With the Gameboy, Nintendo revolutionized handheld gaming and conquered the world. And with the DS/DS Lite, they pretty much did it again. The DSi is not the next revolution, but it's an intriguing evolution.
The DSi has been out in Japan since November, and it comes to US stores this Sunday for $170. It still plays the normal DS games, plus it supports new iPhone-app-like DSiWare titles, captures digital pictures/audio and utilizes SD storage.
Build and Feel
We really, really liked the DSi when we held it for the first time. It's 12% thinner and ever so wider than the DS Lite, plus it feels more solid and features a grippy matte finish. All these tiny details translate to a device that feels infinitely more comfortable in adult hands. Even after hours upon hours of play, we always felt on the verge of dropping the DS Lite. Not so with the DSi.
The buttons are mostly the same to the naked eye, but they're coated with a new texture we could appreciate, and both the D-Pad and XYAB face buttons are less mushy than the DS Lite. The Start and Select buttons are bigger and easier to press, plus the L and R shoulders click with all the obviousness you want in a button, even though they're no longer flush with the body.
In terms of hardware specs, there are a few notable upgrades. The screens are 17% bigger than the last DS, each measuring 3.25-inches across (up from 3-inches flat), but their resolution is still a measly 256 x192. You get two .3MP cameras (one facing front, one back) that take shots to internal memory or newly-supported SD cards. (Note: SD cards work for media and game storage, but you can't play games without copying them to internal memory first. Also, the cap on the SD slot feels like it might break off if opened too frequently.)
The biggest upgrade, however, is one that few people will see. The console now boasts an ARM9E CPU clocked at 133 MHz (in place of the original ARM9/66MHz) and has 16 MB of RAM. The biggest downgrade? Other than the missing GBA slot, the DSi uses a different charger than the DS Lite. Ugh, not again!
Aside from a new body, the DSi's interface has been redesigned for the better. It's actually a bit like Sony's XMB, with navigation occurring through a single row of icons. Moving between programs is fairly snappy, and most icons are big enough on the new touchscreen to allow for stylus-less navigation. In other words, we used our fingers most of the time.
The first time you load the DSi, it snaps a shot of your face. Your face then fills the entire top screen whenever you're in the main menu screen. If you are pretty, this is an obvious plus. If you are not, maybe you know someone attractive who might fill in for you.
From the mainscreen, you can take a picture at any time by pressing the L or R shoulder buttons. You can toggle which camera you'd like to use, too. From within programs, the power button doubles as a Home button, bringing you back to the mainscreen with a soft reset. (It's useful, until you realize that this poorly-placed button can be hit easily mid-game, resetting the system without saving.)
If you want to do more than just snap shots, you go into DSi Camera. It has all sorts of zany, realtime filters for you to put on photos to squish heads or whatever the kids are into these days (Jason Chen is serving as our freakishly mutated model here). Sadly, the .3MP camera limitation means that you'll never want to see these images anywhere other than on the DSi's low rez screen. Additionally, the program cannot recognize shots you've taken on other digital cameras for editing.
DSi Sound is thematically similar to DSi Camera, serving as a sound recorder and editor (along with an low bitrate AAC music player). There are some clever ideas here, like Excitebike and Starfox-themed equalizers, and modulators that make your voice sound like a robot or parakeet.
Neither DSi Sound or Camera is at all bad. It's just that this is cutesy stuff that will probably only be appealing for 5 minutes or so to anyone over 10. We could see children loving these apps, but everyone else will probably grow bored quickly.
All those fancy new DSiWare titles are purchasable through the (now WPA2 Wi-Fi accessible) DSi shop. If you've used the Wii, the cute music and blocky interface will be at least thematically familiar. Everything works, and we appreciated that you can permanently login with your Club Nintendo account to track purchase rewards. But the DSi has not escaped Nintendo's typically sluggish online implementation. It's just too damn slow. Another point for improvement is that the shop mostly utilizes the bottom screen for information, making the experience needlessly cramped. We'd love to scroll through selections with both screens firing away, providing a medieval scroll's worth of content to view at once.
