ZU reviews the DSi XL - is it worthy of the DS name?

The DSi XL is a strange beast. It’s been out in Japan for a few months, out in Europe for a few days, and has yet to be unleashed upon the good ol’ USA. The DSi XL is, for lack of any better words, a larger DSi. But we’re not talking about a small size increase – XL really does mean “extra large” in the case of the DSi XL. And, for Nintendo, it’s an indicator of the company’s health: The DSi XL is a hit-or-miss type of device, and Nintendo has been profitable enough with its current lineup of DS consoles, as well as with the Wii, to be able to afford the production of such a device.

But what do those giant screens really do for your games – and is this console really worth the $190 asking price for those screens alone? And, more importantly, is the DSi XL a signal of things to come from Nintendo? Hit the jump to find out.

Video Review

A Background to Big Screens

Before I even begin, I want to say that although I’ve included a ton of pictures in an attempt to show the scale and resolution of the DSi XL, it doesn’t really do it justice. You’ll have to wait and get it in your hands to really get a feel for the size and pixel density of these screens. But hopefully this review will provide a good perspective on the console regardless.

DSi XL sized up against the iPhone.

This is no time to mince words: The DSi XL has 4.2 inch diagonal screens. By comparison, the iPhone has a 3.5 inch widescreen display. However, screen size isn’t all that matters here – let’s, for a moment, talk about the technical side of things. In the world of screens, displays, monitors and what have you, the big deal is resolution, or how many pixels – those square dots – are on a given display. The amount of pixels you see for every inch of display is referred to as the display’s PPI, or Pixels Per Inch – this is also referred to as a display’s “pixel density”, or how many pixels are packed into a given amount of space.

Let’s say I have two screens, both one inch by one inch. One has a resolution of 100 by 100 pixels, the other 200 by 200 pixels. You probably would rather use the second display; it can show more stuff. And because more pixels are fitting into the same size space, the pixel density is higher – this means that each pixel is smaller, so you get less of a “pixelated” effect. Things don’t look like they’re made of dots as much when the dots are so small.

Well, for years, the trend of the display industry and technology manufacturers has been, universally, to increase display size while also increasing pixel density. This is how you end up with 27-inch monitors today that go over HD resolution, and why ten years ago you were probably using a 20-inch (or 15-inch) monitor with a resolution like 1024 by 768, or even 800 by 600 pixels.

You can see the difference in resolution between screens with low and high pixel density.

Nintendo’s handheld consoles – the former Game Boy series – had incredibly low pixel density. You can probably recall seeing each dot on the screen; game sprites looked like sprites. You could also probably see the lines in between each pixel, especially on the original black and white Game Boys.

As Nintendo evolved its handheld line, it always increased screen resolution ever so slightly (except in the case of the Game Boy Color), and also increased the pixel density of its displays so that the console would continue to fit in your pocket.

Even then, Nintendo’s handhelds have never been pixel-pushing monsters. They’ve always been decidedly low-resolution, much like how the Wii remains without HD output today. In comparison to the PSP, the Nintendo DS system is pushing a small amount of pixels. On a modern monitor, Game Boy and GBA games look ridiculously tiny. DS games aren’t much different; the number of pixels on each DS screen isn’t spectacular, and is only subtly increased from the GBA’s screen.

Let’s put that in perspective: Sega Genesis games ran at a higher resolution than today’s DS games. If you tried to run a Sega Genesis game on your DS, it would need to slide over to the second screen to fit. The N64? It ran at double that. Super Mario 64 DS is running at a paltry resolution compared to the original game.

So, we’ve established that the DS has quite low pixel density. Previously, the DS, DS Lite and DSi consoles all had screens ranging from 3 inches to 3.2 inches diagonally, and all of them have a resolution of 256 by 192 pixels, per screen. (That’s smaller than, say, most forum signatures.)

The DSi XL's screens versus the DS Lite's puny displays.

The DSi XL jumps the screen sizes from 3.2 to a whopping 4.2 inches diagonally. but here’s the caveat: The pixel density decreases dramatically. The screens are still the same 256 by 192 pixels. If you missed the blocky screens of the old Game Boy Color days, say hello to them once again!

Now, the iPhone has a very high pixel density, and when Apple makes screens bigger, they usually increase pixel density instead of decrease it. Nintendo has taken a path that is decidedly against that of the entire electronics industry by producing a unit that has both a larger screen and lower pixel density than the model before it.

