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The shrinking game console: A history

Every few years video game consoles get smaller and more advanced. We track some of the more notable shrinkage in the last 20 years.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony's announcement of the PlayStation 3 Slim on Tuesday was no surprise for most gamers and industry experts. Parts that once cost a small fortune, such as hard drives, processors, and special disc-reading lenses, continue to fall in price and take up less space. It's only natural the machines that use them would shrink as well.

The PlayStation 3 was physically the largest of the three current-generation home consoles, followed by Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii. With never-ending lust by consumers for smaller gadgets, the current configuration was just not cutting it.

What's surprising about the Slim, though, is that Sony was the second-most recent of the three companies to have released its console, yet it's the first to offer a completely new form factor. Microsoft was the first out of the gate with a North America release of the Xbox 360 in late November 2005. Sony and Nintendo followed suit with the PlayStation 3 and Wii, respectively, which were released a week apart from each other in mid-November 2006.

The closest either Nintendo or Microsoft has come to a redesign since is Microsoft, which began including an HDMI port and increasing the included storage, alongside a major revision to the system software which allowed games to be played off the hard drive.

In the case of the PS3 Slim, it's actually the fourth generation of the device. During that three-year period, things like the included storage space jumped from 20GB to 120GB. And a recently unearthed patent at the FCC filing shows that a 250GB model is just around the corner.

So is it normal to release a heavily revised version of a gaming system within three years of the initial release? It depends on who you are. Let's take a look at some notable shrinkage from the last three generations of consoles. I think that you'll notice a trend.

Note: We're not including handheld consoles in this story, but parallels can be made between revisions to Nintendo's Game Boy and DS products, as well as Sony's PSP.

Previous generations

Last generation:

Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2)
Released: October 26, 2000 (North America)

(Left) The original PlayStation 2 design next to (Right) the Slimline model. Sony / CNET

The PS2 was the only console from the last generation to undergo a major facelift. Neither Microsoft's original Xbox nor Nintendo's GameCube underwent any physical changes.

Sony's first major revision was actually its ninth. Sony frequently changed internal components as circuit boards were streamlined, and parts were moved around to deter people from modifying the hardware. The revision, which came less than three years after the launch, added an infrared port to the front of the device, which would allow users to control the built-in DVD player without an IR dongle. It also ran quieter than older versions, which was Sony's nod to the fact that many were using the system primarily as a DVD player.

In 2004, Sony released the Slimline version of the PS2, which moved the power supply outside of the machine, which shrank the size of the device down considerably. It also did away with the tray-loading disc mechanism, and had users place discs inside the device using a flip-up panel. Other changes included the addition of the once-optional (and not free) network adapter inside of the machine so that users could connect their machine to play online matches.

Three years after that, Sony began shipping a version of the Slimline that was a third lighter, followed closely by a version that brought the power supply back into the unit, and did away with the external power brick entirely.

Two generations ago:

PlayStation 1
Released: September 9, 1995 (North America)

(Left) The original PlayStation next to (Right) the PSOne. Sony / CNET

The original PlayStation had the most hardware revisions of any home gaming console due mostly to the fact that it was produced for 11 years and sold more than 100 million units.

While most of the changes were internal parts, its biggest external change was the release of the PSOne in July 2000. This was a much smaller iteration of the hardware and had all new system software and a circuit board that featured smaller chips.

Three generations ago:

Super Nintendo
Released: August 1991 (North America)

(Credit: Super Nintendo 1-
Wikipedia, Super Nintendo Jr-Wikipedia)" targetUrl="http://i.i.cbsi.com/cnwk.1d/i/bto/20090820/SNES-shrinkage-big.png" />

To fight some of the attention that had been taken away by Sony's PlayStation, in late 1997 Nintendo released a smaller, simpler, and less-expensive version of the Super Nintendo. It did away with the ejector button for cartridges, and simply let gamers pull them out with their hands. It also featured a slightly different version of the A/V port in the back that was unable to run S-Video or RGB signals. At $100 it also cost close to what a single game did at the height of the system's popularity.

