First Take: Nintendo DSi

Our first take on the new Nintendo DSi portable gaming system.

Updated Editors' note: Now that our testing has completed with the online functionality of the DSi Shop experience, we're able to give the DSi a full review.

Just four and a half years after its initial release, the Nintendo DS has sold more than 100 million units worldwide, solidifying itself as the best-selling portable video game console of all time. By comparison, the competing Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) has sold about half as many units.

The Nintendo DSi is the third iteration of the DS, which originally released in November of 2004 . In June of 2006, the company refreshed the system in the form of the DS Lite, which dramatically changed the device's overall design and vastly improved screen performance.

Rumors of a second redesign proved to be a reality when Nintendo announced the most recent--and what we believe to be the final--rehash of the system, the Nintendo DSi. This upgrade adds two small-resolution cameras to the portable, slightly larger screens, and an SD card slot. The Game Boy Advance slot found in both previous versions has been removed.

While current DS Lite owners may want to think twice about upgrading, the DSi's innovative media features and online functionality (the DSi Shop) may warrant a purchase. But if you've been holding out on a DS purchase up until now and you don't need backward compatibility with Game Boy Advance cartridges, the DSi is certainly the way go.

Design
If you own or have held a DS Lite, the first thing you'll notice about the DSi is its sturdiness. It definitely feels more robust than the DS Lite. That said, you'll find it isn't any heavier, as both weigh in just under half a pound. While the DS Lite is coated in a shiny plastic, the DSi is covered in a matted, almost rubberized outer layer. While we didn't scuff it up during our testing, it appears this covering will be more prone to such cosmetic scratches. Size-wise, the DSi is only about 4 millimeters thinner than the Lite and just 5 millimeters wider.

Side by side, you won't notice much of a different in appearance. The two LED lights found on the right hinge of the Lite are gone, replaced by a set of three on the left hinge of the DSi. They're also labeled this time around, with symbols for power, charging, and Wi-Fi activity.

While the control and button layout of the DS has been maintained, they all have a different feel. Nintendo has opted for buttons that click more, as opposed to the softer experience had with the Lite. The X, A, B, and Y buttons aren't as deep and thus require less of a pressing motion.

The same can be said for the L and R shoulder buttons--they are now much more springy, and require much less of an effort to engage. Even the select and start buttons have gotten a similar treatment--we found them especially difficult to press with the DS Lite. Moving along to the D-pad, we experienced the same sort of click responsiveness. The DS Lite's D-pad, a carbon copy of the one found on a Wii remote, was a bit looser.

The power button has been moved to the bottom left of the lower touch screen. A long tap will power the device on and off, while a short tap (when the DSi is on) with give you a soft reset, something you could not do on any other DS.

Microphone placement remains the same, although the internal camera is now centered with the mic just to its right. The DSi's two screens are noticeably larger, especially when switching back and forth between systems. That said, we could not really detect huge improvements in overall brightness and color performance. The unit's two stereo speakers, located on either side of the top screen, seem to have been lowered about half an inch.

On the outside of the DSi you'll find a few more noticeable changes. First off, the Game Boy Advance slot has been removed, so fans of that older handheld platform are out of luck. While we believe this omission helped shrink the device's thickness, we wish it had survived the update. We'd gladly give up the 4 millimeters to be able to play any Game Boy Advance game.

The headphone jack remains in the same spot, but the volume slider found on the Lite's front left edge has been moved and converted into a push-button format on the left side. We'll agree with the movement of the controls, but we definitely prefer a slider as opposed to buttons. It's much easier to mute the device by sliding your thumb compared with holding down a button for a few seconds. The device's SD card slot is located on the right edge.

As mentioned earlier, the DSi has two 0.3-megapixel cameras, one located on the inner hinge, the other on the outside front cover. A pink LED light glows when the outer camera is active. The outer casing also abandons the vertically stacked square DS logo modeled in the plastic found on the DS Lite.

The included stylus is mounted in the same rear location as the DS Lite, and Nintendo supplies you with a spare. We liked the increased length of the DSi's stylus--it's bumped up another 4 millimeters.

Features
Aside from the cameras, the most significant changes to the DSi by far are the updated firmware and interface exclusive to the device. You won't be able to upgrade your original DS or DS Lite to the new DSi experience.

This new firmware includes various media and online applications that allow you to interact with photos and music. The new layout is very much in the vein of the Nintendo Wii experience, where different "channels" or applications can be scrolled through and moved around. There are plenty of blank spaces, too, that you'll undoubtedly fill with downloaded games and applications from the DSi Shop.

The DSi Camera application allows you to take pictures via either camera and store them on the unit's internal 256MB of storage or onto an SD card. The DSi will also support SDHC cards, which are those that exceed 2GB of storage.

