Review of the month; sort of comparative overview between 3DS and N3DS

This being a design blog that has gone to places and back, let’s go with something pure design and review the design of 3DS LL and N3DS Flanders XL. We will ignore their library and most of the tech. The emphasize is on how the systems are shaped. You’ll most likely be seeing a lot of mundane descriptions if you own the system and have played it to death, but do keep in mind that this is made for everybody and thus I see there is a need to go to some stupid level of detail in even in the mundane.

Nintendo 3DS LL

Closed appearance

IMG_2432
Side by side, the other has more rounder approach while the other is more direct

The 3DS LL base design doesn’t step too much away from the pre-established Nintendo DSi XL design with its relatively unassuming case. It has nicely low front profile device overall, but it’s width makes it very bulky as a handheld device. The device fits larger pockets just fine, yet it’s not something you can easily pocket. Cargo pants should have pockets large enough to carry a naked 3DS LL, but otherwise the device needs some sort of case or stashed inside a bag for transportation. The colour can make the system look classy, or like a toy. It’s up to each person to pick up their favourite colour.

Still, we can already see some peculiarities with the device. One is that the coloured plates tend to have a less than millimetre gap between them and the main device parts, and despite the halves have been locked in tight, these gaps tend to collect dirt. In addition, the bottom plate is relatively loose even if locked in place only in few parts, which in worst situation can be stuck to a sharp corner and break the plate. This isn’t something that can occur easily and most likely has to be by intention, but nevertheless something that should have been considered. The looseness of the bottom plate does not inhibit gameplay and is mostly unnoticeable. The bottom plate has the usual information about Li-ion batteries and such, but also two rubber tabs near the back of the console to prevent it from slipping on a given surface. However, the rubber used is more or less useless on most surfaces. The small legs at each corner allow the console to stand apart from a surface, but their size is so small that these legs will simply scratch out relatively fast and leave black plastic tabs.

Underneath the plate is the battery, and if there is a need to replace this battery, the plate can be removed with a small sized phillips head screwdriver.

If you were wondering I was talking about 3DS LL, it's because I have access to an imported system. The Western equivalent is XL
If you were wondering I was talking about 3DS LL, it’s because I have access to an imported system. The Western equivalent is XL. Yes, I know the photo is shaky and I should replace it

The stylus is placed at the right side of the system. The indentation made before the stylus is a detail that is easy to miss during design phase and makes removal of the stylus. The stylus however feels somewhat loose in its spot, but due to its light weight it will keep itself in place just fine. Next to the stylus is a standard SD card slot behind a flap, nothing special and due to the flap it doesn’t stand out.

While most of the action buttons are hid when the 3DS LL is closed, both shoulder buttons are at a dangerous corners. There isn’t any better place for them to be placed in, and their construction is relatively sturdy. They are low in profile and the distance they go is millimetre or so. The whole button doesn’t move, as it has its hinge towards the centre of the console’s back. The buttons themselves have the traditional L and R carved into them alongside pictures of cameras. The click the buttons do are clear and give nice tactile feeling to them. However, them being at the corners and in this design, they are susceptible to damage if the system would be dropped.

The back holds locking places for other devices alongside IR sensor, game card slot and power adapter socket. The lock holes tend to wear down with use, but them residing at the back means they won’t be too visible to the user. The card slot is like any other game cartridge slot in action and is largely unchanged from previous incarnation. The card locking mechanism however will break down in time with use, a design point that wasn’t as relative with GameBoy line of products. The power socket however houses two plates that are completely open to the elements, and in environment where oxygenation is common these plates will lose their lustre very soon, and to some extent their function as well. These plates are used in the docking station to charge the battery. Sadly, just like with most products, the power socket is not standard build even if it shared among other Nintendo products. However, the socket is well enough designed so that the user can put the console on charger without checking which way it needs to be, a common thing with USB drives.

Volume controller is found at the left side of the system on the lower section. The volume control is a very loose slider, which during intense gameplay has a tendency to rock back and forth. To mirror the volume controller, the right side has Wireless switch. Because it is a switch, the user won’t accidentally turn their 3DS LL’s wireless functions on or off during gameplay. The upper half of this side has the 3D slider, but it’s main function comes into play when the system is open.

The front of the system houses places to put your strap in either side. Next to leftmost spot resides the phones jack, which may be too close to the edge to some users. Near the right corner are two LEDs to signify power and charging functions.

The top of the system is relatively empty compared to the other five sides. The right upper corner has an indication light for multiple functions, ranging from message arrival to overall battery state. The 3D camera near the front of them system has two cameras that look rather vulnerable, especially to scratches.

