Name: Nintendo 3DS
Type: Handheld gaming console with glasses-free 3D visuals
Specs: Click here for full specs
Price: £187 from Amazon
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"How do you follow up the most successful handheld console of all time?"
It's a question that's likely plagued the Nintendo hardware development team following the monumental success of the Nintendo DS, which has sold a whopping 145 million units to date. That console introduced touchscreen gaming to the masses, which could arguably be held to account for the massive boom in touchscreen app gaming on smartphones. Once again looking to set the trends for the competition to follow, Nintendo's latest console, the 3DS, introduces glasses-free 3D visuals into a handheld for the first time. Is it a game-changing addition however, or merely a gimmick? Read on to find out.
At first glance, the 3DS doesn't look all that different from its DS predecessors. Featuring a dual-screen clamshell design, it's fractionally smaller than the DS Lite at 135 x 20 x 74mm. At 230 grams it's a tad heavier, but barely noticeably. It'll initially be available in two colours, blue and black, with the gloss finish rather prone to smudgy finger marks. You'll undoubtedly be able to pick up the 3DS in several colours before the year is out, should the previous Nintendo handheld's history be any sort of guide.
The devil, of course, is in the detail. Open up the console and you'll find there's now a control stick (dubbed the Circle Pad) that sits dominantly above the traditional D-Pad, acting now as the primary means of control in most games. There's a slight recess in the stick that makes your thumb sit comfortably on the Circle Pad, with the stick itself snapping back to a central position when no pressure is applied.
While the diamond A, B, X, Y buttons remain unchanged (and the trigger L and R buttons positioned the same as the DS too, if now a little too small for our liking), Nintendo now put the Start and Select buttons below the lower touchscreen. They also introduce a Home button between the two, which is used to jump back to the main Nintendo 3DS menu when you're in a game. The power button sits below the A, B, X, Y buttons, which may seem like a ludicrous decision in terms of upping the possibility of accidentally switching the console off, but it all works quite nicely as it first requires a confirmation input on the touchscreen before powering down.
There's now a slot on the left hand edge for inserting an SD card, which can be used to store MP3s, images, and eventually downloads once the 3DS Store launches. Under the hood there is now also a motion sensor as well as a gyroscope. The Gameboy Advance cartridge slot sadly hasn't made the cut this time. The bottom edge now houses the 3.5mm headphone port, with 3DS cartridges slotting in with a satisfying click to the rear top edge. On the rear of the top screen sits dual-camera sensors for 3D photography, while inside a single camera sits centrally above that top main screen.
Ahh, those all-important dual-screens. The bottom one remains largely unchanged from previous models, a 3 inch resistive touchscreen running at a resolution of 320x240 pixels. The all new, wider top screen is 3.5 inches in size, running at a higher resolution of 800 x 240. And it's 3D capable. Without glasses. Here's where things get interesting.
By employing a parallax barrier, which allows two images to be displayed at slightly differing angles, you'll get the illusion of depth in the 3DS's top screen. Those 800 x 240 pixels therefore get split across both eyes, meaning you may not necessarily see a sharper image, but instead one that appears to be stretching back into an impossible 3D space behind the top screen.
It's quite remarkable; though the images don't appear to jump out in the same way as a trip to a 3D cinema screening does, you'll be tricked into believing you could reach into the 3DS and pull out tangible objects. We're still yet to see any advanced uses of the effect in the launch games we've tried, but it certainly makes them visually more arresting, and certainly unlike any other handheld we've played.
It won't be to everyone's taste however. Some users have complained of the effect causing a strain on their eyes, as you have to quite frequently adjust focus to changing perceived depth levels. Recognising this, Nintendo put a slider to the right of the screen, which allows you to adjust the intensity of the effect, or switch it off altogether. Though maxing out the 3D effect is initially quite good fun, we'd advise setting it to about two-thirds of the way up for the best compromise between 3D visuals and comfort. A larger problem is the tight viewing angle; veer just a few centimetres away from the screen's sweet spot where the 3D effect is most impressive (we'd place it at about 35 centimetres away from your face, straight-on), and you'll find nasty ghosting, reduced contrast, and unbearable flicker. If you're sitting comfortably and relatively still it's not a problem, but taking the 3DS on the road, with 3D effects turned on, probably isn't advised. We're also not looking forward to the wave of games that will undoubtedly make use of the motion sensors and 3D effects; with the depth settings turned up we expect they'll be all-but-unplayable.
