What a difference a year (and some change) can make in the life of a portable gaming system. The 3DS didn’t exactly enjoy the smoothest first year it could have; a lackluster launch lineup, overpriced and awkwardly designed hardware, and the seemingly unstoppable competition from smartphones and tablets left many questioning the need for a dedicated gaming device – and Nintendo’s relevance in the industry. Yet, despite the ‘expert’ opinions of many Nintendo reacted with unusual speediness, slashing its $250 price and releasing a steady lineup of blockbuster games that helped turn things around and make the 3DS a bona fide success, selling over twenty million units and countless millions of games.
Now comes the next step step in the process, one that many (myself included) have been waiting patiently for – the inevitable hardware revision that fixes the missteps of previous iterations, adding value, and almost making you glad you waited this long to pick one up. While Nintendo’s 3DS XL may share a subtitle with their enlarged DSi XL, its really another DS superstar that we should be comparing it to – the DS Lite.
Internally, not much has changed (minus the battery boost and tinnier speakers, both of which I’ll get to later), as the tech powering the XL is exactly the same as its predecessor. This means the same processing power, the same two mediocre front/back 0.3 megapixel cameras, the same accelerometer/ gyroscope motion-controls, and other incidentals that powered the world’s first glasses-free 3D technology, albeit in a bigger, beefier, and more comfortable package. Firmware updates since the original launch have improved Nintendo’s onboard operating-system with nice additions and enhancements for an overall better and more streamlined experience, especially with its e-Shop download offerings. As for included accessories, the only real changes are the loss of the power dock (which won’t be missed) and the puny 2GB SD card has been bulked up to a more download-friendly 4GB.
Many of the XL’s most notable changes are mostly cosmetic, but all are welcome, as they help rectify some of Nintendo’s more boneheaded aesthetics that marred the original 3DS hardware design. Among the most pleasant are the new Select/Home/Start buttons, which return to being just that – buttons (opposed to the mashed and unresponsive row from before). The headphone jack has moved to the bottom-left (from the middle), the SD card slot switches places from the left to the right side, right next to the relocated stylus which has happily returned back to where it always belonged for easier access; the stylus itself is no longer telescoping (i.e. extendable), yet I think we can all live with this compromise for comfort and sanity. The top screen now has three levels of positioning and feels sturdier than ever, while the last big change to the console’s look and feel is that the original 3DS’ fingerprint and smudge-magnet glossy shell has been replaced with a smooth matte coating that looks worlds better, with the bottom corners slightly rounder for a much more comfy grip. OK, so the 3D icon near the slider no longer glows, but now I’m just nitpicking.
The XL also weighs a bit more than its predecessor (11.9 oz vs. 8.3 oz), roughly 45% heavier, though you’ll hardly notice as the added bulk has been distributed evenly and the new portable wears it nicely. A trade-off is that the build quality now has a slightly cheaper, more plastic-like feel, and I swear that trying to pry open the relocated SD card slot made me fear that I’d accidentally rip the undercarriage right off.
Despite the fact that none of the face buttons (X,Y,B,A, d-Pad, Circle Pad) have changed size the new portable just felt a lot better in my hands, owing much to the new outside/inner plastic texture. There’s still no second Circle Pad analog nub that could have easily been accommodated by the new console’s bigger size, and the current Circle Pad Pro attachment isn’t compatible with the XL, meaning you’ll have to wait for Nintendo to release a larger-sized version (the mind shutters at imagining how big the 3DS XL will be once the ‘enhanced’ one is attached). But even then its value is questionable, as considering the paltry support of the attachment (only Kid Icarus: Uprising and Resident Evil: Revelations truly benefit from it) the truth, however unpleasant, is that the Circle Pad Pro seems destined to join the long and ignoble company of any number of Nintendo’s post-release attachments in the toybox of history.
The two biggest changes from the original 3DS to the XL are, naturally, the two bigger screens, both of which receiving a serious bump in real estate. The top screen is now 4.88″ from 3.53″, a whopping 38% improvement, while the bottom screen expands to 4.18″ from 3.02″ and remains a resistive touchscreen affair. The net effect is a whopping 90% increased viewing surface, and it really shows. Interestingly, both screens seem to be considerably more glare and smudge-free than the original 3DS versions were, which means you’ll spend more time playing and less time wiping those fingerprint spots away.
The bigger screen sizes haven’t translated into bigger resolutions, however, as the top screen still displays the same glossy 800px x 240px as the original 3DS, with the bottom still coming in at 320px x 240px. This means while games are easier to see you can expect some pixilation in certain circumstances (original DS games are Pixilation City), though the effect isn’t nearly as traumatic as you might think. There’s even an option to boot original DS games into a preferable 1:1 mode to help alleviate the pixel stretches; a nice touch for games that clearly weren’t meant to be blown up onto bigger screens.
But the larger viewing surface isn’t just a godsend for gaming and whatnot, as the larger viewing area also improves the console’s trademark glasses-free autostereoscopic 3D quite a bit. Its still not perfect, but finding the ‘sweet spot’ is much easier and more comfortable this time around with viewing thresholds that appear far more generous and less prone to the shakes and distortions. This proved a real blessing when zipping through New Super Mario Bros 2, releasing alongside the XL, as the last thing you’d want to see while zipping through the Mushroom Kingdom are disjointed and headache-inducing distortion.
The XL’s second – but just as substantial – size increase is with battery life, undoubtedly one of the most disappointing features with the original 3DS hardware. The XL still can’t quite match the magical battery life of the original DS variants but its definitely scores better than the first 3DS – if you’ve got the right settings. The original 3DS battery squeaked out a sad 3-4 hours of play time, with miserable standby time when the clamshell was closed shut. The XL easily bests this while on default setting, and those brave to tinker with the screen’s brightness, 3D effects, and adding a pair of headphones (almost a necessity, see below) can substantially stretch that time to 4 – 6 hours easily (to say nothing of a drastically improved standby mode).
The XL’s only real downgrade was in reducing the original 3DS’ fine sound output to something much less satisfying than ever before. Nintendo claims thinner speakers were necessary for the new hardware, but after hearing these replacements I wish they chose differently. Sound output is decent, but hollow and quickly disappears in a room with any ambient noise already playing in the background. Tinnier sound isn’t a dealbreaker, but those wanting the best sound quality from their game playing and movie-watching (Netflix, anyone?) on the portable may want to invest in a pair of headphones.
The real question many will be asking is whether Nintendo’s 3DS XL is really what many have been waiting for – the 3DS’ answer to the DS Lite. In most respects, the answer is yes, as Nintendo has easily crafted a bigger, better, and completely more enjoyable experience out of the awkward design that plagued the original 3DS hardware. Games look tremendously better on the bigger screens, they play better thanks to the larger real estate, improved matte paneling and more real estate make playing longer more comfortable, which you’ll be able to do thanks to improved battery life. Those new to the world of 3DS gaming should forgo the original and opt for the 3DS XL. It’s bigger and better in every meaningful way, and the classic clamshell design and auto-standby remains the best and most thoughtful design for a true portable gaming device.