Nintendo's DS is a chimeric beastie, a jack of all trades handheld designed, it seems, as part experiment and part GameBoy Advance successor. It's also a reinforcement of Nintendo's handheld stronghold, protecting their heretofore impenetrable bastion of portable gaming against Sony's PSP. Launched this month (December 2004) to no shortage of fanfare the system has flown off the shelves as fast as Nintendo could get them into stores. So far the DS has sold every bit as well as the GBA before it, with strong software sales to match.
The DS features a number of firsts for portable gaming, and indeed, gaming as a whole. It's a clamshell design somewhat reminiscent of deluxe Nintendo's Game & Watch games from the Eighties. When opened the first thing a player might notice is the dual screens (Hence the name, DS). Indeed there are two screens, but the next surprise is the lower screen which is also a touchpad. A short stylus is housed in the rear of the machine but any blunt plastic instrument - or a finger - will work. Just like Sony's system there's also a microphone and wireless network adaptor built in to the unit.
The OOBE (out of box experience) is about what you'd expect. The Japanese unit includes everything the US release does except for the demo Metroid soft: system, two styli, wrist strap, AC adaptor and supporting documentation.
When first opened the DS is sitting loosely in a protective cardboard bay, wrapped in plastic. There's an internal battery, partially charged for immediate play, and the system can be opened and powered up immediately. The first thing I noticed was the weight; the DS - roughly the same size as the original GameBoy Advance - is considerably heavier. Nearly twice the weight, in fact. It feels like it's packed with as much hardware as Nintendo could squeeze inside.
The feel of the system is very favourable, with every part feeling solid and well considered. The black plastic base of the unit is very finely textured, and it feels very solid. The top half of the system houses one screen and stereo speakers, which work surprisingly well, and sound much clearer than their size would suggest.
The screen opens very easily, and snaps into position just before reaching a flat, wide-open position. By opening it just a little further it will lock into position with both screens parallel to each other. The hinge is solid but offers very little resistance until locked, so you can't position the screen at any position and expect it to stay there for long, but in practice this is rarely an issue. The screen wants to lock in the best possible position, there's no need to change it.
The top screen is just like a GameBoy Advance screen, with slightly higher resolution and performance. The lower screen is where the touch action is, and it has a slightly sparkly-rainbow appearance you might recognize if you've seen any other capacitance screen, like a palm-pilot or many public kiosks. With use you can see marks on the screen, though they're hard to see unless you're looking for them. There are screen protectors available, and I think they should be recommended to prolong the life of the system. My experience with Palm Pilots suggests the touchscreen is only good for half a decade of steady use, at most.
That said the screen works very well with both the stylus and the strange strap-on-thumb plastic nub thing that Nintendo attached to the end of the included wrist strap. You can also use a finger but this will naturally grease up the system and repeating cleaning might shorten the life of the touch screen.
Brand new cartridge format
Nintendo's moved to a new media format, with cartridges even smaller than the GameBoy Advance (Which were already pretty small). They're about half the size and a third as thick, and resemble SD flash cards. In a very unusual move Nintendo's included both the new media port and a GBA cartridge port, so the DS is completely backwards compatible with the GBA. It is not, however, compatible with older GameBoy formats like GameBoy Colour or the original GameBoy.
The new media is very robust and well protected from abuse, and requires no special protection when shoved in a pocket. Blow the pocket lint of out the PCB grooves and shove it in the system. There's a wonderful spring-loaded loading mechanism on the new card port: push the card all the way in and it springs back a bit and locks into place. Push it again and it ejects about half-way out where a small catch prevents it from leaving the machine without being pulled on. No worries about the system spitting the card over a railing somewhere while you're on holiday. This loading mechanism also prevents repeated tugging on the sticker-clad face of the card, something which causes immediate grief to GamePark 32 users and the SMC media it uses.
Nintendo has made the cases for DS games plastic, something they have never done for their cartridge media. They're about the same size as CD cases, though thicker. There's space inside for a manual, the DS card, and strangely, a GameBoy Advance cartridge. I can't imagine a really compelling reason for this extra slot, but there it is.
Complaints, and if it were me...
There isn't really much to complain about with the DS. There are stylistic choices made that not everyone will enjoy - not everyone likes the way it looks. I think the four face buttons are too close together, but this is a comparatively minor gripe.
It's hard to make a list of complaints for the DS, it feels and functions so well that any complaints are trivial, subjective and sound increasingly petty compared to the stunning faults in Sony's PSP. I love the clamshell design and the way it protects the screens without requiring a special case, though it remains to be seen if the second screen can be effectively put to good use. I think there's a very good chance Nintendo would have been better served with a much larger single touch-screen instead of two, but then it would be a lot like a PSP, and the clamshell design would be harder to justify.
As you've noticed, this is a hardware review. Like Sony's PSP launched a mere ten days after the DS, there's not much good software for the system, so the hardware's what we're looking at. Unlike the PSP the DS hardware is top-notch. Like any new controller there's a learning curve, and while some decry the additional weight of the system or the cumbersome use of a stylus on a system you normally hold with both hands, it's something you get used to. It's not really any more difficult than writing on a notepad. A very special, thick plastic notepad that plays games.
Nintendo knows their stuff. Since the Super NES Nintendo's cemented their reputation as a builder of exceptional hardware, ergonomically, functionally and reliably. The DS is well made, comfortable and durable (though the longevity of the touchscreen won't be known for some time). If Sony were wise they'd pay close attention not only to how Nintendo builds a system, but why they build it this way.