[Hardware Review] Power A Media Expansion Bar

PS3 Slim feeling a little short on USB ports and card readers? Power A can help... with some caveats.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: August 1, 2010
The constant redesigns of the PS3 have meant decreases in size, heat output and power draw, but they haven't come without some concessions. Most notably, while hard drive sizes bundled with the systems at retail have grown, the actual number of physical ports on the system have shrunk quite a bit. A 60GB PlayStation 3 bought at launch gave you four USB ports, Memory Stick, Compact Flash and SD Card slots, and PS2 backwards compatibility. By the time the non-Metal Gear Solid 4 80GB models had hit shelves, the number of USB ports was halved and everything else from the list was lopped off entirely.

Enter Power A, the same folks that offered the PowerStand Charger for charging your SIXAXIS and DualShock 3s, who have taken it upon themselves to try to bring PS3 Slim systems up to par with those launch models -- with the exception of our precious PS2 BC, of course. The Media Expansion Bar is a novel way of adding two USB ports and low-clearance card readers without actually adding much bulk, but there are some issues to be considered.

At first glance, there doesn't appear to be a whole lot to the Media Expansion Bar. The Slim-only accessory lives up to its simple title by being, well, a bar with three USB ports (one of which is a passthrough as it covers your rightmost USB slot) and some near-nondescript slots of varying lengths. A slightly closer inspection shows some ingenious ways of using the particular layout of the PS3 Slim to best complement things -- at least to the degree that a big black bar could match the svelte curves of the Slim.

Most notably, this includes the method for actually attaching the thing to the system. Using the smallish rectangular holes that line the bottom-front of the HDD expansion bay, a simple little hook hitches into the holes (or vents, I'm still not sure what they are) and from there the USB passthrough fits into the only available port in range. This effectively "locks" the Bar onto the front of the system, and a set of carefully designed fins keeps the bar from blocking the vent holes on the underside of the Slim's "lip".

Interestingly enough, the Media Expansion Bar isn't just a handful of ports. Though I had no idea this was even carried through the USB port, a pair of LED lights on the front replace the HDD and Wi-Fi indicators, since they're covered up by the Bar itself. It's an interesting and thoughtful addition, meaning nothing that's covered is actually hidden by the inclusion of a hunk of plastic and airflow seems generally unhindered.

[Build Quality]
Here's where all that novelty starts to break down, however. While all of the innovation in designing something that added plenty of functionality without actually taking anything away is indeed fantastic, there's one fatal issue that can't be overlooked: the USB passthrough connector simply doesn't "grab" the existing USB port hard enough, and any USB devices plugged into the passthrough slot, while recognizable to the system, will likely hang onto the Bar so tightly that the whole unit detaches when you try to pull them off. This can be avoided to a degree by either using the one uncovered native USB slot or with varying degrees of success by using the two rightmost ports. Even still, it's a curiously cumbersome thing to consider if you make use of, say, a USB thumb drive or won't be leaving anything like wireless dongles plugged into your system.

That said, everything else about the Media Expansion Bar feels solid. The plastic isn't quite up to par with the thickness and feel of quality of the PS3 itself, but aesthetically the Bar is a very, very solid match once you get used to not having a forward lip on the Slim. The underslung set of expansion ports is solid, but the physical limitations of staying flush with PS3 itself also introduces another minor issue: the card reader slots are really just that, slots.

Because there's simply not enough room to accept the card completely, anything you plug into the Memory Stick, CF or SD slots will stick out quick obviously. While we didn't find it coming up too much in our testing, there's a sense that something falling and grazing a card in the slot may well be snapped in half with enough force or at the very least damage the reader inside. The cards slip in enough to make contact with the reader and don't budge after that. Again, it's a small thing, and one that is more about the visual look of the Bar rather than actual functionality, but for those that like to preserve the lines of the system, a rather gaudy card sticking out the front won't really do.

Being limited to the transfer speeds of the USB 2.0 ports on the system, I wasn't entirely surprised to see that the card reader slots seemed a touch slower than our launch PS3's native ones, but that's likely due to the fact that they're connected directly to the system bus or at least going through their own controller (this is, of course, based on absolutely nothing but what I've pulled out of my own ass), and as such some of the transfer speeds were a bit slower. We queued up a few hundred-megabyte MP3s and sent them over on both systems and noticed a few seconds of difference. When it came time for a larger HD video, that difference became quite a bit more pronounced.

Honestly, though, unless you are moving around smaller files, it's probably best to use your network connection (and a wired one at that) to make major transfers. There can be the issue of backing things up to an external USB drive, but in that case you're going to be using the USB ports anyway, and at that point having a proper USB 2.0 device is going to matter more than how you're actually connecting things.

Given that there's no actual native alternative on any in-production PlayStation 3s out there, this may well end up being a moot point, but it's something to consider nonetheless.

[Final Thoughts]
Power A has emerged as an interesting provider of accessories. Though the Media Expansion Bar isn't an officially licensed product like their PowerStand Charger, it doesn't actually exhibit any issues with build quality or feeling of cheapness in and of itself, but the USB port connection is basically a deal-breaker. If the unit had snapped securely or could be better anchored on the left side, that would have made this a perfectly viable way to add more connectivity to the PS3 Slim, but babysitting pulling out anything can make everything feel flimsy at best and at worst might actually snap off the connecting hook or mess with the slots on the HDD expansion bay.

Should you find yourself in need of those CF/MS/SD slots or more USB ports, however, this may well end up being something of a non-issue -- particularly if you aren't planning on removing things from the USB ports too often. For us, though, the USB ports get plenty of use, for everything from keyboards to dongles, and just one small issue ended up relegating the Media Expansion Bar back to its original box. We may use it when the time comes to pull something off one of those storage cards, but not until my fatty PS3 or our debug gives up the ghost.

Verdict: Skip It!