Interface and Software
The 3DS interface defaults to a scrolling tile set up along the lower screen, the size of which you can tweak to squeeze more tiles onscreen at once. Each tile represents an app or system settings menu that you can explore. It's similar to the homescreen of the Wii console, except that the benefits of a dual-screen set-up mean that the top screen can be used to give you info on what each tile does before you select it.
Though you'll be able to add more over time, there are seven pre-installed software tiles (not including the Health and Safety warning tiles, the Settings tile and the Download Play tile, which is used for organising multiplayer sessions with pals). The Mii Maker lets you create little avatars to represent you in certain games, as well as your virtual presence when you interact with other people's 3DS console via StreetPass (more on that in a second). StreetPass Mii Plaza lets you see all the other 3DS owner's Mii's you've interacted with, as well as offering a collectable puzzle game and a lite RPG title centred around your Mii. Activity Log tracks the amount of time you've spent playing each game, as well as recording your physical movements like a pedometer, turning steps into "Play Coins" for use in certain games accrued by walking around with the 3DS in sleep mode. Nintendo 3DS Sound is an application for making quick audio notes, which you can save to an SD card and manipulate the pitch and speed of. Nintendo 3DS Camera does what you'd expect it to, capturing 3D images using the rear cameras, though the low resolution means it wont trouble any dedicated camera kit.
The 3DS makes good use of Augmented Reality features. Using those rear cameras and the console's screen in tandem, Augmented Reality apps can be used to make virtual things appear to be invading your real world surroundings, through the window of the console screen. The console ships with cards roughly the shape of a playing card, each with an image on it that the console can recognise, all producing different augmented reality effects. For instance, we had our tabletop turn into a dragon, a fishing pool and a marble run, while we also played a space-invaders style game where we had to shoot down little floating heads with our faces on that appeared to be coming out of the walls. Still only a limited application, we can't wait to see augmented reality features implemented into full retail titles.
StreetPass and Connectivity
The 3DS can connect wirelessly to the internet for gaming, as well as featuring a local wireless communication system called StreetPass. It's a little like a basic social network for gamers, allowing the 3DS to automatically send data between systems within close range. You'll swap Mii information, inavading other gamers consoles with your avatars, while some retails games will have StreetPass features that allow you to identify nearby players or trade in-game items.
Again, it's application so far has been limited, but within the sphere of a game like Pokemon, where being able to easily challenge and trade with other real-world players is key, it could become a really useful feature.
The 3DS uses a 5Wh battery pack, with the console sold with a charging cradle included in the box. It takes about 3 and half hours to fully charge an empty 3DS battery. Whether it be the wireless or the 3D effect, the 3DS burns through power at a pretty alarming rate. Turn the screen brightness down to its lowest level and power off the wireless connection, and you'll get just over 5 hours worth of constant use from the console. Turn them all on at full power to have the 3DS running in its optimal state and you'll be lucky to squeeze out just 3 hours worth of juice.
That's significantly less than the 10 hours an iPad offers from a single charge, a few hours less than the average smartphone, and again a few hours less than even the original Nintendo DS console too. While it's not a deal-breaker (you'll have to be pretty hardcore to play for longer than 3 hours in a single sitting) it's not ideal for long journeys on the road or by plane where a power supply may not be easily reached. It's these situations where portable consoles should come into their own, and the 3DS is quite lacking in this regard. You'll get a solid day out of the console in sleep mode though, so don't fear shutting the 3DS without fully powering it down first.
In many senses the 3DS makes nowhere near the hardware jump that the DS did compared to the Gameboy Advance. You had there a mad new form factor, touchscreen controls and impressive polygonal gaming for the first time from a Nintendo handheld. Regardless, the 3DS is still a marvel to behold; it's hard not to be totally blown away not only by the fact the glasses-free 3D works, but works with forgivably few flaws. The temperamental viewing angle is troublesome, particularly if you plan on using the 3D features during the hustle and bustle of the work commute for instance. But cosy on up with the console on the sofa and all is forgiven. You'll become completely engrossed with the visuals. The reality is that the meagre battery life is more of a concern than anything else.
What really endears me to the 3DS however is its charm. It's got the Nintendo stamp written all over it, from the quirky little characters that hold your hand through the intricacies of the interface, to the chirpy music that plays alongside each built-in software area. For a console that's unmatched in technical power (at least until the Sony NGP comes out), it still has the childishly magical buzz of delving into a toy-box for the first time. And that, if anything, is the 3DS's greatest strength.