Over the past few weeks, we’ve started to see more and more information about Nintendo’s strongly anticipated sequel to the successful Nintendo DS. Obviously the big pull on the new handheld is its use of autostereoscopic 3D for a new way to play games. By all accounts, it works well and the games debuting with the system are strong (Ocarina of Time remake? Hells yeah!). However, that is not my only interest in the device. Ever since the announcement and thorough dissection of the Wii, Nintendo’s last home console, I have become fixated with the transition Nintendo has made in terms of their hardware. The Wii is, of course, the least powerful of the current generation console. According to specifications that are still not confirmed by Nintendo, the Wii is only about 50% faster than the Gamecube. Now, it has been over 4 years since the release of the Nintendo Wii, so complaining about its hardware now is nothing short of whining. That said, I have forever felt that Nintendo was irresponsibly short-sighted in the development of their hardware. Though they did not want to continue the graphics race with Sony and Microsoft, they still delivered a system that was marginally more powerful than their old console and endlessly limiting for developers. So the question remains: has Nintendo righted its previous wrongs?
The 3DS was a positive sign. The adoption of 3D technology meant that the device would need to render two images at once, thus needing stronger hardware. The graphics shown at E3 were a major jump from the DS into PSP and even last generation console quality. While there were few technical details, the use of DMP’s Pica200 GPU core showed that Nintendo now had a modern GPU running the show. Besides from that, all technical details remained silent. At least raw hardware specs. Tons of news on the system’s advanced networking software and OS stack have come to light, we’ve seen the product over and over, and the games themselves speak for the power of the system. So what remains?
Right before around New Years, a production version of the 3DS was stolen from a chinese factory and a video made its way online. While the video of the device has been removed, the information we have gleaned remains. Most of the video showed comparisons of the 3DS to contemporaries and predecessors, most notably the past iterations of the DS, in terms of dimensions and size. Overall, while the device open looks great, with an excellent screen, nice shiny plastic and a contemporary style, I can’t help but notice its shear thickness. At .83 inches, the system is as thick as the larger DSi XL and rather chunky compared to the more svelte .74 inch DSi. Now I do understand that the 3DS packs far more gadgetry into its hull than the DSi, but 4/5ths of an inch seems like quite a bit for 2011. By comparison, the EVO 4G – a massive 4.3 inch smartphone – weighs in at .5 inches. The iPhone 3GS is .43″ and the iPhone 4 is only .37″. Of course Nintendo should not be compared to the ultra-high end efforts of HTC or Apple, but those devices pack ridiculously powerful hardware in their frames – far more powerful than the 3DS. Having dual screens on a hinge as well can add thickness, but again this seems like an area Nintendo could have worked on. The screens on sliding phones like the T-Mobile G2 and Epic 4G still come in thinner than the 3DS’s design, and with higher resolution panels and capacitive touch layers. Even the 3D-generating parallax barrier is not an excuse for not working over the design more thoroughly. While the 3DS is a nice looking machine, when closed up it seems pretty big. I feel Nintendo could have worked to refine the design more and trim off as much as .1″.
The 3DS makes the 3GS look downright miniscule.
Another part of the thickness in the 3DS comes from its battery, which the video of the stolen machine states carries a capacity of 1300mAh, a pretty good amount in line with many smartphones’ battery capacities. By comparison, the original DS had a 850mAh battery. Now here’s the bad part: 3-5 hours. That’s the amount of time the 3DS’s battery is good for when playing 3DS games. 5-8 for DS games. That is, in a word, unacceptable. It is 2011. High powered smartphones constantly connected to 3G networks, gaming, playing music and movies, pulling emails, and sending texts can still manage at least a day of battery power. 10 hours if totally devoted to games. Even with two screens, one 3D, and more powerful hardware than the DS, you would think that a 65% larger battery would last as long as the original DS’s 6-10 hours. Nintendo has done power optimizations before too! The DSi brought four times the RAM and twice the processor speed of the original DS, flash memory to power and even had a smaller 840mAh battery and yet maintained a 9-14 hour advertised battery life. Either the Pica200 is incredibly power/inefficient or the twin ARM11s are fabricated at 130nm instead of the 65nm they should be at (assuming the 3DS does use the rumored twin ARM11 set up). No wonder it comes with a cradle for faster charging.
Well, besides from that major detraction, there is more good news to come out. The leaked video has also identified what is believed to be a RAM chip with a capacity of 128MB, 96MB of which are accessible to developers and 32MB reserved for the OS. At 96MB accessible, this is the highest RAM amount to ever grace a Nintendo system – the Wii clocks in at around 88MB. As well as the leaked video, Nintendo has divulged a vast array of specs on their Japanese site ahead of their launch in February (though nothing particularly technical). Of note to me is that the top display is now a full 24-bit color display, capable is displaying 16.7 Million colors, up from the DS’s 18-bit display. Little things like that folks get me through the day.
Look, in the end the 3DS is gonna be a rock star system. That’s in bold because I want to make that clear. But at the same time, I maintain trepidation over the hardware endeavors of the Japanese company and often wonder if the company needs a change of direction in its hardware arm.