With the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2, Sony strode the gaming world like a colossus, knocking the mighty Nintendo from its throne and swatting away attempts by Microsoft to muscle in on its territory with the Xbox. It looked like Sony could do no wrong, until the PlayStation 3 arrived.
Many gamers found the PS3's initial £300 high price tag hard to stomach and, as a result, the console quickly trailed behind the Wii and Xbox 360 in terms of popularity. Now, with the cheaper PlayStation 3 Slim, which costs around £250, Sony is hoping to make up some of that lost ground. But can this rejigged console really help the company reclaim the console crown?
The new model isn't referred to as the PS3 Slim without reason -- it's significantly thinner and narrower than the original PS3. In fact, it's a completely different-looking machine. Sony has ditched the glossy black finish and sleek touch buttons of the original in favour of a duller-looking matte texture and more conventional push buttons. The whole device looks rather bargain-basement for our tastes, but we have to admit that, when you pick it up, it feels surprisingly well-built and much sturdier than the Xbox 360, for example.
Press the power button and you'll notice that Sony has also managed to make the Slim slightly quieter than the original PS3. This is quite an achievement, as the PS3's fan has always been whisper-quiet in comparison to the cyclone-like Xbox 360, and it's never really suffered from the noisy disc-loading mechanism that blights the Wii.
Sony has been able to reduce the console's noise level because the internal components have been completely re-engineered. Both the main Cell CPU and Nvidia graphics processor have been switched to a smaller manufacturing process, which means they run cooler and so don't need such aggressive fans. This also helps the console to be greener, drawing slightly less power both when in standby mode and when running games or playing movies.
Given the price drop, Sony has had to make a few cuts here and there. This version no longer supports Linux, and backwards compatibility with old PS2 games is absent, although that's also been missing from recent versions of the larger PS3. Similarly, this model only has two USB ports, and the multi-card reader has been given the push. But all of these are fairly minor losses that most buyers won't mind.
On the media front, the console remains highly impressive. When it comes to Blu-ray playback -- one of the console's key features -- picture quality is still on a par with that of most budget players. But the audio-handling has been changed slightly, so the console is no longer limited to decoding high-definition audio streams to the Linear PCM format. Instead, it can pass them to an external receiver via HDMI -- something which audio purists will be happy about.
As well as Blu-ray support, the Slim can happily play video in the H.264, MPEG-2, AVCHD, DivX and WMV formats, as well as MP3 and WMA audio files across a network from a PC. The latest version of the firmware, 3.0, also adds native BBC iPlayer support to allow you to stream shows from the Net at near standard-definition quality. There's still no infrared port, though, so you can't control playback of Blu-ray discs or streamed video via a standard universal remote control, which is rather annoying.
As a gaming device, little has changed, but the console now comes with the Sony DualShock 3 controller, rather than the older Sixaxis version that lacked rumble feedback. The Slim is still a seriously good gaming machine with many excellent exclusive titles, although, graphically, it's still not the leap on from the Xbox 360 that Sony had originally promised. In fact, there's usually little difference between PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the same titles.
The online PlayStation Network still isn't as slick or easy to use as the Xbox Live service, although it does have the advantage of being free, whereas Xbox users have to pay about £40 a year for the 'gold' membership needed for online play.
This Slim has been timed to arrive just before the Christmas shopping season, but, despite its lower price, the Xbox 360 Elite (with its new £200 price tag) and Wii are still the cheaper options. As a result, we're not sure that the Slim will help the PS3 overtake the 360 or Wii in terms of sales, but we can see it tempting those Wii and Xbox owners who are thinking of buying a second console in the run-up to Christmas
Sony's PS3 Slim is just what the doctor ordered. Not only is it smaller, quieter and cheaper than previous versions, but the features Sony has done away with are those that most gamers simply won't miss. We wish, however, that Sony had retained the more luxurious feel of the original -- the Slim looks like it's the PS3 brought to you courtesy of Lidl.Edited by Charles Kloet