Hands-on: DS Lite
10th Mar 2006 | 17:13
Okay, let's get straight to the point: as far as we're concerned, the DS Lite is hands-down the best-designed piece of Nintendo hardware yet. If you don't already own the original version of Nintendo's DS handheld, then you probably owe it to yourself to pick up the Lite, when it becomes more readily available. What's more, even if you DO own DS original, the DS Lite feels significantly enough like an entirely different beast to warrant that upgrade.
Unlike Nintendo's other recent hardware redesign, the Game Boy Micro, the Lite feels much more like an essential upgrade than something you're likely to purchase on a whim when you're feeling flush/dejected/unexpectedly smaller. Starting with the most superficial difference, the DS Lite genuinely does look gorgeous. Of course, it's down to personal preference whether you favour the PSP's widescreen elegance or the Lite's minimalist curves, but both are definitely on an equal footing in the style stakes now. In fact, the DS Lite demonstrates an impressively assured change of direction from the company that brought a purple brick to a console market already high on Sony's slick razor lines.
Whatever the Lite's publicity stills might suggest, the Crystal White version isn't quite as iPod as you might think. Instead of sporting a painfully scratchable all-over gloss, the Lite's fashioned from a fairly soft matte plastic - which we suspect is probably fairly susceptible to fingerprints if you're the kind of person who places stockpiling bells above personal hygiene. The plastic's exposed along the upper hinge of the DS - where the shoulder buttons, power socket and DS cartridge slot go - and also on the inside of the clamshell.
The handheld actually gets its iPod-like luster from the heavy-duty transparent covering on its front and rear - not only ramping up the Lite's aesthetic appeal, but also seemingly deterring scratches and blemishes in a way that Apple's MP3 player could only dream of. Elsewhere around the handheld's exterior, Nintendo's seen fit to rejig and refit the machine with some serious attention to detail. Gone are the flimsy knobs and buttons of the original DS, replaced with a volume slider which doesn't feel like it'll break off in your hand and a headphone jack which actually accommodates headphones, unlike the previous model, where the silver ridge obstructed all but the smallest intrusions.
Over on the right-hand edge of the console, you'll find the relocated power switch - sporting a PSP-like flick-mechanism - and a hole for that all-important stylus. As the stylus now sits horizontally across the DS Lite when not in use, Nintendo has increased its length and thickness, making for a far less hand-gnarling play experience. On the subject of hand-gnarling, the Lite's diminished footprint somehow manages to be far more ergonomic - its reduced height means it's much easier to reach the SP-style 'clicky' shoulder buttons without contorting your fingers into shapes that wouldn't look out of place in the Shadow Puppet Theatre of DOOM.
In fact, you'll probably find the DS a whole lot less wince-inducing now that it has shed those few extra ounces. Although side-by-side comparisons don't suggest much of a size reduction, the machine's noticeably lighter in its latest iteration. What's more, the switch from crazy-angled layer cake to compact oblong form means the Lite is easier to grip and you won't strain your balancing wrist when you're slashing away with the stylus. Even the GBA port now sports a tasty dust cover, meaning you won't walk away from lengthy game sessions with its shape carved into your palms.
Flipping the DS Lite open, the first thing you'll notice is the radically redesigned front plate, sporting brand new, thicker Revolution-style d-pad and diamond buttons. These are something of a blessing, providing much more tactile feedback during gameplay - as opposed to the original DS's flimsy, slightly unresponsive configuration. Elsewhere, features have been shifted around, again for the better - the Start and Select buttons now live directly beneath the diamond buttons, all in easy thumb-reaching distance.
The mic is more logically positioned on the hinge between the upper and lower screens, meaning you no longer need faff around tilting the machine on its end when you want to chastise your Nintendog or puff up a Mario Kart balloon. Also welcome, are the repositioned wi-fi and recharge indicator lights - now placed on the hinge, in front of the R shoulder button. Both lights are clearly visible, now well away from obstructing fingers - even better, you can check how your recharge is doing without having to open the clamshell up. Again, all these are minor incidental features, but welcome changes all the same.
Ironically enough, the most significant upgrade in this DS iteration is one of the least noticeable, initially. Once you've been struck by the Lite's sexy new form and tossed it around in your palms a few times, you'll finally get around to turning it on. It's fair to say everything else pales into significance when you first clap eyes on the Lite's brand new screens. Featuring the same technology as the Micro and newer model GBA SPs, the screen clarity is simply phenomenal. What's more, with four possible brightness levels (adjustable when you first boot up your DS), it's no exaggeration to say that the increased richness and vibrancy of your games will make you wonder if Nintendo's squeezed some extra performance juice out of the hardware without telling anyone.
In a nutshell, that's precisely why we're right behind the DS Lite. Although some quarters might argue that this latest Nintendo hardware revision is precisely the machine we should have seen hit shelves a year ago, it's clear that the march of time has given Nintendo the opportunity to refine and improve its dual-screen handheld to levels nearing design perfection. In fact, unlike previous upgrades - with the GBA SP's missing headphone jack and the Micro's ill-placed Start/Select buttons springing to mind - there's really nothing we can fault the DS Lite on. It's sexy, slick - and absolutely everything we were hoping it would be. Frankly, if this is indicative of Nintendo's new direction, we really can't wait to see what's next.
Currently, Nintendo has yet to unveil its launch plans for the DS Lite in the West. However, if you're the enterprising type, why not visit our import friends at Lik-sang.com - who kindly supplied the Lite featured in this hands-on - and snag yourself a machine while you can. We tested the Crystal White version of the handheld, but Nintendo's set to unleash the Ice Blue and Enamel Navy models on March 11.