Nintendo just can't leave its handhelds alone. The company created the Game Boy Advance SP to replace the backlightless Game Boy Micro and the DS Lite to offer smaller, slicker alternatives to the SP and the original DS, respectively. And Nintendo's even upgraded the venerable GBA SP by adding a much brighter screen. The improved SPs are available in Graphite, Pearl Blue, and Pink and retail for $80.
The new screen is a vast improvement over that of the original SP--it's brighter than the DS's and the Game Boy Micro's, and it's clearly visible in just about any condition except direct sunlight. A tiny button toggles the screen between normal and high brightness. The former setting is useful in dark areas or to conserve battery power, while the latter is best for playing where there's plenty of ambient lighting. The screen's horizontal viewing angle is pretty wide, but the vertical viewing angle is much narrower and tends to darken or blow out easily when your view is too high or too low. Thankfully, the SP's hinged design lets you adjust to the correct angle for any vantage point.
Aside from the improved LCD screen and its updated choice of colors, the new Nintendo GBA SP is identical to its predecessor. That's a smart move because the SP, first released in 2003, is still widely considered to be the pinnacle of Game Boy design. Its clamshell design and its light 5.6-ounce bulk makes it easy to pocket and transport while keeping the screen free from scratches. The controls are simple--a cross-shape directional pad, two shoulder buttons, two face buttons, and a start and select key--and generally comfortable to use. And the SP retains the expansion port and compatibility with all the accessories of its predecessor, including link cables and wireless adapters for head-to-head play in certain games.
As expected, the brighter screen sucks down the juice from the rechargeable--and replaceable--lithium-ion battery a bit faster. In our tests, the new SP lasted roughly 8 hours at full brightness, compared to the 10 hours of play we got from an older SP. But the better experience delivered by the brighter screen is well worth the trade-off of the reduced time between charges.
Unfortunately, the new SP also has the exact same problems as its predecessor. The tiny shoulder buttons are a little small and a bit awkward to use, and most annoying, the GBA SP still requires an adapter (such as this $10 Nintendo version) to use headphones.
Minor nuisances notwithstanding, the brighter Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP remains a great little gaming system--especially for kids, for whom it will no doubt provide hours of Pokemon- and Dragon Ball Z-fueled delight. But the SP is no longer the only portable gaming deck in town. Setting aside the much more expensive Sony PSP, the SP faces strong competition from its Nintendo brethren, the Game Boy Micro and the DS, both of which can play the same games as the GBA SP. The Micro costs $10 to $20 more and delivers an even more pocket-friendly form factor--but we'd opt for the larger screen of the SP. However, it's the DS Lite that will tempt potential SP buyers. For $50 more, the equally bright system will play almost all of the SP/Micro-compatible Game Boy games, as well as a growing list of newer, DS-only titles that make use of its unique dual-screen design.