Compared with the annual smartphone upgrade cycle, the generational cadence of gaming consoles feels almost geologic in its pacing. For a long time now, the typical console has had a lifespan of five to seven years -- after which it is inevitably nudged into obsolescence by its successor. Change may be afoot, however, in light of rumors suggesting that Sony -- and perhaps Microsoft -- are considering introducing new platforms less than four years after releasing the current versions of their respective PlayStation and Xbox consoles.
In the wake of rumors first floated by Eurogamer and Kotaku, the Wall Street Journal has reported that a new PlayStation console with the capacity to handle "higher-end gaming experiences" is forthcoming. It looks as though it will be separate and distinct from the PlayStation VR, Sony's virtual reality headset, which is currently scheduled to debut in the fall of 2016. (Note that you'll need a PS4 to use PlayStation VR.)
This new version of the PlayStation -- being referred to variously as the PS Neo, PS4k, and PS4.5 -- will come equipped with "enhanced graphics and power," including support for PlayStation VR. In addition, according to the rumors, Sony will continue production of the existing PlayStation, making the new console an addition to the portfolio rather than a pure, next-generation replacement.
Announcement and release dates
We know that Sony plans to announce the new PlayStation console before releasing the PlayStation VR, which is currently scheduled for October 2016. (In March, Sony began accepting preorders for the VR as well as a $500 launch bundle, which includes a headset and Camera, two Move controllers, and a multigame disc.)
Some have suggested that we will get an announcement at E3 in June, with the release following in late summer or early fall. Still, the official timeline for the announcement -- let alone retail availability -- remains unknown.
Under the hood
In theory, the PS4.5 will be an enhanced version of the current PS4, but capable of supporting games developed for 4K resolution displays. According to a thoughtful analysis published by Eurogamer, it may support current and next-generation ultra HD media and will integrate "semi-custom versions of AMD's CPU and GPU technology integrated into a single, console-friendly processor."
According to a more specific list of specs published by Giant Bomb, the PlayStation 4K could include eight 2.1GHz AMD Jaguar CPU cores and 8GB of GDDR5. A number of rumors, including those published by the Wall Street Journal, suggest that the PlayStation 4.5 will be fully backwards compatible, as it will be in the market alongside the current PS4 console.
In other words, the same games would work on both consoles, but would offer better (presumably higher resolution) graphics on the new model. According to the Giant Bomb report, new PlayStation console would not have its own exclusive games; all games will be required to have the same peripheral support and players will all appear on the same PlayStation Network.
Some have connected the development of the PS4.5 to Sony's interest in selling 4K televisions, and there is supposition that the next PlayStation would support 4K streaming from services like Netflix. Whether that's native support for 4K or an "upconverted" experience is anyone's guess.
It's also possible that the new PlayStation's more muscular graphics could offer a better experience on the upcoming PlayStation VR headset. That would address concerns like those cited by Forbes about the possibility of a "sub-par" VR experience on the existing PS4 platform.
After launching the powerful PS3 in the US at $499 (and offering a higher-end, $599 model), Sony has come downmarket in recent years. The PlayStation 4, for example, started at $399 and is now available for $349, £299 and AU$480 with an included game. But that affordable price is one reason why the PS4 has outsold the Xbox One by an almost two to one margin. (Microsoft has has since lowered Xbox prices aggressively.)
If the PS4.5 comes out of the gate with super-size specs -- quadrupling its processor speed and upgrading its RAM, as some have suggested -- its price will certainly be higher, too. But so long as the standard PS4 continues to be available at its current price (or lower) to satisfy value shoppers, Sony may well be able to have its cake and eat it, too.