The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are Sony and Microsoft’s fresh new hopes for gaming, and both consoles have been popular since their release late last year. However, that feeling of novelty and excitement over a new machine doesn’t last for long. After a while, sales will start to dip. Consoles will get discounted, and then the whole world starts to wonder when a redesign is coming out.
Hardware revisions for game consoles aren’t a new phenomenon. If you look back to the early home consoles released in the 1970s, redesigns are very much an expected part of the hardware cycle. The likes of the Atari 2600 and Intellivision were released in multiple configurations.
So, can we anticipate what the Xbox One and PS4 redesigns will look like? If we examine the brief history of game consoles, we’ll find a number of core reasons behind revisions.
There are far too many hardware revisions to cover in this article, but I’ve selected a number of important redesigns to discuss. So, before we try to predict the future, let’s make sure we understand the past.
Nintendo Entertainment System
The initial version of the NES was quite a quirky machine. It used a poorly implemented front-loading cartridge system for aesthetic purposes, and it was notoriously prone to technical issues. While many consumers resorted to blowing heavily into the cartridges, the problems were largely due to bad connections.
Bent pins, poorly aligned connectors, and other mechanical issues were par for the course. To make matters worse, this poorly thought-out design wasn’t even part of the Japanese original. Several years before it was released in the UK and US, Nintendo released the top-loading “Famicom” console with essentially the same internals as the NES. Not only did we get the Nintendo console later, but we also got an inferior model.
After the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released, Nintendo eventually went back and redesigned the NES. Model NES-101 was released in 1993, and it featured a top-loading cartridge slot. The pretence of making VCR-like consumer electronics was swept aside, and the Western market got to play their NES games without hyperventilating.
The PlayStation was an incredibly popular machine with a very long lifespan, and with that popularity came a non-trivial amount of modding and piracy. Unsurprisingly, Sony wasn’t very pleased about all that, so it continually modified the PlayStation to thwart these ne’er-do-wells.
Originally, the PlayStation shipped with a parallel port, a serial port, composite out, and a custom A/V port. Devices like the GameShark took advantage of these ports to alter the gaming experience, and system-linking was still considered a viable multiplayer strategy before online multiplayer took off on consoles.
By the time the redesigned PSone model came out, Sony ended up stripping most of these features out. The parallel port, serial port, and composite out were all removed from the back. In addition, the internals were changed in the hope of kneecapping the existing mod chip market. While some changes to the PSone were certainly made for aesthetic and cost-saving reasons, it’s clear that Sony was trying to lock things down for the entire run of the first PlayStation.
Many of the original PlayStation’s issues plagued the PS2 as well. Hacking enthusiasts used exploits and mod chips to run homebrew games and pirated copies of officially released titles, so Sony decided to play cat-and-mouse for another generation. Firmware was updated, the internals were tweaked to discourage mod chips; rinse, and repeat.
In 2004, Sony shipped the slimline PS2 to mixed reviews. This revision was smaller and quieter than the original design, and it came with an Ethernet port built right in. However, it lacked support for the hard drive add-on, so some games were effectively unplayable with the upgrade.
The slimline PS2 wasn’t the only major hardware revision, though. In 2003, Sony released a device called the “PSX” exclusively in Japan. This short-lived device took a fully functional PS2 and combined it with DVR and DVD-burning functionality. Much like the oddball Panasonic Q variant of the GameCube, this beast was expensive, unpopular, and never made it outside of Japan. Even so, the additional features and the shiny new user interface were very telling of Sony’s plans for the next generation.
In 2007, the PS3 launched at an exorbitant asking price. For £425 ($600 in the US), you could get a model with a 60GB hard drive, Linux support, numerous flash memory card slots, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and hardware-based PS2 emulation. This was a huge, expensive machine that sounded like a jet taking off in the living room, so it’s no surprise that we saw features starting to get dropped right out of the gate, and a complete overhaul of the hardware in less than three years.
The slim model of the PS3 made its way to store shelves in late 2009, and it was a much better device in many ways. It was smaller, lighter, much cheaper and more power efficient than its predecessor. Unfortunately, it also dropped a number of features once heralded as core to the PS3 experience.
With all of the cumulative hardware iterations, the PS3 was down to two USB ports, it dropped the memory card support, PS2 emulation was gone, and even Linux support was left behind. This move was all about streamlining the product, getting the price down, and increasing adoption for the struggling platform.
