I had grand plans to do a review of the Nintendo DSi right after I bought it on release day back in April – I was going to take a quick look at the new cameras, SD slot, MP3 player, and the DSiWare store. But at the time I was in the middle of playing one of the better games the DS has seen – Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars, in my opinion the best game in the GTA series – and then I immediately started playing Broken Sword and Black Sigil and … well, time sort of got away, and by then many sites had given their balanced reviews so mine seemed superfluous. But there is still value in an ‘after a while’ look, as we have seen from many great articles at Gear Diary in the past! So instead of a simple ‘how well does it work’ review, I’ll look at how I’ve actually used the DSi over the last few months and what I think scores a hit, and what misses.
Build Quality and Hardware in General
The DSi looks and feels much more solid than the DS Lite, and it is appreciably heavier. That more serious build is very much appreciated. The dual screens are larger by 0.25″ each, and the layout of some of the ancillary keys has been tweaked around a bit. The system is a tiny bit larger, but a good bit thinner, than the DS Lite. But in general, there is no mistaking that this is a Nintendo DS system. That means that nearly anyone in the world can walk up and know what they are doing within seconds, and the ergonomics are so solid that even folks who have never touched a GameBoy or DS in the past 20 years will be comfortable very quickly.
Nintendo gave the system considerably faster processors to deal with all of the added tasks of image processing, music decoding, web browsing, and so on. Of course there is a price to pay for that – power. The battery life is diminished from ~15 hours with the DS Lite to ~10 hours for the DSi (from ~20 hours with the original DS and ~5 hours on any of the PSPs).
Dual VGA Cameras & Editing Software
The first and most easily noticeable change to the Nintendo DS is the addition of two cameras: one on the outside of the case, the other along the hinge facing the user when the system is open. The specifications on the cameras are not going to wow anyone who has been involved with digital imaging since the 1990’s: these are basic VGA (0.3 megapixels) cameras with no frills – no auto-focus, no zoom, no flash, certainly no image stabilization. Not only that, they are fairly slow to respond and update, making capturing that ‘just right’ photo fairly difficult.
But don’t worry, replacing your SLR – or even your cell-phone camera – isn’t what the DSi cameras are all about. These cameras are about having FUN! Simply get your subject in a properly lit area and snap a picture, or huddle a few friends around the screen and grab a funny group shot! From there you are ready to play!
Taking pictures is extremely easy – as is switching between the two cameras: you simply tap the ‘Switch’ button and you swap between the camera that faces the user and the one that faces outward. This seemed silly to me at first, but after playing around and watching my kids play with friends who were visiting from our old home state (one of whom has a DSi), I really saw the utility: kids loving snapping pictures of themselves just as much as they like taking shots of others. They would routinely huddle in front of the system and take silly shots and then one or more would do crazy things and they would capture that with the forward-looking camera.
One note: Nintendo was apparently forward-thinking, as the DSi will make a shutter sound regardless of your volume setting, which is something that some places are looking to make a requirement after too many ‘spy shots’ taken of unwitting and unwilling subjects.
Once you take a picture with the DSi you can edit it extensively, using 11 different lens options. The 11 lenses are Normal, Distortion, Graffiti, Color, Colorpad, Mirror, Mischief, Emoter, Merge, Resemblance, and Frame. This is simple and effective – the touch screen controls work extremely well. You can do tons of fun things to the images and save them all to your SD card. I’m trying to avoid too many comparisons to the iPhone here, but I would absolutely *love* the stylus precision of the DS mixed with the computing horsepower and image quality of the iPhone.
The ‘resemblance’ mode is where you take a picture of two people in a frame and the software compares and estimates the degree of similarity. That was a bit of fun for about a half-hour, by which time we had determined that the comparison engine was junk and the fun had run out. When the kids’ friends visited they broke out the Resemblance mode for another few minutes … but we haven’t seen it since.
Since the DSi was released, Nintendo has updated the firmware to add another feature – upload to Facebook! It is simple to do and works perfectly as advertised … assuming that the photos from your DSi camera are what you want to splash on your Facebook page!
