Update: Check out our hands-on video at the end of the post.
Nintendo has launched its newest entry into the portable gaming market: the 3DS ($250), a handheld console that offers a glasses-free gaming experience. Consumer Reports purchased a 3DS to find out just how well it brings three-dimensionality to portable gaming.
We do have some issues with the 3D effect, and the 3DS is more expensive than the previous-generation DSi. But the 3DS is engaging for 3D play and has some real pluses for 2D gaming, too.
The 3D effect
If you're familiar with the Nintendo DSi (the most recent generation of the DS), you'll see an immediate resemblance between the two devices. The 3DS has a similar design and is almost the same proportionally as the DSi. But once the 3DS is flipped open, it's clear that this is a brand-new gaming experience.
First, the caveats: In the 3DS menu, you'll see an icon that leads to, among other warnings (eyestrain, motion sickness): "3D feature only for children 7 and over." Also recommended is taking a 10-to-15-minute break every hour--or every half hour when you're using the 3D feature--but that may not be very realistic: Gamers tend to get absorbed into their games. After playing for several hours, we felt no ill effects, but you'll have to discover for yourself whether you're vulnerable to them.
The 3D content on screen looks great, but it does take some getting used to. To get the effect, you need to hold the device about a foot away from your face and keep the screen perfectly flat in relation to your eyes.
We found it difficult to find and keep the "sweet spot," especially since moving the device is encouraged in some games. When we tilted the screen even slightly off angle, the effect was disorienting. Finding the sweet spot got easier after playing for a few hours, but we still had to be careful when holding the device so we didn't lose it.
The 3D Depth Slider control can help to alleviate this problem by giving you the option of reducing the 3D effect. This may even be preferable in some types of games: For example, in Super Street Fighter 4 3D Edition, you don't need to move in three dimensions within the game, so you may not need that much depth.
While you won't be blown away by the overall graphics on the 3DS, it is definitely an improvement over previous DS versions. And bear in mind that the 3D experience will vary from game to game, according to how each individual game developer has implemented the technology.
The 3DS, at 2.9 by 5.3 by 0.8 inches (HWD) and around 8 ounces, is a little bulky for most pockets but easy to carry in a backpack. It comes in two colors: Aqua Blue and Cosmo Black.
Nintendo has added a Circle Pad to the 3DS, which serves the purpose of a joystick. It’s similar to the pad Sony uses on the PSP, but it's a bit more comfortable on the thumb. To accommodate this addition, the + Control Pad has been moved down and can now be a bit uncomfortable to use. This is especially noticeable when playing older DS titles, because the Slide Pad is not compatible with them—so you must use the + Control Pad for those games.
The 3DS has three cameras: One is front-facing, and the other two face to the rear and can be used to take 3D photos. The quality of the photos isn't great, so you'll probably find yourself using this for play more than as a replacement for your digital camera. Note that the 3DS's 3D photos are viewable only on the 3DS (not on other 3D screens).
The most exciting use of the cameras, though, is for "augmented reality" gaming. The system comes with six "AR Cards." Five of them feature a different Nintendo character, and the card with a question mark on its face is used to start off your AR gaming. When it's placed on a table and displayed through the camera on the 3DS, a new virtual world opens up right on your real-world tabletop.
Augmented-reality game titles let you see more of the in-game world by moving the 3DS around the card. In Archery, for example, you shoot at targets on the screen. What makes it especially fun is that some of the targets are hidden and can be seen only when you move the 3DS around to see different parts of the 3D model. But as I mentioned earlier, one drawback to this type of gaming is that you have to be careful to keep the screen on axis, or you could lose the 3D effect.
The other five cards allow you to view 3D "action figures" of the pictured character on your 3DS; you can pose them, move them around, and take pictures of them in your real-life environment (as in the photo below).
Also in the augmented-reality realm is a preinstalled game called Face Raiders: You take photos of your face and your friends' faces, and these are transformed into virtual onscreen characters. You aim around the real world through the 3DS cameras and shoot at the virtual characters.
Claimed battery life for the 3DS is 3 to 5 hours when you're playing a game. On thing to bear in mind is that resource-intensive games can drain your battery faster; to alleviate this, you may want to turn down the screen brightness level when playing those games.
To test the 3DS, we played Super Street Fighter 4 3D Edition and Pilotwings Resort, games made to work in 3D. Currently, around 15 3D game titles are available now, with more to come. The 3DS is backward-compatible with DS titles but not with older Gameboy/Gameboy Advance titles. (Pre-3DS games will not appear in 3D, of course.)
"Mii" gaming avatars make their return on the 3DS: You can import Miis you have already created on a Nintendo Wii or create new ones using the front-facing camera on the 3DS.
The 3DS can also play 3D movies, and content will be available over the Internet. It comes with built-in Wi-Fi capability, which can be used for gaming online with friends, among other things, and a full Web browser (which isn't active yet, but will be through a future update). Video streaming may also be added via an update.
An additional feature called SpotPass allows the 3DS to search for Wi-Fi hotspots and automatically download content while the device is in sleep mode or actively playing a game. Similarly, a feature called StreetPass automatically trades gaming information (such as your Mii) with other 3DS users in your area. These features can, of course, be deactivated.
Other features of the 3DS include an activity log that tracks which titles you have played and for how long. It also serves as a pedometer of sorts, tracking how many steps you've taken with the device in your pocket. Your walking is rewarded with Play Coins that can be used for compatible game content.
You can use the 3DS to send messages to registered friends between your 3DS devices. And the device has a Nintendo eShop service: Older games will be available for download, similar to the Virtual Console for Wii.
The 3DS, despite the limitations of the 3D screen, is a great handheld gaming device. Even in 2D, the games have a distinct visual advantage over games on older DS systems. At $250, the 3DS certainly isn't cheap (and average games cost around $40). But you are getting a lot for your money, including many games and features out of the box. With its combination of the familiar gaming features that made the DS such an innovative device and new features that will surely grab your attention, the 3DS is a fun and worthwhile experience for gamers of all ages.