It seems like nearly every gadget--computers, cell phones, even gaming systems--can browse the Web these days. Sony's PlayStation 3 and PSP both have Web browsers, and even the Nintendo Wii has its own browser-based "Internet Channel," developed by Norway's Opera Software. Opera--whose embedded browsers appear in many consumer electronics devices--now brings Web browsing to Nintendo's ultra-popular DS portable systems. The software lets you surf the Web on the DS and DS Lite, but the resulting experience isn't as good as you'd expect on a system with a touch screen and a fairly sizable display.
The software itself is included on a cartridge that fits into the GameBoy slot on the DS. Separate versions are available for the original "phat" Nintendo DS
and the smaller DS Lite
, the only difference being that the cartridges fit flush to the bodies of those respective systems. Both versions are currently available in Europe and Asia, and are expected to retail for $40 or less when they hit North American store shelves on June 4.
Once you pop in the cartridge and boot up, getting online is generally easy. Connections are set up through the DS' Wi-Fi Connection Menu, which can access both public and private hotspots, and DS-only hotspots created through the Nintendo Wi-Fi USB Connector
. We easily connected both to an open router and through the USB connector, and started loading Web pages within just a few minutes. The office Wi-Fi network was another story. Like many public access points, our office Wi-Fi network uses a splash page to register uses. It's nothing fancy--just click on the "I accept" button and it registers most wireless devices and lets them access the Web normally. Unfortunately, the DS Lite simply couldn't register with our network; the program would drop the connection right after clicking "I accept." In other words, if you're going to go online through your own router or the Nintendo USB connector, you shouldn't have any problem with the DS Opera browser. If you're planning to use public hot spots, however, you should be prepared for some frustration.
The browser offers two primary screen modes for reading pages. Overview Mode shows the zoomed-out page on one screen and the full-size page on the other. In this mode, pages can be navigated by dragging the stylus around to move the zoomed-in area. The X button swaps the pages, quickly flipping between zoomed-out stylus navigation and zoomed-in stylus clicking. When you're done sliding the stylus around and browsing your page, just press X and you can tap the stylus to click on links and interact with other HTML objects. Pages viewed in Overview Mode rendered almost perfectly, with their layouts and graphics (at least, their non-Flash-based graphics) kept intact.
The second viewing option is the Small Screen Rendering Mode, or SSR Mode. It renders the page in a single column that spills across both screens. While it doesn't display the page perfectly as in Overview Mode, SSR Mode can be useful when you're reading long text documents and pages with simple vertical layouts, such as those optimized for viewing on portable devices. If you're looking at a complicated page, however, you should use Overview Mode; SSR Mode will rearrange the page and make it extremely difficult to navigate.
Similarly, Web forms can also be filled out in one of two ways. A standard touch screen soft keyboard lets users tap out their messages with the stylus. The keys are a bit small and it's easy to make mistakes, but it's a direct and simple way to fill out forms. A "handwriting recognition" mode also lets users write out their information. Two squares on the touch screen offer a place for users to draw letters, which are translated by the software and inserted into the forms. While it's not true handwriting recognition--you have to write individual letters and wait for them to process, rather than writing out whole words and sentences--it's a surprisingly easy way to enter information. Still, don't expect performance equal to classic Graffiti stylus shorthand available on the PalmPilots of old.
The Nintendo DS Browser's most obvious failing is its lack of Flash support. Without Flash, most of the Web's videocentric sites--including YouTube--are unusable, and plenty of other sites (including CNET.com and Gamespot) are incomplete. The same goes for sites that rely on Java (or any other plug-in for that matter). That may be par for the course for those who are used to reading stripped-down text only sites on their mobile phone browsers, but it's a bitter pill to swallow for anyone looking for a more PC-like browsing experience.
The browser is also slow. Painfully slow. The lag between tapping the screen and the browser responding can be measured with an egg timer. The DS doesn't have the most advanced hardware or the fastest processor, so we understand that it can't be blazing fast when loading a Web page. But even relatively clean, text-heavy Web sites are difficult to navigate because of the browser's slow speed, and that's just unacceptable.
With its dual screens and stylus control, the DS should be a great device for Web browsing. Unfortunately, with its extremely slow performance and no support for Flash or other plug-ins, Opera's Nintendo DS Browser fails to live up to its potential.