My overall assessment is that the cameras are a highly qualified ‘Hit’, but not a compelling reason to buy a DSi … or really a particularly compelling feature for adults. While the girl who visited us used her DSi as her primary camera for their trip, I have never used mine outside the house: even lacking a cell phone camera, I am never in a place where I want to take pictures where I have my DSi but not my digital camera.
SD Slot for Storage
The Nintendo DSi has a SD slot which accepts standard SD or SDHC cards, meaning that you can put up to 32GB of storage into the system. I pulled a spare 4GB SDHC card I had (not compatible with my Dell Axim), filled it with a bunch of music and pictures I had on the Axim and inserted it into the DSi. When I brought up the MP3 player it scanned the storage card and found all of the music, but I will discuss that more in the MP3 player section.
Unfortunately, the DSi recognizes a single format for images, which is the one that the internal cameras use. So what does that mean? It means you can’t import pictures and fiddle with them using the different tools; but it also means (more importantly in my opinion) that I can’t carry around ~50 shots of family and friends and pets and places that I like to have with me to show random folks when asked.
I look at the picture issue as a software limitation, so I give the SD card inclusion and unqualified ‘Hit’! Many folks made assumptions that it would have a 2GB limitation similar to the Wii, so getting a full SDHC slot was very nice.
Removal of the GBA Slot
During the first several months after my wife bought me a launch Nintendo DS (now known as the ‘DS Phat’), I played almost exclusively GBA games. By the time the DS Lite came out ~18 months later, I was playing more DS than GBA games, but I was still concerned about the smaller GBA slot. Guess what? I never once played a GBA game in my DS Lite! Not once in the 3 years leading up to buying the DSi! I have played a few GBA games in a GBA SP from my kids, but never enough to make me have the slightest concern about losing the GBA slot.
So for me losing the GBA slot wasn’t an issue. For a bit I tracked some GBA Micros on eBay … but I just haven’t had the need or desire. There is a reason – the DS has gotten the broadest adn deepest release library of any console platform in the past 5 years bar none! FPS, RPG, TBS, RTS, adventure, puzzle, non-games, and on and on … if there is a style of gameplay you want, it is well represented on the DS in a way few other systems have ever managed.
So it comes down to this: SD card or GBA slot. Give me the SD slot and give Nintendo a big ‘Hit’ for this one as well!
Web Browser & Networking
I remember getting the DS Browser for the DS Lite, which consisted of a DS cartridge for the software and a mini-GBA cartridge as added memory. It was an interesting utility, based on the Opera web browser, but after using it for less than an hour I was done, traded it off and never looked back. Now the DSi offers an updated version of the same software for free download from the DSi store.
I have played around with the browser, but not really that much, and for one simple reason: it is slow to operate, the downloads are slow, and the screen is to cramped to be useful. I will immediately call this a ‘Miss’ based on the speed optimization and too-frequent memory errors alone, while recognizing that it is not supposed to replace your PC browser. That said, in an era where we see such wonderful browsers on the iPhone, Palm Pre, Android, and so on, I feel that Nintendo and Opera could have done better.
The only upside to the DSi browser is that it is much better than the stunningly abysmal PSP web browser.
Making matters worse is the networking. The DS and DS Lite offered WiFi networking that was functional for connecting over open or lightly secured networks in order to play games with friends. If you had a WPA secure home network, you were out of luck. The DSi doesn’t appear to be much faster in terms of functional network speed, but offers WPA security compatibility – sort of. Rather than full integrate the new security layer, they added it as a new stack of ‘Advanced Setups’. This means that existing games cannot access the new layer and therefore you still are unable to utilize the DSi for gaming with most existing DS games, but can use it for new games, web browsing and the DSi Store.
Speaking of which, I’ll give the DSi a ‘Miss’ in terms of networking speed and compatibility right now without anything quantitative, because in my experience of working to download games and updates through the DSi store, the connection ability was poor, the connection speed was miserable, and the download rate was glacial. I have complained about the slowness of the PSP when downloading huge games like Final Fantasy VII in the past, but it is like lightning compared to the DSi.
