- Review Price: £249.99
Call it drab, call it dull, call it penny pinching and conservative, but releasing the PS3 Slim is easily the most sensible move Sony has made in donkeys’ years. Where it cuts down on the feature set of the original PS3 it does so in ways that don’t really matter, and where it improves on the initial console it does so in ways that offer real, tangible benefits. It’s not an essential upgrade for existing PS3 owners, but then it was never meant to be. Instead, this is a machine targeted squarely at those trying to make their mind up between the Microsoft and Sony console. Sony knows that this is its one big shot at getting back into the current generation console wars. Taken on these terms, I’d call the PS3 Slim a success.
Let’s start with the biggest change: the physical design. Sat side by side with the old PlayStation 3, the PS3 Slim is actually around 15mm deeper than the original, but a good 40mm narrower and – most importantly – just over 20mm thinner, giving it a nice low profile underneath your TV set. It’s not a bold statement like the original PS3, but a rather understated box that will sit well with the rest of your AV kit. Gone is that beautiful, shiny gloss finish. Gone is the Spider-Man typeface, replaced by a simple PS3 logo.
Those slick, touch-sensitive power and eject buttons have also been ditched for a pair of flat, round, low-travel buttons, though these still illuminate nicely when pressed. I know some (Hugo) have called the Slim ‘plain’ while others (Gordon) have even called it “naff”, but in the flesh it’s just a bit quiet and unobtrusive. The important thing is that, while the new PS3 looks less expensive than the old one, it doesn’t necessarily feel cheap. In fact, I’d say it feels a more solid and robust piece of hardware than my Xbox 360 Elite, despite the fact that it’s actually a fair bit lighter. The one downside of the new look? It’s not quite so stable when standing on its side without the exorbitantly priced stand accessory.
HDMI 1.3a, S/PDIF and standard PlayStation A/V connections on the rear still handle output to your TV and sound system, while we get Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11g Wi-Fi for connecting to your router and on to the Internet. On the front we’re down to two USB ports – though that was true of the 40GB and later 80GB PS3 as well – and the multi-card reader seems consigned to the dustbin of history, but again I can’t say that either point is a real disaster for gamers. You can still connect up a camera or MP3 player by USB, and how many of us really took the memory card from our camera and plugged it straight into the PS3 anyway? As with the removal of the old option to install a Linux distro, it’s all about removing features that the majority of users won’t miss, and concentrating on those that they will. I know that some of us still mourn the passing of backwards compatibility, but I guess it’s just something we’ll have to get used to, as it hasn’t returned with the PS3 Slim.
Two other factors will make quite a difference in the average living room. First, the combination of the new 45nm Cell processor, a smaller nVidia RSX GPU and a range of efficiency enhancements means that the PS3 Slim consumes approximately 50 per cent of the power of the old model in any given situation (under 100W when playing games and under 1W in standby, as opposed to over 200W and nearly 2W on the old PS3). This actually makes it a less juice-thirsty console than the Xbox 360 Elite (around 120W in gameplay, under 2W in standby). Over the course of the console’s life-cycle, that’s going to shave a reasonable amount off your electricity bill, and it’s presumably one reason why the new console uses a smaller ‘tape-deck’ style power cable over the larger ‘kettle’ leads used by its predecessor and (in modified form) the Xbox 360.
The other benefit of the new Cell and RSX processors is that the PS3 Slim runs cooler than the old PS3. This, inevitably, makes it quieter. If you thought the existing PS3 was quiet, prepare for a shock: the new model is eerily lacking in noise. It’s not quiet silent, but I’d put it on the same level as, say, a basic laptop running idle or a quiet PVR. Even while accessing a game or Blu-ray disc the volume stays low, meaning the PS3 Slim doesn’t have the Wii’s irritating levels of disc noise. Whether I’ve been playing Flower, Killzone 2, Resident Evil 5 or the multiplayer beta of Uncharted 2, I’ve been unable to push the volume up to the levels of my old PS3, let alone that windy young hooligan, the Falcon-powered Xbox 360 Elite. Now, I might just have a particularly quiet model, but if you’re planning to buy a console to double as a media player, then this is a real point in the PS3’s favour.
The other, of course, is Blu-ray playback. These days there are many cheaper Blu-ray players on the market, and a range of networked media players that you can have for well under £100. However, the PS3 still serves well in both respects. While I can’t say I’ve seen a huge range of Blu-ray players to compare the PS3 against, it’s reasonably speedy at loading discs and playback quality is at least up there with other budget decks I’ve looked at. What’s more, the Slim now streams Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreams out to a receiver over HDMI, which is good news if you have the relevant home cinema kit – although the old PS3 still supports both standards, but instead does the decoding in the console and outputs multi-channel PCM.
