Editors' Note: As of April 2009, this product has been superseded by the Nintendo DSi, which adds slightly larger screens, two built-in cameras, an SD slot, and access to the online DSi Store for downloadable applications and games. The rating on this product has been adjusted accordingly.
Our original review of the Nintendo DS listed only one "bad" characteristic: "Somewhat bulky." Whether it was because of early fan discord or because Nintendo has a propensity to redesign its systems--only the Nintendo 64 seemed to escape the extreme makeover treatment--the aforementioned complaint was addressed with a signature Nintendo remodeling. The Nintendo DS has been slimmed down and brightened up, and it's received a serious shot of vitamin style. Rechristened, the DS Lite attempts to make the same fashion statement for video game systems that the iPod did for MP3 players. The DS Lite is available for $130 in a variety of colors, including Polar White, Onyx (black), Coral Pink, Crimson (red and black), and Cobalt (blue and black). Keeping in step with Nintendo tradition, new colors pop up every few months, as do occasional limited edition color schemes and bundles.
The Nintendo DS Lite, like the original Nintendo DS, is a portable gaming system with two vertically tiered screens. On the bottom is a touch screen that allows you to use a stylus or a finger for anything from selecting options to moving characters. There's also a normal face-button layout that allows a more standard method of control. The system plays its own proprietary cartridges (which are somewhere between SD and CompactFlash cards in size), in addition to its near-full backward compatibility with Game Boy Advance (GBA) titles--the system will not play multiplayer modes of GBA games, unfortunately. While DS cartridges are much smaller in capacity than the PSP's UMDs, they play without the often unbearable load times of Sony's proprietary format.
As its name suggests, the Nintendo DS Lite is a much more compactly designed system; at 0.83 by 2.83 by 5.25 inches when closed and weighing in at 7.66 ounces, it's 39 percent smaller and 21 percent lighter than its predecessor. The rounded corners are more finely tapered, and the top and bottom sides are symmetrical, avoiding the underbite-like look of the original's oversize bottom half. It's a much more pocket-friendly system than the original DS. Despite the smaller overall size, though, the trademark twin screens have the same dimensions.
The layout of the DS Lite is largely similar to that of the Nintendo DS, with some slight, beneficial changes. The top half of the clamshell still houses the stereo speakers; they're centered on either side of the upper screen, and despite being smaller than those on the original DS, they're just as loud. The bottom screen is a little more conducive to touch, but it feels flimsier--almost as if you've kept the protective thin-film screen that overlays many LCDs when they ship from the factory. To the left of the touch screen is the D-pad, which is about three-quarters the size of the original but just as efficient. The four face buttons (X, Y, A, and B) are essentially the same but feel a little more pronounced than those of the original DS. No longer half-ovals on top, the start and select buttons are now tiny circles on the bottom. The power button has moved from just above the D-pad to the right side of the system. It's a welcome change, as the original looked exactly like the select and start buttons and was situated in the same area on the opposite side--which led to the occasional "turn off instead of pause" blunder.
The front of the system is basically unchanged; from left to right, the volume control, the GBA game slot, and the in-line-enabled headphone port are in the same spots. Formerly slightly above the front of the system, the microphone has been moved to the hinge between screens. In instances where you need to look at the bottom screen while using the mic, you may need to retrain yourself.
The back end of the system is basically the same. The only thing that's moved is the stylus holder, which is on the back of the system, to the left of the power switch. It looks a little more discreet, and the stylus fits a bit nicer. The left and right triggers are slightly smaller, but like the face buttons, they're more pronounced and easier to press. The DS cartridge slot is centered at the top, and the AC power port is off to the left. The system includes an AC adapter, two styli that match the Lite's color, and a smaller wrist strap that--annoyingly--does not include the thumbpad of the original.
