Editors' note: This review refers to an older version of the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP that is no longer produced. A review of the current version of the GBA SP (which includes a much brighter screen but is otherwise identical) can be found here.
One can't argue with the success of the original Game Boy Advance, which has sold millions of units around the world. But anyone who has ever played with the original version has lamented--and probably even cursed--the fact that the portable device doesn't have an illuminated display. Well, Nintendo listened to the critics, and with the $80 SP edition, the company has not only included a front-lit screen but has added a rechargeable, lithium-ion battery as well. And the whole package comes in a more compact, mature, flip-screen design that should appeal to both kids and adults. The GameBoy Advance SP is available in several colors, including silvery Platinum, metallic blue Cobalt, Flame, and Onyx. (Nintendo periodically adds special "limited edition" color schemes to the line-up as well.) When it's closed, the SP is an almost perfect square and looks like a supertiny laptop. The clamshell design allows you to easily adjust the angle of the screen to cut down on glare, as well as protect the LCD by simply flipping the unit closed. Another plus: Because the 5.6-ounce (with cartridge installed) SP is more compact than the original, it's also more pocket-friendly but retains the same 1.61-by-2.41-inch screen.
The control positioning is similar to that of the original GBA, but the left- and right-shoulder buttons are smaller. Since the SP is much narrower than the original model at 3.23 inches wide, the unit feels a little cramped at first. Little kids won't mind, but others may find this setup a tad less comfortable. Still, all things considered, we much prefer the new design to the old. The SP has two new features but omits one that we liked on the original GBA. As noted, there's a built-in backlight that can be toggled on and off via a tiny button just below the screen hinge--a big plus and a major selling point. In the past, GBA users had to buy one of several external, clip-on lighting accessories if they wanted to play games in poorly lit environments. Now, you can fire up the backlight in darker situations, or you can turn it off when you're in a brightly lit area in order to conserve battery life.
Around the SP's back, you'll find the same Game Boy Game Link jack that came on the original, which means that you can go head-to-head with up to three other GBA users regardless of what model they're using, though an optional cable is required. Nintendo also wants users to be aware that this model is compatible with all current Game Boy Advance and Game Boy games, as well as virtually all accessories.
As for differences, the SP has a second connector for plugging in the included, lightweight power adapter, which also recharges the built-in lithium-ion battery. The cell is removable, although you have to remove one tiny screw to access it. That's good news because if it the battery were to die--it's supposed to last about 500 hours--you could replace it. However, you can't swap in a pair of regular batteries in a pinch.
It's also worth mentioning that you can't use headphones with the SP out of the box, which is too bad. The upside: Nintendo will offer an optional Advance SP headphone-jack adapter. The downside is that you'll have to pay extra for it. Like the original GBA, the SP runs on a 32-bit RISC-CPU with embedded memory, and its screen offers a 240x160-pixel resolution and support for 32,000 colors. Using Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, FIFA 2003, and Sega Rally, we compared the two screens with the SP's front light turned off and found that performance was identical. However, in all situations except for when we were using the device outside in direct sunlight, the front light made a big difference; the screen was brighter and much easier to view for long periods, reducing eyestrain.
As far as audio goes, the two models' top volumes appear to be the same, which is to say you'll hear the sound effects in games just fine in a relatively quiet room but not so well in noisier environments. We recommend that you consider purchasing the aforementioned optional headphone-jack adapter.
Battery life was quite decent. With the original GBA, you could seemingly play for days on two AA alkaline batteries. However, the SP's battery doesn't endure for as long as those of its predecessor; Nintendo says that you can get up to 10 hours with illumination and 18 hours without before you have to recharge, and our tests confirmed those numbers. Obviously, if you're planning on a full day of on-the-go gaming, you'll want to fully charge up before you take off from home and avoid using the backlight whenever possible. It takes about 3 hours to fully charge the battery.