The rumours have been growing stronger for some time, to the point where we can be relatively confident in seeing a ‘PS3 Slim’ sometime later this year. Whether Sony choose to announce the rumoured hardware refresh in August at gamescom in Cologne or in September at the Tokyo Game Show I have no idea, though Cologne is now looking more likely. Here I present a look at how Sony has been progressing towards a PS3 Slim since the PS3’s launch almost three years ago.
What Has Already Gone
The PS3’s current case was obviously designed to house the full line up of components that graced the original US and Japanese 60GB models. Compared to those the current PS3s at retail are visibly short of a couple of USB ports and the memory card reader. Internally the PS3’s motherboard is missing the PS2’s Emotion Engine and Graphics Synthesizer, which like on the Slim PS2 were a combined device containing the functionality of both of the original chips.
The visible changes mean the PS3’s case no longer needs the surface area to expose those devices and that some internal volume can be removed. The much lamented loss of the PS2 chips, owing to the backwards compatibility they provided, means that the PS3’s motherboard can be considerably smaller as the components included to provide PS2 hardware compatibility occupied around one eighth of its surface.
Cells and Nanometres
A nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre, one billionth of a metre or 10-9m. In more human terms a typical hair is about 100,000nm across and one of your red blood cells is 7,000nm in diameter. Those are not the cells we are interested in here though. The most important cell in a PS3 is it’s beating heart, the Cell Broadband Engine, its CPU.
The PS3 launched containing silicon chips, the Cell, RSX (Nvidia’s Reality Sythesizer GPU) and other components, manufactured using a 90 nanometre (nm) production process. 90nm refers to the size of the smallest feature that can be created on the chip. The size of the smallest features that a manufacturing process can create on a silicon chip affects a number factors; power consumption, heat generation and the number of devices that can be produced on a single silicon wafer which affects cost.
The 40GB PS3s did not just shed 20GB of storage, two USB ports, the memory card reader and backwards compatibility compared to the launch 60GB models, they included a substantially redesigned motherboard that significantly reduced power consumption from 180-200W to 120-140W. Early speculation was that they were less power hungry because the Cell and the RSX were produced using a 65nm process but Sony quickly came out with a statement saying that the Cell was still a 90nm part. None other than Kaz Hirai then corrected that statement as the 40GB PS3 did indeed contain a 65nm Cell but was still using a 90nm RSX.
Being less power-hungry the 40GB PS3s needed a less powerful power supply with fewer components, again saving money and reducing size. They also ran cooler. This enabled Sony to save money by fitting less substantial heat pipes and other cooling materials to them. A side benefit to the user, beyond cheaper electricity bills, was that the 40GBs also run quieter than their older brothers.
The so-called die-shrink from 90nm to 65nm typically reduces the cost of silicon devices by around a third primarily due to being able to fit more chips on each silicon wafer. Cost analysis of the Cell at the PS3’s launch put the price of the chip at around $89, making it the third most expensive component in the PS3 after the RSX ($129) and the Blu-ray drive ($125). The die-shrink to 65nm would have reduced the Cell’s cost to around $60.
By the end of last year all the PS3s rolling off of the production lines were using not only the die-shrunk Cell but also 65nm versions of the RSX and the Toshiba-made Southbridge chip which handles much of the I/O operations.
The next step? Earlier this year David Reeves, now ex-President of SCEE, said that Sony hoped to be introducing Cells manufactured on a 45nm process by the middle of the year. I would happily bet my lunch money that it is these 45nm devices that will be in the PS3 Slim when it arrives. Smaller, cheaper, less power hungry chips meaning in turn that the Slim will be able to contain a smaller power supply and require less cooling leading to substantially less volume being required inside the PS3’s case.
If you’re still reading this then you deserve a break and some pictures. Here’s a look at the PS3 motherboards.
First up the original Japanese 60GB version. You can see the Cell Broadband Engine clearly marked just to the right of centre. Just to its left is the RSX. Above it in the metal package with rounded corners is the Southbridge chip. The other large chip over on the far left is the combined Emotion Engine and Graphics Sythesizer, as featured in the PS2 Slim, here providing full backwards compatibility.