Meanwhile, the PS3 itself has become a more and more capable media player with each firmware upgrade, and naturally that follows on with the PS3 Slim. Much as I love the Xbox 360’s NXE interface, I’d have to say that Sony’s XMB remains a better UI for browsing and viewing different kinds of media, and I was surprised how quickly, seamlessly and without any intervention the PS3 Slim picked up the media waiting on my Windows 7 PC (and the same should apply with any DNLA compliant server). Format support is a little conservative, but H.264, MPEG-2, AVCHD, DivX and WMV video are all handled without fuss, along with MP3 and WMA audio. Nor has the PS3 struggled to stream unprotected iTunes Plus files direct from my PC.
Video and audio playback quality is excellent, with the Cell processor upscaling and enhancing low resolution files. Best of all, the recent version 3.0 of the firmware has added native BBC iPlayer support to the PS3; you can stream programmes direct from the BBC at something very near SD broadcast quality – and even the Nintendo Wii can’t say that!
Of course, there is one area here where Sony is lagging behind Microsoft: movie downloads. While Microsoft already offers HD and SD rentals on the Xbox Live Marketplace and has done for a couple of years, PS3 owners in the UK are still waiting for Sony’s European movie download service to launch. Luckily, the wait should be over in November. Whether we then get the 12,000 TV episodes and 2,200 movies our American cousins can enjoy is doubtless a licensing issue, but if so, this might not be an advantage that Microsoft enjoys for long.
In terms of usability and built-in functionality, the PS3 Slim scores high. There are some remaining niggles – I’d still say that the Dual Shock 3 is behind the 360 controller for comfort and accuracy, while its motion-sensitive properties are grossly under-used – but it’s genuinely a great piece of hardware. Sadly, hardware has never been the PS3’s problem – it’s problem was always cost and games. On the latter side, the PS3 still has yet to live up to its promise. Thinking of exclusive titles on either machine, I can only think of a handful on the PS3 – Ratchet and Clank, Uncharted, LittleBigPlanet, Infamous, Killzone 2 – that stand up to the best on Microsoft’s platform. I still can’t see any real long-term draw in the PS3’s much-hyped Home virtual world, and we still have a situation where most cross-platform games look and run better on the theoretically inferior machine (though most of us now accept that the strengths of the 360’s GPU against the PS3’s RSX balance out any difference in CPU horsepower).
”’(centre)Uncharted 2 could be reason enough to pick up a PS3 Slim(/centre)”’
But this picture might be changing. This is the first year when the run up to Christmas sees the two consoles evenly balanced, with Uncharted 2 and Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time on the PS3 holding up against Forza 3 and Left 4 Dead 2 on the 360. What’s more, Sony has MAG, Gran Turismo 5 and God of War III early next year to go up against Mass Effect 2, Crackdown 2 and Alan Wake on the competition. After that, things get more interesting with Sony’s motion controller and Microsoft’s more ambitious Project Natal, but there’s a real feeling that Sony has finally rediscovered the plot it lost around E3 2006. I think its high time that we retired the idea that the PS3 is going to give us better, more technically advanced games in the long-term while Microsoft abandons the 360 – both companies are committed to maintaining a long life-cycle this generation – but I definitely think that it will give us our share of great ones. That’s enough.
Cost is still an issue. We all cheered when Sony announced a sensible £249 price point for the PS3 Slim, but Microsoft’s drop of the Elite to £199 has been a very effective spoiler. Yet, as Hugo mentioned, it’s well worth remembering the long term costs of ownership. You’re getting 802.11g Wi-Fi in the box (though media streamers would have preferred Sony to match Microsoft’s forthcoming 802.11n adaptor), and you’re also not paying out for Xbox Live Gold membership. I don’t think anyone outside of Sony is under the illusion that PSN is as good a service, but it works well enough and the revamped PSN Store is improving all the time. It’s also worth mentioning that many retailers are already bundling the £249 PS3 Slim with a free game, and you can expect more deals in the run-up to Christmas.
Overall, the PS3 Slim feels like the console Sony needed to put out at this time. I suspect that most gamers who are simply in it for the games will still opt for the cheaper, more hardcore-focused 360, but with its quiet-running, Blu-ray playback and media-savvy interface, the Slim is a great choice for the mainstream user. When making car analogies, I used to talk about the PS3 as a BMW to the Xbox 360’s Ford Focus. The PS3 Slim is more of a VW Golf and, at this stage of the game, that’s exactly what Sony needs, and a more realistic choice for the majority.
A more focussed, more affordable, surprisingly quiet PS3. This is the hardware Sony needs to win mainstream hearts and minds. All it needs now is the software.