With the extended length of this last generation, Sony felt it necessary to release a third major redesign for the PS3. The feature set remained mostly unchanged, but the console shrunk in size once again. Unfortunately, this model is largely made to cut costs. The slot-loading drive is gone, and the build quality certainly seems inferior. It’s a fine device in a vacuum, but it isn’t something existing PS3 owners would want to upgrade to.
Similarly, Microsoft released three distinct hardware revisions for the Xbox 360 – four if you count releasing hardware that won’t red-ring. The Xbox 360 E, the latest revision, is very much akin to the PS3 super slim. It’s a tiny bit smaller, it lost one of its USB ports, and dropped the AV port on the back. These late-game releases are clearly all about maximising profit, and little else.
Nintendo’s Wii was already strapped for features from the word “go.” It didn’t support HD output, the online connectivity was lacking, and it didn’t even play DVDs. With the Wii Mini, Nintendo dropped component video support, S-Video support, backwards compatibility with GameCube games, Internet connectivity, SD card support, and one of its USB ports. These cuts got the price down to £80, but the full-sized Wii dropped in price so it wasn’t that much more expensive (and you can get it much cheaper second-hand, of course). This quirky late addition to the Wii family just goes to show that not every hardware revision is a good thing.
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
Okay, with previous generations in mind, what can we expect from the new consoles? Are we going to see a major redesign right out of the gate, or are we only going to see a few minor tweaks? Let’s look at the initial hardware, and see what can be improved.
In stark contrast to the PS3’s kitchen-sink mentality, the PS4’s hardware is very minimalistic. This relatively small black box simply has two USB ports, an HDMI port, an optical audio output, an Ethernet port, an auxiliary port (for the camera), and a power outlet. Down the road, it’s certainly possible that Sony could drop the aux port if the camera peripheral doesn’t take off. Maybe a cheaper model could ditch the optical audio and Ethernet ports, but those aren’t very expensive parts. As production techniques improve, more features can be included directly in the PS4’s main SoC, and more efficient internals mean less heat and power usage. That leads to less bulky power supplies, smaller fans, and an even tinier case.
On the other hand, there are a few bits of hardware that Sony could add to the next revision to make the PS4 a better device. First off, the addition of 802.11ac Wi-Fi would make wireless streaming considerably better, and could help phase out the need for a dedicated Ethernet port. Also, the current model only has Bluetooth 2.1 support, so low-power devices can’t be implemented. If Bluetooth 4.0 made its way into a PS4 redesign, it could open up a lot of possibilities for more accessories. Obviously, Sony will likely tighten the reigns in the next iteration as well. After hacking and modding gets underway for the initial version, a hardware revision is the perfect time to throw a monkey wrench into the whole endeavour.
Much like the PS4, the Xbox One is short on bells and whistles. It has three USB ports, an auxiliary port (for the Kinect), an HDMI in, an HDMI out, an optical audio output, an Ethernet port, and a power connector. Microsoft is betting pretty hard on the Kinect, but a Kinect-free model could certainly be on the cards down the road if consumer reaction goes south. The HDMI input has always been a bit of a strange feature, and it wouldn’t be too surprising to see that get dropped in future iterations. Either the Xbox One itself could serve as a cable box, or the entire idea could be left behind in favour of a cheaper machine.
The current Xbox One is quite bulky, so it seems like a reduction in size would be a no-brainer. If the heat and power consumption drop enough in the next model, maybe the power supply could be integrated directly into the case. Also, the current model shouldn’t be placed vertically on a shelf, so that could potentially be remedied in the next go-round.
If the recent past is any indication, we can expect new console redesigns in three to four years. They’ll likely be slimmer, cheaper, and slightly less functional. Bigger hard drives are an obvious addition, but part of me hopes we’ll see large-scale SSDs. If the Xbox One and PS4 ship with 1TB SSDs for Christmas 2016, the console market will be in pretty good shape.
Of course, everything could come crumbling down. It’s quite possible that at least one of the major console manufacturers won’t make it out of this generation, and that could mean that we won’t ever see a hardware revision for these consoles. If the doom-and-gloomers are right, smartphones, tablets, and cheap set-top boxes will squeeze the life out of the console market. What’ll we have left? The Steam Machine? Let’s just pray that it doesn’t come to that.
For more on the new consoles, see our article on why the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One's homogeneity bodes ill for the future of the game console. You might also want to have a gander at our speed showdown between the PS4 and Xbox One.
Image Credit: Evan-Amos