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In Portable Gaming, Nintendo 3DS XL Proves Bigger Is Better

Bad news: My productivity went down — way down — this week. Good news: I’m getting pretty far in Super Mario Bros. 2.

There’s a reason I don’t allow myself to keep a gaming console and videogames in my house, and I was reminded of that as I logged some serious hours with the Nintendo 3DS XL.

This $200 portable gaming device offers a 3-D gaming experience without the need for special glasses. It improves on the company’s previous model, the 3DS, with larger screens that make it easier to view and interact with the content, but it still has limitations, including low-resolution screens and limited 3-D viewing angles. Plus, the 3DS XL’s extra features, including the 3-D camera and Internet browser, aren’t that great.

Nintendo’s handheld also faces competition from Sony’s PlayStation Vita. That portable gaming system lacks 3-D, and costs $50 to $100 more than the 3DS XL, depending on if you get the Wi-Fi or cellular version, but it includes a higher-resolution screen and more processing power, which might appeal to the more serious gamer.

But for people like me who simply want a more robust gaming experience than what a smartphone offers, the 3DS XL is incredibly fun and addictive.

The 3DS XL is about the size of a small paperback book and weighs just under a pound. It features rounded edges, so it easily slips into a bag or jacket pocket, and feels comfortable to hold in both hands.

The clamshell device features dual displays, which Nintendo touts as being 90 percent larger than the previous Nintendo 3DS. The top non-touch display on the XL measures 4.88 inches diagonally, and the bottom touchscreen measures 4.18 inches, while the 3DS’s screens measure 3.53 inches and 3.02 inches, respectively. The PS Vita has a single five-inch touchscreen with a 960 by 544 pixel resolution.

When I borrowed a friend’s 3DS, my eyes strained a bit to take in all the details of a game. For example, I was playing Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, a charming puzzle game that’s filled with great visuals as you travel through a fictional city called Monte d’Or. But it felt very cramped on the 3DS display, and I really had to focus to see some of the details of the background buildings, whereas the viewing experience on the 3DS XL was easier on the eyes.

That said, the larger bottom screen felt like the bigger luxury. The top display is used primarily to show you the game play, whereas the bottom screen allows you to control and select certain functions using touch. But that wasn’t always easy with the 3DS’s smaller screen, and I often had to use the included stylus. With the 3DS XL, I could just use my fingertip, which was more convenient.

Unfortunately, Nintendo didn’t increase the resolution of the screens along with the size. The top display has a resolution of 800 by 240 pixels, and the bottom has a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. When blown up on the larger screens, the pixels are more noticeable, so images and text don’t look particularly sharp or smooth. The 3DS XL’s displays were still clear and bright enough that I could see them, but it’s an adjustment, coming from the higher-resolution screens found on today’s smartphones.

The 3-D effect is not the same 3-D you’d experience at the movies. Instead of objects flying off the screen, the 3DS XL creates an effect where parts of the image go deeper into the background while some items remain in the foreground to create the illusion of 3-D. It’s a pretty neat trick, though it works better on some games than others. 

For example, I thought it was better integrated on Super Mario Bros. 2 than on Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask. With the latter, there were certain scenes where the 3-D looked like a muddled mess. In those cases, there is a slider switch to the right of the top display that allows you to adjust the depth of the 3-D, or completely turn it off.

I was worried about getting a headache or feeling dizzy from the 3-D, but, surprisingly, I never felt sick the entire time I used the 3DS XL. It did take a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the 3-D, and you do have to look at the screen straight on to see the effect. If you move your head or the handheld, you lose the 3-D image. 

Game play was a lot of fun. Some might wonder, “Why not just play games on your smartphone?” But having dedicated control buttons really makes a difference.

In the past, I downloaded several games to my iPhone, such as Mega Man II, but abandoned them after a few tries because maneuvering characters and completing actions using the onscreen touch controls was too hard. But the 3DS XL has a circle pad, a directional pad and four control buttons, and they all make game play so much easier, whether I was trying to run, jump or shoot.

This is part of the reason why I could play Super Mario Bros. 2 for so long. After about five hours of play (not continuous), the battery called “game over” and needed a recharge.

Games are available as traditional cartridges, and range in price between $10 and $40, or you can purchase and download them over Wi-Fi right on the device, through the Nintendo eShop. I just about passed out from excitement when I saw The Legend of Zelda in the catalog, and readily paid the $5 to relive one of my favorite childhood videogames.

In addition to games, the eShop offers apps and 3-D videos, and downloaded content is saved on the preloaded four gigabyte SD card. Also, if you have one of Nintendo’s older DS, DSi or 3DS models, most games are compatible with the 3DS XL, but DS and DSi games will be displayed in 2-D.

The 3DS XL is more than just a gaming handheld. It’s equipped with three cameras — the two on the front cover can capture 3-D images, and there’s one above the top display. But with a resolution of just 0.3 megapixels each, the picture quality is pretty poor.

The device also offers a basic Internet browser, but I would only use it out of desperation. Web sites, including Web-based email, don’t scale very well on the screens, and it requires a lot of zooming to be able to read text. There’s no Facebook or Twitter integration, but Nintendo includes its own social feature that lets you connect with other 3DS players.

If you’re looking to level up your game play beyond what’s offered by your smartphone, the Nintendo 3DS XL makes a fun companion.

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— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik