Buying a video game console at launch is almost always a bad idea. Not only are you faced with high costs, hardware issues, and a low variety of software to play, you also have to make peace with the fact that a new, sexier version of that same hardware will be released down the road. Pretty much every console gets at least one redesign over the course of its lifetime in order to help refresh sales or simply improve flaws in the original hardware. However, like most things, not every console redesign is created equal and some are best left forgotten (remember the PSP GO? Of course you don’t). Today I’d like to highlight the best console redesigns and even try to come to a decision regarding which one is the best overall.
Note: I’ve decided not to include the PS4 Pro on this list because it’s really more of a half step generational leap than a traditional redesign and arguably an unnecessary one at that.
Sometimes, a good console redesign can get by on looks alone. Such is the case with the PS One, a smaller version of the original PlayStation released on July 7, 2000. Featuring a much slimmer profile than the original PlayStation model and switching the color palette from grey to a much more appealing off-white, the PS One is easily the best PlayStation model Sony put out … at least on a purely aesthetic level. Technically, the PS One is lacking features compared to earlier models, as Sony removed the parallel and serial ports from the back of the console and also got rid of the reset button (the power button is labelled as a reset button too, but actually resetting the console requires turning it off completely).
While some PlayStation purists swear by the original console design because of these features, I think a smaller physical footprint and sleeker design outweighs the lack of ports that barely anyone actually used or the removal of a redundant button. Plus, the PS One was technically a portable console if you sprung for the 5″ attachable LCD screen that Sony released alongside it.
Unlike pretty much every other console ever produced, the original PlayStation 3 was arguably the best overall version of the console — and when I say original, I mean the launch PS3 that came standard with PS2 backwards compatibility and a variety of different multimedia ports. Sony would soon strip away these features in order to cut costs and bring down the console’s absurd $600 price tag and while the PS3 Slim, released in 2009, didn’t bring back these sorely-missed features, it did make some much-needed improvements to the console’s core design. The most obvious improvement is the physical design, as the PS3 Slim is both smaller and lighter than the original PS3, with the added benefit of ditching the garish Spider-Man style typeface.
The other benefits to the Slim are more practical than flashy, but still important nonetheless. Thanks to a variety of improvements made under the hood, the Slim consumes about 50% less power than the older model, and also runs cooler and quieter. Toss in Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio over HDMI support and the inclusion of the DualShock 3 controller (so long Sixaxis) and you have the makings of a boring, yet practical console redesign that helped put Sony in a better position to start competing with the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii than it had been in previously. Sony would release yet another PS3 hardware revision, but it was arguably uglier than the Slim and didn’t really offer any noteworthy benefits.
Game Boy Micro
Although the GBA SP is arguably the best overall version of the Game Boy Advance, it shouldn’t overshadow the simplistic brilliance of the GBA Micro. Even more than a decade after release, the Micro is still the best handheld Nintendo has released in terms of pure portability. At only 0.7 inches thick and weighing just 2.8 oz, the Micro easily fits in the palm of your hand or in your pocket and the best part is that the system’s screen is arguably the best in the GBA line, as its brighter and more evenly lit than the GBA SP.
The one major downside with the Micro is that, due its small size, Nintendo had to ditch the internal hardware necessary to make it backwards compatible with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games. Still, considering the Micro was released near the end of the GBA’s lifespan and was relatively inexpensive, it was the perfect gateway to the system’s library, especially if portability was a primary concern.
NES Top Loader
By 1993, the console war between the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo had heated up significantly, but this didn’t stop Nintendo from releasing a redesign of the NES. Dubbed the NES Top Loader, this iteration of the massively popular Nintendo Entertainment System was, as you might suspect based on its name, a top loading version of the same hardware. Game cartridges were loaded in the top, naturally, which effectively eliminated cartridge loading issues present on the original NES hardware.
The other noticeable difference was the redesigned “bone” controller, which rounded off edges of the original rectangular controllers to provide a more comfortable playing experience. Admittedly, the Top Loader is kind of hideous but if you were buying a new NES in 1993, you probably weren’t too concerned about having the latest, sexiest tech products anyway.
The PlayStation Portable is an interesting case study when it comes to hardware revisions, as there is quite a bit of debate as to which version is the best overall. Including the launch model, Sony released four different PSP models and each one has its pros and cons. However, if I had to pick one model to label as the “best” of the bunch, it would be the PSP-2000 simply based on how significantly it improves upon the original design.
While some PSP fans like the sturdiness of the launch model’s metal frame, the lighter, slimmer design of the PSP 2000 (19% thinner and 33% lighter, in case you were wondering) improves the system’s portability, which is the whole point of the PSP to begin with. It also features a much brighter screen, video out capabilities, and better memory that improves load times. Admittedly, the PSP-3000 made improvements to all of these things I just mentioned, but suffered from scanline issues on its screen, whereas the 2000 made the biggest jump in terms of improvements, so it gets the nod.
For my money, the PS2 Slim is still the ‘sexiest’ console redesign there’s ever been, which is the reason why it’s higher on this list than it really should be. The original “fat” model was unreliable and noisy, so it was great to see Sony come along in 2004 and release a slim version that improved the console’s profile significantly and also ran quieter. Resembling a notebook more than a video game console, the PS2 Slim was not without tangible benefits either, the most important of which being the inclusion of a built-in Ethernet port for online gaming, thus rendering the PS2’s add-on network adapter obsolete.
The only real downside was a lack of support for the original Multitap expansion (Sony released a new one compatible with the Slim), as well as the removal of the 3.5″ expansion bay, which was previously used to support the PS2’s internal hard disk drive. This effectively meant that there was no way to use the hard drive with the Slim, but since the only game that ever really utilized it in any meaningful way was Final Fantasy XI, this wasn’t as significant a loss as some people at the time made it out to be.
Xbox One S
The original Xbox One is one horribly designed piece of hardware. It’s thick, heavy, has a gigantic external power brick (what is Microsoft’s fascination with these things anyway?), and features annoyingly placed touch-sensitive buttons on the front that can be triggered by the lightest touch, made all the more frustrating if you live with overly curious pets or small children. Evidently, Microsoft realized just how inadequate the Xbox One was in its original state, as the redesigned Xbox One S model (released in August 2016) not only fixes every single one of the issues mentioned above, but adds some entirely new features to boot. The most striking change is in appearance, as the Xbox One S has a sleek white casing and is 40% smaller than the original model. The power and eject buttons were also replaced by physical buttons, greatly reducing the chance of one of them being accidentally pressed, and there’s no external power brick to speak of.
As for new features, Microsoft added 4K resolution video support, the ability to upscale games to 4K, Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc support (something that the competing PS4 Pro surprisingly lacks), and high dynamic range (HDR) color support. Heck, even the Xbox One controller that ships with the console received a revision, with new textured grips and Bluetooth support. The only real issue with the Xbox One S — and the reason why it doesn’t rank higher on this list — is that Microsoft undercut its appeal by announcing a much more powerful Xbox (Project Scorpio) at the same time they unveiled the Xbox One S, so it’s been difficult to give the latter console a resounding recommendation when there’s a much better Xbox console arriving in the near future.
Terrible naming aside, Nintendo’s New 3DS (available in standard and XL varieties) is the best kind of console redesign, as it is superior to the original model in every way. If you care about the 3DS’ 3D feature, then that is probably the most significant improvement to be found in the New 3DS, as it uses eye-tracking technology to fix the original model’s issue where the 3D would become obscured if you turned the handheld too much to one side. On the technical side of things, Nintendo also upgraded the system’s processors and increased the RAM to allow for better performance (in fact, there are a few games that will only run on the New 3DS).
Control inputs are improved as well, there’s an additional analog stick (C-Stick), as well as two additional shoulder buttons (ZR and ZL) to allow for more control inputs in certain games, as well as built-in NFC technology to support Nintendo’s Amiibo figures. This is the 3DS model Nintendo should have released from the very beginning and is easily one of the best hardware revisions in gaming history.
GBA Advance SP
It’s easy to forget now, but handheld consoles used to suck before the Game Boy Advance SP came along. Okay, that’s a massive over-exaggeration, but we’ve now become so accustomed to handhelds having brightly-lit screens that going back to the days of no back lights is hard to fathom. The original iteration of the Game Boy Advance, while a good handheld in its own right, was criticized for being ergonomically uncomfortable to use and for its dark screen. In 2003, Nintendo put out the GBA SP, which featured a significantly brighter LCD screen and a front-light that could be toggled on and off.
The other major benefits to the SP were a rechargeable lithium ion battery and a clam-shell design that effectively made it half the size of the original GBA. The only real downside was that Nintendo inexplicably didn’t put a headphone jack on the thing. Nintendo would improve the SP even further in 2005 with an updated model that featured a fully backlit screen.
Nintendo DS Lite
It’s hard to think of another console redesign more important than the Nintendo DS Lite. The first Nintendo DS hardware, released in 2004, is far and away the most unattractive handheld device Nintendo has ever put out and it’s not hard to see why industry observers at the time thought the system was going to bomb hard. Less than two years into its lifespan, Nintendo took a huge step in changing the conversation surrounding their dual-screen handheld by releasing the Nintendo DS Lite, which is perhaps the most aptly-named handheld console ever made.
Taking a page out of the Apple school of hardware design, Nintendo somehow took their cumbersome DS and made it into a sexy piece of gaming tech. The system’s glossy, sleeker form factor was a far cry from the heavy monstrosity that was the original DS, but in practical terms, the DS Lite was much more enjoyable to use thanks to an improved battery life and much brighter screens. All that and it also retained the ability to play Game Boy Advance games too. No wonder the DS is still the most successful handheld ever made!