Nintendo's 3DS has been in the wild for a while, but now that the hype surrounding the device has died down a bit we decided to cast an eye over the console that promised to revolutionize portable gaming when it was released earlier this year. The 3DS follows the clamshell form factor Nintendo first introduced on the Game Boy Advance SP back in 2003 and the look and feel of the console will be pretty familiar to anyone who has used any of Nintendo's DS line, but the 3DS sees a couple of useful design changes in addition to the headline-grabbing 3D capabilities.
The first thing you'll notice when pulling the console from its packaging is the metallic-like plastic casing that gives the 3DS a refined finish. When opening the console the lid snaps into either an almost flat or completely flat position with an audible click that adds to the impression of a well-built and sturdy console. The metallic-look plastic also extends to the telescopic stylus that is housed in the rear.
Flipping the lid reveals the addition of a rubbery analogue "circle pad," which sits under the left thumb nicely and fills the role of a thumbstick while still allowing the console to close compactly. It's a nice addition and is sure to become a standard fixture on any future DS iterations - the only downside is the lower repositioning of the standard D-pad.
Other buttons finding a new home are the start, select and home buttons, which are now positioned in a row along the bottom of the touchscreen, while the power button has migrated from the left to the right hand side of the touchscreen. The standard A/B/X/Y face buttons provide a tactile click when pressed, as do the left and right shoulder buttons, which were a little mushy in previous generations. This only highlights the apparent shoddiness of the volume and 3D depth sliders that feel a little cheap and loose in comparison and can be easy to accidentally moved with an errant finger.
The 3DS also sees the addition of a 3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis gyroscope to accommodate the growing number of motion sensitive games. The number of cameras has been increased with one front-facing 0.3-megapixel camera located above the 3D display and two 0.3-megapixel (VGA) cameras on the rear for taking 3D pictures.
In between the rear shoulder buttons are the IR port, power port and game card slot that is compatible with existing DSi/DS games. An SD card slot can be found on the left hand side, while a spring-loaded switch for enabling/disabling the console's 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi is located on the right hand side. A 3.5mm headphone jack centrally located on the front of the console rounds out the connections.
Although both displays are smaller than the 4.2-inch displays found on the DSi XL, screen resolution has been increased from the 256 x 192 pixel resolution found on the DSi and DSi XL. The 3DS' lower 3.02-inch touchscreen boasts 320 x 240 (QVGA) pixel resolution, while the upper 3.53-inch autostereoscopic display sports 800 x 240 pixel resolution. However, as the console splits the number if pixels evenly between each eye to create its 3D effect, the effective resolution is only 400 x 240 pixels - which is still higher than the previous generation DS consoles.
The 3DS interface is responsive and easy to navigate and users are now able to create Mii characters on the console using the built-in camera. There's also an Activity Log to track how long you've spent playing the various games as well as how many footsteps you've taken during the day. As an extra encouragement to get you off your backside and take the 3DS with you when you do, users will also earn coins as they walk around that can be used in various titles.
If you keep Wi-Fi enabled while out and about you'll also be able to wirelessly swap data with other 3DS users you pass while the device is in standby mode. Exchangeable data includes your Mii avatar, the game currently residing in your game slot and games you've already played.
There's also a Game Note application that allows users to pause a game and make some notes, a camera application for taking and viewing photos, sound application for playing music stored on an SD card.
A recent firmware upgrade has also brought an internet browser to the console. Made by NetFront, which is also responsible for browsers on the PSP and PS3, the 3DS browser doesn't support Flash. It can, however, display 3D images on websites and users can pause games to search for some online tips before jumping back in where they left off. It's also not exactly the most enjoyable browsing experience though. Page loading is slow and because the upper display isn't touch capable, you need to scroll anything you want to click down to the bottom screen.
3D or not 3D? That is the question
While the displays offer comparative performance to the previous generation DS consoles, it is the console's glasses-free 3D capability that is the big selling point and the first thing anyone picking up the console for the first time wants to try. Getting the 3D to work will usually take a bit of work as you adjust the distance of the eyes from the screen to hit the 3D sweet spot.
When Nintendo first announced its 3D console, many assumed - me included - that the parallax barrier technology it was to employ would be an ideal fit for a portable device with a small screen designed to be viewed by one person at a time. This doesn't turn out to be entirely true, however.
While the technology is obviously better suited to a single person, small screen display than a big screen TV designed to be viewed my multiple people at once, the sweet spot is small enough to pose problems for even a single viewer. This can be particularly problematic for a gaming console that most people are in the habit of involuntarily moving as they play. But move it just a few centimeters and the 3D effect is gone.
But worse than that, once the 3D effect is lost the image becomes blurry and you have to move your head of shift the console to try and find that sweet spot again. So while the 3D effect may create an extra sense of immersion, it can also have the opposite effect when it's lost. And since any involuntary movement is likely to come at a more critical part of a game, the loss of focus can mean the difference between virtual life and death.
Another problem that has been widely reported is the headaches many suffer when viewing the 3D display. I'm sorry to say I was also one of these and the headache didn't take long to present itself. After just a few minutes I could feel it coming on and - as I stupidly persisted using the device with the 3D turned on for the purposes of this review - it lasted for quite a while after I put the console down.
For the above reasons, the inclusion of the 3D slider that allows the depth of the 3D effect to be altered or turned off all together is probably the single best feature of the console for many people. However, for those that aren't prone to headaches and remain still as a statue while using the console the 3D does indeed look impressive and inspires a certain wow factor - at least initially.
Engaging 3D will also cause the console's battery to lose charge at a much faster rate. Although the 3DS' 1,300 mAh battery is bigger than the DSi's 1,050 mAh and the DSi's 840 mAh, Nintendo estimates just 3-5 hours of battery life when using 3D. Turning 3D off will increase this to 5-8 hours. To offset some of the pain of constantly needing to charge the device, Nintendo has also included a charging dock in addition to the AC adapter.
Augmented reality applications
Of course, 3D doesn't actually improve gameplay and the only really original implementation of the 3D is the included augmented reality (AR) applications. By utilizing the console's twin cameras along with the 3D display, it appears as if you are interacting with virtual characters in the real world. While the included collection of AR mini games are fairly simplistic point and shoot affairs, they provide a glimpse of what is possible with the technology.
While the Nintendo 3DS is a worthy addition to Nintendo's DS line and the 3D is impressive, whether it's enough to warrant the premium price tag is debatable - particularly when you add in the US$39.99 cost of the games and consider that portable gaming has exploded on mobile phones where compelling games can be had for a fraction of the price.
The decision will probably come down to whether you can view the 3D display without experiencing any of the negative side effects mentioned previously and there are titles you're eager to play. For this reason I'd recommend hunting down a console - either from a friend or in a store that will let you try one out for a while - before committing to a purchase.
If you find you're one of the lucky ones who has no problems with the 3D you'll obviously find more to like about the 3DS than those that do, but the device should impress either way. The analogue circle pad is a great addition and the device itself is pretty polished - not only in terms of the metallic-look casing, but also the snappy and easy to use interface. There's also the 3DS exclusive titles to consider, such as the excellent, newly released Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, which can thankfully be played with the 3D effect turned off.
And if you find the 3D isn't for you and aren't fussed about exclusive 3DS titles, then one of the advantages of the release of the 3DS was the drop in price of the DSi and DSi XL brought about with the release of the 3DS.
The Nintendo 3DS comes in Aqua Blue or Cosmo Black and costs US$249.99.
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