Let’s not beat around the bush here: Even with the 3D screen switched off, the 3DS is not an incremental update in the DS line of handhelds. This is thanks to the new hardware under the hood, which Nintendo has yet to officially reveal to the world. We know there is a 200 MHz-400 MHz DMP PICA200 graphics processor in the 3DS, but the CPU is a big question mark. Based on rumors over the last several months, the 3DS might be packing dual ARM 11 chips, with each running at 266 MHz. That’s twice as fast as the DSi, and over quadruple the speed of the DS and DS Lite.
Regardless of what actually lies within, gameplay on the 3DS is extremely smooth in most cases. The only time the framerate tends to drop is when Augmented Reality comes into play. When playing Face Raiders and AR Cards, the image would chug a little during the most intense part of the levels. This might simply be a software issue, however, so hopefully a firmware update can bring the same smoothness we saw in Super Street Fighter IV to AR titles.
Despite the added horsepower under the hood, the 3DS uses the same cameras that it did in the DSi and DSI XL. That means all three cameras (one front-facing, dual cameras on the back) are VGA (0.3 MP). This is perfectly fine for when you need to use the cameras with an AR game, or to take a photo to use with Mii creation (more on those later), but when you’re simply taking photos – 2D or 3D – the cameras are downright awful. We weren’t expecting some sort of groundbreaking HD camera system, or a 5 megapixel sensor…but an incremental bump to 1.3 or 3 megapixels would have been nice.
As for the screens on the 3DS, much has changed since the DS Lite and DSi. The bottom panel is a 3-inch resistive touchscreen LCD, with a resolution of 320x240. This is quite the bump up from the touchscreens on the DS Lite and DSi, which while the same same size only had a resolution of 256x192. The top screen is a big departure from handhelds of old, coming in at 3.53 inches with a total resolution of 800x240…or 400x240 for each eye. To put it another way: The DS, DS Lite and DSi all had 98,304 effective pixels, while the 3DS has 268,800 effective pixels, or a 273 percent increase. The top screen is where most of the action happens – just like other DS consoles – and the display certainly does 3DS titles justice.
Let’s go back to the buttons; the biggest additions on the 3DS are the analog stick (called the “Circle Pad” and what we like to call the “Home Bar”. The Circle Pad is an analog joystick for handheld consoles, and it works in the same way as the analog “stick” on Sony’s PlayStation Portable. The Circle Pad works very well with the games we tested, but you might find yourself using the D-Pad for older DS games simply because you’re already used to it (MarioKart DS, for example). The Home Bar lies beneath the bottom screen, and has three different functions: Start, Select and Home. The first two are self-explanatory for any gamer, while the Home button functions similarly to the same button found on a Wii Remote. The Home button with pause whatever game or application you have open and bring you back to the console’s main menu. Other buttons include a dedicated WiFi switch, that 3D slider (more on that later) and a volume slider.
The 3DS still uses game cartridges, but there is one major departure compared to older DS handhelds: storage. Save data used to be stored on the game cartridge itself, but the 3DS employs an SD card for both media and game save data. While you won’t be able to pop your LEGO Star Wars III cart into a friend’s 3DS and pull up your own save files, it does make data backups that much easier. Plus, if you ever lose a 3DS game (and since they’re barely bigger than a quarter, chances are you might at some point), at least you’ll still have your save files for when you replace the game.
Nintendo includes a 2 GB SD card for data storage, and so far that has proven to be more than sufficient. Feel free to upgrade to larger card if you have one lying around, but we still have plenty of room left despite save files for six different games, a bunch of 3D photos, and some audio recording.
Nintendo has also included an accelerometer and a gyroscope, both of which come into game-play frequently.