The Nintendo DS has been out since 2005, and in that time, we've seen a number of console revisions. The DS Lite added some much-needed streamlining to the original bulky Nintendo DS, while the Nintendo DSi added SD card support, a built-in camera, and the ability to download games to the system. Each revision did a lot to turn the DS from a bulky brick to the svelte, sleek and stylish system it is now. As rumors fly around about Nintendo's "3DS," a new system seemingly set to succeed the DS entirely, it's easy to miss that another revision of the Nintendo DS has been released. Instead of adding new features or fixing much-needed errors, the DSi XL is designed to appeal to a difference audience from the usual DS: would-be gamers who found the small screens of the handheld to be a barrier to entry.
Compared to a DSi, the first thing you'll notice about a DSi XL is how large it is. The new system dwarfs its previous version, and is even slightly larger than the original Nintendo DS, although not as thick. It's also substantially heavier. Its slim design assures that it can still fit in your pocket, but it's a tight enough fit that you'll probably want to invest in a carrying case instead, especially for a younger child. On the plus side, this additional bulk results in a far more sturdy-feeling system. If you hold the DSi XL after holding a DSi, it's clear that the system feels more solid, has more weight to it and seems less likely to bend. We didn't perform any serious stress tests on it, but the system felt far more durable than any of its predecessors — even the fat Nintendo DS. On the downside, the new outer shell of the DS is of a different material than the DSi. The material doesn't seem any less solid, but it attracts fingerprints like a magnet. Even in the short period of time after the DSi XL was unboxed, it got smudged and scratched far easier than a year-old Nintendo DSi. It's not a major problem, but it would have been nice if Nintendo had kept the same matte finish they used on the DSi. The bottom of the DSi XL has a nice easy-to-grip matte finish, which makes the easily smudged top stand out even more.
The rest of the DSi is relatively unchanged. The d-pad and face buttons are almost identical, and there didn't seem to be any particularly noteworthy changes to the controls compared to the DSi. The DSi XL's buttons did feel a little stiffer compared to the DSi, but not enough to cause any substantial difficulty. There's also a slightly larger gap between the B button and the Start and Select buttons, but not enough to cause a problem. The built-in stylus is slightly longer than the DSi's, which helps make it feel a little more comfortable. The DSi XL also comes with a large pen-like stylus; it can't be directly slotted into the DSi XL due to its size, but it's more comfortable to hold for games that involve a lot of stylus usage or writing, like the Brain Age series. The speakers on the DSi XL are noticeably more powerful than the DSi's. The volume and sound quality are much better, at least compared to a year-old DSi, and it really helps for DS games with a good soundtrack, like the recently released Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.
The real stars of the show, however, are the new larger screens on the DSi XL. These 4.2-inch screens are substantially larger than the 3.25 inch screens on the DSi, although this doesn't always work to the system's advantage. The screen resolution hasn't changed from the original DSi but has been "stretched" to fit the newer larger screens. This works in the favor of some games. It's much easier to read text in almost every game I played, and some titles actually looked a bit better with the magnified visuals. Other games, however, suffered heavily. Games that already looked pixelated are even worse on the DSi XL. It was clear that a lot of games were not designed to be stretched to that degree, and it can certainly make some look worse. The colors are also slightly more muted on the DSi XL when compared to the DSi. This is another feature that works in the favor of some games and against others. It gives everything a warmer, more inviting look, which is appropriate for Brain Age or Scribblenauts, but slightly less so for Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey or Castlevania.
On the positive side, I found it a lot easier to play games that rely heavily on precise use of the touch-screen. A game of Trauma Center went significantly more smoothly on my DSi XL than it ever has on the older models. Likewise, even things as simple as picking letters to "type" on a virtual keyboard were far more likely to register correctly. This makes it very appropriate for certain games and reduces some of the frustration caused by the touch-screen controls on older DS games. The difference wasn't substantial, but it was far easier to avoid making mistakes or choosing the wrong letter, which helped keeps thing flowing smoothly in touch-screen-heavy games.
In our tests, we found that the DSi XL had substantially better battery life than a DSi. At full charge, on maximum brightness, we got about 5.5 hours of gameplay out of the DSi XL, compared to the DSi's 4.5 hours. Obviously, cutting down the brightness somewhat would substantially increase the battery life of the system. The DSi XL is not noticeably brighter than the DSi, so if you found a certain brightness level comfortable on the DSi, this is unlikely to change on the DSi XL. It's also a bit hard to play the DSi XL outdoors in bright sunlight, even with the improved screens, which does hinder portability a bit. Even on the highest brightness, the DSi XL offers plenty of gaming time for your dollar, and as a result, it's a slightly better choice for long trips away from a power outlet.
The DSi XL comes with a fair amount of extra software when compared to the regular DSi. In addition to the regular features available on every DSi, it also comes with a few extra games. Brain Age Express: Arts & Letters and Brain Age Express: Math both come pre-installed on the system, as well as the Photo Clock, DSi Internet Browser and Flipnote Studio. This comes to about $18 worth of free products installed on the system. While Brain Age or the Flipnote Studio may not be the most appealing product to hardcore gamers, they actually make very good beginner games for the DSi XL's intended audience of older gamers or younger children. The Brain Age titles are not as full-featured as some of their counterparts but easy to play and still maintain a lot of the Brain Age charm. It's especially nice to have them built into the system so gamers don't have to carry a Brain Age cart around with them. The other free features are less impressive, especially since the Flipnote Studio and DSi Browser are available as free downloads anyway. The inclusion helps to take a bit of the edge off the $190 price tag for the DSi XL when compared to the DSi classic's $170, although only if you're actually interested in the Brain Age titles. As you would expect, the DSi XL supports all DS carts and DSiware programs, but previous DSi owners should note that you cannot transfer your older DSiware to the new system, which could be a serious flaw if you've purchased a lot of DSiware.
All in all, the Nintendo DSi XL is a fairly well put-together update to the DSi. There are a few nagging complaints here and there, such as the stretched graphics and muted colors, but they do little to sour the overall experience. In particular, the larger lettering makes the game significantly more accessible for older gamers, those with bad vision, or younger children who are still learning their letters. The larger screen and improved battery life make the system an appealing choice to those looking for their first DS, and the durability of the system makes it a lot harder for a younger child to break. However, it should be noted that there really isn't a lot here for prior DS owners to jump at. The minor improvements are nice but certainly aren't worth $190 when you already have a DSi. If you're a DS owner who's looking to upgrade to a DSi or if you're just looking to get into handheld gaming, the DSi XL is a solid choice, although not head and shoulders above the cheaper DSi. If the larger screens or free software appeal to you at all, it's very likely worth shelling out the extra $20 for a better experience.
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