Sega Genesis/Sega CD
Released: Genesis-August 14, 1989; Sega CD-October 15, 1992 (North America)

(Credit: Sega Genesis 1 w/Sega CD 1-
Wikipedia, Sega Genesis 2 w/Sega CD 2-Wikipedia, Sega CDX-Wikipedia, Sega Nomad-Wikipedia)" targetUrl="http://i.i.cbsi.com/cnwk.1d/i/bto/20090820/Genesis_shrink_CNET.png" />

Sega's console combination underwent several distinct revisions over the course of its existence, all of which brought smaller sizes. It's also worth nothing that Sega was not the sole creator of some of its systems, since it allowed licensing to third parties that could build its technology into other pieces of hardware. (For the sake of simplicity we're not including those.)

As for Sega's own hardware, the first and only major change for the 16-bit Genesis was to shrink in size. In 1994, roughly five years after its launch, Sega released a square version of the console which did away with the headphone jack and volume control slider on the front of the unit.

With a smaller version of the Genesis out, Sega had to create a smaller version of its CD-ROM peripheral, the Sega CD to match it. Thus, the Sega CD-2 was born. Instead of sitting underneath the Genesis, it plugged in to the right of it. It was also able to work with the first generation of Genesis hardware via an extender plate.

In 1994 Sega released the CDX, which was a combination of the Genesis and the Sega CD in one piece of hardware. It fizzled with a high price tag ($400) and the impending release of Sony's PlayStation, along with the imminent release of Sega's 32-bit console--the Saturn--and incompatibilities with Sega's third system add-on, the 32X.

Interestingly enough, the CDX was not the end of the line for the miniaturization of the Genesis. In late 1995 Sega released the Nomad, which was a handheld version of the Genesis. It played regular-sized Genesis cartridges and had a 3.25-inch color LCD and button controls that mimicked the Genesis controller. It could also be connected to a TV, so that players could play their games on a normal-sized screen.

Lessons learned

Out of all the console makers, Sony is the only one to completely revise its hardware every few years. What's interesting is that those revisions are coming closer together. In the case of the PlayStation (versions one through three), the time between initial launch and major revision has gone from five years down to just three:

Does that mean it'll creep even lower, into two-year or even yearly cycles between major revisions? Quite possibly, yes. It's worked very well with handheld gaming devices, and even some consumer electronics devices like iPods. Apple has turned out slimmer, more powerful versions of the iPod every year since 2001, and yearly events like E3 put continued pressure on console makers to show off something big.

In the case of the PS3 Slim though, it could just be that the PS3 had to be pushed out to meet its launch window, and that the Slim is what Sony was going for in the first place. Advances in the PlayStation 3's core technology, like the cell processor, also underwent changes since the console launched, including changes to fabrication that have taken the chip down from 90 nanometers to 65, then 45--the size that can be found inside the Slim. These changes meant less power consumption, smaller components, and easier cooling.

The same goes for the blue-violet laser that reads game and Blu-ray movie discs. When the PS3 was first released, it was one of the few players to feature the technology. It was also the cheapest. Blu-ray players have since dropped in price dramatically, and can now be had for under $100.

This generation of game console warfare is also much fiercer for Sony. It has had to defend its once-dominant spot against Microsoft's Xbox 360, which had a one-year lead to market, and Nintendo's family-friendly (and once $250 cheaper) Wii. The new $299 price tag for the PS3 Slim is proof enough of that.

So will Nintendo and Microsoft follow suit with new hardware this year? Not likely.

Just last week Microsoft released a new version of its Xbox 360 system software that added even more features. And at E3 the company announced and demonstrated Natal, a motion-capturing camera that tracks player movement and tacks it onto games. Shortly after that, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer supposedly told an audience that the camera would be built into a new version of the hardware shipping in 2010; a rumor which was squashed by Microsoft days later.

As for Nintendo, new hardware is less of a reality than a good old-fashioned price cut. For $50 more, Sony is now offering a game system that out-matches it on graphical prowess, and doubles as a spiffy Blu-ray player. For new gamers that's a hard sell--especially when new games that are coming out require extra hardware. Nintendo's sales are also slumping. Recent numbers from the NPD Group show that in July the console sold less than half the units that it did the year before, and with the holiday sales season right around the corner, a price cut is very possible.

Just don't expect it to get any smaller...at least until next year.