It shouldn't come as a surprise to see Nintendo launch a new 3DS revision less than 18 months after the original console — after all, the company waited almost exactly the same length of time before following up the DS with the DS Lite. Where that revision sought to slim down the DS to a sleeker, more portable form factor, however, the first 3DS upgrade goes in the opposite direction. The 3DS XL (or LL in Japan) is ostensibly identical to its predecessor in every way beyond a ballooning in size; its screens are around 90 percent larger than the 3DS', with the top 3D display jumping from 3.53 inches to 4.88 inches. Nintendo also promises that the increase in physical size will be accompanied by lengthened battery life.
The portable gaming market has changed significantly since the original 3DS' launch, though, with the PS Vita offering far more powerful hardware, and even recent smartphones outstripping its capabilities. Hamstrung by the need to maintain a unified platform, Nintendo has also elected not to include hardware upgrades such as a second analog stick or a resolution boost for the screens. The 3DS has been performing well enough lately, but can a simple hardware redesign be enough for the traditional gaming giant to keep up?
Hardware and design
A MUCH BETTER-LOOKING SYSTEM THAN THE 3DS
Nintendo has a habit of not getting things exactly right the first time with handheld systems, as anyone who tried to pocket the original DS or play the first Game Boy Advance out of direct sunlight can undoubtedly attest. Last year's 3DS wasn't a bad effort, but it certainly had its quirks: tiny screens surrounded by huge bezels, an awkward layered design, and questionable build quality when compared with the indestructible tanks I've come to expect from the company. Thankfully, the 3DS XL fixes just about every specific complaint I had with the original system's design.
YOU CAN STILL GET AWAY WITH SLIPPING IT INTO A JEANS POCKET
While Nintendo touts 90 percent larger screens on the 3DS XL, the device itself isn't actually much bigger than its predecessor at 134 x 74 x 21mm (5.2 x 2.9 x .82 inches). That's only one millimeter thicker than the 3DS, and some big reductions in bezel size ensure that its footprint hasn't increased too much. Indeed, you can just about get away with slipping it into a jeans pocket in a pinch, though I wouldn't recommend doing so on long walks. Next to the PS Vita the 3DS XL is a bit narrower and taller, but the way it protects the screens when closed means it's much safer to throw into a bag or pocket without adding the bulk of a case.
It's also just a much better-looking system than the 3DS. The new design uses cleaner lines, subtle tapers and curves, and there's a lot less wasted space. Happily, it represents a move away from the cheap glossy finishes that Nintendo insisted on for the 3DS — each XL variant (with the exception of the Japan-exclusive all-white model) comes in a two-tone design with a colored shell on the outside and a matte black finish inside. The outer shells (red, blue, or silver depending on where you live) aren't quite matte, but aren't really glossy either, and have a nice sturdy feel to them; meanwhile the inner matte finish feels better in the hand than the slippery original 3DS.
There are a few other changes to the system's layout. The headphone jack has been moved from directly under the lower screen to the bottom left of the unit, and the SD card slot has switched from the left side to the right. Neither change makes much of a difference to the way you'll use the system, but the way Nintendo has handled the stylus is a different story. Whereas the original 3DS featured a telescopic pen that slotted in vertically next to the game card, the XL's stylus is non-retractable and is stored horizontally on the unit's right side. Both changes are major improvements: the telescopic stylus, while admittedly quite cool, just gave me one more thing to do between taking it out and using it, and I never got used to its storage position behind the top screen. The XL's stylus is much easier to grab at a moment's notice, though I do wish Nintendo had included a more comfortable full pen-style one like it did with the DSi XL.
The one hardware compromise is in the speakers. The 3DS was unusually strong in this department, even managing to pull off a reasonable facsimile of surround sound, but the XL unfortunately comes up short here. As explained by Nintendo engineers in a recent interview with company president Satoru Iwata, the thinner bezel on the XL necessitated the use of smaller, "elongated" speakers in place of the round units used on the 3DS. The upshot is a much thinner sound stage that doesn't match up to the previous system, despite the engineers' efforts to boost performance with hardware and software. As with any portable console, you'll want to use headphones for any games in which the sound is important to you —Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, for example.
THE 3DS IS LIKE PEERING THROUGH A PEEPHOLE, BUT THE XL IS LIKE STEPPING THROUGH A DOOR
Like the DSi XL, the 3DS XL's main selling point is the hugely expanded displays. Neither console increased the resolution along with the screen size, and that means an obvious tradeoff in pixel density. However, this has different implications for each system. DS games often looked amazing on the DSi XL, because most titles were 2D and benefited from having their low-resolution pixel art sharply rendered at a larger scale. 3DS games, on the other hand, are usually in 3D, and the 3DS XL's 400 x 240-effective top screen proves an unforgiving canvas for their flaws. Aliasing and low-resolution textures become much more apparent, and the individual pixels are large enough that you can make them out even at arm's length. Not that you'd want to hold it that far away — the XL's bigger screen turns out to have a shorter maximum viewing distance in 3D mode, as you can see the lines of the parallax barrier from around a foot away.
