Nintendo 3DS XL Review: One Change that Made the First Portable 3D Console Playable in 3D
Nintendo’s dominance in the mobile gaming market, while now under direct competition with smartphone makers, is still daunting. Nineteen million Nintendo 3DS units have sold worldwide as of July, just under a year and a half after releasing in the U.S. in March 2011. And as the Japanese gaming giant did with the extremely popular Nintendo DSi, the company has supersized its current portable gaming console and released the 3DS XL.
Like the DSi XL, the 3DS XL shares the vast majority of its components with the original 3DS. Only three major differences exist between them: the overall size, the size of both screens, and the size of the battery.
Yes, it’s the same console in principle, but it’s worth reviewing because of these changes. Nintendo has already made it clear that the 3DS XL is both a replacement and complementary handheld, depending on the user. But is it right for you?
Hardware and Design
If you put the 3DS and 3DS XL side by side, they look the same, except that one’s bigger. In fact, size is really the only change. The internal components — which include a relatively meager dual-core ARM processor, 128MB of RAM, and 2GB of internal storage — were considered low-grade back when they released on March 27, 2011 in the U.S. To give you a good sense of how disproportionate those internals are, here’s a quick comparison with products released around the same time:
Suffice it to say, Nintendo had no intention of winning any contests for fastest mobile hardware. And with a starting price of $250, it’s still nowhere near the performance-price ratio of the Apple iPad 2 or HTC Thunderbolt, let alone smartphones and tablets released another year earlier. Yet the company has remained successful in spite of low-performance devices by utilizing unique technologies. The Nintendo DS became popular because it introduced the touchscreen for gaming. The 3DS, however, only introduced 3D gaming that doesn’t require special polarized glasses.
In my time with the original 3DS, my experience has been that the only way to play games is to shut the 3D off entirely. The 3.53-inch top display is just too small to get the 3D experience without holding the game console blindingly close. I’ve tested dozens of different 3D technologies over the past four years, and in my experience, only two things really matter in getting the most out of 3D effects: proper depth and a big screen.
The jump from a 3.53-inch to 4.88-inch display transforms the 3DS into the best 3D display for a gaming console … and not just because it’s the only one of this size. Sure, smartphone makers have all but abandoned 3D after HTC and LG both failed to sell significant numbers of their 3D-ready phones, but the original 3DS barely handled 3D. The XL model, however, is large enough to ensure that playing games in 3D is, in fact, a viable option.
That improvement comes from the increase in screen size. Nearly twice as large as the original, the new screen shares the same low resolution of 800×240 (400 pixels across for each eye), which makes all of the images a little fuzzier and a little more pixelated. If you’re really into picture clarity and enjoy the 3DS, stick with the original, smaller display. The original is significantly more dense at 132 pixels per inch (PPI), compared to just 95.6 PPI with the 3DS XL.
Losing pixel density isn’t that important if users hold the XL further away when playing. Pixel density is more noticeable the closer you hold the display to your eyes. That’s why 300 PPI is the de facto standard for smartphones; at one foot away or greater, individual pixels aren’t noticeable (to learn more about the subject, read Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy’s explanation of resolution). My own experience — which includes using the 3DS and 3DS XL, watching others use them, and seeing the distances at which people hold both devices naturally — suggests that pixel density is noticeable but not aggravating, nor is it annoying for users switching between the two.
No, the real improvement is that 3D, for the first time, really works. It works infinitely better than the original 3DS because of the 90 percent increase in screen size (technically, the top display is 91 percent larger and the bottom screen is 88 percent larger). The reason size fixes it beckons to why the original 3DS was flawed when it came to 3D in the first place. With small, handheld devices, users tend to shake them when in use. This is normal, everyday movement: our bodies flowing in regular conditions. When the image on the handheld is static, that movement goes completely unnoticed. But with the 3DS, even the slightest jerk to the right or left is very noticeable, annoying, and causes strain on the eyes.
That’s because to create the 3D effect without glasses, the screen displays two slightly different images for players to focus on at a distance, similar to how you can see an object twice when crossing your eyes. But with a larger screen, the angles at which the picture changes are much larger, meaning it requires nearly 4x the “shaking” to create the same jarring effect on the 3DS XL as it does on the 3DS. It takes much more than unsteady hands to make the 3D images bounce back and forth on the 3DS XL.