Open appearance

Notice the white spots on the lid? Those are soft tabs to keep the upper screen from scratching against the lower half. My model is early enough to do that, which is also why I use screenguards
Notice the white spots on the lid? Those are soft tabs to keep the upper screen from scratching against the lower half. My model is early enough to do that, which is also why I use screenguards

The system lid has four spots where it can reside; closed, first step, second step and third step. The system is more or less designed to be played at its second step, as otherwise the user’s arms and hands will be placed in an uncomfortable, far from an ergonomic position. This position is similar to older GameBoy variations, where the screen would be placed above the main action buttons.

At the third step, the lid turns over 180-degrees and can be easily snapped off from this position. The hinge overall is sturdy, but constant opening and closing will cause damage overtime where the lid will become highly loose, and in worst case scenario, break down. This has been rather common with the clamshell design and thus the materials need to be good enough to stand wear and tear for long periods.

The upper lid, when opened, houses the main screen. This screen is larger than the bottom one with a basic camera sitting atop of it and speakers on both sides. Near the upper corners of the screen there are two tabs that keep the upper screen from scratching itself against the lower half of the system, but early models had too small tabs for this, and this the upper screens got scratched. This model fault was later fixed by adding slightly larger tabs, but still stands as a model design error.

The aforementioned 3D Slider is just below the right speaker and designed so that it is used in an angle rather than directly from front or from the side. It’s little lock at OFF position is surprisingly sturdy and offers resistance, but when put on the slider moves freely. It should be noted that the 3D slider offers more resistance than the Volume slider, showing that there wasn’t much thought put into the Volume slider. The graphics used to signify the 3D’s strength is what you see in volume controls, and it can be debated whether or not this is good choice or not, but it does its job.

The lower half has all the main buttons. All buttons generally do not rise much from the console surface and they are on the same level as the raised middle surface the bottoms screen resides in. This frame also meets with the rubber tabs on the lid.

As per traditional Nintendo fashion, the action buttons are in a diamond formation in their familiar arrangement. When grasping the system, the action buttons fall rather naturally under your thumb and none of them are hard to reach. Their size and distance can be seen too small by the people with larger hands, and their clicking isn’t all that satisfying, but give tactile feeling enough to be called good. Their round and low profile offer a rather pleasant experience, albeit sometimes it feels that the button presses misses their timings.

On the left side we have the eponymous Slide-pad and the D-pad. The design of the 3DS LL emphasizes on the Slide-Pad and has placed it in the main spot your thumb falls into. The Slide-pad fits most thumbs just fine with its concave design and offers strange resistance between spongy and springy. While the pad is accurate in itself, repositioning one’s thumb during gameplay seems to be a common thing. It doesn’t help that the material used in the Slide-pad will become glossy and slippery with time.

The D-pad uses the slightly revised Nintendo standard we saw in e.g. the Wii Remote in that it is slightly concave. While the D-pad overall looks nice, it is not Nintendo’s best. The design underneath means it’s spongy and clicky at the same time, which is worsened by the fact the player needs to reposition their hand in order to access it.

Beneath the lower screen are the Select, Home and Start buttons in that order from the left. These buttons are the second spongiest in the system, but their integration to the overall shape where they sit in is more or less perfect. Perhaps the buttons could have used colour in the text to give them more appearance. Microphone is just to the right to the Start, as is the Power button. The power button is an unfortunate design, as it is surprisingly hard to properly press due to its spongy nature. There has been some reports that people have mistakenly pressed it instead of Start due to previous handheld designs.

System in hand

As described in the lid opening, the system is meant to be played rather open for maximum comfort, where most of the weight come straight along the arms rather to the hands themselves. However, as the system loses about 1/3 from its closed thickness, the lower half becomes too thing for its size and weight. The ergonomics also get a hit with the square design of the system that does not conform along the user’s palm. Even if the bottom has rounded edges, they do not help the bad grip the system requires to be used. It is recommended to get a separate third party grip or Slide-pad pro add-on to increase both ease of gameplay and ease of accuracy in said gameplay.

In addition to this, when you put pressure on the console by twisting it in your hands, it gives in and contorts slightly. This kind of construction allows the system frame to absorb more damage from a drop rather than outright shattering upon hitting the floor. However, this does make the system slightly less tight and can give it a somewhat toyetic feeling.

New Nintendo 3DS XL A.K.A Fat Flanders

In overall terms, the N3DS has similar weight, size and overall design to its older brethren and thus will be directly compared to it. A lot of points that apply to the standard 3DS LL apply to the N3DS XL. Changes to the design language include slightly sharper angle the corners have been rounded and overall righter design as opposed to the standard 3DS LL’s more wider appearance.

Closed appearance

Changes to the system from bottoms up include change in the bottom plate. The system now uses Mini-SD cards and it is necessary to remove the bottom plate to access it. Hiding important access slots behind panels has always been bad design and it applies here as well. Thankfully, this is not as bad with N-gage, where the game card slot was hidden behind the battery. The plate now has more sealed gap, but the plate itself is slightly smaller than the bottom of the system itself, creating a sharp corner where the hands then rest. This corner will also collect dirt and dead skin.