The platinum lining to these quality concerns is that the XL's screens radically improve the general 3DS experience to the point where it's difficult to go back to the older system. The 3D effect isn't any deeper or easier to see — you still need to keep your head and 3DS aligned at just the right angle — but with the simple increase in size comes a huge leap in immersion. Where the 3DS felt like peering through a peephole into another world, the XL is almost like stepping through a door. It's possible to look around an expansive scene in a game like Kid Icarus: Uprising and actually focus on different areas, something that never really worked on the regular 3DS, and it's more than enough for me to forget about pixel density.
A BIGGER SCREEN MEANS A MORE IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
Another advantage of the 3DS XL is that its screens are significantly less reflective. They aren't any brighter than the original 3DS', but gain quite a bit of outdoor visibility through the lack of glare. It helps that the top screen's bezel is raised slightly from the screen and has a separate matte finish, whereas the original 3DS's top panel was a single glossy, fingerprint-attracting surface. The 3DS XL also fixes an issue where keeping the system closed could cause marks or even scratches to be left on the top screen.
Finally, there's another serendipitous benefit to the 3DS XL's expanded screen dimensions in the way it handles original DS and DSiWare content. Both systems feature full backwards compatibility with the DS library, but the 3DS's increased resolution means they don't display perfectly: on the original 3DS you had the option either to stretch the image to fit the screens, or display a tiny, pixel-sharp 1:1 rendering with huge surrounding borders. While that's still the case on the 3DS XL, the larger screens make the 1:1 option a lot more palatable — you can display games in their native resolution at roughly the same size as an original DS screen. The DSi XL remains my favorite way to play DS games, but if you're uninterested in maintaining a large collection of Nintendo handheld hardware then the 3DS XL is a much better catch-all option than the last system.
As far as the 3DS XL's controls go, there's not a lot to report. The button layout is identical to the 3DS, and the circle pad, D-pad, and face buttons all have the same size and feel. The L and R shoulder buttons are a lot more substantial this time around, however, and aren't quite so clicky — while they're still just digital buttons, they feel more suitable for use as triggers. The D-pad remains in its slightly out-of-the-way position below the analog stick, but the 3DS XL's overall size makes it a lot easier to reach than before. The biggest and most welcome change is in the row of Select, Home, and Start buttons found right below the bottom screen, which have been fashioned into chunky, discrete controls rather than the original system's cheap and fiddly membrane. I also found the 3DS XL much more comfortable to hold for long periods than the original model. For those with adult-sized hands, the expanded dimensions alone may be worth the upgrade.
The obvious question on everyone's lips is why Nintendo decided against integrating a Circle Pad Pro-style second analog system into the 3DS XL. It could have been a golden opportunity to do so, and I dread to think what the eventual XL equivalent add-on will look like, but it might not have been as simple a decision as it seems. For one thing, the Circle Pad Pro isn't just an analog stick — it's an ergonomic grip that gives the 3DS extra shoulder buttons, too, and those would have been difficult to integrate into the XL while maintaining a slim profile. Satoru Iwata also recently explained that including the second stick would have meant either making the system even larger or compromising the battery life.
I think the 3DS XL shows that the Circle Pad Pro was never intended to be a radical rethink of the system, but an optional add-on for a limited number of specific games that work better with it. It just so happens that those games tend not to be made by Nintendo, which appears to consider a second analog stick non-essential. For now the 3DS XL doesn't even have the option, which means I'll be keeping my older system around for Monster Hunter, and dual-stick fans will likely have to wait for the next Nintendo handheld system that Shigeru Miyamoto has alluded to.
NINTENDO APPEARS TO CONSIDER A SECOND ANALOG STICK NON-ESSENTIAL
COMPARABLE TO CELLPHONES FROM CLOSE TO A DECADE AGO
It's somewhat understandable that the controls and screen resolution haven't been altered for the 3DS XL, then, but I'm really disappointed not to see a change in the cameras. You're looking at the exact same 0.3-megapixel shooters here — one on the inside, two on the outside — and they could charitably be described as comparable to cellphone cameras from close to a decade ago. While this isn't exactly a dealbreaker for a video game console, the 3D capability of the 3DS makes the poor camera quality a real missed opportunity.
The camera app is actually a lot of fun to use and theoretically gives you scope to create some interesting 3D photos and videos, but in practice the results are just irredeemably grainy and blurry even in perfect light. Most people are never going to buy a dedicated 3D camera like Fujifilm's FinePix W3, so a usable one could be a real selling point for Nintendo's hardware. Unfortunately the company doesn't seem particularly interested in pushing the feature.
Of course, another use for the cameras is in augmented reality games. A selection comes pre-loaded on both the 3DS and 3DS XL, and there have been a few subsequent releases like the Fatal Frame spin-off Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir. The cameras tend to perform well enough for this purpose, though moving the system around often breaks the 3D effect, and the need for good lighting somewhat reduces the horror potential of Spirit Camera.
The 3DS XL's software is essentially identical to that of the original 3DS, which is to say that while it's easily Nintendo's most full-featured OS yet, it's not anywhere near as functional as what you'd find on a smartphone or the PS Vita. The browser is essentially unusable, media playback support is close to non-existent, and online gaming still mandates the use of Nintendo's arcane friend codes to add to your player list. The 3DS XL doesn't add anything to the mix beyond a new pre-loaded (and quite impressive, to be fair) 3D demonstration video.
