Aug. 16, 2012 at 5:06 PM ET
For the second time in its history, Nintendo has taken its handheld gaming gadget and blown it up to an extra large size. And for the second time, it looks like Nintendo has made a smart move.
The super-sized version of Nintendo's 3DS game machine -- the 3DS XL -- hits shelves Sunday. And like the Nintendo DSi XL (the embiggened version of the Nintendo DSi, which launched back in 2010) this extra large 3-D game machine proves that bigger really is better.
I've spent some time with the 3DS XL and I've found it to be a very solid gaming gadget, one that improves upon its diminutive sibling in small, smart ways, and that, for my needs, is the preferable version of the two gaming devices.
The 3DS is a dual-screen game machine that lets players see 3-D images on its top screen without having to wear funky 3-D glasses. I reviewed the original when it launched back in March, 2011, and at that time I came up with this list of what I loved and loathed about the gadget.
I'm revisiting that format here with the 3DS XL. What follows is a look at the highs and lows of the new (and I think improved) 3DS XL and a few things to consider when deciding whether to buy.
The bigger screens
Thee whole point of Nintendo's newest handheld game gadgets, is that they display your games in eye-popping 3-D. And it is here where the 3DS XL leaps past the original 3DS. The XL provides top and bottom screens that are 90 percent bigger than the original 3DS' screens (4.88 inches on the top and 4.18 inches on the bottom) .
And perhaps not surprisingly, this extra real estate means players get a much bigger and better view of the 3-D digital worlds before them. Indeed, once you've played a game on the 3DS XL, you really won't want to go back to the 3DS' smaller screen.
The down side of these bigger screens: The screen resolution has not been upgraded along with the screen size. But more on that below.
The sleek design
The 3DS XL delivers a really superb refresh to the 3DS's design. The boxier feel of the original is replaced by curvier, sleeker lines that both look better and feel better in your hands.
Meanwhile, though the screens are 90 percent bigger, the 3DS XL itself is, in fact, not all that much bigger than the original 3DS. Looking at the two devices stacked up (below), you can see that the XL probably won't fit conveniently in your pocket (unless you're a kangaroo ... or wearing cargo pants) but it really doesn't take up all that much more room.
And as an added improvement, the 3DS' glossy (and rather easily smudged and scuffed) finish has been replaced with a nice matte finish.
The 3DS XL comes pre-packaged with a 4 GB SD memory card, which is double what the 3DS comes with. That's a nice bonus considering that Nintendo is giving gamers the option of buying its traditionally cartridge-based games as digital downloads instead. For instance, when "New Super Mario Bros. 2" launches Sunday, you can pick it up in a store or download it to your 3DS' SD card from Nintendo's eShop.
Longer battery life
Nintendo says that the 3DS XL has an improved battery life of 3.5 to 6.5 hours (depending on what you're doing) compared to the 3 to 5 hours offered by the original 3DS. Doesn't sound like much, but more is better and I have noticed the difference.
The placement of a stylus holder wouldn't seem like a particularly vital thing. But if you're going to make a stylus an important part of your gadget's experience in these mostly-stylus-free days then it better be conveniently located. With the original 3DS, the telescoping stylus could be found in a hole in the back, left of 3DS. It was an awkward location and I often found myself fumbling to find it. And then, of course, I'd have to take the time to extend it to its full length.
With the 3DS XL, Nintendo has returned the stylus to where it was on the DSi, putting the single-piece pen right where it seems to belong: on the right side, where your hand is already resting. It seems like a small thing, but it's actually a noticeable improvement.
The lid hinge
When I reviewed the 3DS, I made note of the annoyingly floppy hinge. My top screen felt loose and didn't seem to want to stay in place as solidly as I would have liked it to. That's a problem since, if you want to see the 3-D images on the top screen you have to keep the screen aligned with your eyes properly. With the 3DS XL the clam shell lid has been tightened up and the top screen stays right where you want it to.
Despite the headline above, there's not much about the 3DS XL that I truly "hate." Except one thing ... or rather, three things: the cameras. There's no way to say it nicely: the three cameras on the Nintendo 3DS XL stink.
