With sales of 4K TVs set to balloon in 2015 and more native 4K content sources appearing week by week, the continuing inability of the PS4 and Xbox One consoles to deliver any sort of 4K action is starting to look more and more uncomfortable. So much so that video streaming giant Netflix NFLX -0.93% – arguably the most significant current supplier of native 4K UHD content – believes that new 4K-friendly versions of both consoles will be delivered this coming fall.
Netflix first started talking about this publicly at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January when, according to The Huffington Post, Netflix’s Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt suggested during a press conference about Netflix’s support for High Dynamic Range technology that Sony had ‘promised’ a PS4 hardware revision that would give the console 4K video capabilities.
When I contacted Netflix for more background on this statement it understandably declined to provide more detail on the reported Sony ‘promise’, stressing that clearly it isn’t in a position to speak definitively on Sony’s plans. Netflix did, though, provide more detail on the thought processes Hunt was alluding to during the CES press conference. Namely that he believes that when both the PS4 and Xbox One consoles do their traditional two-year hardware refresh (which would be due around October or November) they will add the necessary components to deliver 4K video playback.
I’ve approached both Sony and Microsoft MSFT -0.24% for comment, but both have declined to confirm any such hardware adjustments – hardly surprising given that neither console maker will be keen on potentially disrupting sales of current hardware by talking of potential future iterations. For the record, Microsoft’s exact words were “We remain committed to bringing leading entertainment features and services to the living room. Beyond that, we have nothing to share at this time”, while Sony said “Support for high-resolution 4K output for still images and movie content is in consideration, but there are no further details to share at this time”.
Sony and Microsoft’s continued deafening silence where 4K is concerned is arguably revealing, though, about how far off the 4K pace the current PS4 and Xbox One consoles are. After all, Netflix started streaming 4K content as far back as April 2014, and Amazon has been running a 4K service since December, yet neither console maker is prepared yet, nearly 18 months after the consoles launched, to talk seriously about their 4K potential. This is despite Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida being on record at IGN from before the PS4’s launch as saying that Sony’s console would support 4K output for photos and videos.
In short, it’s hard not to share Netflix’s apparent view that the current PS4s and Xbox Ones need hardware rather than software upgrades to handle serious 4K streaming.
So what hardware changes might we expect to see from the predicted new consoles? First and foremost a chip for decoding the HEVC 4K UHD streaming format employed by both Netflix and Amazon. But it would also be hugely sensible for both consoles to upgrade their HDMI ports from 1.4 versions (which can only carry 4K at 30fps) to 2.0 versions which can take 4K at 60fps.
You can deliver 4K video and high-resolution sound via the latest generation of USB ports; this is the way Samsung’s UHD movie server connects to its current TVs, in fact. But people now expect HDMI to be their main TV connection, and there’s no particularly massive cost implication with using HDMI 2.0 ports over 1.4 versions these days.
If Netflix is proved right about the new console iterations, a big question for Sony and Microsoft will be how they manage the potential backlash from the tens of millions of people who already own ‘original’ PS4s and Xbox Ones. One solution could be to launch an external peripheral – though while this could deliver the HEVC decoding, it’s hard to see how it could overcome the current HDMI limitation.
One last point to stress here is that if Netflix’s predictions of new 4K-capable consoles this year come true, the upgrade will almost certainly only affect video streaming; 4K gaming looks set to remain exclusively the domain of high-end PC owners. Sony pointedly added at the end of its response to my query about 4K that “The PS4 does not currently support 4K output for gaming”. Though even here Sony couldn’t resist using the word ‘currently’…
The PS5 Exists.