'PS3 Slim' rumor fervor hard to fathom

Given that Sony's flagship video game console has lagged badly behind its Nintendo and Microsoft rivals, it's hard to see why people are so worked up over a device that might not even exist.

Is this the new PS3 Slim? Rumors have it Sony may unveil such a device at the Gamescom show in Germany Tuesday. On the other hand, it may all be fanboy-driven fervor with no substance. Either way, to CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman, the excitement is unlikely to be matched by the reality of anything Sony may introduce.

While all new technology product rumors have to be taken with a grain of salt, you can sometimes tell--often by the volume of online chatter about a particular morsel--that one is more likely to turn out to be true.

That seems to be the case with the so-called " PS3 Slim ," a rumored new PlayStation 3 form factor that could well be on the horizon. And if the latest slew of blog and forum posts are right, there's a pretty good chance Sony will formally announce the new console Tuesday at the Gamescom conference in Cologne, Germany.

That may be true, and, of course, it may not. But what I want to know is why so many people seem to be so excited about this as-yet-unseen console? After all, the PS3--once thought by many to be the most likely winner of the next-generation console wars between Sony, Microsoft (with its Xbox 360), and Nintendo (with its Wii)--has lagged far behind its competitors.

In July, for example, while Nintendo moved 252,500 Wiis and Microsoft sold 202,900 Xboxes, consumers only bought 121,800 PS3s. Similarly, in June, the Wii led the pack with 361,700, while the Xbox came in second with 240,600 units sold and the PS3 again was third, with just 164,700 sales. Even when the video game industry was still roaring, last December , the PS3 (726,000 units sold) badly trailed both the Wii (2.15 million) and Xbox (1.44 million).

Those figures, of course, are for United States sales.

For some time, I argued that the PS3 would eventually win this generation of consoles. I made Sony's case that it looks at consoles as a 10-year play, and I brought up the incredible PlayStation consumer base. And Sony, I explained, had so much history with consoles that its competitors would have a hard time keeping up with its institutional memory.

Yet by all measures, Sony has come up short with the PS3.

So what is it about a new, slimmer, PS3 that has so many people champing at the bit?

"I think the reason why many people are so hyped up over the PS3 Slim is because of the fact that it is something new (and) something different," a PS3 fan named Nick Johnson wrote me in response to a thread I posted on the official PS3 forums. "And it will hopefully be at a good price like $299 (hopefully!)"

To be sure, one reason Sony has sold less next-gen consoles than either Nintendo or Microsoft is that the PS3 is the most expensive of the machines, and has been since day one. Today, the cheapest PS3 runs for $400, while it is possible to get a low-end Xbox for as little as $200 (or less) and a Wii for $250.

So for many, the prospect of a smaller, slimmer PS3 comes with the logical conclusion that the price will drop , too. And it's not just the fans who are thinking that way.

"Beyond generating consumer interest over a new hardware form factor, the most obvious reason to celebrate the arrival of a PS3 Slim is that it should allow for a lower price, through lower costs of components and production," said video game analyst Colin Sebastian, a senior vice president for equity research at Lazard Capital Markets. "I expect (Sony) to lower the price on the older versions (of the PS3), but the cost to make the new version should be lower."

A lower price, especially on a device that has at times seemed absurdly expensive--relative to its competition, and despite having a full-blown Blu-Ray player built-in--certainly seems like a good reason to look forward to the PS3 Slim, if in fact such a device exists.

But it hardly seems like enough to generate the froth that's coming from all corners of the the video game world these days. Searching for "PS3 Slim" on Google returns fully 1.85 million results. There's even a YouTube video (below) that purports to show an actual PS3 Slim. Not bad for a device that doesn't (officially) exist.

So why all the enthusiasm?

"The only real (reason) I can (think of) is 'fandom' or 'fan-boy-ness,'" Brian Champion wrote in an e-mail response to my forum post. "With all the technologies, when something faster, sleeker, and smaller comes out...for LESS...everyone wants it. Why the fanboys are foaming at the mouth is because no one really knows what it will look like, cost or have 'under the hood.'"

Sony's dark knight?
And Justin Meisinger, a Boston University journalism graduate student, added that "some users are excited over the aspect of something simply new...in the hopes it will help Sony pull out of third place in the console race. Commonly this assumption seems to come along with the Slim having a price drop, which is just as large a rumor as the Slim itself. A cheaper, smaller PS3 is seen as Sony's dark knight."

Meisinger continued, "For others, it's the simple concept of something smaller, and possibly cooler--current PS3s run pretty warm. Smaller processors and external power bricks are expected to bring the system down in size. It'd also make it more convenient for travel or just sitting in the entertainment center. There's also the rumor of the re-inclusion of backwards-compatibility with (PlayStation 2) games."

To me, those are all interesting reasons to look forward to a possible new PS3, but nothing to get as worked up as a lot of bloggers seem to be. After all, the PS3 has been on the market for almost three years, so I have to wonder whether someone who really wanted a PS3 but hasn't yet pulled the trigger would finally break down over a potential $100 price break.

More likely, slow sales aside, there are simply a ton of PlayStation fans out there, and many of them simply love the idea of Sony coming up with something that could finally help the company improve its position in the console wars. If you're not a video game player, or if you are but not a serious one, you may not realize how passionate and partisan some gamers can be. Yankees vs. Red Sox? That's peanuts compared with the fervor that a good PlayStation vs. Xbox argument can bring up.

So, given that there are millions of gamers for whom the sun rises and sets with Sony, anything that company can do to rev the console wars up is worth the energy that's been expended so far on behalf of the PS3 Slim rumor.

"You may (ask), 'why should care, I already have a PS3,'" Johnson wrote. "I am personally excited that more people will get to enjoy the PS3, including some of my friends who weren't able to afford one (previously). And this may be Sony's chance to catch up with the Xbox 360."

For me, it doesn't make sense. To be sure, I'm not one of the partisans, but I just can't help thinking that even a newer, slimmer PS3 is still going to be a PS3. Which means it'll be more expensive than its rivals, and have a games library which, while including some impressive titles, is generally seen as less impressive than what's available for Xbox.

Some may argue that a lower-priced PS3 will lead to a larger consumer base, which in turn will result in more, and better, games. But that's a lot to hope for, given the struggles going on in the video games industry right now.

And clearly, I'm not the only one who feels this way.

"I think it's an overblown waste of time," Meisinger wrote in his e-mail. "But it's nice to see Sony getting some traction on all sides of the proverbial fence, and I think it really could be a good thing for them if they did indeed release it at a lower price point. (But until) we know, it's just rumors and speculation to torment the fanboy mind."

 

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