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Nintendo DSi Buyer's Guide

Nintendo DSi Buyer's Guide

Nintendo's never been one to leave well enough alone when it comes to hardware. The original Nintendo Entertainment System begat a smaller, top-loading version of the system near the end of its life. The original Game Boy gave way to the smaller, sharper Game Boy Pocket. The clunky Game Boy Advance preceded the svelte, flip-folding Game Boy Advance SP, which itself preceded the tiny, tiny Game Boy Micro.

So it is with the Nintendo DS. After overhauling the original 2004 system with the smaller, sleeker DS Lite upgrade in 2006, Nintendo still couldn't stop tinkering. The DSi, released in North America on Apr. 5, 2009, again refines Nintendo's dual-screen portable with a new form factor, new multimedia features and even a new online shop from which to download new games.

Is all this newness worth the $169.99 sticker price? Read on to find out.

Is it a new system?

First things first, this is not a brand-new branch on Nintendo's portable gaming family tree. Consider it more of a new leaf on the well-established and thriving Nintendo DS branch. The DSi's main function is still playing the hundreds of DS games currently available. Despite the potential of the new DSi Shop, most DS games for the foreseeable future will still be released on cards that can be played equally well on the original DS, DS Lite and DSi. Nintendo does have some nebulous plans for future "enhanced game cards" that will offer features that are exclusive to the DSi, but these games will still be largely playable on older DS units.

So why invest in a DSi over another, cheaper DS? The major upgrades (and occasional downgrades) are outlined below. Read up and see if you think they're worth your money.

New hardware

Nintendo DSi Buyer's Guide
Nintendo DSi

The formerly top-of-the-line DS Lite has been further refined for the DSi design. Below is a list of the major changes you'll see in the new system over the DS Lite, in descending order of importance. Downsides are marked with a minus (-), positives with a plus sign (+), and neutral changes with an asterisk (*).

    - No Game Boy Advance slot: The DSi removes the bottom-feeding unit that allowed the original DS and DS Lite to play any of the hundreds of games originally designed for the Game Boy Advance. It's a big blow to the portable library, and it also means DSi owners can't play games that use the Game Boy Advance slot for hardware attachments, including the DS versions of the Guitar Hero series.

    + Cameras/SD Card Slot: Not present on the DS Lite, these new hardware features provide new multimedia features, discussed in further detail in the section below.

    + Matte black finish: Makes the system easier to grip and much nicer to look at. Also makes the exterior more resistant to smudges and fingerprints.

    + Tighter buttons: The slightly spongy buttons on the DS Lite have been replaced with smaller, tighter buttons that spring back with a small, satisfying click. In addition, the shoulder buttons rise up above the system ever so slightly, making them easier to feel out with your index fingers.

    - Shorter battery life: The system's smaller size necessitates a smaller rechargeable battery, which only lasts 9 to 14 hours on the lowest brightness setting, compared to 15 to 19 hours for the DS Lite.

    * Different form factor: While the DSi is slightly thinner than the DS Lite, it's also slightly longer lengthwise. Neither change is especially noticeable. Oddly enough, the systems are almost precisely the same height with their screens unfolded.

    + Improved button placement: The power button has been changed from a switch on the system's edge to a less obtrusive button on the bottom-left corner of its underside. In addition, the volume slider has been replaced with a much easier-to-use rocker switch on the left edge.

    Nintendo DSi Buyer's Guide
    DSi (left) and DS Lite (right)

    + Improved, thicker hinge: Seems less prone to the kinds of hinge cracks that plagued the DS Lite.

    + Slightly larger screens: Each screen on the DSi measures 3.25" diagonally, compared to 3" on older DS units. In practice, the difference is barely noticeable. It's like the difference between a 20" and a 22" TV. Sure, one is bigger, but they're both still pretty small.

    + Higher brightness setting: The DS Lite's brightness settings go up to four. The DSi's brightness settings go up to five. It's not nearly as cool as an amp that goes to 11, but it's still kind of cool.

    + Slightly larger stylus: And I do mean slightly. The extra half a centimeter or so of stylus length is nice, but not transformative. Besides, you could just buy a bigger stylus for your old DS.

    + Improved Wi-Fi support: Like the original DS and DS Lite, the DSi supports wireless networks running WEP security, but it also adds support for the more secure WPA security standard. If you don't know what this means, it's probably not important to you.

    New multimedia functions

    While there are plenty of cosmetic changes to the DSi hardware, the biggest changes come in the system's new multimedia functions. Unfortunately, the DSi offers up only a pale imitation of the kinds of devices it's obviously trying to imitate. Here's a rundown:

    Nintendo DSi Buyer's Guide
    The DSi camera in action.