These cameras are the same as the cameras on the original 3DS. And sure, it's cool that the two outward-facing cameras let you capture 3-D snapshots of your friends. But those two cameras and the one inward-facing camera can only take .3 megapixel snapshots. Yes. POINT 3 megapixels. Talk about low-resolution. It's like Nintendo traveled back in time and grabbed digital cameras from a decade ago.
The pictures are grainy and uninspiring. One need only look at just how popular something like Instagram is to see just how photograph-obsessed we all are these days. Nintendo really missed an opportunity when it didn't improve the cameras on the 3DS XL.
Bigger screens ... same resolution
While the 3DS XL boasts beefed up screen sizes, the resolutions on the top and bottom screens have no extra beef. As with the 3DS, the top screen offers 800 x 240 resolution and the bottom a 320 × 240 display. Since the bigger screen size is such a boon to the 3-D experience, this isn't a deal breaker. But it's worth noting that the images seem ever-so-slightly watered down.
No second analog stick
It's a point of contention for the more hard-core gaming set: they like to have two analog sticks for controlling their games. Many had hoped the 3DS would come with two sticks. It did not. Likewise, the Nintendo 3DS XL also does not have a second stick. It seems a strange redesign omission, especially since Nintendo released a second-stick peripheral -- the Circle Pad Pro -- for the original 3DS.
Big for little hands
I'm a relatively small person and the Nintendo 3DS fits in my hands nicely. However, upon handing the biggie machine to my young son I could see that bigger and heavier (the 3DS XL is 11.1 ounces compared to the original's 8.1 ounces) could be awkward for some young gamers. And when it comes to a Nintendo machine there will be many, many young gamers wanting to hold this device.
This isn't necessarily a dis on the 3DS XL. It's just something to consider when choosing between size small and extra large.
No charging cradle
The original Nintendo 3DS came with a handy charging cradle bundled inside. This has been removed from the 3DS XL's package. It was a nice bonus and will be missed.
Nintendo struggled to find the right price for the 3DS when it launched -- originally slapping a hefty $250 price tag on it only to find itself forced by slow sales to slash that price to $170.
The 3DS XL is $30 more expensive than its smaller sibling at $200. With its bigger screens and bigger storage, the price increase is understandable. But it's still something to consider when you're deciding whether to buy the 3DS or the 3DS XL.
On the upside, the 3DS XL is still $50 to $100 cheaper than Sony's PlayStation Vita handheld gaming gadget, which itself is facing slow sales likely thanks, in part, to its price tag.
TO BUY ... OR NOT TO BUY?
If you haven't bought a 3DS then now is definitely the time and, I think, the 3DS XL is the way to go.
For starters, the library of 3-D games for the 3DS and 3DS XL has reached that critical point at which there are enough good games to justify the purchase -- especially for those who want more than the bite-sized games their smart phones offer.
For example, you've got not one but two 3-D Mario games -- "Super Mario 3D Land" and "New Super Mario Bros. 2" which launches along side the 3DS XL on Sunday. (Check out the reviews here and here). There's also "Kid Icarus: Uprising," "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D," "Mario Kart 7" and "Resident Evil: Revelations." And be sure to check out In-Game editor Todd Kenreck's video review of "LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars 3DS" (above).
Meanwhile, though you'll have to pay $30 more for the 3DS XL and you'll have to carry around a slightly bigger and heavier gadget, I think the combined improvements to the device's design are worth the money (if you have that money to spare) and the improved 3-D viewing experience makes the bigger form factor worth lugging around.
And as an interesting bonus, I've noticed in sharing the 3DS XL with my son, that the bigger screens make the gaming experience far more social.
That is, handheld game gadgets tend to offer solitary play experiences. But with the 3DS XL's larger screens, its easier to share the action with a second or third person sitting next to you. This is especially handy if you share the device with a child or are getting the device for a child (as many of you perhaps are). Large screens mean they can more easily watch you play and you can more easily watch them play. It's certainly a nicer way for siblings to wait their turn.
Yes, ultimately, bigger really is better.
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.