The Nintendo DS, when first announced, was big
news. It smacked of innovation, being the first dedicated handheld
gaming device to feature two displays with one being a touch screen.
Very cool-- but there's more: the DS has integrated WiFi wireless
communications and a microphone that can be used in game play.
It can play new DS games as well as Game Boy Advance games, but
not the older Game Boy Color and earlier games. It only costs $149.
Excellent! And of course, the Nintendo Game Boy line of products
have been overwhelmingly popular with young and not so young gamers
for years. Case in point, this review: written by Marc who is in
his late teens, and our Editor in Chief, for whom the teenage years
are but a fleeting memory. Unfortunately, the DS became even bigger
news when it was released in the US for the Christmas 2004 shopping
season in inadequate numbers. Nintendo couldn't get the units out
in volume and the 1.2 million made available by Dec. 31 weren't
nearly enough to meeting soaring demand, with only a fraction of
those units were available before Dec. 25th. Now the units are
in stock at most retailers. Fortunately our reviewer Marc Morgan
had the presence of mind to pre-order his DS so he was able to
contribute to this review back in December. We decided to hold
off publication until the rest of the world could get their hands
on one too.
We rarely cover dedicated gaming devices here
at MobileTechReview. After all, PDAs make excellent gaming machines
while doubling as the perfect way to organize your life and stay
connected. They have vivid color touch screens which are larger
than Game Boy and DS displays and faster processors. So why cover
the DS? It's innovative and will move the handheld gaming experience
to new (and better) territory. It has a touch screen, and given
our PDA heritage, we're attracted like a moth to flame to any device
with a touch screen. The DS has gaming ergonomics while PDAs generally
do not. There are plenty of PDA games for PDAs (take a look at
our 250 PDA game reviews if you don't believe us), but even those
can't compare to the wealth of titles available for GBA. The Tapwave
Zodiac aimed to be both a PDA and a gaming machine, but the limited
number of tier 1 titles for the Zodiac have relegated it to the
niche market. Lastly, the DS is fun, and not every gadget need
be a serious device .
If you're a Game Boy fan or are shopping for
someone who is, seriously consider upgrading to the DS. It can
play existing Game Boy Advance titles, has a rechargeable battery
and backlighting that's actually adequate unlike the Game Boy Advance
SP. Parents will no longer worry about their children's eyes and
older folks will be able to see the screen. The improved screen
and backlighting have brought out levels of color and detail in
GBA games that were lost on the SP and original Game Boy Advance
machines. Want to know more? Read on!
Above: the Nintendo DS closed,
with strap attached.
Game Boy Advance cartridge (left) and DS cartridge (right).
Design and Ergonomics
Closed, the DS looks like a GBA with a case/cover over
the screen. It looks a little squarer though and requires larger hands
since the bottom corners are not rounded off. On the front edge from
left to right, you'll find the volume slider, embedded microphone, GBA
cartridge slot, charge indicator light, power/wireless indicator light,
and headphone port. Both the left and right sides of the DS are smooth,
with no buttons or sliders. The back, from left to right has the R button,
the stylus, the wrist strap, the DS game card slot, a port for the power
adapter, and the L button. When opened, on the bottom, from left to right
you'll find the power button, D-Pad, touch screen, Start button, select
button, and the A, B, X, and Y buttons. The top clamshell features another
(non-touch) display surrounded by stereo speakers. The DS cartridge slot
is smaller than the GBA slot, and the cartridges are a bit larger than
SD cards. To insert the cards, you push it into the slot until you hear
a "click" sound.
To get the card back out, you push it down again, and it will pop out.
The GBA slot works like a normal GBA, you need to pull the card out.
The DS features two processors: one ARM9 and
one ARM7 running at 67Mhz and 33MHz respectively. The unit has 4 megs
of memory, a BIOS, a system clock, and it stores preferences
and your name. It even stores your birthday to give you a pleasant
surprise on the big day! The games play smoothly, load smoothly and
do not lag. I have yet to play a game over the built in wireless, but
those who have report that the games play smoothly using multi-card-play
and single-card-download-games. Currently there are no expansion options,
but it is rumored that the GBA slot will be used for extra memory or
other expansion options.
