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Nintendo DS Lite engineers speak

Weight versus strength, brightness versus battery life -- the makers of Nintendo's new handheld talk about updating the popular portable.

Weight versus strength, brightness versus battery life -- the makers of Nintendo's new handheld talk about updating the popular portable.

The April edition of Nintendo's Japanese online magazine ran a long interview with Kazuo Yoneyama and Tomoyuki Sakiyama, two of the Nintendo engineers who worked on developing the DS Lite. The interview provides an interesting look at the development process and how the developers tried to balance the conflicting requirements of a portable console.

Kazuo Yoneyama and Tomoyuki Sakiyama work in a department whose name loosely translates as "Technology Development Department." This is the department within Nintendo that's in charge of taking artist concepts for new hardware and turning them into working devices: positioning the buttons, selecting components, and ensuring that moving parts work smoothly.

Yoneyama is an old-school Nintendo employee, who cut his teeth designing Donkey Kong arcade machines with legendary developer Shigeru Miyamoto, and has been working on portables since the Game Boy Color. Sakiyama is comparatively new to the division, but everything's relative: he already has both the original DS and the Game Boy Micro under his belt.

Yoneyama starts off the interview by commenting on some of the subtle factors influencing the design of the DS. "It's not just a matter of making sure all the components can fit in the case, we also have to think about the total weight and how the machine balances from front to back and left to right when the user is holding it."

The goal of reducing size can be at odds with enhancing usability, Yoneyama pointed out. "We knew that we couldn't make it so small that we sacrificed functionality. Of course, we wanted to keep the display the same size, and it wouldn't have worked to change the button positions much either. To reduce the size within those constraints, we worked together with component makers, and now we're using some custom-designed parts."

Sakiyama explains, "For instance, the DS Lite uses two different LCD displays. The bottom one is the same as the display in the DS, but the top one is different. The lid tends to get bumped, so we were looking for an LCD module that was both stronger and slimmer than the one in the DS. We had trouble finding a pre-existing part that met all our requirements, so we worked with an LCD manufacturer in a process of trial and error to create a customised part. Rather than shoehorning an existing LCD module into the slimmest case that it would fit in, we designed and built an LCD module that fits a slim case and is also exceptionally durable."

At this point in the interview, Yoneyama pointed out that the same concerns of space and durability led them to use customised speakers in the DS. However, all these custom parts have their drawbacks as well, he notes, "We have to be very careful about adding cost to the finished product, and we're also aware of the possibility that some factories may have trouble producing our parts. Taking these issues into account, working out where it makes sense to use custom parts is something that we lose a lot of sleep over."

One of the high points of the DS Lite is the brighter displays, compared to the DS. At the same time, the battery life is the same as the DS -- an impressive piece of engineering magic. When asked how they pulled it off, Yoneyama said "the battery looks the same as the DS, but it actually has 20 percent more storage capacity...The DS Lite screen is so bright that it might be a little uncomfortable to play in a dark room. To address that, and to offer some power savings, we've added four selectable brightness levels to the DS display."

Sakiyama followed up by noting that they also scrimped in other areas to feed the screen more juice: "while the display is power-hungry, we were able to wring a lot of power savings from the surrounding circuitry".

They briefly discussed the new stylus (longer and wider to accommodate older users -- a group they hadn't considered when designing the original DS) and the updated buttons and D pad, which offer a feel that's close to the GameCube controller. Then Yoneyama summed up his thoughts on portable development. "For a portable console, you can't afford to neglect durability. Rather than having our users pay several thousand yen to fix the console if they drop it, we'd rather that they be able to spend that money on buying games instead. With that in mind, we've beefed up the internal structure and layout, and we've spent a lot of time doing strength testing. Of course, when you strengthen the device, you also struggle with weight and size...that's a conflict that's been with us since the time of the Game Boy."

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