The Sony PlayStation 2 remains the best-selling video game console of all time, with more than 70 million units sold worldwide since its autumn 2000 debut. But with the PlayStation 3 not expected to hit store shelves until sometime in 2006, Sony has given its venerable cash cow a makeover. The new PlayStation 2 is smaller and lighter than a hardcover book and bundles a few extra features that on the original PS2 required bulky hardware upgrades.
With dimensions of 1.1 inches tall by 23 inches wide by 6 inches deep, the revamped PlayStation 2 is downright tiny. In fact, it's less than a quarter of the size of the original console. Sure, Sony cheated by off-loading some of the system's bulk to an external power transformer (a laptop-style power-brick AC adapter), but the superslim miniconsole still represents an impressive feat of miniaturization. Another design compromise: the new PS2 is a top-loader. The disc bay pops open like a Discman, and you snap the disc onto a spindle. (Like the old PS2, the new one can be set up horizontally or vertically, though the latter configuration needs a special stand.) It looks a bit cheesy and requires extra headroom, but the spring-loaded disc door won't fail as easily as the motorized tray found in your DVD player.
The unit's front panel is barely wide enough to include all the necessities: two Memory Card slots, two controller ports, two USB ports, and power and disc-eject buttons. Unlike the Xbox and the GameCube, even after the redesign the PS2 requires an add-on adapter if you want to use four controllers at the same time. (And since the older PS2 Multitap is one of the only accessories that won't work with the redesigned console, multiplayer fans will have to spring for a new one.) The front panel also includes a dedicated infrared receiver. This allows you to control the PS2's CD/DVD functionality using any one of several available remotes without losing one of the controller ports to an IR-receiver dongle, as was necessary with the first-gen PlayStation 2.
The new PS2 includes built-in support for online games (including Madden NFL 2005, SOCOM II, and Burnout 3, just to name a few) in the form of a 56Kbps modem jack and an Ethernet port. Older PS2s can achieve the same effect by snapping on Sony's Online Adaptor accessory, but having the online-gaming hardware built in makes things that much easier. Unlike the Xbox, the PlayStation 2 supports dial-up connections (though not all online games work with them), and Sony doesn't charge a monthly fee. The downside is that the PS2's online-gaming experience is a more scattershot affair, requiring title-by-title configuration rather than using a more elegant, unified interface such as Xbox Live's. Another annoyance: you'll need to purchase a PS2 Memory Card to store the network configuration found on the included installation disc.
Other than its built-in online functionality and reduced size, the new model is all but identical to its older brother. It includes a single game controller and plays virtually every PlayStation 2 title (and is backwards compatible with nearly the entire catalog of original PlayStation games as well). It also plays DVD movies, including home-burned discs of +R/RW and -R/RW varieties, and standard audio CDs; its optical audio output handles Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound. The included A/V adapter will suffice for most TVs, but video purists will want to upgrade to an S-Video or component-video adapter (sold separately). The biggest compatibility issue with the new PS2 is that its slim body can't accommodate the hard disk add-on that works with older consoles. Fortunately, the consequences are currently limited to just one game: the Final Fantasy XI title with which it's bundled.
So, is it worth upgrading to the new PS2? For owners of existing Sony consoles, the answer is a resounding no; they can just add the Online Adaptor to level the online playing field. Nevertheless, this superslim unit replaces Nintendo's GameCube as the most-portable home-gaming console. And for Xbox or GameCube purists looking to take a bite of the forbidden fruit of PS2 exclusives (read: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas), it's a compelling option. But it still lags behind the identically priced Xbox in terms of graphics power and HDTV support. As soon as Sony matches its lithe dimensions with an equivalently trim base price--$129 sounds good, $99 even better--the revamped PS2 will be an easier recommendation.