"Some players want to play their games on larger screens."
That was Nintendo of Canada spokesperson Matt Ryan's response when I asked him why his company engineered the $199.99 DSi XL, a super-sized version of the Nintendo DSi, the camera-equipped edition of the world's most popular handheld gaming system, the Nintendo DS.
Making a portable gadget bigger seems a bit counterintuitive unless there's a method to the massiveness. I thought the XL might be indicative of some new use for Nintendo's mobile gaming platform, like making it double as an e-reader (rumour has it that 100 Classic Book Collection, a U.K. DS release containing license-free classic novels, will be coming to North America this summer).
But Mr. Ryan clearly stated the XL wasn't intended as a move toward the e-reader market. Or any other new use case. It's just a DSi. Same buttons, same games, same features. Only, you know, bigger.
How big? The DSi weighs a little more than 200 grams and is maybe a couple of centimetres wider than a typical man's wallet. By contrast, the XL tips the scales at just over 300 grams and is about the size of a woman's wallet. It can fit in a front trouser pocket, but it's tight; you won't want to sit down while it's in there.
The reason for the increased bulk is a pair of larger screens. The XL's LCDs are about twice the size of the now-seemingly-diminutive DSi displays. More real estate for play sounds like a great idea, but there's a catch: The XL screens have the same resolution as the DSi displays. That means the number of pixels hasn't changed, they've simply been made bigger.
The result is a pretty nasty case of the "screen door effect;" a viewing term used when the spaces between individual pixels can be seen, making it look as though the image is being viewed through the mesh grid of a screen door.
The DSi's displays didn't have an overabundance of pixels to begin with. Unlike the finely resolved screens of an iPhone or PSP, a player's eye can resolve individual pixels on a DSi display from up to 30 or 40 centimetres away. With those pixels now doubled in size, I could make out individual pixels even when I held the device at arm's length. There's no way to escape it. And it can be quite distracting. Viewing the pixilated mosaic of a pure green background in WarioWare D.I.Y. was a bit disorienting.
Of course, the effect may be somewhat lessened if your vision is starting to fail. When the DSi was first announced last year, the Internet lit up with gags about "Nintendo's new system for geriatrics." Jokes aside, seniors are a growing demographic in games. The XL could find a niche audience with some of them. Perhaps not coincidentally, the two DSiWare games that come pre-installed on the XL-BrainAge Express: Math and BrainAge Express: Arts and Letters-will likely appeal to older players.
To be fair, the XL sports a couple of small but meaningful improvements that will likely be appreciated by all ages.
The first is a larger, longer lasting battery. My DSi seems to be drained of power after only about five or six hours of play, but I've been using the DSi XL on and off for several days-at least eight or nine hours of play time-without needing to recharge. The low battery indicator light hasn't even come on yet.
We've also been given the option of two styluses: a typical, toothpick-like stick that slides into the underside of the chassis when not in use, plus a full-bodied pen, which I found much more comfortable to hold for long periods of time. However, while there are holes to connect the pen to the device with a string, no tether is included in the box. I suspect I'll misplace that lovely new stylus before long.
Nintendo likes to roll out new iterations of its handhelds every couple of years, and they usually make an already good platform even better. The DS Lite, released two years after the original DS in 2006, gave the dual-screened device a better shape and brighter screen, and 2009's DSi improved upon its functionality. The XL, however, seems like a step back. Plus, it landed on shelves a week after Nintendo announced that its successor-a 3-D handheld dubbed the 3DS-will arrive early next year, which sort of made the XL obsolete before it even launched.
Still, as Mr. Ryan said, the DSi XL is simply an option for people who need a bigger screen. If you're not one of those people, best either stick with the old or wait for the new.
Deciding on a DS - online sidebar
With three iterations of the DS now on store shelves, picking the right one for you or your kids is getting tricky. Here are our recommendations.
Nintendo DS Lite ($139.99): The best option for young children. It hasn't a camera and its online functionality is meagre, but it's relatively cheap and just fine for playing Disney and Pokemon games.
Nintendo DSi ($179.99): Better firmware, a couple of cameras, and access to the DSiWare store-where scores of cheap games (some of which are surprisingly good) are available-makes this the best bet for tweens, teens, and most grown-ups.
Nintendo DSi XL ($199.99): Identical to the DSi, only bigger and with a superior stylus. However, the pixilated screens will be hard on most players' eyes. Good for seniors and other players with less than perfect vision.