4KThe rumours and speculation of new consoles ran rampant during last week’s GDC, arguably a lot sooner than anyone expected. Though it’s typical for a current console generation to see a few minor upgrades or a physical design change, these new rumours suggest something far bigger than just a refresh. I must admit, I’m a tad unsure what to make of it all.

The whole thing technically started before GDC. With a little digging, I found an article back on February 2nd on Forbes. Maybe not the most legit place to get details on new games consoles from, but the rumours have grown exponentially since then. The article itself suggests that Netflix, keeper of every nerd’s online streaming dreams, are expecting upgraded consoles from both Sony and Microsoft that support 4K output, in the belief 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.

That explanation came after Netflix’s Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt suggested a similar thing back in January during the Consumer Electronics Show, though in his words Sony ‘promised’ a PS4 revision. Promise is such an overused word, let’s be honest we get a lot of promises from many people within our industry, very few of which come through. Some things are always out of our hands.

Anyway, fast forward to GDC. Coming out of the event, various websites have reported private meetings held by Sony regarding a possible ‘PS4K’ or ‘PS4.5’. Over on Kotaku, a fairly lengthy article suggested a few conversations outside said meetings between various developers:

Kotaku UK EIC Keza MacDonald overheard some developers casually talking about the machine while (in) line at GDC. They mentioned the name ‘PS4.5’ and discussed its increased horsepower, mentioning both 4K resolution and PlayStation VR.

Over at Microsoft, head of Xbox Phil Spencer got tongues wagging with a few comments made during a press briefing not too long ago. Spencer, someone who I’ve grown to appreciate with his thoughtful comments of the industry around him, threw around a possible hint at the future of the business, saying:

We look at these other ecosystems out there like mobile, tablet and PC and we see that they have a very continuous evolution cycle in hardware, whereas between console generations most of the evolution is making it cheaper and potentially making it smaller.”

Since then, the rumours have lingered about a possible Xbox One and a Half (Xbox 1.5), with the possibility that it might be upgradeable by users, in the same way a PC can be upgraded and changed over time. Spencer has since tried to hose down the comments, going on Major Nelson’s podcast that he wasn’t going to ship an xbox console with a screwdriver, but that’s suggesting internal changing of parts, where as there’s every chance external pieces (remember the HD-DVD drive?) could be used instead. Who knows.

Now I need to stress something here. Until such time as Sony (or Microsoft) comes out with a press release launching ‘the new PS4’ and ‘the new Xbox One’, none of these articles can be taken as law. Rumours are just that, and as exciting as it is to hear about it all, there’s every chance it can all come to naught. BUT if these rumours are true, if both companies are working on upgrades of their own hardware sooner rather than later, it does kinda make sense if it involves bringing in 4K.

Last generation, the PS3 and Xbox 360 had minor upgrades and design changes over time. The 360 in particular went from a console with an external HDD and no HDMI output, to a console with an internal hard drive, HDMI and an internal wireless card. However, all these upgrades didn’t necessarily alter the processing power or general graphics output of the console, meaning no matter the version of the console you owned, every game would work.

psvrWith that in mind, the rumours surrounding these upgrades suggest that the consoles may get a bit of a processing boost, especially for the PS4 in order to get the most out of Playstation VR. The concerning footnote to this is the possibility that these new consoles may be a required purchase to play future releases, to the point where a new Call of Duty might have a ‘Only works on PS4.5’ or something similar. Again, that’s a rumour … but it has happened before.

Nintendo launched Nintendo DSi back in 2009, a minor refresh of the DS line of consoles that back then were the talk of the town. The DSi allowed existing DS users to play all their own DS games, with the added benefit of a camera and a new online store for extra content. Though the 3DS wasn’t too far away anyway, the pretence behind the DSi was to provide extra abilities to developers to add just a little more to the console. That’s fine, again there’s nothing wrong with that, but there were a handful of games that could only work on a Nintendo DSi, despite being just a DS cartridge. If you didn’t have the right console, the games wouldn’t work. To be fair, only a handful of games were ever DSi only, but the concept was there.

Just last year, Nintendo did almost the very same thing with the New 3DS, a upgraded 3DS console with extra processing power. Again there’s only been a handful of games that are ‘New 3DS only’ (most notably Xenoblade Chronicles), but it’s been noted that a few games (including Hyrule Warriors 3DS) work a lot better on the new console than the old one, especially in terms of frame rates, whilst the recent SNES virtual console releases only work on the new system.

Both the DSi and New 3DS have sold rather well, so clearly we don’t mind spending the dosh on new systems if they’re better than the last. But those are handheld consoles, fairly cheaper than a full console system. Where as previous console upgrades are largely by choice (even Microsoft said the recent XBox One with an in-built Hybrid SSD wasn’t a required purchase), could we be on the verge of having to buy a brand new console in order to play new releases?

Spencer’s comments, whether on the fly or based on something behind closed doors, suggest the iPad/iPhone mentality of having a new product every year. I’m not suggesting that’s a good idea to bring into the console scene, in fact I’m a little concerned that I’ll have to spend $500 a year just to be able to play the next season of releases. But this is something PC gamers have had to deal with for years, always upgrading their rig with new hard drives, upgraded graphics cards and the like. It’s normal to expect an upgrade or two every year or so. So if a console manufacturer makes a system that can be upgraded … does that make it a PC? Weird.

What do you guys think? Is it too soon for a new console? Is 4K worth upgrading to? Are you willing to buy a brand new system, if it’s the only way to play the next Call of Duty or Playstation VR? Sound out in the comments below.

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