So you might think: What gives? Is Nintendo screwing us over? There’s no benefit to the larger screens if they don’t show any more detail! And aren’t they sacrificing the portability of their, well, portable console?

Well, you’re right and wrong. So let’s look at the benefits of having a larger screen, shall we?

Why We Need Big Screens

The screen is the most sharable ever, and can be seen from across the room.

It’s no secret: The DS is a communal console. Nintendo has gotten far more social over the years, and its entrance into the casual market has taught it something important: people like to play together. And, for the most part, people also do not care about technical details like pixel density to the point where they don’t notice the blockiness too much. This makes the DSi XL a perfect complement to Nintendo’s new target demographic.

The quality of the screen is above and beyond any previous display Nintendo has shipped. The DSi’s screen is comparable, but it’s to be kept to yourself – the DSi’s screens can be seen by another participant from far away. And the screen is large and touchable; you’ll want to get your hands on it. Since the DSi, Nintendo has greatly improved the accuracy and sensitivity of its touch screens. It’s a joy to use and draw on, and it’s remarkably precise for a resistive screen (where you have to physically push on the display for it to register a touch, as opposed to a capacitive touch screen like most mobile phones use).

The resulting combination makes it the most fun DS I’ve ever used. Barring technical issues with the handheld, the big screens make a huge difference in usability. Going back to the DS Lite, or even a DSi, feels awkward – the screens are too small to use! How can I draw on something so tiny? How can I play Spirit Tracks on a screen like that?

The large screens also affect gameplay in another significant way: even with the blockiness, games feel immediately more immersive than they did on any previous DS console, and that’s most likely just because they’re now more in-your-face than they used to be. And that’s a good thing; when I looked at the introduction sequence to Spirit Tracks, I could swear the two screens were a two-paned window into Hyrule, just because they were so big. For the first time, I was able to notice the two screens really working together coherently as if they were one.

Usually, you notice a gross perspective “gap” between the two screens. But on the DSi XL, that effect doesn’t hit you so much – the screens finally look congruent, even if the stuff displayed on each screen is the same as it was before.

If you’re playing a game that requires touch, you need this size screen. Kirby: Canvas Curse has become the most enjoyable game in my library after getting the DSi XL. And my little brother can watch from several feet away, without seeing any color distortion. These are large, high quality displays, and you won’t regret having them for a second.

Why We Need Higher Resolution

Bigger isn't necessarily better. The DS console series needs a refresh with higher resolution screens.

And yet, the DSi XL feels like a problem child. I love the big screens with all my heart, but there’s something really wrong here, and that’s the resolution of the device. I know that the DS is a more capable machine than the Nintendo 64, so I know it’s capable of pushing a few more pixels. Perhaps not much more – and perhaps that’s why it’s high time for the DS 2, or whatever Nintendo’s naming division will call it.

But the low pixel density of the DSi is bothersome, and it detracts from the gameplay experience. It’s understandable that, with the DS name, Nintendo would not suddenly raise the resolution of its console. Developers like developing for a single resolution – it makes things easier when you get the same thing on every DS. But the DSi is a return to the pixel densities of the Game Boy Color era.

It's easy to spot each pixel - and even each sub-pixel - in this low resolution display.

What I’m trying to say is… you can see the gaps between each pixel. And those lines in between the pixels, they affect the quality of the image on the screen – in fact, the entire display appears darker than the DS Lite’s display. It’s actually brighter, but you wouldn’t know it with all those dark lines between the pixels. In addition, the pixels are so big that you can see how each one splits into it’s R, G and B subcomponents. So some pixels look like they’re two colors, but really they’re supposed to be displaying one.

What that means is that, with a lot of richer colors, you get something that looks like pinstripes. This effect gets hidden when pixels are smaller because your eye just blends the stripes of color together, but when the pixels are this large, it’s quite noticeable.

Now, after a while you get used to it. Playing for hours on end, I can honestly say that I could have cared less after the third or fourth hour of gameplay. But when I compare the DS Lite and DSi XL side-by-side, the sharpness of the DS Lite is what I really want in a display. In fact, I’d much rather have the PPI of the iPhone, which sports a 320 by 480 pixel display in 3.5 inches, or that of the Droid, an insane 480 by 800 pixels in the same space, while retaining the wonderful screen size of the DSi XL. To have both sharpness and screen size, simultaneously, is probably nothing but a forlorn dream.

It’s hard to give up the big screens, though, and return to the DS Lite. It’s difficult to deny that the big screens are just more fun. I’d rather use them, even if the picture isn’t as sharp.

