Nintendo DS Lite
Category: Handheld Console
Gear Review: Nintendo DS Lite [NDS]
Construction and Appearance
The most obvious characteristic of the DS Lite is its physical appearance. The unit is noticeably smaller - in all dimensions - than the DS Phat, coming in thinner, narrower and shorter. In practice, stuffing the DS Lite into one's loose jeans will still result in a noticeable bulge around the pocket area. However, the slight, tight discomfort that occurs when sitting down disappears. The lighter nature of the DS Lite, while initially hard to notice, becomes more noticeable over time as you walk with it in your pocket or hold it while playing.
The machine's weight loss is accompanied by a makeover of Apple proportions. The White DS Lite, which is currently the only model available in North America, screams iPod. The white surface is covered by a translucent protective layer that prevents the actual surface from getting scratched, while giving the unit a much shinier appearace. The shape of the DS logo - two vertically aligned rounded squares - is embossed onto the top of the plastic. True to iPod form, this also attracts grimy fingerprints which - while not as noticeable as on shiny electronics (black iPod Nano, Sony PSP, black import DS Lites) - are still gruesome to stare at. At the same time, it gives the Nintendo DS a much more elegant, classy and attractive look.
The edges and corners of the DS Lite are also rounded when compared to the DS Phat, which had an odd, sharp, jagged edge (which is discernible when you look at where the color of the plastics change). Some found that this dug into the palms a bit too roughly. This concern should technically be alleviated with the DS Lite. However, when opening it up it's easy to see that the corner between the face button surface and the outer edge is also sharp. Simply put, the area of discomfort has merely moved from one place to another. Most people will luckily find that the DS Lite's construction will be more comfortable for them, but some still cite a concern as the edge of the DS Lite digs into the meat of the muscle underneath their thumbs.
A few people will take - and have already taken - issue with the new aesthetic look as well. In truth, it can be considered a direct replica of Apple's mindset. Anyone who's not a fan of Apple's admittedly gaudy style will find lots to complain about here. It also gives the machine a less durable look. Those who are either clumsy or extremely paranoid with their portable electronics won't appreciate the nagging "what if" thought that one drop of the DS Lite will mean a nasty scratch or a shattered portable, even if this is untrue in practice. Perception counts for something, after all.
With regards to durability, through normal use the DS Lite doesn't seem to be suffering from any mechanical issues. However, recent complaints of cracked hinges have surfaced. This affects a small portion of the DS Lite ownership, and of course Nintendo will fix the issue, but nevertheless it doesn't sound very encouraging when the original unit had no such issues (or at least, no reports of such issues).
Nevertheless, the size and weight of the unit - with apologies to those with large hands - are most likely what will drive DS fans to upgrade.
Configuration and Button Build
In addition to the aesthetic changes, the DS Lite sports an altered configuration that is noticeable even before opening up the clamshell. The stylus, which is now longer, now rests horizontally within the unit. As a result, the stylus slides out from the side instead of the top. Gone is the old Gameboy Advance-sized port for the AC adapter, replaced by one that looks identical to the charge port on the Gameboy micro. In other words, you won't be using your old AC adapters with this puppy at all.
The power button, which used to rest above the d-pad on the inside of the unit, now lies on the right outer-edge in the form of a slider. As opposed to the PSP's slider, which must be held to power on the unit, and either held again to power it off or pressed very quickly to put it in sleep mode, the DS Lite's slider requires a simple push (with a very slight hold) and functions only as an on-off switch. This prevents the occasional oopsie of turning off the power when you meant to push "up" on the d-pad on the DS Phat.
Opening up the clamshell reveals a familiar yet different layout. The large, rectangular Start/Select buttons from the DS Phat are gone entirely. No longer above the face buttons, they now rest along the bottom-right side of the touch screen and are tiny dots; this is reminiscent of the original Gameboy Advance's configuration. Those used to the old configuration will find that pausing a game will take some readjustment, as both the more distant placement and the tinier size of the buttons make them more difficult to manage. Those who are jumping in fresh will still have to contend with these quibbles, as well.
The hinge has become the docking station for a few old friends. Looking for the mic hole on the edge of the unit will net you squat, as it's been repositioned to the center of the hinge and - as a result - in between the two screens as well. Considering that the player will be focused on and facing the two screens as opposed to some lopsided, random point on the DS, successfully speaking into the mic becomes easier - not much easier of course, but easy enough to see that the repositioning was a good move. The Power/Wi-Fi and Recharge LEDs have also been moved to the hinge area from their former homes on the bottom. However, other than being able to tell whether or not the unit is in sleep mode and/or charging while it's closed, there is no real benefit to this repositioning.
The d-pad and the face buttons are also physically different, though their placement remains the same. They now feel more "springy" - for lack of a better description - similar to the Gameboy Advance and the Gameboy Micro. Specifically, they are raised higher than the DS Phat buttons; the range of button depression is larger and results in a slight added effort required to fully press down on the button. By contrast, the old DS Phat d-pad and buttons felt "clicky", which was similar to the Gameboy Advance SP and most cellular phones. The question of which feels better will yield a subjective answer - some will find that the added effort and longer button depression range yields a more distinctive feel; others will find that the short "click" of the DS Phat is more definitive.