Browsing the web on the DS or PSP has never been a pleasant experience, and the DSi's new (free!) Opera browser doesn't manage to break this trend. There are a slew of reasons why, of course. The DSi adopts the DS's browser interface, giving you a wide view on the top screen and a zoomed view on the bottom. But due to the low rez screen, neither view is very readable with pixelated font. (Really, what's the last device you've seen NOT made by Nintendo in the last 10 years with pixelated fonts? It screams early 90s electronics.) There's no Flash support, but that's basically expected. Even ignoring these issues, scrolling down Gizmodo quickly depletes the system's memory. You're left with a blank webpage and an error screen, the browser rendered unusable.
But you know the real crime of the DSi's Opera browser? Some kid will have his first foray with internet porn on this thing. And the experience will be far more traumatizing than the day he loses his virginity.
Oh Right, Playing VIDEO GAMES
As for the DSi's actual gaming experience, loading DS titles is not noticeably faster, despite an internal processor that's almost twice as fast.
We tried out two DSiWare titles, however, and there's at least a bit of promise in the new platform.
WarioWare: Snapped! ($5) is a like any typical WarioWare game (meaning that it's really a collection of frantically paced minigames) but you use the DSi's camera for motion control. When things worked, it was fun to reposition your head to catch a dropping hat, or grab at coins before the buzzer ran out. But it also stresses the limitations of the DSi camera. Often, in a variety of lighting situations, we simply could not get the camera/game to recognize faces/hands. And in these cases, the game is nothing more than contortionist torture as you try to line yourself up with the DSi's camera and a lighting source. Spoiler: The game does use a trick that we're positive others will follow. It takes shots of you midgame and replays them upon completion. The idea is both brilliant and funny, and we're guessing it's too resource intensive to be possible on the old DS, even if it had a camera. Oh, and you can play through much of the game in a few minutes.
Brain Age Express: Math ($8) is essentially the math sections of Brain Age 1 and Brain Age 2 broken out into its own game. A good deal if you were only looking to improve on the math section of your Brain without regard to your ling...ui...stic...areas. There are also mini-games inside this that have you act and make faces for the DSi's camera. We have no idea what part of your brain this trains.
There's nothing inherently wrong with either of these games, but keep in mind that these are essentially mini games within a system that's already founded on mini games. The DSi could could make DS gaming into something frighteningly granular. Then again, $2-$5 DSiWare quality already looks to outpace the games you get on the iPhone for the same amount.
Why You'd Want to Upgrade
• You want access to DSiWare (downloadable mini games/apps)
• The DS Lite feels too narrow for your hands
• You're a screen real estate whore
• Nintendo will release full games that have DSi-specific functionality
• You like new things
Why You'd Want to Stick with the DS Lite
• The DS Lite is $130 ($40 cheaper than the DSi)
• It accepts old R4 cards and other ROM loaders
• Longer battery life (19 hour max vs. 14 hour max)
• You're racist and only want to play on a white console
Even without a GBA slot and a few inconveniences regarding our "backup" collection of ROMs, we undoubtedly prefer the DSi over the DS. The OS is less confined visually and functionally, and the hardware just feels better in your hands. But we wouldn't fork over $170 for the upgrade.
The DSi is a DS that's just a little nicer, a moderate upgrade that's more Sony's style than Nintendo's. This isn't the jump you saw from the original DS to the DS Lite, but something more akin to the PSP 2000 to 3000, or the GBA to the GBA SP.
The DSi could be renamed the DS Slightly Liter.
The build alone cannot possibly justify the $170 pricetag—there's no way this system costs Nintendo $40 more per unit to build than the DS Lite did when it was released. What you're really doing by purchasing the DSi is subsidizing Nintendo's costs launching and running DSiWare in the US (once again, a cost that shouldn't approach $40).
There's little doubt that DSiWare will become a serious platform all its own. The question is, how long will that development take, and what is that platform worth to you?
At the moment, it's got a handful of games and apps. So our answer would be, not much.