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A bigger small


I don't generally write about hardware, but today I can't help myself. Last week I bought a Nintendo DSi XL, and after a week of putting this PhatBoy through its paces, an unexpected love affair has blossomed between me and this marvelous piece of kit. Read on for all the smoochy details.

First, let me say that I won't recommend you abandon a perfectly good DSi for the new super-sized XL - even though that's exactly what I did. In terms of functionality, it brings almost nothing new to the table. Same control layout; same screen resolution; same processor; same twin cameras. The XL has a larger battery than the DSi (1050 mAh vs 840 mAh), which translated into approximately 15 hours of continuous operation for me.

The XL is bigger, and that's pretty much the whole story. But, for me, that difference makes all the difference. This is the best handheld game system I've ever played, and I've played just about all of them. (Sorry Watara Supervision, I never got around to you.) If you're an original DS or DS Lite owner considering an upgrade, you should definitely give the XL a look.

When I say 'give it a look' I mean get your hands on it and play it. I had no interest whatsover in this device until I saw one in the store. Even then, seeing a stack of XL boxes inside a locked case failed to break my stride. What finally piqued my curiosity was a salesperson asking me if I'd like to have a look at "the new GameBoy." I said yes, and he pulled a shiny burgundy XL out of his vest pocket. I flipped open the lid, turned on the unit, loaded up Zelda Spirit Tracks...and within 30 seconds I was sold.

I'm probably not the average DS owner. Portability (i.e. tucking a handheld in my pocket and playing on-the-go, on the bus, plane or train) isn't very important to me. At least 90% of my time playing handheld games, dating back to the original GameBoy in 1989, has been spent in a chair or on a sofa. I've never been interested in carrying a handheld on my person. If it fits in my shoulder bag, that's portable enough for me.

The DSi XL hits a perfect ergonomic sweet spot for me: small enough, but now big enough too. At 6.3-inches long and 3.6-inches wide, the device is taller and wider than previous DS models, but it's still less than an inch thin. More importantly, its 4.2-inch screen is 93 percent larger than the DS Lite's, and this is the difference you must see to appreciate. In recent days I've shown my XL to various friends and students, and their reactions typically arrive in two stages. First they see the device closed: "Hm"; then they open it and discover the two bright screens: "Wow!" 

Rhythm Heaven is exactly 52.3 percent easier to play on the XL thanks to the bigger screens. Okay, I'm just making up numbers, but certain games that require writing (Brain Age), note-taking (Spirit Tracks) or precision jumping (New Super Mario Bros) all similarly benefit from the extra real estate. Cell-shaded games like Chinatown Wars and The World Ends With You look better and brighter than ever.

Other games, like Nintendogs and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, appear slightly pixelated, and that's because the XL's screen runs at the same 256 x 192 resolution of previous DS models. Nintendo has increased the size of each pixel, so games that rely on antialiasing suffer a bit on the XL. The difference is slight, however, and most games show no degradation at all, as far as I can tell.

Audio volume and clarity are greatly improved on the XL. The pen-sized stylus feels far more comfortable, and the unit feels impressively solid in my hands. The screen is a bit brighter than the DSi's; but it's no iPhone, and the device is still essentially unplayable in sunlight. Wi-Fi remains wonky, as it has been throughout the DS life cycle, and some will consider the system overpriced ($20 more than the DSi).

But if you're a devoted Nintendo handheld gamer with a library of DS games you still enjoy playing, you should give the DSi XL a look. Or, better yet, a grip. Of course, you may wish to hold out for the recently-announced Nintendo 3DS, due to appear in North America a year from now. I'm curious about that one, but I expect by the time it appears, I won't regret my year-long romance with this little big sweetie.