The Nintendo 3DS is the latest handheld offering from the Big N, and with it comes a first for gaming: glasses-free 3D. Is this unprecedented feature the only thing the 3DS has going for it, or is there more to this portable device that justifies its hefty $250 price tag?
DESIGN AND BUILD
At 5.3 x 2.9 x 0.83 inches, the 3DS is slightly thicker than the comparable DSi, but not quite as wide. With work, it can be pocketed and it can be easily thrown into a bag or a purse. It may not be the most portable handheld device in the world, but then again, neither were any of the other DS iterations (or the rival Sony PSPs, for that matter).
Many design features are carried over from the DS, including, obviously, the clamshell design in which the device opens up to reveal two screens, one on the top, and a Touchscreen on the bottom.
In a departure from the DS design, the top screen on the 3DS, measuring at 3.53 inches, is larger than the 3.02-inch, 320 x 240 bottom screen. Both screens feature 24-bit color, as opposed to the previous DS' 16-bit color. And then, of course, there is also the fact that the top screen can display autostereoscopic, glasses-free 3D at a resolution of 800 x 240, or 400 x 240 per eye.
For those unfamiliar with how the 3D visuals work on the 3DS, here's a quick rundown: the glasses-free 3D effect is achieved through a technology called parallax barriers. With parallax barriers, a filter is applied over the normal display that uses slits to direct two separate images to each of your eyes. With your eyes seeing two distinct sets of pixels, a stereoscopic image is formed. The drawback, though, is that this requires the user to remain in a "sweet spot", a small angular window in which the eyes can perceive their separate images and correctly create the illusion of depth.
On the 3DS, this window is relatively small, requiring the user to have the screen at approximately a 45-degree angle and held directly in front of the face. Tilt the screen too far to one side or look at it from too far to the left or right, and the illusion is broken, leaving you with nothing but a blurry, 2D image. View it from the right angle, however, and you'll see some truly impressive 3D graphics that have the potential to really change the way games are designed. At first, you may feel your eyes working a little bit to achieve the 3D effect, but if you're anything like me, you'll get used to it pretty quickly.
It is worth noting, however, that this isn't the sort of pop-out 3D you see in the movies where stuff comes flying out of the screen at you. This is the type of 3D that introduces that extra dimension through depth, creating the illusion that you're looking into the depths of the screen. It looks especially sharp when you're navigating through menus or notifications and there are layers of visuals going backward, seemingly into the screen. I can keep telling you how amazing it is, but ultimately it's the sort of effect that you really have to see to fully appreciate.
There is a 3D slider found on the right edge of the top half of the device, allowing users to adjust how much of the 3D effect they want to enjoy while playing. When the slider is at the max, players see as much depth that the 3DS can manage, while the bottommost setting of the slider turns the 3D effect off completely and displays everything in regular 2D. It's a convenient and smart feature, one that shows that Nintendo was aware of the fact that different players have different tastes, and that they may need to occasionally give their eyes a break by lowering the depth/intensity of the 3D, or by turning it off completely.
DS owners will recognize the layout of the A, B, X, and Y buttons on the right, the D-pad on the left, and the L and R shoulder buttons.
All of the controls have a great feeling to them when they're pushed, offering a nice, comfortable click (even the D-pad!) to let you know that the press has been registered.
If I wanted to get really nitpicky, I could point out that presses on the shoulder buttons aren't quite as reassuring as the face buttons; they feel a little squishy and don't have as noticeable of a click. I was occasionally unsure as to whether or not my presses were registering -- especially when attempting to execute particularly complicated tasks that required precision, like combos in Super Street Fighter IV 3D -- but in the grand scheme of things, it's not a big deal.
As mentioned before, the design of the 3DS isn't identical to the DSi, and features some fantastic additions. Handy Select, Home, and Start buttons now adorn the bottom edge of the touchscreen, but they're a little harder to press than the other buttons since they're not raised. I do love the fact that there's a designated Home button, which can be pressed when you're in the middle of a game, suspending gameplay and allowing you to either return to your home screen or tinker with your settings. It's a much-welcomed addition, since getting to the main menu on the DS required you to shut down the system and turn it back on.
Then, of course, there is the addition of the analog nub, dubbed the Circle Pad. As I mentioned in my first impressions of the 3DS back at PAX East, this is one of my favorite design changes to the DS. It's soft and rubberized, with a slight indent in which the pad of your thumb can rest. It slides around easily (much like the control nubbin found on the PSP) and offers a slick, smooth control scheme option that feels especially at home on the 3DS, given that most of its games take place on a three-dimensional plane.
The Circle Pad is also a good alternative to the d-pad which, while it has decent responsiveness and clicks to indicate depression, feels a bit undersized. I especially enjoyed using the Circle Pad while playing Street Fighter, as it allowed me to quickly slide my thumb around in the necessary patterns for special moves; the swift motions necessary for quarter circle or zig-zag commands are clunky and take more time to perform on the system's d-pad.
Other controls and Features
One of the nicer updates to the 3DS is its stylus. The new stylus is not only telescoping (giving us smaller-handed users some flexibility) and metal, it's also beefier and, at its full extension, slightly longer than the DS Lite stylus. Overall, it's more comfortable to hold than the other DS styli, but the one issue I have with it is how it's stored: instead of tucking into the side of the device (like with the other DS models), the stylus slides into the back of the device on the left side. It's basically in the most inconvenient location possible, especially for us right-handed folks.
The rest of the 3DS design includes some pretty standard fare, such as a built-in accelerometer and G-sensor, as well as a sleep mode that engages when you close the lid with the system still on.
The microphone is now found beneath the bottom screen, and the front facing camera has been relocated from the screen hinge to above the top screen.
Another nice change: the rear-facing camera is now in fact two cameras, which allows users to take photos in stereoscopic 3D. This hardware is quite possibly one of the best ways that the 3DS capitalizes on its 3D capabilities, mostly because of the excellent augmented reality games that Nintendo included with the system, but more on that later.
The rest of the design features include a volume slider located on the left side of the device, along with the SD card slot (and as an added bonus, the 3DS comes with a 2 GB card). On the front edge of the 3DS is a headphone jack, along with indicator lights for power (a blue light that switches to a pulse when in sleep mode or red when you're low on battery) and charging. An infrared port, charging port (and contact points) are located on the top edge, along with the stylus holder.
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