As I mentioned, when I inserted a SDHC card with ~2GB of music into the DSi, it had no problem traversing the folder structure and giving me access to everything. For reference my folder structure was Music \ Artist \ Album.
In contrast, dumping the same stuff on my 8GB Memory Stick and inserting it into my PSP resulted in the card showing little free space, but the MP3 player indicating there were no songs to play. This is because despite 4.5 years of post-release patching and feedback Sony has yet to manage a MP3 player for the PSP that can competently traverse a standard music folder! I had to manually dump everything into a single level deep set of folders to get any results, and guess what – the PSP and DSi sounded pretty much the same, with the DSi getting the nod because of sheer stupidity on the part of the PSP!
There, I said it – the DSi is a better MP3 player than the PSP! Well, that isn’t fair, as the DSi doesn’t actually play MP3 files, only AAC – and that means converting stuff using iTunes in most cases. So I’ll just say that the DSi is a better digital music player than the PSP
Not only is it better at dealing with the music you have on your SD card, you can also apply some funky effects, and mess around with the pitch and speed independently! That is a load of fun, but not all that useful aside from the novelty factor. You can also apply one of four different filters: Radio, Instrumental, 8-bit Game, and Echo. Instrumental is really amazing at providing a Karaoke-like experience that is a load of fun to plug into our home stereo system and sing along without the original words bugging us.
You can also do some sound effects based on inputs through the DSi microphone, warping your voice in fun and entertaining ways, such as: Helium, Robot, Parakeet, Transceiver, Tunnel, Electric Fan, Low Harmony, High Harmony, Synth Harmony, Trumpet, Whistle, and Buzzer. You can record your voice using these and then play it back at any time – my kids have used this along with their Flip Video to great effect making silly short videos!
Finally, putting the DSi next to the DS Lite and DS ‘Phat’ it is clear that the speakers and sound quality have been improved considerably for this release.
Is the DSi going to replace your iPod or Zune? No chance. But it is better than either the PSP or any standard cell phone I’ve ever owned as a music player, and for kids the ability to toss on a load of music and listen wherever they are is a great bonus. It is better than I had expected, and I give it a ‘Hit’.
Another big selling point of the DSi was the availability of small-scale ‘DSi Ware’ releases through a store directly on the DSi. You would be able to buy them and store on your SD card, making loads of space available..Prices would be cheap, but (as usual) in ‘points’ rather than actual money.
To date I would categorize what I’ve seen on the DSi Ware Store in three ways: worthless crap, cut-down versions of existing DS games, and FlipNote Studio.
OK, that is a definite over-simplification, and there are some decent little ‘bite sized’ games in there, but let me just say that in nearly 6 months Nintendo has done nothing to look like a threat to the iTunes App Store. As I say, FlipNote Studio is loads of fun – it is a small program that lets you create flip-book style animations easily – and there are loads of other games and utilities coming, but after six months … well, I expected more.
So my verdict is: loads of potential, but so far a ‘Miss’. (*please* Nintendo, make me eat those words!)
DSi Store Part 2: FlipNote Studio Mini Review
OK, so while I am giving the DSi Store itself a ‘Miss’ based on the dearth of useful games, I really have to highlight this gem. It is free, it does something that NO OTHER portable game system can do, and it has all of the right tools to make it quick and easy to use. Basically it is an animator’s trace-pad. You draw a picture, then flip to the next page and you can still see the first image, so you can start animating. This continues, and then you can preview your full animation, and even send it to other DS users. Sadly you can’t export as a movie or animated GIF or anything. Instead of droning on further, let me just show you something my kids did on a trip to a Fall Fair recently:[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4_SFGL0DBI[/youtube]
One thing that has been a hassle for a while with console games is so-called region locking. What that involves is making it so games from one part of the world can only be played on systems from that same region. This is done due to laws or formats that require those restriction, such as the NTSC vs. PAL region lock differences in DVD-based games. For the DSi it is all about the camera – anything that makes use of the camera is region-locked. So far that has been … nothing in the US. There have been a couple of Japanese games that reportedly won’t work on US DSi systems but do work on the DS Lite (previous DS versions were not region locked). Over the next year more games will come out that exploit the DSi hardware, and then we will know what the impact is of the region lock.
