Overview: Nintendo DSi

Progress is as progress does, and three years after the launch of the Nintendo DS Lite the gaming world welcomes its newest addition: the Nintendo DSi — an even thinner, sexier and more advanced handheld console than the last iteration.

Welcome to dual screen gaming, 3.0.

Not even a month into its release and the DSi has already smashed the DS Lite’s initial sales figures twice-over. Obviously there are enough curious consumers out there eager to experience a DS for the first time, or diehards simply willing to upgrade their old systems for the next big thing. But for the uninformed, what’s the DSi really all about? Read on for a breakdown of Nintendo’s latest portable powerhouse.

Taken to the Matte: The Look and Feel of the DSi

With the DSi, Nintendo finally chose to step back from the shiny, Apple-like design philosophy that was present throughout the DS Lite years. It was a wise choice.

Though some may prefer the glossy look of the Lite’s clear outer shell, the new matte finish of the DSi goes a long way to prevent unsightly fingerprint smudges and create a more solid-feeling product. As far as scratching is concerned, the matte body seems to hold up well against everyday use: The DSi used for this overview has no visible scratching even after a run-in with a hardwood floor and some kitchen utensils (don’t ask).

Holding the DSi for an extended period of time is generally quite comfortable due to the solid grip provided by the new texture. It wasn’t uncommon for the Lite to slip and slide out of even slightly oily fingers. However, and this may be just one individual’s curious finding, extremelydry hands and fingers can forget about finding a comfortable hold on the DSi. If you work with your hands a lot and don’t take care of them, you might find the console to be an ordeal to use.

Proper moisturizing aside, the DSi is an attractive piece of technology. Even the WiFi, charging and power lights are flashy to the point of being cool. Aside from the visible external camera, this looks even less like a gaming console than the DS Lite — that is, if you buy the black version of the DSi. No one will be fooled by the (fantastic) robin’s egg blue color.

Minor aesthetic changes here and there revolve around button placement. The old sliding power switch has been moved to the interior, replaced with a simple button. One benefit to this change is that when pressed once, the power button will automatically return the user to the DSi menu — very handy. The volume slider has been minimized and moved to the left side of the DSi, and is now essentially an up and down button.

Personally I find the change unfortunate, as the volume is now less efficient to press during gameplay than the sliding version found on the Lite; however, the updated volume control handily changes the screen’s brightness at anytime if you’re simultaneously holding the select button.

As far as the d-pad, shoulder buttons and face buttons are concerned, the DSi’s mantra seems to be “clickiness is best.” Every gameplay-intensive button has a distinct resistance to it coupled with the faint sound of clicking. Assuredly the tight controls are a welcome change for some gamers out there, but the new buttons feel far too resistant and uncooperative. For instance, driving around in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars felt like more of a chore than it already was due to the stiff, concave d-pad.

The shoulder buttons are even more problematic: On the DS Lite, they were larger, softer and thus more pliable to presses — with the DSi, the L and R buttons are as clicky as they are small. Though the design of the DSi warrants squarer shoulder buttons more parallel to the system’s angles, it results in slightly annoying-to-use buttons that shouldn’t be that way considering they’re integral to most games.

One of the more talked-about additions to the DSiare its brighter, bigger, 3.5-inch screens. The extra 1/4″ of screen isn’t entirely noticeable without a Lite nearby to compare, but the amplified illumination is plain to see. The downside to this is a shorter battery life: about two-to-four hours less than the DS Lite, depending on the brightness setting.

Is having one extra brightness setting worth the lessened portability life? That will depend on each person’s gaming habits, though it’s safe to say most people encounter an AC outlet or two every five-odd hours, so charging shouldn’t be a concern.

Who Killed the Game Boy Advance Cartridge?: The Features of the DSi

The DSi’s most controversial change from the core DS design is its omission of a Game Boy Advance cartridge slot. But in exchange, the console is now thinner, has a faster processor and contains an SD card slot in addition to its on-board, 256 MB of storage. The trade-off is up to the consumer here, though I don’t see the extinction of the GBA as exactly heartbreaking. Think of it this way: DS Lite gamers interested in the older GBA titles don’t have to upgrade to a DSi, and new consumers are unlikely to care about a defunct system’s titles. The replacement for GBA support is instead found in the DSi’s two best — and exclusive — additions, the DSi Shop and DSiWare titles.

Think of the DSi Shop as an exact copy of the Wii’s online store, because it is — yes, even the muzak shopping tune is there, too. Nintendo was smart to keep a sense of uniformity between its respective digital malls; hopefully the similar store themes hint at more inter-console capabilities in the future. Browsing is a breeze and the point system is just like the Wii’s, though here they’re called DSi points. It’s ironic (and unfortunate) that in the face of similar storefronts, Nintendo decided to segregate its purchasing options instead of using an all-encompassing credit system of Nintendo points.

The DSiWare concept revolves around small, downloadable titles that can be stored directly on your DSi or SD card. The offerings as of this writing are sparse, but Nintendo’s free 1000 points (equivalent to $10) included with the system do allow for more than one title to be purchased, as currently the most expensive title of the nine available is only 800 DSi Points. It’ll be interesting to see what’s released on the service in the future.

In terms of technical additions, the DSi’s most obvious feature is its two 0.3 megapixel cameras. Unfortunately, the very low-resolution cameras are more of a novelty than anything groundbreaking. Frankly, the editing options felt little more advanced than what was offered in the Game Boy Camera 11 years ago. The cameras do open up future gameplay avenues, but the limiting resolution and inability to transfer photos to an SD card or distribute them online are quite archaic.

One of the more welcome inclusions to the new system is its menu layout, which is quite similar to the Wii’s channel-based version. Programs and games are placed on a draggable line of blocks complete with animated iconography for most. It’s definitely more intuitive to use and robust than the DS Lite’s menu.

Another novelty for the system is its full-featured sound editor. The editor allows users to have fun with music from their SD cards, or alternatively record sound clips to then speed up, slow down, play in reverse and so on. Again, this is more of a novelty than anything vital to the DSi, but it’s a nice addition to the package anyway.

Closing Notes:

  • Matte finish is comfortable, fingerprint-proof and sturdy…unless you have the extremely chapped hands of a hardworking, salt of the earth fellow like myself
  • New buttons are an acquired taste; they’re very rigid and click when pressed
  • Big screens, while nice, mean a (somewhat) shorter battery life
  • No GBA cartridge slot, but…
  • The alternative is the intuitive and soon-to-grow DSi Shop and DSiWare
  • Cameras aren’t anything to write home about; could be later on if developers take advantage of them
  • System menu and sound editor are welcome additions