Nintendo DSi Hands-On

We spend some hands-on time with Nintendo's new DSi. Find out about the system's new features and see how the portable compares to the DS Lite!

Nintendo DSi

The Nintendo DSi will finally hit American soil. Japanese gamers got to play with the DSi last November, and they've been gobbling it up since. The DSi marks the third incarnation of the DS and is probably the most drastic change to date. Nintendo's upcoming handheld system includes new hardware functionality, new software, and an updated menu system, in addition to several physical design changes. The Nintendo DSi will arrive in black and blue flavors on April 5 with an MSRP of $169.99.

DS Lite (top) and DSi (bottom) Stacked bottom Stacked right Stacked top Stacked left

We'll start with the DSi's cosmetic changes, because that's what everyone will see before cracking the clamshell open. One significant change that doesn't pop out in photographs is the system's new paint job. Our matte black DSi has a grainy textured surface far different from the slick plastic exterior on the DS Lite. The material feels similar to the inside surface surrounding each screen on the DS Lite, but it's grittier.

The DSi is thinner than the DS Lite, but the new portable is also slightly longer and wider, so don't expect it to slide into your front pocket any easier. The top edge of the system reveals redesigned shoulder buttons and a new AC power adapter port shape, which instantly makes all of your backup power adapters obsolete. The DS Lite's shoulder buttons sit flush with the top of the system, but the DSi's buttons protrude out, making them easier to press.

DSi D pad DS Lite D pad DSi buttons DS Lite buttons

We noticed that the directional pad and buttons on our DSi sit lower compared to the controls on the DS Lite. We haven't spent enough time with the system to decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing yet, but we did notice that the change made powersliding easier in Mario Kart because you don't need to press the D pad down as much while rocking left and right.

You'll find the new SD memory card slot on the right-hand side of the portable where the power slider used to be located. The SD card will be used to store pictures, AAC music files, and software downloaded from the online DSi Shop--basically anything that can't fit on the system's 256MB internal memory. Both SD and SDHC memory cards work on the DSi. The power button is now located inside the DSi near the lower-left area of the touch screen. The button is fairly stiff, so there's little risk of accidentally turning off the system midgame. Tapping the power button will take you back to the home menu, and holding it down will shut down the unit.

Voice Recording and Music Playback

We copied a few AAC songs onto an SD memory card to test out the DSi media player. The software lets you record and play around with voice recordings in addition to playing music from your SD card.

Menu application Voice recorder or SD playback Soundboard Speed and pitch Sound filters

The voice recorder lets you save up to 18 individual 10-second sound clips using the system's internal microphone. The program also lets you modify the audio during playback. One feature lets you speed up or slow down the playback and raise or lower the pitch in real time. Another applies separate noise filters to the audio output. For example, a parrot filter makes your voice sound like a parrot, a fan filter chops up the audio to make it sound like you're talking into a fan, a harmony filter makes it sound like there's more than one person talking, and a trumpet filter translates the recorded audio into trumpet notes. Tapping on each filter again activates other filter options. Hitting the parrot option a few times will reveal a robot voice and a helium voice.

The other half of the media program is dedicated to playing songs from the SD memory card. The audio visualizer runs across the top display. You can cycle through the visualization themes by pressing up and down on the D pad. The DSi also adds a few interactive elements to the music playback experience.

You can add your own sounds, such as drum beats, claps, or even Mario jumping noises, while listening to the music by hitting the left and right shoulder buttons. The music playback menu has several audio manipulation features similar to the ones we encountered with the voice recorder, such as the pitch and speed adjustment chart, as well as a collection of audio filters. The default music playback filters include a radio option that gives the music a hollow-radio sound, a karaoke option that attempts to remove any voices from the track, an echo option, and an 8-bit selection that translates the song into 8-bit gaming sounds. As with the voice recorder filters, you can tap the default selections to reveal more filter modes. The music playback has one additional menu option that lets you play back recordings saved to your personal soundboard while the music is playing.

DSi Power Interior camera Headset Volume Exterior camera and SD slot

The bottom of the DSi is quite clean with just a headset port. The volume slider has moved from the bottom of the case to the left side, and the interface has transformed into a two-button, volume-up volume-down mechanism. Adjusting the volume takes a little longer, but now you won't go deaf if you inadvertently bump the bottom edge of the system where the slider used to sit. The Game Boy Advance cartridge slot has also been retired, which means that the new system isn't backward-compatible with GBA games, and accessories that use the GBA slot no longer have a home. Hold on to your DS Lite if you're attached to that Guitar Hero: On Tour grip.

