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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 thecamcorder and 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.