Nintendo makes DSi screens bigger than competitors

This morning, Nintendo announced the third upgrade to the DS family, the DSi LL (or DSi XL), will be released in Japan on November 21, one year after the DSi debuted, for ¥20,000 (approx. $220). The LL's main improvement is the size of its screens, which have been increased from 3.25" to 4.2" with a moderate increase to the size of the chassis. The device also includes a much bigger stylus, which looks to be the size of a ballpoint pen, and battery life has reportedly been increased to five hours at maximum screen brightness.

Handheld gaming has been a strong suit for Nintendo since the early '80s, and it has consistently led the category despite the constant string of capable competitors touting higher quality or more innovative portable gaming platforms. Of Atari, Sega, NEC, Tiger, Bandai, SNK, and a handful of other notables, few video game and toy companies have been able to engage the handheld market for more than a single generation.

Nintendo, meanwhile, has managed to work its way through seven consecutive generations of handhelds. It has done this by working on an extremely predictable and regimented upgrade path, incrementally refreshing its handhelds and slowly phasing out prior generations while retaining backward compatibility. This means each generation is made up of families of systems rather than single units.

The seventh generation Nintendo DS (dual screen) family of consoles debuted in 2004 and has since been upgraded twice: from DS to DS Lite in 2006, and then to DSi in late 2008.

Despite the availability of the new DSi, Nintendo's handheld sales dropped nearly 20% in 2009. This, paired with unfavorable exchange rates, brought Nintendo's profits down 61% in mid-summer. Today, the company reported a 52% decrease in quarterly profit and cut its annual forecast by about 25%. Things are looking pretty stale six years into the DS series, but bigger screens address a couple of potential audiences and use-cases.

The improved visibility and more comfortable stylus could appeal to older gamers or those who simply don't care for small screen gaming. The 4.2" screen is respectably larger than the new PSP Go's (3.8"), the iPhone 3G S' (3.5") and even those of smaller-form MIDs like the now-delayed Nokia N900 (also 3.5").

As Apple is wont to remind us, the public has embraced downloadable touch-based gaming, and the iPhone/iPod Touch platform has more than 21,000 games available. Nintendo DS and Sony PSP have barely 5,000 combined. However, iPhone screen visibility remains a major issue. The iPhone's lack of buttons forces developers to integrate touch or motion control into their games, and the execution is oftentimes poor. Touching the screen always interrupts the gamer's field of vision, and it proves to be detrimental in games where the developer hasn't fully taken this into account. Furthermore, tilting, shaking, or waving the iPhone as some games demand is simply "counter-immersive" -- if such an adjective exists.

Though the DS family still lacks motion sensors, it has plenty of interfaces that developers can tap into to let the user's view of on-screen action remain continuous. The touch screen's view may be interrupted, but the upper screen's view remains. And failing that, there is always the option to rely on the D-pad, buttons, microphone, and in the DSi's case, two cameras.

The point of this upgrade is that it falls in line with Nintendo's past handheld upgrades, where displays get upgraded as the technology becomes affordable and energy efficient. With improved screens typically comes an improved user experience and a more engaged audience.

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