The buttons on the DS Lite are closer to each other and more rounded. From an ergonomic standpoint, this generally makes more sense as it aids slightly in making it easier to slide from button to button. Then again, those with bigger thumbs might find themselves wishing for a dialing wand lest they fat-finger their button presses. Issues with the overall compactness of the machine - in all respects - will surface for those with large hands, and the buttons are no small exception.
The shoulder buttons follow the same path as the face buttons in that they are smaller, are more rounded, and have a more springy feel. Again, whether or not the button feel is better or worse depends on the user's preference for click versus spring. The smaller size is actually a negligible item; one can presume that the majority of users have been pushing down on the corners of any portable machine's shoulder buttons with the meat of their fingers (as opposed to the tips), thus making the horizontal length of the shoulder buttons a non-issue. However, those who use their fingertips on the broader side of a shoulder button will find some fault there.
The Screens and Battery Life
Though many speak of the size and weight of the unit as being the determining factors of upgrading to a DS Lite, the screens offer a potentially more compelling reason. The screen has four levels of brightness, which is adjustable from the console's initial GUI. The lightbulb touch icon formerly used to turn the backlight on and off has now become more of a dimmer switch. The lowest setting is about on par with the original Nintendo DS' screen brightness. The second lowest is marginally brighter. The third and fourth settings light up the screen as if they were both newly discovered galaxies in space - they're that bright. The fourth setting is bright enough to allow you to actually clearly see the screens when it's "too bright" outdoors. It easily trumps the new backlit GBA SP, PSP and Gameboy micro's brightest settings, and absolutely massacres the original Nintendo DS and GBA SP in this department. Color-wise, the brighter screens also help immensely. Colors that looked decent on the old DS Phat become richer and more vibrant here. Naturally, the contrast and saturation are much better on these brighter screens which undoubtedly attribute to this more vivid look.
With screen brightness comes the question of battery life. Surely, the power of nuclear fission in your hand can't last for more than a few hours, can it? Indeed, the new-and-improved Lithium Ion battery is slated to only last between five and eight hours on the brightest setting depending on what game you're playing. Throttling the brightness down to the lowest setting dramatically improves battery life to between 15 and 19 hours, which already is much more than the original DS Phat was rated at. Unfortunately, we were unable to conduct a straight-on battery life test; general use, as well as testing from other sites, suggest that these rated hours aren't far off the mark.
The Nintendo DS Lite continues the great backwards compatibility with Gameboy Advance titles that was offered with the DS Phat. Every GBA game is playable here, and thanks to the new brighter screens, look better than ever. However, one annoyance is that GBA carts jut out of the bottom of the system about a centimeter due to the unit's overall smaller size and the repositioning of the stylus. It's similar to the phenomenon experienced when playing Gameboy and Gameboy Color games on the GBA and GBA SP. Oh, and by the way, this is impossible on the DS Lite - just as it was with the DS Phat.
However, the DS Lite is NOT backwards compatible with DS Phat accessories that require the data port. Reportedly, it isn't backwards compatible with the Gameboy micro charger either - even though they share the same size port. If you've stockpiled accessories for your DS Phat that use the data port, you'll have to come to terms with the fact that they are now utterly useless with the Lite.
Playing with the Unit (Eww)
Normal play with the Nintendo DS Lite yielded much less hand fatigue than working with the old DS Phat. The lighter weight of the machine is the obvious hero in this department. This was more evident when playing a stylus-driven game such as Metroid Prime: Hunters or Kirby Canvas Curse, where the DS-holding hand is more prone to fatigue.
The stylus, too, feels more comfortable to use given its thicker build. Feeling less like a toothpick and more like a pen, the added mass really does help to keep your stylus hand from drawing and sliding all over the screen. In fact, even though the new DS Lite stylus is still lighter in weight than the Brass Stylus from PDA Panache, transitioning over from one to the other was practically seamless in terms of gameplay experience.
Simply put, actually using the Nintendo DS Lite is an undisputed improvement over the DS Phat... until you introduce those with meaty hands. The problem is that smaller isn't always better. As the Gamecube controller, Xbox Controller Type S, and the Gameboy micro have proven, large mitts will suffer at the hands of tiny might. Those used to the DS Phat's heft and build may find the overall experience with the DS Lite uncomfortable, as the natural tendency to grip the system close will yield some painful interaction with the sharp corner of the inside surface.
If you've got the hands, though, there's no reason not to invest in a DS Phat over the DS Lite. If you're a current DS Phat owner, and are perfectly content with everything it has to offer, spending any more money on a newer, slicker version might not seem worth it even with any trade-in value you might get at the store. However, final judgments should be reserved for when you try one out at the store. If the bright screens don't make the images easier on your eyes, then stick with your DS Phat. Everyone else should just go ahead and spend that same amount of money on the Lite. To sum up, the Nintendo DS Lite is what the Nintendo DS always should have been from the very beginning of its life.
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