So my verdict is: ‘Too early to call’
Nintendo DSi for Gaming
Oh yeah … gaming! I knew there was a reason I got this thing!
There are really only a few observations I need to make about gaming on the DSi, because largely the experience is unchanged from the excellent DS Lite and is much better than the original DS Phat, owing to bigger and brighter screens and a more comfortable feel.
First, the other day I got a copy of Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits, the poor-selling latest entry to the series released a couple of months ago. One thing I knew – I couldn’t play it on my DSi! That is because the external controller plugs into the GBA slot and wraps around the bottom of the system, allowing you to hold it and press the fret triggers while strumming the lower DS screen. Aside from the Guitar Hero games, there is also the Rumble Pack that allows games like Metroid Prime Hunters and Pinball to … well, rumble. There is also a special paddle controller for Arkanoid, but that never saw a US release so it isn’t a big loss. Finally, there is the loss of the ability to play GBA games, which I already mentioned as not being an issue for me anymore. I might have watched too much TLC lately, but after three and a half years and no GBA games on the DS Lite, using that as a complaint is akin to all of the excuses those people use for hoarding.
The next thing is the feel of the system as a gaming device. Largely there is no difference – the DS has gone through evolutionary stages, and the DSi is simply the latest of those. It feels extremely solid: the build quality and heft make it feel much less like a toy than the DS Lite, yet it is not so heavy that weight becomes an issue. The heft also figures into making it just feel like a better built system, and every touch of the components echoes that feeling. The d-pad is the most firm and responsive one yet, as are the buttons – and just a few minutes with my original DS Phat confirmed that Nintendo has made great strides here. And as they have progressed, the DS systems have much less hinge creak and flex – the DSi is the most solid-feeling clamshell yet.
Finally, there is the question of the actual impact of the system on gaming: there is none. I have played the most and least demanding games on all three generations of DS and there is absolutely no gameplay difference. The screens have gotten clearer and brighter, the sounds are clearer and deeper, and the controls are more solid, but otherwise there is no real difference in the gaming experience.
As for judging that, it is tough … this is clearly the best DS yet, and deserving of a ‘Hit’ based on that alone, yet when trying to justify a DSi over the DS Lite, gameplay adds absolutely nothing to the value proposition, makign it a ‘Miss’. The so-called ‘x-factor’ is the use of the cameras and SD card, which are largely untapped, so for now I’ll just say my verdict is: ‘Too early to call’.
Nintendo has produced an amazing piece of gaming hardware with the DSi, but it is not a revolution. It costs $40 more than the DS Lite, and the question is whether or not it is worth the price. For me that splits the decision in three: kids, new owners and upgraders. For kids, I recommend grabbing a DS Lite since you can find it on sale for under $100 on a regular basis and there are still loads of great deals available on the classic GBA library.
If you own a DS Lite, in my opinion the minor additions don’t warrant the added cost. Unless you can hand off the DS Lite to someone without one and then make the purchase, you are better off getting as much mileage from the DS Lite until the DSi services mature.
If you are new to gaming on the DS, I recommend getting the DSi since what we have seen is only the beginning: the Wii Ware and Virtual Arcade are amazing sources of excellent gaming experiences, and I feel it is only a matter of time until the DSi Store gets something to justify its existence. Also, the coming year is likely to show us the potential of the dual cameras in novel gaming experiences (after a few rounds of junk shovelware, of course). So it can be seen as spending a few extra dollars now as a hedge against gaming excellence to come.
No matter what you decide, it is clear that once again Nintendo has successfully raised the bar for handheld gaming. Making a device that is more solidly built and feature-packed yet thinner and with easier access to things like the volume controls redefines usability in this product space. The DSi is a great device and shows us once again why the Nintendo DS is on the way to being the best selling gaming system of all time.
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
What I Like:
– Nice hardware build quality
– Excellent screens
– Loads of fun new stuff!
What Needs Improvement:
– Too expensive
– Networking still a dog
– DSi Store needs apps!
Image source: Nintendo