The name tells you all you really need to know about Nintendo’s latest handheld, not to mention its biggest selling point. The 3DS XL is to the 3DS what the DSi XL was to the DSi. It’s a bigger version, with bigger dual screens. But while the DSi XL was really a DSi aimed at older members of the console’s audience, some of whom struggled to see Brain Training and Sudoku on the smaller screen or grip the handheld for long periods without their joints playing up, the 3DS XL is attractive to a wider audience. For a number of reasons, it’s not just a bigger 3DS, but a better one.
Size may be an issue. The new model weighs 339g, which makes it nearly 100g heavier than the original, and at 156 x 93 x 22mm it’s too big to cram into the average pocket. In the hand, the extra weight isn’t an issue, and in fact the 3DS XL sometimes feels less chunky than the original. The design has been altered slightly, with more curvaceous corners and sculpted shoulder buttons, and the new, less shiny exterior finish is perhaps a little easier to grip. The 3DS XL also ships in three colour options – blue, red and black – each with a matt black interior, and all are more attractive than the slightly dodgy aqua blue of the original line-up.
Most of the physical changes are minor. The select, home and start buttons are now clearly-defined physical buttons rather than hidden membrane switches, while the headphone socket has moved from the middle of the front to a less obtrusive spot in the left-hand corner. The SD card slot is now on the right, not the left. Yet the overall effect of the larger size and the design refinements is to make the 3DS a more comfortable games machine to use over long periods. In fact, it now beats PS Vita in this area. Plus, while the new model doesn’t come with the old model’s desktop stand, it doesn’t really need it. There’s enough weight in the base to use it sat flat on the desk with the screen tilted up.
Of course, it’s the screens where the 3DS XL gets more exciting. The top screen has grown from 3.58in to 4.88in, making it only slightly smaller than the glorious OLED screen on the PS Vita. It also seems to have developed a new anti-reflective coating, which helps in some brightly sunlit environments. The bottom screen has grown from 3.02in to 4.18in to match, which gives you a bit more space to play with when you’re tapping, swiping and prodding.
This increase in size is almost totally a good thing. Speaking personally, the 3DS screen has always seemed a bit too small, and neither the graphics nor the 3D effect have always had the impact they deserved. The new top screen is just about right. It’s easier to get absorbed into the game, and the 3D finally seems worthy of a bit of fuss. Play Super Mario 3D Land, Kid Icarus: Uprising or Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS XL, and the games just come alive. The 3D effects in Kid Icarus and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater can be hugely impressive.
Better still, the 3D now seems a bit more forgiving. I’ve met a lot of people who turn 3D off on the 3DS as a matter of habit, not because they don’t want 3D but because they can’t face holding their head absolutely still for the entire time that they’re playing. The 3DS XL doesn’t fix this issue completely, but you can breathe or shuffle in your seat without the 3D going haywire and you having to hit pause just to give you time to get back into position. This is a big improvement.
In other words, if you want to buy a 3DS, then the 3DS XL is a better choice than its older, smaller brother. It has access to a great and improving line-up of games, and all the fun features baked into the firmware. You might not want to spend your life taking 3D snaps, swapping Miis with strangers using Streetpass or playing augmented reality mini-games, but these little things certainly help pass the time. All the same, does that mean we haven’t got some grumbles? Sadly, no. The 3DS XL still isn’t perfect.
First, where’s the second analogue stick? It’s crucial for playing games like Resident Evil: Revelations, and could really open up the 3DS for action games and first-person shooters. There’s plenty of room for one on the right hand-side of the 3DS XL. However, Nintendo has decided that we’d be better off with a new version of the Circle Pad Pro add-on, and while this made the 3DS more comfortable to play on, it still felt like a bit of a botch-job. Repeating this with the 3DS XL just makes no sense to anyone apart from the bean-counters.
Second, battery life still isn’t great. Nintendo claims three and a half to five hours of 3D gaming and up to eight hours of DS gaming on the 3DS XL, but we didn’t quite hit the former figure in practice, and that’s still not enough to keep us covered on a flight or long train journey. If there’s an improvement, it’s that the 3DS XL seems happier to spend the night in sleep mode without most of the battery having gone when you wake up the next day. Battery life has been an issue for PlayStation Vita too, but the long battery life was one of the big benefits of the DS Lite and DSi. It’s a shame that it’s fallen so low in this generation.
Third, Nintendo no longer throws in a power supply. This isn’t a problem if you have a DSi, DSi XL or 3DS, but if you haven’t then you’ll need to pay extra for a new PSU. That’s not ideal.
Yet it’s the final issue that really makes you think. The 3DS XL might have bigger screens, but the resolution remains the same as on the 3DS – 320 x 240 for the touchscreen and 800 x 240 for the top screen, which goes down to 400 x 240 per eye when you’re playing in 3D. The fact is, you can really see the individual pixels in your 3DS games, and it makes it all the more apparent how comparatively underpowered the hardware is.
We won’t go overboard here. Nintendo’s strength has always been in making lovable, cartoon-styled games for a family audience, and Super Mario 3D Land and Kid Icarus: Uprising look fantastic. Capcom also seems to be squeezing the most from the hardware, and Resident Evil: Revelations is at least as good-looking as the GameCube Resident Evils, and occasionally comes close to Resident Evil 5 on the Xbox 360. However, with such a low resolution screen, there just isn’t the finesse or clarity that we’re seeing in games on Vita, or even on the iPhone 4S or the top-rank Android phones.
We like the 3DS XL. Games have more impact on the bigger screen, and the 3D effects are more impressive and easier to manage. It’s also a more comfortable console to hold, and one you’ll be happier to play with over longer stretches of time.
For these reasons, we can turn a blind eye to some of the problems. The lack of power supply won’t be a disaster for Nintendo fans, though battery life is still under-par. However, this is an expensive console, and in some ways the bigger screen exposes the shortcomings of the technology. In a world of retina displays and HD graphics in the palm of your hand, the 3DS XL sometimes feels like it’s already struggling to keep up.
For those of us who love Mario, Zelda and all the classic Nintendo franchises this won’t be an issue, but while the 3DS XL solves many of the 3DS’ problems, it doesn’t fix them all.