This alone makes it a far more comfortable device to play on. 3D is both playable and pleasant to use, assuming that the right depth is set for your eyes. The larger screen as a whole is more comfortable to hold farther from your eyes, which makes it less stressful on them. And though the pixel density is noticeably lower, the 3D effect circumvents that problem entirely.
The system has only one major inconvenience and that’s the requirement of high brightness to fully see the 3D effects without glare or reflection. Because 3D displays make us look deeper into the screen (instead of making pictures pop out, generally), our eyes focus behind the display. Glare or reflections can induce anything from a loss of focus to nausea. The glossy top display is not terribly reflective, but in bright conditions, it not only lessens the 3D effect, but also causes undue strain on your eyes. That all depends on how well you handle 3D. I have never became nauseated from even the worst 3D effects, but I have seen people throw up from them. The 3DS XL will never cause that sort of extreme reaction because of the small display and the limited 3D effect it creates. But in bright conditions, it is best to turn off 3D altogether.
The bottom, 4.18-inch display is also 90 percent larger than the original 3DS, but it has none of the 3D benefits. For gameplay, the larger pixels are actually easier to hit, especially when pressing with a finger; the same was true for the DSi XL. So while picture clarity is much worse, the fairly pathetic resistive touchscreen is far easier to use, which is an overall improvement.
The camera on the 3DS XL is no improvement over the 3DS; the pictures are both small and blurry and almost always come out in poor condition. The only reason for photography on the 3DS XL is for 3D photographs, and even then they are only good for occasionally showing off to friends. Just like on 3D smartphones such as the HTC Evo 3D, 3D photographs are barely fun and only for a short while.
The stylus may seem like an insignificant aspect of the console, but for plenty of games it is the main mode of user interface. And the original 3DS had a metallic stylus that was shiny and looked nice but also was very slippery in the hand. The 3DS XL’s stylus is completely plastic with a matte coating, so it’s easy to grip even if your hands get damp or sweaty. It’s not as long as the original, fully-extended 3DS stylus, but it also doesn’t change sizes, which makes it more comfortable for everyday use.
Connectors and Storage
The 3DS XL only features one major connector: a proprietary power cable that is identical to the one used with the 3DS, DSi, and DSi XL. For U.S. purchasers, the 3DS XL comes with a power cable though it does not in Europe and Japan. Thankfully, older power cables work just fine for it.
Along with the internal 2GB of storage, the 3DS XL includes a 4GB SD card. Users can buy larger capacity storage, but games and apps are so small it really isn’t necessary. But for the sake of security, feel free to buy a 16GB SD card. They’re only $20: far more affordable than Sony’s method with the Vita.
One of the main reasons to switch from the original 3DS to the 3DS XL, besides the larger display, is the increased battery life. The 3-5 hours of gameplay on the 3DS is shameful, especially compared to the company’s older consoles. Even the PlayStation Vita offers 4-6 hours of battery life, and we all remember why Sega lost to Nintendo nearly 20 years ago in the portable console space: battery life. The Game Gear, which was superior to the Game Boy technologically, couldn’t hold a charge for more than a few hours.
Thankfully, the 3DS XL has a larger 1,750 mAh battery (compared to the 3DS’s 1,300 mAh), which according to Nintendo provides 3.5 to 6.5 hours of use per charge — or anywhere from 0.5 to 2 hours more charge, depending on the usage of 3D and Wi-Fi, brightness setting, and volume. In my testing, the 3DS XL tended to last between 4.5 to 6 hours and could last for around a week with the Wi-Fi connection on standby (or three days with Wi-Fi enabled). This amount of battery life should be suitable for a long day’s use and certainly enough for a cross-country flight.
The bigger problem comes with actually maintaining a long battery life at the cost of gameplay elements. Because some games on the 3DS use 3D as a main component of the game, that feature in itself seriously hinders battery life for two reasons. First, 3D takes additional power (to render the top display twice). Second, viewing 3D content requires additional brightness to the screen, which again comes at the cost of power. 3D elements, as described above, are lost in extremely bright conditions, so users should note that when playing in a car, outside on a bright or sunny day, or anywhere with a lot of light, the best practice is to turn off the 3D altogether.
