A history of game console redesign

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The PlayStation 3 (PS3) revealed its new “super slim” design in yet another redesign of the console, and having owned multiple versions of game consoles over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of consoles have what I would call the “fat” and “thin” versions of their product. Most companies who make consoles usually released the “fat” version first and then came out with a “thin” version later on, as you see in the in the photo above. So why does a console go through a redesign? Advances in technology, corrections of previous design flaws, and cost seem to be the leading reasons why.

In almost every case, these new designs have updated hardware to reflect the pace at which technology advances. In some cases, a redesign is meant to correct serious flaws in the console’s design. For example, the “fat” PlayStation 2 (PS2) used to have a hardware error known as the Disc Read Error, where the lens that would read the CD would eventually fall out of alignment and fail to read the CD in the system. You would then have to restart the console multiple times in order to get the CD to read, and you would be lucky if it did at all. The solution was either to send it in for repairs or fix it yourself by opening the console and re-aligning the lens (and thus void the warranty), which was very complicated for those who did not know console hardware. The “fat” Xbox 360 had what we all would call the “red ring of death” (RROD), which would indicate a hardware failure of some sort (one or three red lights), or a sign of overheating (two red lights) or a problem with the AV cable (four red lights). Some of the user fixes ranged from opening the console and applying new thermal paste to the CPU (which would void the warranty) or strangely, wrapping the console in cold towels, and surprisingly some of these fixes worked, but only temporarily.

Sometimes they redesign game consoles for financial reasons, so that so much money won’t be spent on the materials that make up the console. For example, the “fat” PS2, released in 2000, measured in at a bulky 301 x 178 x 78 mm, while the “thin” one, released in 2004, is a mere 230 x 152 x 28 mm and reduced the system’s volume by 75%. Similar things were done with earlier consoles, such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which was one of the first systems to have “fat” and “thin” versions, with the redesign of the NES being a top loading console. The Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64 also had the top loading design, but those were mostly limited to cartridge based consoles. Sometimes, with redesign comes minimalism; at launch the “fat” PS3 had four USB ports; the “thin” PS3 only had two, and the “thinner” PS3 also has two.

Other times, consoles are redesigned to improve the console by adding new features. For example, the original “fat” PlayStation would only plug into a TV; the “thin” PlayStation allowed you to attach a screen to it so you could take it on the go. The “fat” PlayStation 2 had an expansion bay for a modem at launch; when the “thin” version was released, the modem was built into the system.

Handhelds were more often redesigned than their console counterparts: for example, the Game Boy Pocket was less bulky and only required two AA batteries, while the original Game Boy required four and could barely fit into your pocket. The Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS were also similarly redesigned, along with the PSP.

However, a redesign isn’t always necessarily a good thing: the “fat” PS3 had backwards compatibility all the way to the original PlayStation, so you could play all your older games on it, while the “thin” and “thinner” versions do not. The same goes for the Nintendo Wii: it scrapped GameCube backwards compatibility when it was redesigned last year. So a redesign can work both ways, and it shouldn’t necessarily be the reason why you get a “thin” version of a console. As the old saying goes: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.