It’s been just about two years since the damn near improbable happened: David beat Goliath. I’m not speaking Biblically, but figuratively. The David in question is a well known video game company that has lost mainstream appeal, and by extension, one of their flagship products is also a David of sorts. This product was the DS. Dual Screen or Developer System, take your pick, it was still a bizarre concept that had even me grumbling cynical remarks.
Goliath, on the other hand, was Sony’s Playstation Portable, a graphical giant that could play music, movies and maybe even do your taxes. It ran discs. It had Wifi internet at launch. Its graphics looked almost as good as Sony’s current-gen home console, the PS2. That in and of itself was one hell of a trick. In every conceivable way the homely, oddball little DS was inferior…all but one, that is. DS had the games, the addictive software and quality content that Nintendo was infamous for. Nintendo’s first party houses proved that the hardware concept worked, as strange as it seemed, and third party developers flocked to the DS. In the end, Nintendo just knew portables better than Sony. While Sony tried to cram the console experience into a pocket-sized box, Nintendo knew that an epic like Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t be too much fun on a bus.
The hardware worked, that much was clear, but Nintendo made such a dash to get their portable onto the market, they didn’t have a lot of time to polish the aesthetics. The DS had a face only a mother could love, one of the console’s main areas of criticism. With their foothold assured and the battle going well, Nintendo is ready to step back, take a look at the big picture and update the DS. The result is the difference between night and day.
Of course I’m talking about the DS Lite, the first hardware upgrade for the little handheld that could. I’d like to draw a parallel now: the Game Boy Advance. When the GBA came out around 2001 it to was somewhat revolutionary in its design and had a lot of developers talking, but the hardware just wasn’t up to snuff. The design, while garnering a cult fandom that had previously fallen in love with the taco-esque Game Gear, was admittedly rough around the edges, making the original GBA look more like a child’s toy than a serious game console. The GBA SP changed all that, with a few shortcomings; it wasn’t as comfortable and it lost the headphone jack. The brighter screen and smaller size seemed like a workable payoff, though.
With the DS Lite, there are no drawbacks, no exchanges. It is simply 110% better than the original DS (now dubbed the “DS Phat” by forum goers). One look at a comparison shot, and it’s clear that there was a lot to improve on.
The old DS has the distinct “video game” look. The silver finish, while novel, rubbed off easily and was more reminiscent of 80’s era electronics than modern class. The size and shape of the DS followed the hard-edged, semi-sophisticated look that drives tech geeks wild, but was not that attractive to mainstream consumers. The stylus was more akin to a toothpick, and resulted in hand cramp after about a half hour of play. The whole package was rather heavy and in the end the DS was somewhat intimidating to non-gamers.
For the DS Lite, Nintendo took a page or five from Apple’s book, and while I’m not a huge Mac fan, I admit that it worked wonders for the DS’s image. The shape of the new console is intentionally uniform, with no odd slants or curves, just slim, simple rectangular lines, rounded for sex appeal and comfort. Transparent plastic encases the Lite from stem to stern, protecting against scratches and lending a dream-like quality to the presentation. There definitely won’t be flaky paint problems any more.
One of the Lite’s main selling points is its compact size. Nintendo wasn’t kidding when they said “20% smaller”—I’d have to say that their estimate might have been a little conservative. Pulling the Lite out of the box was kind of an eye opener for me. I’d seen and touched a Lite at E3, but that one was anchored down and there were 100,000 fanboys screaming in the background. Actually turning it around in my hands, opening and closing it, that was when I finally got a feel for it. The raw dimensions are about as thick as the original DS’s bottom half, and two-thirds of an inch shorter length wise. The top half doesn’t have the top-heavy feeling anymore, and in keeping in line with the name, the Lite is much lighter and far more comfortable in extended play sessions. The thicker, longer stylus also lends itself to hours on Metroid Hunters, or marathon Pictochat sessions.
Speaking of which, let’s look at just how long you can play before that Li-Ion battery dries up. The DS Phat had an approximate battery life of 5-8 hours with the backlight on, 10-12 with it off. The Lite blows that away, with the lowest light setting affording 15-19 hours, while the highest setting is about 5-8 once again. I’ve yet to encounter any real drain problems; so as long as you charge your Lite every few days you shouldn’t run into any difficulties.
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