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gadget review

The Nintendo 3DS XL’s 12.4-centimetre stereoscopic screen is nearly the same size as the PlayStation Vita’s giant display, and its lower 10.7-centimetre touch panel is noticeably larger than an iPhone screen.

The 3DS got off to a shaky start in the spring of 2011, selling only a million units in its native Japan in its first 13 weeks. Some wondered if this meant the era of dedicated handheld game systems was coming to a close in a new gadget landscape dominated by multipurpose tablets and phones.

However, once Nintendo cut the system's hefty price tag from $250 to $170 and began churning out the sort of games fans wanted – a remake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, Kid Icarus: Uprising – the system began selling like mad. It's now moved nearly 20 million units worldwide, the vast majority over the last 12 months.

Now, in keeping with Nintendo's strategy of introducing multiple models within each generation of handheld hardware, the Japanese company brings us the 3DS XL, a device that has all of the same performance specifications of the original 3DS but sports a couple of much larger screens. As with the DSi XL – a larger variant of the Nintendo DSi – this new form comes with both pros and cons.

Those bigger displays make a world of difference. The original 3DS's screens – about half the size of the XL's – were downright claustrophobic compared to the displays found on nearly every other modern mobile device. By way of contrast, the XL's 12.4-centimetre stereoscopic screen is nearly the same size as the PlayStation Vita's giant display, and its lower 10.7-centimetre touch panel is noticeably larger than an iPhone screen. It feels like a window has been opened on the upper display, while typing and touch control on the bottom is now far less frustrating.

Obviously, the super-sized screens mean a bigger physical footprint – the XL is 336 grams (100 grams heavier than the original) and about 20 millimetres wider and taller. However, the extra girth meant Nintendo could stick in a much beefier battery, rectifying one of the main complaints – poor battery life – levelled at the original.

My anecdotal testing saw the XL last nearly five hours on a fully charged battery under average usage conditions, which is to say brightness nearly maxed, volume at medium levels, stereoscopic graphics switched on about half the time, and wireless turned on only occasionally. I nearly finished my first run-through of New Super Mario Bros. 2 on a single charge. It's about double what I was getting out of the original 3DS, and makes the device a much more appealing companion for long flights and road trips.

Other improvements are more subtle in nature. The 3D slider beside the top display now clicks off, which means there's no need to worry whether you've failed to fully switch off this battery-sucking feature. Plus, the three physical buttons lining the bottom screen – Select, Home, and Start – are now bigger and well separated, a nice improvement over the touchy membrane buttons on the original 3DS, which I always had to look at in order to depress with confidence. It's worth noting, too, that the slide-out stylus, which was inconveniently located on the rear edge of the original 3DS, is more comfortably and intuitively found on the right side of the XL.

However, we can also look to the stylus as being representative of the first of the XL's cons: Shoddier finishing. The original 3DS was nothing if not sturdy, with a body that felt like it could weather a drop with ease and a retractable metal stylus. By contrast, the XL's body feels cheap and flimsy. Opening the memory card slot on my unit pulls the thin casing away from the chassis by a few millimetres. And the stylus is little more than an oversized plastic toothpick. The heavy duty hinge for its weighty top screen feels capable, thank goodness, but I fear that one drop on a hard surface might crack the console down its middle.

And while those capacious screens are a blessing most of the time, they can also be a curse. They may be larger, but their resolution is the same. That means bigger pixels and bigger spaces between pixels, creating a screen-door effect I found quite noticeable within the device's viewing sweetspot of 30 to 40 centimetres. I suspect the pixel separation combined with the already discombobulating effect of glasses-free 3D may give rise to headaches in some players (though it's worth adding that I didn't experience much of a problem with it over a couple of hours-long sessions).

Nintendo also missed an opportunity here to integrate the Circle Pad Pro peripheral's second analogue thumb pad into the 3DS itself, nixing the need for a separate device to enjoy dual-stick control in games that support it. In my review of the original 3DS I mentioned that I was confounded as to why Nintendo left a big, gaping space below the console's action buttons where a circle pad would fit perfectly, and on the XL this empty area becomes even bigger.

Last but not least in the cons column, the XL unintentionally shines a spotlight on Nintendo's current device-based profile system. Unlike the PlayStation Network and Apple's iTunes system, both of which associate content with an account rather than a machine and allow users to download games and profiles to multiple devices, Nintendo's systems lock down content and personal information to a specific console (Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime told me his company plans to change this system for the upcoming Wii U).

It wasn't much of an issue in the past, since previous Nintendo handheld systems were more or less all about cartridge-based content. But things have changed.

The 3DS's eShop has proven a bustling hub of appealing content, which means there's a good chance existing 3DS owners may have purchased several games. And that's to say nothing of Mii Plaza content, which includes Mii characters created and met, as well as puzzle and mini-game progress.

This data can be ported over to a new 3DS via a fairly simple transfer system, but the process wipes the source device clean. You'll no longer be able to access your profile or downloaded games on that console, and you'll need to choose between devices for any future downloads you may make. I suspect multi-console families will see this as a big bummer.

Even with the XL's issues taken into account, I'd recommend it over the original 3DS. Priced at $199.99 it's about $30 more than its predecessor, but its advantages – oversized screens and improved battery life – outstrip its drawbacks. Sometimes bigger really is better.