The Nintendo DS was a corking handheld console, bringing touchscreen technology and a tonne of great games to the masses. But much has changed since the first incarnation of the DS landed back in 2004, and Nintendo's newest baby, the 3DS, faces stiff competition from the burgeoning smart-phone gaming market. Priced at around £220, can this glasses-free 3D darling sock its rivals in the guts?
In terms of construction, the 3DS is similar to its predecessors, rocking a folding, clamshell design. When closed, the console measures roughly 135 by 20 by 74mm, which makes it almost exactly the same size as the DS Lite and DSi. It's reasonably lightweight too, so it definitely won't drag you down if you've stuffed it in your satchel. It feels like a really sturdy device.
We have a few minor gripes with the design. The lid seems fairly heavy, and the hinge that joins the lid to the other half of the 3DS isn't particularly stiff. If you wave the console around when playing games -- and you almost certainly will -- you'll probably find the top screen flapping about somewhat. Also, the charging cable sits very close to the right shoulder button when plugged in, so you might find hitting that button is less comfy when you're refuelling the battery.
The 3DS comes in black and blue versions. Our review sample was blue and it looked great. The lid has a metallic sheen that gives the console a futuristic appearance, although it does pick up fingerprints.
Opening the 3DS reveals two screens. The lower one is a 3-inch resistive touchscreen with a maximum resolution of 320x240 pixels. The all-new upper screen is a wider, 3.5-inch affair, with a higher resolution of 800x240 pixels.
You won't really get to appreciate those 800 pixels, however, as the 3DS assigns 400 pixels to each eye to make the 3D effect work. That means the image will appear to have a 400x240-pixel resolution. That's still a significant step-up in resolution compared to previous versions of this console though.
The 3DS uses parallax barrier technology to create a 3D effect without requiring the user to wear glasses. The parallax barrier is a layer within the screen that's covered in tiny slits, allowing two different images to be fired from one display in slightly different directions. Align your eyes correctly, and you'll see a 3D image.
We've seen a number of other gadgets employing this technology recently, such as the Sony Bloggie 3D camcorder and LG Optimus 3D phone. But, despite being the first to market, the 3DS offers the best implementation of glasses-free 3D tech we've seen yet.
The 3DS' 3D illusion offers an impressive sense of depth. When playing the upcoming Pilotwings Resort flight simulation, for example, we were really impressed with how far away distant landmarks appeared to be. More impressively, the image always looked sharp, and never fuzzy or out of focus.
You won't experience any of the washed-out colours that result from wearing glasses to view 3D content either. The 3DS has the brightest and most vivid 3D display we've ever seen.
Overall, the console's 3D effect is very impressive. We passed the 3DS among the downbeat hacks who populate our office and they all expressed positive emotions about its 3D performance. It's worth noting, though, that a couple of people said it made their eyes feel strained.
Out of your depth
We were especially pleased with the slider on the right-hand side of the 3DS that allows you to adjust the depth of the 3D image. You can increase or decrease the depth of the effect, or turn it off altogether. Toying with the slider is entertaining in itself, as it lets you flatten the image by degrees, until the display is completely 2D. We found our eyes were most comfortable with the effect set to slightly less than maximum depth, although this will probably vary from person to person.
The fact that you can turn off the 3D effect at a moment's notice, rather than relying on in-game menu systems, suggests that Nintendo sees it as an optional visual enhancement, rather than a gaming necessity. This went a long way towards assuaging our initial fears that the 3DS would be a one-trick pony and something of a gimmick.
Parallax barrier technology has its downsides, though. You have to keep your head steady and at a constant distance from the display for the 3D effect to work. We found that we had a little wiggle room, however -- we could move our heads about 3 or 4cm to the left or right of centre before the spell was broken.
We'd imagine that would be just enough leeway to keep things 3D during a train ride, for example, but, if you're on a bumpy car ride, you'd probably be better off shutting the 3D down altogether. If your head moves out of the 3D sweet spot, the screen will appear to be quite dark, and you'll get a double image too. That's clearly not ideal.
There will undoubtedly be loads of games that use the 3DS' built-in gyroscope and accelerometer to control the action, but, if you wave the console around even a little, the 3D effect will certainly be lost. Note also that you won't be able to have more than one person viewing the screen in 3D at one time.
The 3DS retains most of the same buttons seen on its predecessors. There are four buttons arranged in diamond formation to the right of the lower screen, and Nintendo's famous direction pad to the left. The four-way D-pad has been moved down slightly, to make room for an analogue stick called the 'circle pad'.
There are two small shoulder buttons on the back of the device, and 'select', 'home' and 'start' buttons nestle beneath the touchscreen. The power key is located below the main A, B, X and Y buttons. That sounds like an odd decision, but, if you hit the power key by accident, it will just take you to a menu screen, rather than shutting the console down immediately.
