The next generation is just a few months away, with Sony and Microsoft both planning to launch their respective new consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, this holiday season. Both companies have equipped their consoles with next-gen video features such as support for gaming in 4K resolution at 120 frames per second. That requires HDMI 2.1 — a technology that is just starting to make its way into modern televisions.
As with any new console generation, there’s a lot of potentially unfamiliar tech jargon associated with the PS5 and Xbox Series X, such as variable refresh rate (VRR) and auto low-latency mode (ALLM). It’s creating a confusing landscape for anyone looking to future-proof their living room by buying a new TV for the next-gen consoles.
Last week, Sony came out with a new label for TVs that describes two of its 2020 models as “Ready for PlayStation 5.” The branding, which resulted from a partnership between the company’s electronics and gaming divisions, is meant to “make it easier for consumers to select the optimum TV in preparation for the highly anticipated launch of the PlayStation 5,” Sony said in a news release.
That sounds promising! Anything that could alleviate the pain of researching TVs and clera up the alphabet soup of initialisms for their features would be helpful. Sadly, that’s not what’s happening here. “Ready for PlayStation 5” is a mere marketing tagline — nothing more than an attempt by Sony to hawk its own TVs. (In fairness, a “tagline” is exactly how Sony describes “Ready for PlayStation 5”; the company isn’t trying to pretend the line is something it’s not.) It’s a huge missed opportunity.
The Sony X900H, a 4K LED TV.Image: Sony Electronics
What makes Sony TVs ‘Ready for PlayStation 5’?
Sony’s first two quote-unquote PS5-ready TVs are the X900H and the Z8H, both of which are LED TVs that can display 4K120 content (or will be able to eventually, anyway). The X900H is a 4K TV that starts at $999.99 for the 55-inch model, while the Z8H is an 8K TV, with the cheapest option being the 75-inch model at an eye-watering $5,999.99.
While both TV sets are now available for purchase, the X900H doesn’t yet support 4K120 inputs — or any other HDMI 2.1 features. That will come at some point in the future with a firmware update. (Asked if the update will be available by the time the PS5 launches, a Sony representative told Polygon that the company could not comment on timing.) And for what it’s worth, the Z8H only supports 4K120 content on one of its four HDMI inputs. That means you wouldn’t be able to hook up a PS5 and an Xbox Series X to the TV simultaneously and experience 4K120 gaming on both consoles.
Both the X900H and Z8H will eventually offer gaming-oriented HDMI 2.1 features, in addition to the usual game mode, but the level of support is inconsistent. The upcoming X900H firmware update will add support for 4K120 content, VRR, and ALLM to the TV, along with enhanced audio return channel, or eARC. The Z8H already supports 4K120 content and eARC, as well as 8K content at up to 60 Hz — but it doesn’t offer VRR or ALLM, arguably the two most important items on the list for gamers. (For more information on HDMI 2.1 and its new features, check out our explainer on next-gen TVs.)
We asked Sony if it could provide a checklist of gaming-oriented features that a TV must support in order to qualify for the “Ready for PlayStation 5” tagline. The company did not. Instead, a spokesperson told Polygon that “Sony put the tag on the X900H and Z8H models because they are capable of displaying 4K/120fps and 8K gameplay images from PS5,” and noted that only the Z8H supports 8K content.
The Sony rep also highlighted some TV features that aren’t specifically geared toward gaming, pointing to the color and contrast delivered by the X1 family of image processors and “sound that comes directly from the TV screen.”
“These technologies make Sony’s X900H and Z8H truly ‘Ready for PlayStation 5,’” said the spokesperson. (These technologies don’t have anything to do with gaming performance.)
The Sony Z8H LED TV. 8K? In this economy?Image: Sony Electronics
This doesn’t make it less daunting to buy a PS5 or a TV
It’s disappointing to see that Sony is concerned more with marketing than with providing a service to prospective customers, because this idea has so much potential.
As we laid out in our TV explainer, the nascent market for HDMI 2.1-equipped TVs is a minefield of caveats and question marks. Just because a TV is billed as having an HDMI 2.1 port doesn’t mean the TV will offer the gaming-specific features that a new console owner would be interested in using with a PS5 or Xbox Series X. Can you imagine spending thousands of dollars on a new TV to pair with your next-gen console(s), only to discover that the set doesn’t support VRR? (It’s worth noting that Sony has only mentioned VRR support for the PS5, not ALLM.)
Now imagine a certification program that would clarify a key point for consumers: which TVs on the market support all of the PS5’s new HDMI 2.1-based video features. Buy one of these TVs to make the most of your new console, Sony could say, giving PS5 owners a measure of security in a second large purchase.
Here are the most obvious must-haves for such a checklist:
VRR (for gaming without stuttering or screen tearing)
ALLM (to ensure responsive gaming)
eARC (the Xbox Series X won’t have an optical audio-out port, so HDMI will be the only way to output surround sound from the console; we don’t know about the PS5 yet)
HDMI 2.1 also features two other enhancements for gaming, quick frame transport (QFT) and quick media switching (QMS), that would be nice-to-have features in a TV. But specification sheets don’t seem to call them out, so it’s hard to tell if they’re included on new TV sets. And of course, outside of HDMI 2.1, a great TV for gaming needs to have minimal input lag.
As for 8K support, forget about it. Microsoft and Sony are both saying that their next-gen consoles are capable of 8K output. But we’re not convinced that there will be 8K content available via next-gen consoles — or anywhere, really — anytime in the near future. There’s no real justification for buying an 8K TV in 2020.
Looking at the two TVs that Sony is highlighting, it seems like the X900H would indeed fit the bill as a TV for next-gen consoles. In its review of the X900H earlier this month, Rtings described it as “an overall great 4k TV for nearly any type of content,” and found that it’s particularly well-suited to gaming, having measured very low input lag of 15.2 ms when playing in 4K HDR at 60 Hz. (In its news release this week, Sony said the X900H’s input lag is just 7.2 ms for 4K120 gaming, but that figure came from “internal testing conditions,” since the aforementioned firmware update hasn’t been released publicly.) Once the firmware update is live, the X900H will check all the boxes on our list of must-have HDMI 2.1 features.
HDMI 2.1 is starting to become more widely available. Aside from Sony, TV makers including LG, Samsung, TCL, and Vizio are offering HDMI 2.1 ports on at least some of their 2020 models. But with the profound lack of consistency in support for specific HDMI 2.1 features, consumers are being forced to research everything themselves, poring over spec sheets and support websites.
An industrywide certification program would be a win-win for Sony, Microsoft, and TV manufacturers — and, most importantly, for consumers. TVs and game consoles are expensive pieces of electronics, which makes the threat of buyer’s remorse particularly worrisome. A guarantee of a TV being “PlayStation 5-ready” or “Xbox Series X-ready” would make people feel more confident in buying both a console and a display, which could help increase sales on all fronts.