Build Quality, Construction, Yada Yada

The DSi XL is so similar to the DSi, that there’s really no use talking about the “revamped” software that’s appeared since the DS Lite – it’s exactly the same as the DSi’s software. There is absolutely no difference between the DSi and the DSi XL other than the screen size. However, there is quite a difference in build quality.

The DSi XL is Nintendo’s sturdiest-feeling DS yet. The glossy top and matte bottom really feel like quality stuff, though the top is heaven for scratches and fingerprints. The plastic feels soft, so I wouldn’t even take your fingernail to it – there doesn’t appear to be any type of scratch-resistive coating on the device.

The bottom feels good in your hand when playing. After using the DS Lite for two years, it’s good to finally be able to grip the device tight. And without the GBA slot, the whole device feels much thinner. More thickness is given to the top screen and less to the bottom control area than on the DS Lite, so the entire structure just feels sturdier and sleeker.

I’m also a much bigger fan of the DSi XL’s design than the DSi’s – I felt the transition to matte only was a design misstep and reduced the device’s “sexiness” by quite a bit. I felt like I was looking at an early 2000’s computer peripheral. The DSi XL is sleek, even if it’s large.

All in all, this is really a sturdy device. The only noticeable build quality issue I found was that, two generations later, the clamshell still wobbles when you shake it. Shake the DSi XL back and forth, and that top screen will wobble quite a bit. Nintendo needs to work on its hinges. Other than that, I’m really impressed by the build quality of what is essentially a child’s play thing. Usually you only see this kind of quality on top of the line devices.

It’s no surprise that Nintendo is getting better at building things – it’s been taking a neat page from Apple’s book of design, and it doesn’t seem at all shameful about it. But if there’s one thing Apple is known for, it’s ridiculous build quality. Nintendo is stepping up their game with the DSi XL, and I can only expect the DS 2 to be even better.

The Purpose of the DSi XL

The DSi XL is huge. But that's about it.

Why does the DSi XL exist? It only fits in the largest of pockets (but yes, it does fit in them, I promise), so it isn’t the most portable console ever released, and the screens aren’t any higher resolution than its predecessors. Why would you ever spend extra money on this device when you can get a device that is virtually similar in every way, save for its size, for less money?

Well, I can’t answer that question. Nintendo has taken a strange direction with its consoles in general, and it’s my personal belief that we aren’t the ones who Nintendo is trying to appeal to anymore (“we” being the collective of Nintendo’s more “hardcore” fans). So if you see no appeal in the large screens, you’ve made your decision – don’t get this console.

If you see merit in large screens, as I certainly do, then spring for the DSi XL. The fact that there is no difference between the DSi and the XL means that you have a very easy choice; you don’t lose or gain anything significant by picking one or the other. One has higher pixel density. The other has larger screens. Both have merit.

So, why did Nintendo even bother making this “update” to the DSi? A part of me keeps thinking that Nintendo created the DSi XL simply because it could – it’s got oodles of cash in the bank, enough to run an experiment like this and see how much it can push its customer base to buy things. And it looks like its working.

The DSi XL had the potential, and even the reason, to be a total flop, but so far has been selling like hotcakes. It’s the same reason the iPad is going to sell so well – because it caters to a more casual audience. The people who don’t care about resolution and just want something bigger, easier to hold and easier to share.

The future is communal gaming, and the DSi XL is the start of that. The Wii was the start of that. The days of the gamer sitting in his or her room playing alone are disappearing fast – and while there will probably always be remnants of those days as people need to unwind by themselves, I’m confident that Nintendo will continue to push the industry to where the real money is: People gaming with other people.

The DSi XL is a great console, and has the highest quality display ever seen in a Nintendo handheld device. Portability is sacrificed slightly, but there’s no question: If you want big screens that are fun to draw on, this is the console to get. If you prefer a sharper, crisper gaming experience, and resolution and PPI matter to you, get the DSi and do yourself a favor.

I’m personally convinced that having the bigger screens makes up for the low PPI – if they were any bigger, I’d probably disagree. But, after hours and hours of fun on the DSi XL, I think it’s a healthy balance between awesome largeness, and acceptable resolution, and drives the DS console forward to a bigger, brighter future (pun intended).

The DSi is set to hit US shelves on March 28th. If you’re one of our friends in Europe, you can already go out and get it.

Special thanks to dsi-xl.co.uk for supplying us with an imported DSi LL!