The GBA slot has undergone some slight changes. In place of an empty cartridge slot, Nintendo includes a plastic cover that looks like a half-size GBA game. While it seems like it'll often be lost (think battery covers), it looks pretty sleek and serves to obscure one of the few design flaws of the DS Lite: GBA games stick out of the cartridge slot about a half an inch, whereas the original DS fit the cartridges perfectly. But it doesn't impede gameplay in the slightest, and it's not the ugliest-looking setup. And considering that the DS is backward compatible with hundreds of GBA games, it's a small price to pay. A bigger beef with the DS Lite is that its high-gloss finish is a magnet for fingerprints, especially the darker-colored models. Our import navy blue DS Lite was constantly smudged, so Nintendo's failure to include even a rudimentary cleaning cloth or carrying case is notable. On the plus side, the clamshell design means the DS Lite travels well, limiting the scratches and marks to the exterior while the two screens remain fully protected.
The DS Lite has four brightness settings, up from two on the original DS. At the darkest setting, the DS Lite is just as bright as the original DS; at its max, it's almost as brilliant as the new Game Boy Advance SP. Playing a GBA game on both systems, we noticed that the DS Lite's colors were slightly washed out in comparison. The DS Lite's backlighting makes the graphics stand out in DS games, though. The colorful Tetris DS, for example, is significantly enhanced by the brightness of the newer system.
We tested the DS Lite's battery against the original DS's. Playing the exact same game (Super Mario 64) at each system's brightest setting and maximum volume, the DS Lite lasted for roughly 5 hours, while the DS conked out after 6 hours, 45 minutes. Recharging the system back to full power took 3 hours. Like the original, the DS Lite goes into sleep mode when the system is closed.
Introduced about a year after the system launched, Wi-Fi compatibility on the DS is surprisingly solid for a free service hosted by a company known for its aversion to online gaming. Whether on the original DS or the DS Lite, the Wi-Fi setup is simple, as the system can spot most wireless connections. If there are none nearby, you can create one from a broadband-connected PC by attaching the Nintendo USB Wi-Fi Connector to it. Without an external online network such as Xbox Live, finding friends is a bit unwieldy--you have to enter 12-digit "friend codes" for each game for which you wish to create a buddy list. Playing against nonfriends is hit-or-miss; you won't find a pickup game as fast as you will on a console, but as long as you're on a popular game during a reasonable hour, you should be able to locate competition. Over the course of an early evening, we were able to find several opponents in Tetris DS. The microphone lends itself to voice chat, but as of right now, only Metroid Prime: Hunters employs between-match chatter. Local wireless is, of course, a lot more reliable, with the added benefit of allowing multiplayer via a single cartridge. GBA multiplayer games won't play head-to-head over the wireless connection, and the lack of a link cable port means you can't have a wired bond to older GBAs or Nintendo's GameCube unless Nintendo releases yet another adapter that interfaces with the DS Lite's proprietary power port.
The games for the DS Lite are of decent graphical quality--a bit better than the PS1/N64 but nowhere near Xbox/PS2/GameCube standards. It also pales in comparison to PSP games. Where the DS Lite really earns its stripes is the innovative quality of its titles. Whereas PSP games feel much like their console cousins, the DS Lite's dual- and touch-screen setup allows for some truly unique gameplay, whether it's drawing your own Pac-Man in Namco's Pac Pix or performing surgery via stylus in Atlus's Trauma Center: Under the Knife. That said, not many of the other third-party software developers are up to the challenge of taking full advantage of the DS's capabilities. For every Nintendo-produced hit such as Nintendogs or Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, there are several barely updated GBA ports or slightly downgraded PSP ports--neither of which make much use of the touch- and dual-screen technology.
The DS systems lack the video and audio playback and Web-surfing functions of the PSP, at least in the United States. Nintendo-supported solutions for both--the Play-Yan media player and Opera Web browser respectively--have or will soon appear in Japan, though the U.S. release status of both products are currently unknown. We will update this review accordingly when and if the products hit Stateside.
Until the release of the Nintendo Wii, the company seems intent on focusing its creative juices on the DS rather than the near-dead GameCube. If you still haven't picked a portable gaming system, the DS Lite is definitely worth picking up if you like its growing list of quirky, original titles. If you've already purchased the original, the improvements aren't significant enough to warrant shelling out another $130 unless you're truly put off by the bulkiness of the original. If you're in the market for a portable system with more mature--albeit less original--titles and decent media playback capabilities, then the PSP may be worth picking up for just $40 to $70 more.