We're impressed by the build quality of these buttons. None of them feel plasticky or cheap, and each one is springy and responsive. The circle pad has a rubbery coating that provides plenty of grip, and, as a whole, the console fit snugly into our palms. The shoulder buttons are quite small, though, so you might find them fiddly to begin with.
The 3DS sports two cameras on its lid that can be used to take 3D photos. During the photo-taking stage and afterwards, you can tinker with the depth settings to make sure your snaps look good. While the 3D effect is impressive, it's disappointing to see that Nintendo hasn't taken the opportunity to upgrade the cameras themselves -- you'll be stuck with the same 0.3-megapixel cameras that appeared on the DSi. But now there are three of the blighters -- two on the lid and a front-facing one on the inside of the console.
Shots can be stored on an SD card that slots into the left side of the 3DS. When we viewed our snaps on a computer, they appeared to be of a low resolution, and quite blurry overall. You won't get great photographs out of this console, and it certainly won't replace your proper camera.
The poor picture quality is mitigated by a host of fun photo features, like the ability to merge two people's faces into one, by taking two shots simultaneously using the front and rear-facing cameras. We also like the feature that lets you cover your picture in sparkles by blowing into the 3DS' microphone -- it's really fun. Don't tell anyone we admitted that. Such features drive home the fact that most people playing with the 3DS won't give two hoots about resolution or light balance.
We AR your new masters
A set of augmented-reality games is pre-loaded on the console, showing off its technical abilities. These revolve around a set of cards that the console is pre-programmed to recognise. You put the cards on a table, fire up 'AR games' from the home menu, and point the 3DS at a card. The resulting effect is incredibly impressive -- the console will make a dragon seem to burst out of your desk, or you can make Mario wander around on your bedside table.
Best of all, when you move the console around, you move around the virtual objects. Consequently, the AR mini-games will ask you to move around the back of the dragon to shoot a tiny target on its back, for instance.
The games themselves aren't up to much, but they do a good job of demonstrating the device's capabilities. We can't wait to see what developers do with these augmented-reality features.
Kiss my interface
The 3DS' software and menus are all pretty intuitive. The only annoyances are a few tutorials that appear when you fire up an app for the first time, since you can't skip them.
The whole interface is slathered in Nintendo's signature charm. Bouncing text, excitable avatars and helpful mascots abound, along with some soft, twinkling music that'll make Wii owners feel right at home. It's a cheap trick, and we feel manipulated, but we'd be lying if we said the 3DS didn't charm our socks off, and make the whole experience feel much more personal.
The lengthy loading times when you're swapping quickly between different programs takes the sheen off the interface somewhat. But it's a minor gripe and, unless you're constantly cycling through different parts of the 3DS' menu system, you might not notice this issue.
Another cool feature, and a key part of the interface, is StreetPass. Pop your device into sleep mode, and, if you stroll past someone else who's carrying a sleeping 3DS, the two consoles will exchange information with each other. At the moment, StreetPass is mainly useful for playing certain mini-games, but this technology has plenty of potential that's just waiting to be exploited.
Nintendo's addictive mini-games are decent in their own right too. For instance, when you pass strangers, their Miis -- that is, their personalised avatars -- will trade puzzle pieces with you in a game called Puzzle Swap. Pass enough people and, after a long time, you'll complete the puzzle. You can also employ Miis you've bumped into on your travels in a simplistic role-playing game called StreetPass Quest.
It's a clever way of creating a StreetPass ecosystem, and ensures that you'll still have plenty to do even when you've got no games on the go.
Thirsty for juice
As you might imagine, all of the 3DS' features represent a substantial drain on the battery. The DS Lite had incredible battery life, but we can't say the same of the 3DS. Based on our tests, we think you'll get around 3 hours of solid gaming with the brightness and 3D effect cranked up, and the Wi-Fi connection active.
This amount of battery life isn't disastrous, but it's far from excellent, especially if you're facing a long and tedious plane journey. We suspect you'll get longer battery life by dialling down the brightness of the screen or turning off the 3D effect, so we'll update this review once we've conducted further tests.
Here's a final piece of good news for DS and DSi owners. The 3DS is backwards compatible, so, if you have a huge collection of old DS games, you can still play them on the new device. You won't be able to take advantage of the 3D effect, though.
The Nintendo 3DS' headline feature is its 3D capability, but it's really just the icing on the cake. Beneath the 3D effect lies a portable gaming powerhouse that's so crammed with features we can't imagine anyone getting bored with it quickly. Despite some flaws, such as mediocre battery life, the whole package is smothered in so much Nintendo charm that we couldn't help but have a great time when we were using the 3DS. Even in the face of stiff competition from super-cheap smart-phone games, we think the 3DS can justify its price tag.
Edited by Charles Kloet