However, there are some excellent and unique features like the StreetPass system that lets you automatically trade Mii avatar information with people around you, the pedometer functionality that earns you coins for unlockable in-game items, and the system-level ability to take and save handwritten notes in the middle of a game. Nintendo has also since released some fun additional apps like SwapNote along with firmware updates that have added features such as folder support, video recording, extra StreetPass games, and 3DS-to-3DS software transfer.
That last feature will be of interest to current 3DS owners considering an upgrade. While Nintendo still stubbornly refuses to tie eShop DLC purchases to customer accounts for download on multiple systems, you are at least now able to transfer data from one system to another. You're limited to doing so once a week, however, and a total of five times ever. You can choose to move individual downloads across consoles or the entire system data — doing so will wipe your original 3DS to factory settings, but the new unit will be exactly as you left the old one, with save data and even unread system-level notifications in place. It doesn't seem to work entirely consistently, however; while previously I've seen everything transfer between 3DS units, this time around I had to manually re-download all my eShop software on the XL. As anyone who's used Nintendo's store will know, this is a somewhat Sisyphean task for anyone with a sizable download history.
Of course, the most important software on the 3DS XL is the lineup of games, and it's fair to say that the system has made leaps and bounds in this regard since its underwhelming launch. Like any Nintendo system it's unlikely to be the first choice of hardcore shooter fans, but otherwise it's got most bases covered — third-party action games like Resident Evil Revelations and Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D now share the stage with the obligatory excellent first-party releases such as Super Mario 3D Land and Kid Icarus: Uprising. The 3DS XL is launching on the same day as New Super Mario Bros 2, which is also the first Nintendo game to be made available for digital download at the same time as its physical release. To that end, Nintendo has included a 4GB SD card with the XL as an upgrade from the previous 2GB. It's a welcome boost;New Super Mario Bros 2 requires 2950 blocks (370MB) of free space on your card, but I imagine more complex retail games will weigh in at quite a bit more. As a point of comparison, it's worth noting that Sony doesn't include a memory card at all with its standard PS Vita package, and most of the games on that system actually require one to run.
EASILY NINTENDO'S MOST FULL-FEATURED OS YET, WHICH ISN'T SAYING MUCH
IT'S CLEAR THAT THE DAYS OF DOUBLE-FIGURE DS BATTERY LIFE ARE BEHIND US
The original 3DS had disappointing battery life to say the least — in my experience I'd get around three or four solid hours of playtime, but the system would drain completely within a couple of days spent in standby mode. The 3DS XL's larger frame should theoretically provide room for a more spacious battery, but of course it also has bigger screens to power. In practice, I tended to see around four hours solid game time, and the XL lasted three and a half hours in a stress test (playing a mix of games at full brightness with 3D and wireless features enabled). This isn't a huge increase, but I've also seen vastly improved standby efficiency. This makes sense — the XL's larger battery obviously isn't affected by the bigger screens when the system is closed — and it really does help the system from a portability standpoint. It doesn't seem to last quite as long as the PS Vita, which drains very slowly while asleep, but definitely holds up to mixed usage better than the previous 3DS. Still, it's clear that the days of handhelds with double-figure battery life are behind us, at least for now.
It's just as well that you won't have to charge the 3DS XL quite as often, as Nintendo has made that action quite a bit more difficult to perform for many customers. In both Japan and Europe (though not North America) the 3DS XL inexplicably omits an AC adaptor from the package, requiring anyone who doesn't own one from a previous system to pick one up separately. It's compatible with the same charger used in the DSi, DSi XL, and original 3DS, so you may well have one lying around, but it's something to think about if you were planning to trade your existing system in — it could add an extra $15 to your purchase price.
Meanwhile, Nintendo has also decided against including a charging stand as it did with the 3DS, which turned out to be a useful accessory given the device's poor standby battery life. You'll be able to buy an XL-sized stand separately, but it's a shame not to see it in the box.
Unless larger screens are what you've been wanting from your 3DS all along, you probably don't need to upgrade to the XL — you won't be missing out on much beyond its form factor. It's understandable that Nintendo didn't stray too far from its existing formula, but the need to avoid platform fragmentation simply highlights one of the main advantages that mobile phone manufacturers hold over traditional game companies. For new buyers, though, I think the improved design, immersive screen, and battery performance make the XL clearly worth the extra $30.
Should you own a 3DS in the first place? Now would be as good a time to jump on as any for those wanting a little more from their commute entertainment than mobile games, and the 3DS XL joins the platform at a considerably stronger position than it was in a year or so ago. The PS Vita, despite having far superior hardware, so far appears to have fallen into the same trap as the PSP by not backing it up with the games to match its higher price. So, while I'm scoring the 3DS XL lower than the Vita on the grounds of its fairly uninspiring hardware, that's not to say it's a less compelling purchase. It might not be the most exciting device in the world, but it's well-made, well-supported, and at $199.99 probably represents the best portable gaming buy around right now.