    Cameras: The DSi has not one, but two digital cameras built into its hardware -- one that points toward the person holding the system, and one that points out toward the world. Don't expect the DSi to replace your dedicated digital camera, though. Both DSi cameras lack flash and zoom functions, and they take pictures at a measly 0.3 megapixels (640x480 VGA resolution). That means the pictures look OK on the tiny DS screens, but absolutely awful when blown up for printing or full-screen viewing on a larger monitor. Still, it's nice being able to take pictures when there's no other camera handy, and the system software includes a mildly diverting doodle mode to play around with your snapshots.

    MP3 player: Not only is the DSi a crappy digital camera, it's also a crappy digital music player. At first the ability to listen to music files from any old SD card seems great. In practice, though, the music player's lack of organizational options -- you can only sort songs by file folder -- and annoying touch-screen-based controls (which require you take the system out of your pocket and open it up to skip songs) make it less than convenient. The real nail in the coffin, though, is the player's exclusive support for the AAC music format, rather than industry-standard MP3s. It's a decent freebie add-on, but not even close to being a replacement for a real MP3 player.

    Voice recorder: The DSi's "Sound" program doesn't just play back recorded music ... it lets you record your own sounds using the system's built-in microphone. You can record up to 18 sound clips, each up to 10 seconds long, and play them back normally or with a variety of wacky filters (I especially liked the trumpet effect, which makes everyone sound like an adult from the Peanuts cartoon specials). The filters are cute for about 30 seconds, and this feature might be useful for occasional vocal self-reminders, but I don't see most DSi owners giving it much regular use.

    Web browser: Rounding out the disappointing multimedia features on the DSi is the free, downloadable Opera Web browser. The software has an ingenious interface that uses the stylus to easily flick around large pages via a zoomed-in view on the bottom screen and a wider view on the top. When the browser works, it's a relatively fast, pleasant browsing experience that fits in the palm of your hand. It's that "when it works" part that is the biggest problem -- the browser can't handle Flash content, which includes YouTube videos; and "Out of Memory" errors are a common occurrence on any Web page that's the least bit complex or graphics-heavy. It's hard to complain about a free portable Web browser, but when compared to the likes of Apple's iPod Touch Safari browser, it comes up a bit short.

    New games: The DSi Shop

    Gus' Nintendo DS Buyer's Guide already recommends tons of great DS games for every taste, and those recommendations still stand for the DSi. What the DS guide didn't cover, of course, is the downloadable games that are exclusive to the DSi's new online shop.

    The system comes pre-loaded with 1,000 DSi points ($10) to spend at the shop, meaning there's no excuse not to try it out. While the downloadable software line-up isn't too expansive just yet, Nintendo promises to update it with new games weekly.

    Nintendo DSi Buyer's Guide
    Art Style: Aquia

    Art Style: Aquia ($5): Match sets of colored blocks by pushing them back and forth through an ever-rising column.

    Art Style: BoxLife ($5): Cut patterns through a plane of squares to create shapes that can be bent into cubes. It's more fun than it sounds.

    Art Style: DigiDrive ($5): Act as traffic cop to guide a persistent flow of different shapes into the correct lanes. Distractingly addictive.

    Bejeweled Twist ($5): Spin brightly colored gems into rows of three in this simple but addictive puzzler.

    Bomberman: Blitz ($5): The classic competitive bomb-throwing action game, complete with online play so you can always find an opponent.

    Dr. Mario Express ($5): A barebones version of the classic pill-dropping, color-matching game.

    Flipnote Studio (Free): Make simple animations from your own drawings, photos and sounds, or watch the animated creations of others.

    Mighty Flip Champs ($8): An innovative puzzle/platformer where you flip between the DSi's two screens to find the best path to the exit.

    WarioWare: Snapped ($5): Your body is the controller in this clever set of mini-games that use the DSi camera to capture your movements.

    Should I buy it?

    So, back to the big question we asked at the beginning of this guide: Is the Nintendo DSi worth your money?

    If you don't have a Nintendo DS yet, this is probably the one to get. The extra $40 in retail price (compared to the DS Lite) gets you some nifty little multimedia toys to play with and, more importantly, gets you access to the DSi Shop. While the selection of downloadable games isn't much to see yet, it's probably worth the extra money to future-proof your gaming library a little bit (assuming you have a wireless Internet connection to download games, that is).

    If you have an original DS and haven't upgraded to the DS Lite yet, definitely consider upgrading to the DSi. You'll wonder how you ever did without the brighter screen and smaller form factor that the upgrade will bring, and while you could get those features with the cheaper DS Lite, the extra $40 is worth it for access to the DSi Shop if nothing else.

    If you already have a DS Lite, it's probably not worth the upgrade. $170 is a lot to ask for some minor hardware upgrades, crappy digital cameras and ho-hum music playback options. Sure, your DS Lite can't connect to the DSi Shop, but there currently aren't any games that even come close to justifying a $170 investment yet. If and when those games come out, then you can take the plunge.

    Check out more Buyer's Guides.