Nintendo DSi launches: Is it worth the extra $40?

Nintendo's new DSi handheld gaming system was released on Sunday, April 5th and I've had a chance to play around with it for a while. This is an incremental upgrade over the existing Nintendo DS (which will remain on store shelves for the forseeable feature). With the DS selling for $129, is the $169 DSi a good buy? Let's see.

At first glance, the DSi looks physically unchanged, but a closer look reveals two cameras on the unit. One of them is on the top lid, so when the unit is opened up it faces 'outward' from the player. This camera is accompanied by a small LED indicating the camera is in use, and using it generates a digitized 'shutter' sound (regardless of the volume settings of the unit), so forget about surreptitiously taking shots of strangers on the train. Not great for skittish pet, either. The second camera is on the 'hinge' of the unit and faces the player (presumably this will be used for gesture recognition as a means of input, or just to send your smiling mug to an online opponent). Neither of these cameras are very sophisticated (both are 0.3 megapixel) but they get the job done for taking quick snapshots to show off on the DSi itself.

Other changes to the DSi are mostly ergonomic. The glossy case of the DS is replaced by a matte finish (in either black or blue for now) which is much more resistant to fingerprints. The screens are slightly larger, which is always nice. The power button is on the face of the unit, and tapping it reboots the machine (to get you out of a game). Volume controls are on the left side, and are via +/- buttons rather than the sometimes finicky slider of the DS. Holding down the Select button turns the volume controls into screen brightness controls.

The hinge now sports 3 indicator lights. One is for Wi-Fi signal, one indicates the unit is charging and the third indicates charge level (blue means OK, red means low, flashing red means shutdown imminent). The stylus storage slot, headphone and mike jacks, game slot and power adapter jacks are all pretty much where they were (although the power adapter slot has changed, so your old adapters won't work with the DSi). One big drawback is that the Game Boy Advance slot is gone, which means no backwards compatibility with old GBA games or the various add-ons (such as the one for Guitar Hero) that use this slot. An addition is an HDSD card slot on the right side that you can use for storing photos and audio.

So much for the physical, let's dig into the software.

The DSi "OS" uses a horizontal row of icons that can be shuffled around to suit your tastes. Initially you'll have icons for Settings, DSi Camera, DSi Sound, DSi Shop, DS Download Play, PictoChat and one for whatever game is in the unit at the time. If you're familiar with the Nintendo Wii interface this will feel pretty familiar. DSi Camera is an app that lets you play around with, or view, photos you've taken. You can distort them in all kinds of goofy ways using pre-built 'lens' that Nintendo supplies in the interface. DSi Sound lets you record and play back audio, and again you can distort audio clips in various ways. You can also play .aac encoded audio off the SD card, but getting that music onto the card is up to you; Nintendo provides no PC software to help you manage your media. PictoChat and DS Download Play are unchanged from the DS version; the first let's you pass notes and drawings wireless with other local DSi users, the second lets you download software from an in-store kiosk, or a Nintendo Wii, to play temporarily (until you power off the unit).

The big news here is the DSi Shop. This is Nintendo's answer to the iPhone's AppStore, in a manner of speaking. You connect via a Wi-Fi access point and can purchase software to use on the DSi. As of now the selection is pretty limited, but there is a web browser (based on Opera) and a few games. The browser is free, but sadly doesn't support Flash. The games are priced in "DSiWare Points" (again with the points...why is Sony the only game company that trusts us to buy using good old real currency!?) and you'll get 1000 points free when you first connect to the store (assuming you do it before October 2009). That's enough for a couple of the games. Once you purchase and download a title, it gets a persistent icon in the menu bar. Again going back to the Nintendo Wii, the system is very similar to "channels" on that hardware.

It's worth noting that the DSi does support WPA wireless security. The DS only supported WEP which was a real problem for any security conscious household. This won't fix the issue with old games (which have their own internal wireless code, apparently) but at least the DSi can get online for web browser or the DSi shop via WPA. Hopefully moving forward new games will support modern wireless security protocols.

So is the DSi worth $40 more? I'm going to waffle and say "It depends." Partially it depends on you; what are slightly better ergonomics worth to you? Are you willing to manually move audio to an SD card to listen to it on the DSi? Does taking snapshots with your handheld gaming system sound interesting? If the GBA Slot is important to you, your decision is an easy one: stick with the DS. The other part of the equation lies with Nintendo. The DSi Shop could become a great source of content that would make the DSi a must-have for gamers, but today, at launch, the Shop is all about potential. Lastly the big X factor is, will game publishers support the extra features (primarily the cameras) of the DSi? We'll have to wait and see.

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