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In Theory: Is this the Xbox 360 Slim?

Elaborate fake or new console revision?

Leaked photos have emerged purporting to show a new, smaller revision of the Xbox 360 motherboard, provoking speculation that Microsoft is set to relaunch its console later in the year. Xbox 360 Slim any one?

Similar to the PS3 Slim leaks last year, the pictures emanate from an obscure Chinese message board, and the shots of the motherboard certainly look genuine, with enough of the original 360 components in view to suggest authenticity. They also display several new, original features, plus of course a smaller form factor.

By comparing parts common to the current model, it appears that this most fundamental of components is over a third smaller in size than the Jasper revision 360 board.

Two shots have been revealed so far. The first is a top-down view of the board itself, suggesting a smaller, squarer layout topped off with a conspicuously off-the-shelf Coolermaster fan. The second shot sees the leaker removing the cooling assembly to reveal what appears to be an integrated Xenon and Xenos CPU/GPU combination package, which ties in nicely with the so-called Valhalla revision of the 360 first mentioned a couple of years back and also believed to be based on a single combined processor set-up.

The shot to the left shows the full board, while the right pic reveals what appears to be an all-in-one CPU and GPU package underneath the pre-production cooler.

While the single heatspreader underneath the cooling assembly strongly suggests a unified design for the core hardware, the leaker hasn't had the courage to remove it completely and expose the dies below, which would settle the issue completely and would also allow us to ascertain whether Microsoft is using a 45nm or even smaller fabrication process for the unified chip.

Smaller parts mean a cooler, more power-efficient, cheaper-to-manufacture system and even the current, apparently reliable 360 is still running a 65nm process for both chips. The PS3 Slim in contrast runs at 45nm for the CPU and 65nm for the RSX, and a single package within the 360 would allow Microsoft to pursue an even more aggressive price-cutting strategy if it needed to do so.

What is interesting is that the board has doubled the number of SATA connections to two over on the top-left of the first picture. In current 360 hardware, only one is used for connecting up the internal DVD-ROM drive.

This could mean that Microsoft is planning support for internal drives, but bearing in mind the success of its Arcade SKU, it is unlikely that the firm would commit to HDD-integrated machines: laptop drives don't generally get cheaper, they just get bigger in terms of storage, and for Microsoft to surrender one of the factors behind its price advantage is unlikely. It's more probable that the drives will come in new Slim-friendly caddies.

Another curious change appears to be the complete omission of any mounting holes for the DVD drive, which clearly sits to the left of the fan. Either a variant of the existing DVD drive attaches to the case in a different way, or else an entirely different assembly is used. Assuming the costs work out, we could even be getting a thin, slot-loading drive similar to the PlayStation 3.

The location of the optical drive itself is a big improvement over the existing Xbox 360 design, which places the DVD-ROM directly above both CPU and GPU, further complicating the cooling of the hottest parts of the console. The cooling setup doesn't really tell us much. The Coolermaster fan would be way too large for a production console, plus you'll note that the fan itself is only secured in one place to the heatsink below.

There's nothing on the board that suggests any kind of onboard Natal, meaning that the new 360 still requires a decent array of USB ports, though it looks as though the MU readers have been cut down to just a single slot.

In part understandable but at the same time rather disappointing is the omission of any kind of Wi-Fi chipset on the motherboard, so it does seem as though extortionately expensive wireless internet dongles will remain the standard if the pics are valid.

On the bright side, however, the just-as-stupidly expensive audio dongle appears to be a thing of the past, with what looks very much like a Toslink SPDIF optical output directly above the fan to the left, next to what we can assume is the current Xbox 360 AV port, with HDMI output to the left of that.

Other than that, no surprises, though we can assume that the top-right socket is for the power supply, which will almost certainly remain external in contrast to the neat internal PSU in the PS3 Slim.

Comedy cooling fan aside, there's nothing here to suggest that this isn't the real deal. It's just too well-designed to be a fake and in a world where PS3 Slims turn up months in advance on in a Philippines marketplace, leaked pics surfacing on a Chinese forum are eminently plausible.

Even if it's not a 360 Slim, the radical change in form factor and mounting holes means that this revision of motherboard cannot physically fit inside the current shell and certainly not with the current DVD drive.

A 360 relaunch for Natal then? Microsoft has already issued its obligatory "we don't comment on rumour and speculation" line.