Note the the motherboard actually lives ‘upside down’ in the the PS3 so in this view we are looking at the base of the PS3. The four connectors at the top are the HDMI, Ethernet, Optical S/PDIF and PS2-style AV connector which ‘hang’ below the motherboard when your PS3 is horizontal.
Next up is the European 60GB. See that big, largely empty, space where a lot of PS2 components used to live? Almost all that’s left is the PS2’s Graphics Synthesizer as the Cell is now handling the emulation of the Emotion Engine in software. There are a few other minor layout changes but that’s the biggie.
Finally the 40GB PS3’s motherboard, approximately to scale with the others to show how much smaller it is. It has lost all trace of the PS2 and a reasonable amount of power control and regulation components but it has gained a nice shiny battery for the system clock.
Turns out the motherboard modifications didn’t stop there though. Remember how we were all jealous when the Japanese got another colour option for the PS3 when the white one arrived at retail? Well some people noticed something odd at the back of white 40GB PS3s compared to their black counterparts; the connectors had moved.
The white PS3s had yet another revision of motherboard that was even smaller than the one in the black 40GB PS3s. Here it is pictured next to an original Japanese 60GB PS3 motherboard. On the 40GB motherboard below the Cell is on the left. The sharp eyed amongst you might have spotted that two of the four XDR memory chips have gone missing. In order to shrink the motherboard further Sony had moved them onto the other side of the board.
Hopefully that sequence of pictures gives you a good idea of how Sony could probably have got away with a smaller case for the 40GB PS3’s that are already on shop shelves. The smaller board with its devices requiring a smaller power supply and less cooling effort could easily fit inside a smaller case.
Sony will not produce and sell a PS3 without a Blu-ray drive so any suggestion that they will leave it out of a PS3 Slim should be disregarded. The reason I have included it in this tale is not because it has been made much smaller but because of the cost of the drive. Remember that I mentioned above that at launch it was the second most expensive component in the PS3 at $125.
That has made it a prime target for Sony’s cost reduction effort. Some of the cost reductions for the Blu-ray drive have stemmed from simple supply and demand. The European launch was delayed because of a crippling shortage of the blue laser diodes needed for the drives. The cost of these expensive components was pushed even higher because of the shortage of supply.
As those supply issues diminished around mid-2007 the cost of Blu-ray drives began falling quite rapidly, something which has contributed to the fall in price of standalone Blu-ray players as well as the PS3. The introduction of the 40GB PS3 also reduced the cost of the Blu-ray drive in another way. Few people noticed but Sony further reduced the cost of the drive by removing the components that made it possible to play SACDs on the PS3.
Falling Production Costs
Throughout the life of the PS3 Sony have been working enormously hard to cut its manufacturing costs. At launch the PS3’s components were estimated to cost Sony around $840 for the 60GB model and $805 for the 20GB. Remember that those costs don’t include the controllers, cables and packaging so the full cost to Sony was even higher.
To get an idea of just how much Sony were losing on those the US retail prices were $599 and $499 for the 60GBer and 20GBer respectively. I do not know what the retail margins were but if I assume retailers were buying the consoles for around 66% of retail price (based on the deepest discounts seen) or $395 and $330, you can see that Sony could have been losing well over $400 for every console they sold.
Almost a year after launch, in mid 2007, estimates put the PS3’s manufacturing cost at about $690 a drop of about $150. That was still a cost for a PS3 equivalent to the launch model as the 40GB had not yet broken cover.
By the end of 2008 it is estimated that Sony had reduced the manufacturing cost of the American 80GB PS3 to around $450, a 47% reduction from the launch 60GB PS3. However the retail price of those 80GB PS3s was $399 meaning that Sony were likely still losing at least $150 for every one of those PS3s sold.
To give you an idea of the scope of the changes made to the PS3 over those two years from launch we can consider the component count; how many bits go into making one PS3. The original US and Japanese PS3s contained 4,048 components whereas the US 80GB PS3s on the shelves ready for 2008’s holiday season contained 2,820, a reduction of 30%.
Then just this week in their conference call Sony revealed that they had reduced the manufacturing cost of the PS3 by roughly 70% which brings it down to around $250. The fact that that is a 45% drop from the estimated cost of the 80GB PS3 less than a year ago leads me to suspect that it refers to another new SKU, the PS3 Slim. If the PS3 Slim is indeed revealed in Cologne then in three weeks we will know…