Opening up the case reveals the DSi's two upgraded LCD screens. The new screens measure 3.25 inches across diagonally compared to 3 inches for the DS Lite and the original DS. The screens also come with a fifth brightness setting that reduces battery life down to three to four hours according to Nintendo. The DSi actually has fewer hours of battery life at all brightness levels--likely due to the larger screens and a smaller internal battery. The DSi has only an 840mAh battery compared to 1,000mAh for the DS Lite.

For the folks who forget to recharge their consoles, you'll be able to change brightness settings to increase battery life without having to reset the console anymore. With the original DS and DS Lite, you'd have to restart the console to access the brightness setting. The DSi lets you quickly increase or decrease the brightness of the screens by holding down select and hitting the volume buttons.

The Cameras and Picture Editing

The Nintendo DSi comes with two built-in cameras. One camera, located in the top cover, is designed to point outward, while the second camera, sitting on the inner hinge next to the microphone, points right at you. The DSi comes with new camera software that lets you take and save pictures on your system. The resolution for both cameras isn't very high at 640x480, but it's enough for the DSi display screens.

Hitting the left or right shoulder buttons from the menu screen takes you into snapshot mode, where you can take pictures. A button in the lower right corner of the touch screen lets you swap between the inward- and outward-facing cameras. You can also take pictures from within the camera software.

Chris loves Call of Duty Shanker loves Kobe Kaleidoscope Kitty Yu! Distortion lens

The software gives you several photo editing options that can make manipulating images even more fun than taking them. The editing options run along the top of the screen, making it easy to jump to each effects menu while working on a picture. The draw option lets you free-write on pictures and add premade graphics, such as hearts, stars, or chat bubbles.

Other menu options allow you to distort the image, add a Mario mask, adjust the tint, and add kaleidoscope effects. The software can also locate faces automatically. One feature lets you add graphics, such as a mustache, cat ears (with whiskers), or sunglasses, on a face that will track the subject as he or she moves around the screen. A second option lets you take pictures of two people and morph them together. However, the morphing effect looks more like a dissolve wipe video cut than an actual A-to-B morphing sequence.

DS card Camera DSiShop DS Download Play PictoChat

The DSi's new menu system considerably improves on the original. By default you'll boot into the menu screen, and from there you'll initially be able to choose between Settings, DS card, Camera, Music, DSi Shop, Network, and PictoChat. You can use the touch screen to scroll left or right along the menu and rearrange the layout by dragging around the icons with the stylus. System menus and programs each get their own spot on the menu bar similar to how programs get their own Wii channel slots on the Wii. New programs will appear on the menu as they're installed. The menu comes populated with Settings, DS card, Camera, Music, DSi Shop, Network, and PictoChat. Swapping games in and out is also easier now because you don't have to power off the system. New games will automatically appear in the DS card area in the system menu. The DSi supports both WEP and WPA security over Wi-Fi.

DSi Shop

Inside of the DSi Shop you'll find DSi Ware. DSi Ware encompasses both software and games for the Nintendo DSi. At launch, Nintendo will have five games in the DSi Shop: WarioWare: Snapped, Bird & Beans, Brain Age Express: Math, Master of Illusion Express: Funny Face, and Art Style: AQUIA. Nintendo will also have the Nintendo DSi Web browser powered by Opera available as a free download.

DSi Shop Shop Menu Free! 200 Points 500 Points 800+ Points Buy Points

You can purchase DSi Ware titles by using Nintendo DSi points. Nintendo DSi point cards will be sold in increments of 2,000 points with an MSRP of $19.99. Credit card users will be able to purchase points directly from the DSi Shop. All users will be given 1,000 free points if they log on to the DSi Shop by October 5, 2009. Software titles in the DSi Shop will be free or will cost 200, 500, or 800-plus points.

AQUIA WarioWare Master of Illuision Web Browser

At the 2009 Game Developers Conference, Nintendo let it slip that the company might release games specifically tailored to the DSi and allow developers to add extra functionality to games. Nintendo has already incorporated the use of the camera in the DSi Shop title WarioWare: Snapped. Whether the company will introduce DSi-specific advancements via DS cartridge-based games has yet to be seen.

DSi vs. DS Lite Load Times

A quick test of the DSi and DS Lite showed that the Lite boots games slightly faster than the DSi when coming from a fully powered-off state. We suspect that the added hardware and software requirements of the DSi give it a few more things to do. Since the DSi now supports the ability to hot swap cartridges, the cold boot time figure is pretty much thrown out the window. Loading from the DSi's menu screen almost cut the load time in half for Mario Kart DS, and shaved off a fair amount in GTA Chinatown Wars.

The Nintendo DSi brings an adequate blend of improvements and new features that deserve a look. Many of the minor improvements add up to make the DSi a worthy successor to the DS Lite. We've seen only the beginning for the DSi Shop, and its prospects seem bright. Through it, Nintendo could breathe life into many older games in much the same way WiiWare does for the Wii. Keep an eye out for the console on April 5.

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