higher frame rates are better. Most console games, especially ones that bring fancy graphics to the table, target 30 frames per second, which is widely considered to be the minimum playable frame rate. In most cases, games are optimized well enough for the base consoles to hit that target, although there are many horror stories of tanked frame rates on consoles.

Some titles target and hit 60 frames per second, which is the gold standard in this generation, but that’s a rarity on consoles. When elite versions of consoles were first announced, a wide hope from gamers was that developers would use the extra horsepower to push games to 60 frames per second instead of targeting a 4K resolution.

While this has actually happened in a few select cases, most games are still targeting 30 frames per second regardless of which grade of console you have. This is thanks to a number of reasons, but the main issue is the relative lack of CPU power, even with the elite machines. Even if the GPU would be happy to spit out 60 frames every second, the CPU needs to do its job quickly enough for the GPU to do this. That means doubling the rate at which it simulates physics or calculates animation and so on. Many games also tied things like their physics engine to the 30 frames per second figure, or have otherwise designed the game around that target. So speeding things up would create all sorts of problems.

This means that if you want to buy an elite console for higher framerates you’ll be sorely disappointed. Where you will find a big difference is in the consistency of frame rates. Games may target 30 frames per second, but come up short when the action heats up or scenes become too complex. Elite consoles largely eliminate those performance drops, which is a real qualitative improvement to the gaming experience.

Eye Candy

While you may not get the full 4K experience or get the 60 frames per second treatment as much as you’d like, there’s a third visual perk to having one of the elite versions of base consoles. It’s perhaps not always as obvious as resolution or rendering speed, but with more GPU horsepower under the hood developers can turn up the eye candy.

This means that things like draw distances in open world games can be pushed out. You can expect more realistic lighting and better detail levels on objects. Shadows usually get a bump as well, and many other effect sliders get pushed upwards on the higher-end consoles.

Custom Game Modes

While handling frame rate drops with more grace is something that will happen universally on elite consoles, better performance or better visuals won’t happen without developers specifically patching their games to take advantage of the extra grunt.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. For example, on the PS4 Pro there’s something called “Boost Mode” that improves the performance of any game, whether it has a PS4 Pro patch or not. The results are, however, a bit crude.

Some games, such as Nioh, give players an option about what to do with the extra performance of their machines. You can choose a 4K-ish, 30fps experience or a 1080p, 60-fps one. If you don’t actually have a 4K TV, then this is a wonderful option to have. Even if you do have a 4K TV, you may have one with a good built-in upscaler, so the 60 fps mode in that game could still be the better option.

This is a per-title option, so check if the games that you want to play offer something like this before buying the console on the assumption that you’ll get this choice.

OK, so that’s the information you need in order to make an informed decision. Let’s take a brief look at the actual elite consoles that are out there.

The PS4 Pro

There are now three main forms of the PS4. There’s the original base model and a new slim model; then there’s this tower of power – a triple-sandwich monster that will give you the best PS4 experience possible, which goes without saying.

If you are buying a new PS4 today, you are basically choosing between the Slim and Pro models. The Slim is absolutely tiny and very quiet. The pictures don’t do justice to just how small this machine is nor, obviously, how quiet it is. If you care a lot about those two factors, and want to save a good deal of money, then the Slim model might be a better bet.

That being said, AAA games like Red Dead Redemption 2 make fantastic use of the Pro’s extra power, and there’s a general boost mode to improve games that haven’t been patched for Pro use.

The thing is, if you aren’t hooked into either the Sony or Microsoft ecosystems yet, should you pick this console over the Xbox One X? The X is undoubtedly the better machine on a technical level, but there’s a reason why the PS4 has outsold the Xbox One this generation, two to one. Sony has some excellent exclusive games and a very pro-consumer stance. Over the years however, Microsoft has copied and equalled almost everything that Sony has offered.

The bottom line for me, then, is that totally new buyers should probably opt for the Xbox One X if they don’t care about Sony exclusives or other aspects of the Sony ecosystem. If you already own a PS4 and are happy with the way that games run on it, there’s little incentive to upgrade. That is, unless you care enough about the improvements, have a specific game you want to run better, or are replacing a broken PS4.

Xbox One X

Man, Microsoft had a hard time with the Xbox One base model when it first launched. Thanks to Microsoft’s high pricing, anti-consumer practices, and inferior hardware, Sony got a head start that has never disappeared.

If you want to buy into this console generation, the last console I would recommend is the base model Xbox One. It performs significantly worse with recent titles compared to the PS4. While the PS4 almost always provides an eminently playable experience with nice visuals, the base model One provides an uglier picture that struggles to maintain stable frame rates. Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 on the base model Xbox One are liable to cause serious buyer’s remorse.

All of the bad things I have to say about the base model are eminently fixed with the Xbox One X. This machine has significantly more power than the PS4 Pro and is almost a whole generational leap over the base model.

If you aren’t already hooked into the Playstation ecosystem, or you want to buy a second console and are considering the Pro, the X is the better choice. If I could choose what to play a modern game on, besides a PC, then it would always be the Xbox One X.

The X is also notable for its backwards compatibility with a select library of Xbox 360 games. There are hundreds of titles that MS has managed to get working on the X and it’s definitely worth it. Games that performed poorly on the Xbox 360 get a serious kick in the pants. Perfectly stable frame rates, bumps up to 60 fps, and true 4K rendering are some of the advantages Xbox One X backwards compatibility brings to the table.

I would wholeheartedly recommend that current owners of Xbox One base models upgrade to the X rather than to the PS4. That also means avoiding the slim version of the base model, which has the same piddling hardware. MS revealed the new successor to the One at E3 2019; it has four times the horsepower and launches Christmas 2020. Until then, this is the most powerful console money can buy.

Elite or Not? That is the Question

So, in the end, should you go for the elite versions of these consoles or not? If you already own a base model of the console in question, then it becomes harder to answer that question, but we’ll get to that in a second. If you are buying the console as a first-time buyer or to replace a broken or stolen unit, then I absolutely recommend getting an elite console if you can stretch your budget. As a straight new purchase, the extra outlay is worth it. But as an upgrade to the existing console you own, it’s not that great a deal.

That being said, having a base model as your second console isn’t a bad idea. It opens up multiplayer options and means you can perhaps have a console to go with a bedroom TV as well.

Still, if you are looking at these consoles as a way to upgrade your experience, then it’s worth looking up some game comparisons on YouTube. Channels like Digital Foundry are excellent at pointing out exactly how the base and pro versions of a console game differ. Trying out someone else’s elite console with your favorite games is also a good way to use your own eyes and ears to make the choice.