Continue reading for software. …
Nintendo has upgraded some of the software in the 3DS for the XL’s release, though the changes are minimal. As a whole, the software and operating system on the 3DS feels amatuerish and best put in the hands of a child who hasn’t used any of today’s smartphone operating systems.
And if you think that I’m comparing the game console to smartphones too much at this point, consider this: Millions of kids own smartphones today and have become accustomed to simple app management, touch controls, etc. Whether Nintendo likes or even acknowledges that or not, it is competing in the same field. Every device must be simple to use, and that’s all part of the software.
In a sense, the OS employed on the 3DS is simple and intuitive but in a completely different way from what users may expect from an OS today. It uses the same basic app-based overlay, where games and applications appear as small icons. In this particular way, the 3DS excels: not only can apps be viewed with a simple swipe right or left, but the icons are adjustable, too. They can be made larger or smaller, enabling users to show either more or fewer apps on the screen at any given time by hitting two virtual buttons on the lower touch screen. This is an improvement to even iOS and Android, though Windows Phone 8 will support changing icon sizes. The 3DS also supports folder creation, where apps can be stored in user-created folders for better organization.
The only real problem with the software is how everything takes so many steps. Starting a game requires tapping twice on any game icon. Downloading a new app or game requires anywhere from five to ten steps, from getting into the store to actually selecting the game/app to download. Even saving in games requires players to agree to the save, wait 3-5 seconds for the save, and then click again to acknowledge the save is complete. It all just takes too long. Slow Wi-Fi downloads don’t help, either, and the problem is rampant across the console’s many functions. Sure, game sizes may be small at a few megabytes to several hundred, but even short, two-minute video clips take 3-5 minutes to download.
Nintendo’s software platform for the 3DS is limited, but it’s simple and easy to use. It looks and feels like it was developed for a child, and it certainly was; adults and teenagers won’t see any benefit to that design, nor will kids already using iOS and Android. The main difficulty comes with the number of steps functions take and the slow Wi-Fi downloading. In any event, the 3DS’s software has improved and works well enough, even if it is forgettable.
- For Browsermark, larger is better. For Sunspider 9.1, smaller is better. The 3DS XL shows minimal improvement over the 3DS.
The Nintendo 3DS’s browser remains the worst browser of the last two years. I’m including it here to discourage current and potential 3DS or 3DS XL buyers from ever using this slow, painful browser. As you can see in the chart above, which I’ve updated to include the 3DS XL’s performance, this is worse than e-readers from last year. If there is no alternative, fine. But if ever a device didn’t deserve a web browser, the 3DS is it.
Gaming, of course, is the most crucial part of the 3DS XL. The intrinsic alterations to the size of the console change gameplay performance in respect to the user, specifically when it comes to controls. Actual gameplay performance, however, is no different from the 3DS because the processor and other internal components haven’t been updated at all, not even in size. The only change to the internal components, as mentioned above, is the size of the battery. For gaming, this means you’ll be able to play longer, and if you limit the number of things that drain the battery when playing (Wi-Fi, 3D, brightness, and volume), then you may be able to exceed six hours of play on a single charge.
One thing nearly all portable game consoles have in common is cramped physical controls. This may be one reason why smartphone/tablet gaming has progressed so far. Even without traditional control schemes, players have a wide area of control and don’t necessarily grow uncomfortable holding the device in such a way that keeps fingers on physical buttons. Compare that to a portable game console, where players hold on to the edges and backs of uncomfortably designed plastic sheets just to keep their thumbs over the buttons.
Thankfully, the 3DS XL doesn’t have that problem. Again, like the DSi XL before it, the 3DS XL leaves plenty of room for small and large hands alike while simultaneously enlarging the buttons and making them easier to press. The left thumbstick and D-pad are slightly larger, while the face buttons have slightly less click and feel a little more rubberized. But overall, they feel better to press because more space is available between the buttons. The right and left triggers are also much clickier, which provides better audible and tactile feedback to players that they pressed the button.
