By Matt Peckham
September 2, 2016

Odds are Sony’s media event on September 7 in New York won’t be to spotlight new faceplate colors for the PlayStation 4, a new line of Crash Bandicoot dolls or the latest PlayStation Plus game freebies. The company says the event exists “to share details about the PlayStation business,” which is the sort of generic marketing elision that breeds rumors.

The assumption is that Sony is going to use the event to finally raise the curtain on PlayStation Neo, a high-octane, 4K-capable revamp of the PlayStation 4 console. We may also see more than Neo, including a revised, slimmer version of the original PlayStation 4. And it’s not unreasonable to surmise Sony will use the event to draw attention to PlayStation VR, its PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset, announced years ago and finally due out October 13.

What we can say about Neo isn’t much, but thanks to a rare bit of candor from Sony this summer, it’s also not nothing.

What we know for sure

Sony Interactive Entertainment boss Andrew House confirmed to Financial Times in June that a new version of the PlayStation 4 was in progress, outing the system after earlier rumors of its existence. House said “Neo” is the official codename of the next PlayStation—a significantly more powerful yet fully backward-compatible version of the PlayStation 4.

No surprise, House confirmed Neo would be more expensive than the $350 PlayStation 4, that it’s aimed at high-end gamers who want 4K content and that all Neo games will work on existing PlayStation 4 systems. The latter—that there’ll be no Neo exclusives—is important in establishing that Neo is basically a boutique PlayStation 4, not a paradigm shift. Every game that runs on Neo, with the possible exception of certain PlayStation VR games, must also run on PlayStation 4. (But there’s no requirement that they look and perform similarly on both systems.)

House added that Neo would support PlayStation VR, and noted the reason Sony didn’t show Neo at gaming’s annual E3 trade show in June was “to ensure we have a full range of the best experiences on the new system that we can showcase in their entirety.” On September 7, it seems we’ll find out what that “range of experiences” amounts to.

What we think we might know

Branding and specifications

Clunky press concoctions like “PS4.5” or The Matrix-inspired codename “Neo” seem unlikely release names for the new box. (PlayStation VR was originally called “Morpheus,” for instance, which sounds cool for a codename but not so much for a retail product.) The system may simply be called “PlayStation 4K,” according to Eurogamer subsidiary Digital Foundry, which has the most thoroughly grounded analyses of Neo based on its own vetting of allegedly leaked documents. It’s a name that makes logical sense when you consider Sony’s own description of the system as a souped-up PlayStation 4 with the oomph to drive native 4K gaming.

If you want to wade through the claimed specifications, you can do so here. But the new console looks to harbor an overclocked PlayStation 4 CPU (a 31% increase, says Digital Foundry), greater memory bandwidth (with 512MB more available to games) and a significant upgrade to the graphics processor.

The graphics processor spec amounts to a performance surge from 1.84 to 4.2 teraflops, a basic measure of computational power. Contrast with the 6 teraflops Microsoft claims its forthcoming Xbox One revision, codenamed Project Scorpio, will be capable of—a 43% performance advantage over Neo, according to Digital Foundry.

It’ll make possible both 4K and faster 1080p gaming

Power demands scale exponentially with pixel counts. So leaping from 1920-by-1080 pixels to 4K’s “ultra HD” 3840-by-2160 standard requires a titanic performance shift under the hood. Digital Foundry cobbled together and tuned a PC it claims approximates Neo’s leaked specs to get a sense of the system’s power.

The result? A mixed bag of highs and lows that favors either games running at notably sub-4K resolutions, or the option to pull much better performance out of games running at native 1080p (thus creating headroom for alternative forms of visual enhancement within the games themselves).

It’s still at best educated speculation, but if Digital Foundry’s experiment proves out, it means Neo could offer some or all of the following scenarios:

  • Higher frame rates or visual improvements to existing games at 1080p, or 1080p patches to existing games that currently run at sub-1080p resolutions
  • New native 1080p experiences that run faster and look better on Neo than the original PlayStation 4
  • Visual improvements by way of higher (if sub-4K) resolutions, upscaled
  • Native 4K video support, for streaming services or 4K Blu-ray
  • Native (or nearly so) 4K gaming content by way of completely new experiences designed with the performance limitations of hitting something like “4K @ 30 frames per second” in mind
  • A performance boost for PlayStation VR experiences, or perhaps even Neo-exclusive PlayStation VR experiences, if you want to parse Sony’s comments that it views PlayStation VR as its own platform generously

It’s a shift to console cycles becoming more like smartphones

Smartphone rethinks appear annually and, unsubsidized, cost notably more than game consoles that appear spaced six or seven or eight years apart (and that’s taking into account annual game service subscriptions). The shift in computing performance since the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One arrived in late 2013 has been meteoric. So why not release game consoles more often, to keep up with the times? Aren’t Sony and Microsoft’s formal concession to console revisions in what would typically be a console’s midlife an indication that’s where we’re inexorably headed?

According to Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, the answer is probably not. With game consoles, which couldn’t be less like smartphones paradigmatically, you’re talking more about “inflection points,” he argues. There happens to be one right now for 4K (well, arguably). But it’s pretty clear there won’t be another in three years, say, for something like 8K television. Consider that the market for 4K alone, both in terms of consumer purchases and available content, barely exists in 2016.

And that’s a crucial part of what both Sony and Microsoft appear to be up to here. The existence of Neo and Scorpio don’t prove the market’s ready for 4K or necessarily inspire mass migration. That’s on consumers, who face a substantial double-dip into their bank accounts to acquire both an expensive new platform and its even pricier new delivery medium (that new 4K TV). It’s far from clear demographics beyond the minority enthusiast class are going to bite. But they could nibble, and eventually become the tip of the spear, all without feeling forced to do so.

That’s why crafting these systems as beneficial both to existing 1080p and early 4K adopters (while maintaining full backward compatibility to avoid the knotty problems of user base and developmental obsolescence) is so essential. Neo and Scorpio can exist as optional perks or adoption incentives with far less of the risk involved in attempting to catapult users between platforms.

Sony’s about to unveil a revised PlayStation 4, too

This is the so-called “PlayStation 4 slim,” a smaller but otherwise functionally identical version of the current system with power button (as opposed to the current system’s recessed touch based ones). The rumor’s moved beyond a lone user posting pictures to auction site Gumtree, to Digital Foundry visiting the seller’s house and confirming that the system wasn’t an elaborate Photoshop hoax.

And possibly a new PlayStation DualShock controller

Not a total overhaul, because the DualShock 4 is and remains one of the best gamepad’s yet devised. But leaks suggests we’ll see a tweaked version with the light bar pulled up to the top, making it easier to see. Though, for those who don’t like the light bar because it reflects in the TV screen, the grandest, forehead-smackingly-simple improvement here would be entirely nonphysical—the option not just to “dim,” but outright disable the light bar.

Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com.

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