The problem with shiny metallic finish is that dust and scratches show themselves like nightlights
The problem with shiny metallic finish is that dust and scratches show themselves like nightlights

The sides of the system has seen drastic changes. At the back we have two more shoulder buttons in form of ZL and ZR. They protrude slightly more than the L and R shoulder buttons, but otherwise offer similar clickyness. Their position however is poor, as accessing them require slight change in hand position or holding the system deeper down in the user’s palms.

Left and right have seen changes in that the Volume slider has been moved to the upper half and now boasts the same kind of slider as the 3D slider has. This prevents the user from changing the volume accidentally, plus now the slider actually feels good to use. The Wireless switch has been completely removed and the Wireless functions must be accessed via the system’s OS.

The front now boasts, from left to right, the game card slot, phone jack in the middle, stylus about halfway from the middle to the corner and the power button. The position of the game card slot is more or less up to taste, but the sudden change in the position is hard to figure out. One possible explanation is that it is now easier to remove and put the game card in without closing the lid. However, there could be numerous of explanations. Moving the headphone jack to the middle prevents from the user from hitting the plug itself. However, that now applies to the power button. It has been reported that some people tend to support the console with their pinkie fingers from the front, and the new Power button placement happens to be right in that support spot.

The stylus is largely unchanged in weight and function. However, one of its ends have been modified to curve alongside the system’s front and work as a key to pop the bottom plate off. If you look at the left and right sides of the system, you will see indentations that stylus is supposed to jam between and lever the bottom plate off.

The top of the system is largely unchanged.

Open appearance

Above the upper screen we find now revised rubber tabs and an additional eye-tracking camera. This eye-tracking camera allows the system to adjust the 3D according to where the user’s eyes are, but otherwise the 3D has exactly same functions as previously. The speaker holes have now been made larger, but now there are less of them. The five holes that now allow the sound to pass look cheaper in comparison. 3D slider is unchanged.

Notice the eye-tracking camera functioning next to the inner camera
Notice the eye-tracking camera functioning next to the inner camera

The buttons are mostly unchanged in function. There is now visual flavour to the action buttons in that they are coloured in according to the Super Nintendo colours. An additional control stick, the C-stick, as been added to the right side as well. This C-stick is not a traditional game controller stick, but rather similar to the red mouse sticks found in various laptops. It’s not supposed to move as much as the user is supposed to rock it back and forth. The material it’s made of doesn’t allow enough friction for a proper use. Even with washed and clean hands, a session of gaming will produce enough sweat and grease from the skin surface to make the C-stick slippery and thus infuriating to work on. In order to accommodate the C-Stick, the hinge now has a curved indentation to give more room to larger thumbs. The position of the C-stick is more or less fitting, requiring minimal change in hand position to access, but the design is lacking. Seeing how the designers essentially combined the Slide-pad Pro to the pre-existing design, this is more or less accommodated.

Start and Select has been moved to the previous spots under the action buttons from the bottom screen frame. These two small buttons do their thing well enough and boast large area enough not to puncture your finger. Home button has changed into lonely button under the bottoms screen, which sticks out from the otherwise sleek design. If it had retained its square design from the previous incarnation, it would have melded well into the overall looks of the console.

System in hand

Due to the mostly recycled design, the N3DS XL feels similar to the standard 3DS LL. However, due to the revised corners it does feel slightly more comfortable in hands, but still suffers from being flat, square and unergonomic. It is recommended to get a third party grip for more comfortable gameplay.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the 3DS LL/XL range suffers from taking too much cues from the DS and Game Boy Advance SP lines. They are mostly designed how to make the system fold in the best and have a flat appearance over user comfort. There is a proper way how to hold the systems in your hands, and yet even that changes with the users’ hand anatomy and size. The basics are the same across the board, but the handheld consoles’ designs don’t meet with those basics. One could argue that the 3DS’ design follows what has been popular in portable device designs for some time now.

Nintendo’s most ergonomic handheld console was the original GameBoy Advance. It would be good if Nintendo would look back at it and take some cues how to make a console that fits your hands and design it from that perspective, rather than from what’s popular. Of course, the danger in this is that the product may end up looking too much like a toy, but with proper visual flavours they should be able to achieve similar sturdy console look as with the aforementioned GBA. However, if you prefer having the more cubic design in your hands, you’ll most likely come to a different conclusion.

As such, if you’re intending to pick up one or the other, you might as well pick up the Flanders model. They’re both the same on the outside, but the inside is a bit different in favour of Flanders.

Funny thing, the PSP and Vita follow GBA’s ergonomic design more than Nintendo themselves.

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