Display and Sound
The DS features two 256x192 pixel, 0.24mm dot
pitch, 3" TFT color LCD screens, one of which (the bottom) is a
touch screen that works with stylus and finger. They are both capable
of displaying 260,000 colors and 3D graphics. Both the screens
are backlit and easy to see outside and indoors, and in the dark.
You can see both screens at many angles, but straight-on is the
best viewing angle. When open, the top screen can be either locked
at 180 degrees flat with the other screen or just less than 180
degrees to have a slight angle. I found that having it locked at
just less than 180 degrees is the best to see both screens clearly.
Also, usually the top screen is used for the action in a game and
the lower screen is used to display maps, menus and controls.
When playing DS games, you can use the included stylus or the thumb "stylus" attached
to the wrist strap to control your character. The thumb stylus
is really a flat, smooth plastic disc that works surprisingly well.
When a GBA game is playing, it will play on the screen you select
from the options menu, and the screen that is not in use will turn
off. I found that the graphics were clearer and brighter in the
DS than on the GBA. The DS features stereo speakers that can offer
a simulated-surround experience. You can clearly tell the difference
between left and right speakers during game play, and some games
(such as Metroid Prime) take advantage of this and you can tell
where an enemy is by the sounds made. You can also use any headphones
on the DS.
Games and Software
The DS comes with a demo of Metroid Prime: First
Hunt, a first person shooter, and the full version is going to
come out in March 2005. At press time, a handful of tiltles are
available. These include: Super Mario 64 DS, Madden NFL 2005, Tiger
Woods PGA Tour 2005, The Urbz: Sims in the City, Ridge Racer, Spiderman
2, Mr. Driller, DS Ping Pals and Asphalt Urban GT. Nintendo's web
site lists many forthcoming popular titles. Look forward to ports
of your favorite N64 games, as the DS has the power to play them.
You can play multiplayer games via the wireless feature built-in
on the DS and some games only require
one card to be there at a time to play wirelessly.
DS has a 850 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable battery. The battery is user
replaceable and lives under a door retained by a single screw on
the bottom of the unit. The battery lasts for
about six hours of game play with the backlight on, and charges
in about four. When you close the unit's screen, the DS goes into
sleep mode and uses very little power.
The DS features 802.11b wireless using Nintendo's
own driver. The device doesn't include a web browser or email and
is currently limited to Nintendo's bundled PictoChat wireless text
and picture messaging. Unfortunately, a router cannot be used to
play online as the connection is only peer-to-peer (DS to DS).
The wireless is used for playing multiplayer games, chatting via
PictoChat and using the DS Download Play, a built in feature that
allows you to play a DS game without the card as long as someone
else with the game has it in their DS.
A great set of screens that are much brighter
and sharper than previous Nintendo handheld machines' screens.
The touch screen is great and will lead to more innovative games,
as might the integrated mic. Wireless communications mean that
you can enjoy multiplayer games as well as chat via text and
hand-drawn messages. Good battery life. Affordable price. Backward
compatible with all GBA games. The only drawback is the unit's
size and angular design which will be hard for very young players
and those with small hands.
How does it compare to the Sony PSP? We've only
played with the Japanese version of that handheld gaming console
but we can tell you that the PSP is a more elegant and gorgeous
piece of hardware. The screen is simply stunning, larger and the
game graphics are excellent. The PSP also has a faster processor,
but the downside to that speed and display is shorter battery life
than the DS. That said, the DS is less expensive and more innovative
thanks to the dual screens, touch screen and mic for interactive
gaming. It's not an easy choice!
How does the DS compare to PDAs and phones,
especially gaming oriented ones like the Tapwave
Zodiac and Nokia
N-Gage QD? It doesn't. The DS is simply a gaming machine and
lacks the organizational, syncing and communications features
of those devices.