Nintendo made two additional changes to the controls. The 3D slider both clicks on and off and also slides to adjust for depth. The original 3DS didn’t click in place when off. Instead, it used a crude LED to signal that the screen was displaying in 3D, which wasted the battery and made it too easy to accidentally flick it on or off. The second change is to the Home, Start, and Select buttons. They’ve been enlarged and flattened and are frankly much worse on the 3DS XL. They are too flat and too difficult to properly press without looking.
Audio on the 3DS XL is surprisingly good. After testing dozens of speaker systems and headsets, I’ve found that the best way to determine whether the audio quality of the system is well built or not to check if the sound seems like it’s coming from a direction other than directly from the speakers. While playing Super Mario World 3D on the first day of testing the 3DS, this happened to me.
Interestingly the audio improvements come from the software side, not hardware. The air channels actually got smaller because of less available space, so audio technicians had to develop better audio techniques to improve sound performance. They did a great job, and the 3DS XL has really good sound quality.
Gaming and General Performance
Gaming on the 3DS XL is significantly improved thanks to the larger screen size, larger and better controls, and the improved speakers. Actual game performance, however, has seen no improvement, though it was already excellent on the 3DS. Games don’t lag, take very little time to load (in general), and take good advantage of the available hardware. The only regularly slow function is saving. Any function on the 3DS which requires writing data to the flash memory or SD card is remarkably slow.
The same is true of applications and everyday use of the 3DS. All applications and games load quickly and respond well to user input both through the physical buttons and touchscreen, and switching between a running application to the home screen and into another app is, while not as seamless as smartphones, still excellent.
The only slow performance, as mentioned above, is with Wi-Fi download speeds and general data transfer. Most items available for download through the Nintendo Store are fairly small, between 10-300MB, but even the smaller files take a long time to download. The average size of apps/games on my 3DS is 50MB, yet on a 10MBPS connection, what should take five seconds to download takes 3-5 minutes to download and install.
I can only assume that the reason Wi-Fi appears so slow is because of the slow data transfer speeds. If data cannot move fast enough, it will clog everything. And with the growing importance of online gaming and Nintendo’s push for more downloadable games for users to store on an SD card, slow data transfer just won’t do.
The 3DS XL is a major improvement over the original 3DS, but like all of Nintendo’s iterative updates (with the exception of the DSi), the improvements are specific only to the external hardware, not to internal components or really to software. In the case of software, the major improvement is to non-3DS titles (DS games, DSiWare apps, or Virtual Console titles), where the picture quality is sharper thanks to the 1:1 pixel to pixel ratio.
Those few changes, however, make all the difference in the world if you’ve played a 3DS but weren’t sold on the console before. The 3DS XL has a larger screen that does a better job at displaying 3D images without eyestrain. It has larger, better controls that are more comfortable to play over a long period of time. And it has a larger battery that can last up to two hours longer than the original 3DS. Additional minor tweaks include better audio quality, better displaying non-3DS downloadable titles, a better stylus, and a higher capacity included SD card.
At the same time, it’s the same console. It has the same internal components as the original, and how it works hasn’t changed. The 3DS and 3DS XL are identical in every other way, so if available games, software updates, the operating system, or anything else stopped you from buying the console, none of that has changed, nor will they change for at least another year. That means the browser is still awful, the camera is still nearly useless, download speeds and data transfers are slower than ten year old laptops, and any function on the 3DS that you can do with a smartphone should be put in a folder and stored away in the darkest recess of the console.
For me, the experience between the 3DS and 3DS XL is night and day when it comes to 3D gameplay. The combined changes make it worthwhile for me to bring it along on trips, along with a smartphone, tablet, and laptop. Because the reality is that while phones and tablets may be the future for gaming, dedicated consoles like the 3DS employ full gamepads, generally better games, and better support for those games. The day will come when that changes, but until it does, the 3DS XL is an excellent portable game console to own. And for only $30 more than the original 3DS at $200, it’s not a bad deal either.
Bottom Line: A huge improvement over the 3DS for 3D gaming and battery life.
- Improved 3D performance through the larger screen size
- Improved battery life
- Improved buttons and overall feel
- A solid portable game console with a lot of available past and present games
- It fits in the pocket, but barely; Kids might not like the larger size
- Display resolution looks worse, more pixelated
- Difficult to recommend over an iPad or smartphones