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Hardware Test: PS3 Slim

Smaller, cooler, cheaper, faster, better.

So, what of these YouTube videos showing that the PS3 Slim "runs slower" than the old version? It is an interesting idea, but one that I couldn't quite believe. There are two potential "culprits" for any such a discrepancy. Prime suspect would be the hard disk mounted into the PS3. There are wildly different performance levels for the kind of laptop HDDs used by the PS3, in terms of access speed, read speeds and write speeds. Generally speaking, the newer the hard disk, the more up to date the technology is and therefore the faster the performance. A three-year gap between the launch PS3 and the Slim is a good couple of generations in terms of hard disk tech.

The second culprit would be the Blu-ray drive. It's a new proprietary Sony unit in the PS3 Slim, but I would expect their 2x speeds to be like-for-like. In theory 2x is 2x, but it may well be that the seek speed (the movement of the drive head around the surface moving from file to file) is faster. To put this to the test, I first chose a game with no installation - Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Voiceover work courtesy of Dan Sullivan and Johnny Allen out of EastEnders. Fact.

Loading up the first "FNG" training level, we see a clear speed advantage to the Slim: 24 seconds for its loading bar to complete compared to 26.2 on the "Fat". In theory this test centres on BD drive performance alone, though the game may be caching off data to the hard disk.

Next up, a bit of a double-header. Here we're installing Assassin's Creed on both systems (around a gigabyte of data) and then letting the game boot. As the game has been patched via a PSN download, the load kicks off from the hard disk rather than the BD-ROM. What is important to note is that both the PS3 Slim and the older unit where operating from blank, formatted hard disks and running the same firmware in all tests.

Assassin's Creed gets installed and booted on both consoles and once again the PS3 Slim emerges triumphant. The video speed has been increased to 5x real-time to stave off boredom.

Again, it's another conclusive victory for the Slim. Three minutes, 11 seconds in all, versus three minutes and 18 seconds on the older unit. It's beginning to look like a bit of a white-wash for the new PS3, and that the "Slim is slower" stories don't quite compute.

So, the final challenge - the ultimate test of hard disk and BD drive. It has to be Devil May Cry 4's epic 22-minute installation, for a whopper 4.8GB of data. The reason it takes so long is that rather than send one sustained write to the hard disk, a range of smaller files appear to be written instead. This means extra seek time and much more movement for the heads on both the HDD and the Blu-ray drive. This theory is backed up by the process of deleting the install too. This should just be a case of deleting the files' presence from the TOC (table of contents) but even the Slim takes 30 seconds to delete the install, meaning that there's a lot of files to sift through.

Devil May Cry 4's infamous installation is perhaps the best sustained workout for the two PS3 revisions. We increased video playback speed to 15x for this one!

Our survey says? A substantial victory for the Slim. DMC4 installs in 18 minutes, 42 seconds versus 21 minutes, 23 seconds on the "Fat" - a whopping great 2 minutes, 41 seconds advantage.

Further testing would need to be done, preferably with a "control" hard disk used in both units (something for a later blog update, I feel) but gut feeling here is that what we are seeing here is mostly down to the change in HDD: both disks are 5400rpm units, but the Toshiba MK1255GSX in the Slim is packing twice the data density of the Seagate Momentus ST96812AS in the 60GB launch unit. Both HDDs spin at the same rate, but the Slim will be reading or writing more data at that same speed. Over and above that, I do reckon there's a good chance that the seek times of the new Blu-ray drive are faster - that would explain some of the results we're seeing here, in particular the Call of Duty one.

I would expect to see different results depending on the hard disk installed in your PS3 - Sony's used a ton of them in the last few years. Additionally, if you're performed a DIY upgrade with a newer HDD, the chances are that the differences will be far less noticeable. A 250GB, 320GB or 500GB drive is more than likely to outperform the Slim's 120GB unit. Regardless, hopefully these tests put to bed the stories about the PS3 Slim being the "slower" unit. For the record, in-game performance in terms of frame-rate and response are absolutely identical, as you would expect.

Overall then, it is difficult to argue that the PS3 Slim is anything other than a very worthwhile and desirable product. Sony has done good here. It's smaller, lighter, and follows in the tradition of the previous Slims in being a product where the cost-cutting has - by and large - been tastefully done to the point where the newer version is more desirable than the old. I like the matte plastics over the shiny fingerprint-friendly casing seen on the "Fat", I like the reduction in the somewhat tacky-looking chrome detailing, and the physical buttons feel solid and more responsive over the touch-sensitive versions. I don't particularly care about Linux going AWOL because the PS3 implementations were never that great anyway, but I do care about the lower power requirements, the lower levels of heat (which will help the unit's longevity) and the quieter cooler. It's nothing short of a massive win for Sony.

A couple of things I am not so keen on over and above the lack of HD cable is this notion of the console requiring a premium stand in order to stack it vertically. The unit works quite nicely without it and is in no real danger of toppling over, but the lack of rubber feet means that if you don't buy the accessory, you "stand" a good chance of scuffing the plastics. It seems bizarre that Sony has worked hard on seemingly expensive measures like retaining the internal multi-voltage power supply, but then omitted four tiny bits of rubber. In the same vein, removing the power button to isolate the machine completely from the mains seems rather mean and not very "green".

But these are minor gripes. The new Slim is clearly a very compelling proposition: cooler, slimmer, faster and presumably more reliable, making it a very tempting upgrade to the early adopters.

In many senses it would seem that the stars are coming into alignment for PS3 in making it a compelling purchase for a newcomer to the HD consoles: the upcoming exclusives are enviable, and generally speaking, the third-party development situation has improved significantly in terms of quality up against the competition. Not only that but the reduced price point puts it within spitting distance of the Xbox 360 Elite if you shop about (ShopTo are selling the PS3 Slim for £230).

For many years Sony - and a multitude of EG comment writers - have pointed out the value-advantages of built-in Wi-Fi, Blu-ray player, exchangeable hard disks, rechargeable controllers and free online gaming: stuff that commands a premium on Xbox 360. But as Microsoft has cannily exploited, none of these things are actual pre-requisites in a games machine; they're just nice things to have as optional extras. However, with the new lower price, getting all of that for less than the RRP of the Xbox 360 Wi-Fi dongle suddenly makes it a much more compelling argument.

Sony had a massive job on its hands in getting this hardware revision right, and in turn, getting the PS3 back on track as a price competitive, desirable console. Looking at the PS3 Slim as a final retail product, it's difficult to imagine just how much more they could have done on the tech side to make this happen. If a mere price cut can drive a 43 per cent sales boost for the Xbox 360 Elite, it will be interesting to see what PS3 Slim's lower RRP, new branding and improved product will do for its fortunes at retail. One thing's for sure - this year's Q4 sales are going to be very interesting.

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About the Author
Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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