Aside from taking conventional photos, there are various lens options built into the application. These effects can not only be tweaked while taking photos, but after you've already shot them. There is even facial recognition technology here that will stamp your face with a Wario mustache or give you a pig nose. There's plenty of fun to be had with the frame features, as well; you can put your face on pretty much anything you can shoot.

The DSi Sound application gives you the ability to record and edit sounds by providing easy-to-use yet powerful tools. You have the ability to increase and lower pitch and speed, and even use a collection of preinstalled audio filters that will transform your recorded segments. These pieces can be saved internally or onto your SD card.

The DSi Sound application also allows you to play your own music, and even distort it. However, the device can only currently play AAC files. Unfortunately, MP3 and other audio file lovers won't be able to get in on the fun. Additionally, you won't be able to save your edited music.

There are also a few familiar faces in the DSi's interface, such as Pictochat (a way to chat and draw with local DS systems) and DS Download Play remain intact. You'll access Download Play to sync up games with local DS systems. A DSi system can still play with any version of the handheld.

Online/Wi-Fi
The DSi has the ability to connect to any 802.11b or g Wi-Fi router or hotspot. We found it quite difficult to find settings that allowed us to connect to a security higher than WEP. Those settings are actually buried in the system, forcing you to choose "Advanced Settings" on the main "Internet Connection Settings" screen. We're not sure why this functionality is so hard to find, but using connections 1-3 won't allow anything higher than WEP. Once you access the advanced menu, you can manually set up a connection using higher encryption such as WPA and WPA2. Also, you'll need to know the specific security your router is using. Alternately, if your router supports AOSS, the DSi can connect that way as well. You also have the option of using a Nintendo Wi-Fi USB connector (sold separately) that will allow for an easy Internet connection to the DSi.

The success of the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console and WiiWare platform has led to the handheld equivalent called the DSi Shop. Nintendo has explained that this will be the online hub for downloading DSi exclusive games and applications made by first- and third-party developers. Nintendo gave us some hands-on time with a variety of these titles, some that use the DSi's camera in-game. The pricing structure of the titles will range from free to upward of 1,000 DSi Points (100 points = $1). As a bonus, any DSi owner who connects to the DSi Shop before October 5, 2009, will get 1,000 free points to spend. Also, a free Web browser will be available when the store launches April 5.

However, since the DSi Shop has not gone live yet, we're not able to fairly test the system. Once we've had some time with the online functionality of the DSi Shop, we'll update this section accordingly.

Performance
Under the hood, the DSi has also received some hardware improvements. Here, the main processor has doubled, from the 67MHz found inside the DS Lite, to 133MHz. Its RAM has quadrupled, going from 4MB to 16MB. Don't let these numbers fool you, though. We didn't notice much, if any, difference in performance between systems when we played the exact same game. We imagine this upgrade was just necessary to satisfy the hardware demands of the cameras. That said, Nintendo has hinted at DSi "enhanced" games. These titles will perform on any DS, but may provide extra features when played on the DSi.

Nintendo has admitted the DSi's battery will not live up to the impressive performance of the Lite, which was able to provide close to 19 hours of play time on the lowest screen brightness setting. Instead, the DSi will hold a charge for around 9 to 14 hours depending on screen brightness and usage of power-hungry features such as the cameras. During our testing, we never found ourselves disappointed with the battery life, but DS Lite users may notice a slight increase in charging frequency.

It's no secret that pirated software was a large problem for the DS Lite. Various hacked cartridges found their way onto Internet, allowing a way to play illegally downloaded games. The DSi has, for the time being, found a way to thwart these devices, also benefiting from an updateable firmware.

Conclusion
Since the DSi is the third iteration of the DS system, it leaves the question: "Who should buy it?" Owners of the original "fat" DS should definitely consider the upgrade. The changes in the design and improvements in screen size and brightness, coupled with the access to the DSi Shop, offer more than enough reasons to take the plunge.

That said, current owners of the DS Lite may want to reconsider. The DSi Shop will be the best reason to upgrade, so you'll need to decide if that's enough of an incentive. Of course, if you don't already own a version of the DS, this is certainly the one to get. The one obvious exception: if compatibility with old-school Game Boy Advance cartridges is important to you, you'll want to stick with the previous DS or DS Lite versions (or scrounge up an old Game Boy on eBay.)

The DSi is priced at $170 and is available in either black or blue. It's $40 more expensive than the current DS Lite.

The device is certainly a step in the direction of gadgets like the iPhone and iPod Touch that have access to exclusive stores for downloading games and applications. One thing is for sure: the Nintendo DSi is the company's most ambitious and solidly designed portable systems yet.

 

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