The new Nintendo DS gaming handheld, launched in the United States yesterday, is interesting in many ways. With this impressive new gaming device Nintendo has set it's target age group for the twenty and above crowd and not teenagers. With built-in Wi-Fi, dual ARM processors, dual LCD screens, chat collaboration software, included stylus, and built-in microphone for future voice recognition all at a price of $149 it seems like the Big N might just have grown up. PDA Manufacturers might want to heed attention to what Nintendo has done here.
The Nintendo DS (view larger image)
"Why don't you use the touch screen?" (view larger image)
Undoubtedly the dual-screen implementation of the DS is the most impressive feature. DS stands for Dual Screen, so obviously Nintendo thinks the same. It's amazing how much sense it makes having 2 screens for the handheld form factor. Fitting a bunch of stuff onto one screen on a PDA or handheld gaming device is of course the #1 challenge in terms of usability. So with two screens on the Nintendo DS game makers can do such things as display area maps in the lower touch screen while the action occurs on the main screen. This is how Mario 64 has been implemented. With games such as Madden 2005 you can use the lower screen touchpad to do play selection, simply touch the screen to choose your play, while the upper screen is where the action occurs. And in games such as the up coming Mario Kart DS, you'll be looking at the upper screen to race around the track while the lower screen will be the heads up display of where you are relative to your racing competitors.
Notice the built-in clock and calendar. Also, an included download application allows you to download data from other DS owners via the built-in Wi-Fi (view larger image)
Innovative feature #2 has to be the built-in 802.11 Wi-Fi. The DS supports 802.11 wireless in a Nintendo proprietary format so that you can play multiplayer games with other DS owners within a range of 30ft. - 100ft. (depending on conditions and if there's walls between you!). It's interesting to note that Nintendo believes a simple game machine deserves the Wi-Fi treatment, but palmOne stubbornly leaves it out of its $400+ devices. The Nintendo DS is $149.
Front profile view of Nintendo DS, the slot on the front is for Gameboy Advanced games (view larger image)
In the past when playing multiplayer games each person has been required to own a copy of the game being played. No longer. If somebody has Mario 64 and the others in the area don't, but you still want to play multiplayer Mario 64, the owners without Mario 64 will simply be able to download data from the Mario 64 owning person and they can then join in the festivities.
Side profile view of the Nintendo DS (view larger image)
Nintendo has indicated that you will be able to use the 802.11 onboard the DS to connect to wireless networks, and not just other DS devices, in the future. The vision of online gaming and maybe web browsing on the DS might therefore be a possibility down the road.
The Wi-Fi can also be used for a rather neat program built-into the DS called PictoChat. PictoChat allows you to, as it's namesake indicates, send messages and pictures to other DS users. Using the stylus you can scribble in the touchpad area and then send your note to other users or you can use the on screen keyboard in the touchpad area (very much so like Transcriber for the Pocket PC) and send much cleaner text that way. The stylus that comes with the DS is a cheap, small plastic job, but the Touchscreen works very well so it's still relatively easy to use the screen for input, even though the stylus isn't great.
Another much appreciated feature is that the DS allows you to play new advanced Nintendo DS games with graphics on par with the Nintendo 64 (very impressive for a handheld), or you can use older Gameboy Advanced games using a slot on the front of the device. Nintendo did a very consumer friendly thing by making a device that still runs old games. In the world of PDAs it's quite possible that old software will simply not work quite right on new OS releases and hardware. Innovations such as VGA displays on PDA devices usually means software has to be rewritten. When Microsoft released Windows Mobile 2003 even some of the software it made, such as Microsoft Money for the PPC, wasn't 100% compatible with the new OS and had to be updated.
Most PDAs have a built-in microphone, well, most Pocket PC PDAs anyway. Nintendo has done the same with the DS. Rumor is that Nintendo will use this built-in microphone down the road for gamers to be able to control characters via voice command. Nintendo might have some other tricks up its sleeve for the microphone input capabilities too, they're not saying too much about it right now but do indicate there are several software releases coming that will capitalize on this hardware feature.
Outside of the hardware innovations that intrigue me, the fun of playing Mario 64 (the only game I have right now) and the amazing graphics and sound of this handheld make the $149 I spent on the DS well worth it. In places Nintendo has implemented the two screens for graphics special effects purposes, so you'll see an object such as a star appear on the lower screen and then rocket up to the upper screen during an animation sequence. But then the use of the lower screen touchpad to see where you are on the world map, which is the typical game use, it just fantastic too. I especially like the ease of using the touchpad to drill for menus for changing options and doing such things as saving a game quickly. You can use either the stylus or included thumb strap for inputting to the touch screen. You could just use your thumb, but it'll get the screen nice and smeared with body oil and sweat!
Use the thumb strap to prevent smearing on the touch screen, Nintendo also includes two styli for touch screen input (view larger image)
So overall I find the Nintendo DS impressive and think that PDA makers such as Palm and HP might want to take a look and see if they can't learn a trick or two. A clamshell style PDA with two screens might be an interesting form factor that could work well. You could have two programs open at once using two screens. Or how about having a spreadsheet displayed across two screens, granted the "gap" in between would be annoying, but you could see more at once. Even using one screen as an onscreen keyboard/graffiti area and the other to display text that is input would be useful. Even doing the same thing as Nintendo has done and allowing for easy chat and collaboration via 2 screens would be handy.
Oh, and if you have an extra $150 burning a hole in your pocket or want an extra toy this Christmas, then I do recommend buying the Nintendo DS. Hey, Nintendo removed the "Gameboy" branding so that even us that aren't kids anymore don't feel too immature in buying it!
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