Technology

Nintendo's New DSi: Well Worth the Money


0410_dsi
Editor's Rating: star rating

Despite some drawbacks, the new handheld game console incorporates significant improvements over its predecessor—and is a lot of fun

Nintendo dominates handheld gaming, hands down. The company recently said it has sold more than 100 million of the original Nintendo DS and its follow-on DS Lite since the line was introduced almost five years ago. There's little evidence momentum is slowing.

If the DS line is doing so well, I was left wondering why Nintendo should introduce a new version, the Nintendo DSi? After a few weeks of hands-on time with the device, which went on sale Apr. 5 in the U.S., I can see exactly why. Once again, Nintendo has redefined handheld gaming by delivering a device that's good for hours of mostly mindless fun.

Nintendo loads the $170 DSi with technology—in this case, a camera and photo-editing software—that make for hours of fun even before a user begins playing a professionally created game. Boasting such features as a Web browser and the ability to download games and other applications wirelessly from a new DSi Shop, the handheld has a better shot at fending off competition from Apple (AAPL), which is moving to catch a bigger chunk of the handheld gaming market with its iPod Touch and iPhone devices, and Sony (SNE), maker of the PlayStation Portable.

Four Times the Memory

The new DSi delivers subtle but significant improvements over its predecessor. Its dual screens are 8% larger and noticeably brighter. Company engineers also doubled the DSi's processing power to 133Hz and quadrupled memory capacity (via SD card) to 16MB. There is 256MB of onboard memory to store applications.

The new processing brawn will help game developers create titles that might appeal to a broader user base. But it also comes at a price. The DSi holds a charge for nine to 14 hours, depending on screen brightness and usage of such power-hungry features as the cameras, down from 19 hours advertised for the DS Lite.

Nintendo also addressed some of the design flaws of the older DS. It eliminated the slider power button that had been on the side of the device, replacing it with a power button on the bottom left-side of the lower screen. You have to tap it firmly to turn the device on and off; a lighter tap while the device is on lets you reset the system for the first time and takes you to a Wii-inspired dashboard of applications that you can scroll through to launch a game off a cartridge, the camera, music player, DSi Shop, and others.

The volume slider found on the Lite's front left edge has been moved and converted into a push-button format on the left side. The control keys on the inside also sport a different feel, with shallower face buttons that make movement a bit easier for nongamers.

Great Photo Editing

Anyone familiar with the DS will enjoy the solid feel and similar gameplay. I played a new game called Rhythm Heaven that requires you to hold the system sideways, like a book, and tap, slide, or flick the stylus on the touch screen in time with the music.

The DSi, which will be sold in a less smudge-prone matte black and blue, has two 0.3 megapixel cameras, one located on the inner hinge, the other on the outside front cover. A pink LED light glows when the outer camera is active.

I found the onboard camera-editing software the most fun. You take snaps and can use the stylus to distort the image, merge pictures, create frames for photos, and even change a picture's colors. The technology isn't new; Apple's iMac software can manipulate photos, and Adobe (ADBE) computer software can do much more. But to my knowledge it hasn't been incorporated into handheld games. And it opens up great possibilities for game developers to incorporate the features into new titles.

New music-player software has a Guitar Hero-like feel that should appeal to legions of fans of that game. The DSi lets you record 18 voice samples and watch visualizations as you listen to and edit AAC-encoded files. Strangely, the DSi does not support MP3 files, so you won't be able to use the built-in SD card slot to load up your music collection.

New Versions of Games

To try to prevent pirated copies of games from working on the DSi, the device also has upgradeable firmware that can junk unauthorized games whenever you go online to download new content. The online DSi Shop was not available in time for this review, so I can't say how easy it is to grab content. It will launch with five titles, including a new, math-centric version of its popular Brain Age brain-training series, and WarioWare, which incorporates uses of the DSi's camera into the game.

The DSi works with the same cartridges slotted into the back of the device as go into the DS, though it does away with a slot for the older Game Boy Advance, which might be a turnoff for some people who are considering upgrading from older devices. However, the company has not ruled out the possibility of delivering many of those older games to the online store and turning the DSi into a virtual console.

Nintendo says anyone who buys a DSi and logs in to the online DSi Shop through Oct. 5 will receive 1,000 free Nintendo Points for purchasing software. The DSi has the ability to connect to any 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi router or hotspot. You have to dig into the advanced setting menu to handle the highest level of encryption, WPA, common to new wireless routers. By default, it's set to WEP security.

Should you shell out the additional $40 to $50 for the DSi over the DS Lite, which will continue to sell? Yes. The DSi is more versatile, fun, and future-oriented. It's well worth the extra bucks.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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