The 3DS' first hardware revision is a big one, in any sense of the phrase. Nintendo's new handheld is a colossus, a titan amongst portables, and one that fixes a number of key problems with the original model. Comfort, battery life and build quality have all been addressed, while the enormous new screens promise to provide a flat-out superior gaming experience on the go. But is it worth an upgrade?
It's worth noting that the 3DS XL features exactly the same firmware, features, cameras and onboard software as the original 3DS, and you can read the full details in our 3DS hardware review. This article, therefore, documents the major changes that the XL brings to the table, both in terms of practicality, form factor and the way you'll play 3DS games.
Form, Function & Changes
The 3DS XL's killer feature is, somewhat obviously, two enormous screens. Both are 93% larger than the 3DS, with the top 3D screen measuring in at an impressive 4.88 inches: the largest ever on a Nintendo handheld. It's still slightly smaller than the Vita's capacitive touchscreen, but only just. To accommodate these lucious new screens, the chassis has naturally been increased in size to 156 x 74 x 21mm. Impressively, this is only a 22% net increase compared to the 3DS, and both screens fill much more of the bezel thanks to some technical chicanery regarding bespoke speakers in the lid. The XL is also exactly the same thickness as its predecessor, though it weighs an extra 100g. You might be able to just about squeeze it into a pocket, but chances are that you'll have to carry it in a bag.
The initial impression is of unbelievable bigness, to the extent where you'll likely want to run around your house comparing it to things. We've done the hard work for you - click the comparison pictures to 'embiggen.'
Everything remains broadly where you left it, with the exception of the Stylus and headphone socket. The newly-designed stylus is much thicker and longer than before, moulded out of a single piece of black plastic (hence more comfortable to hold and impossible to gradually retract while playing) - and brilliantly stored in a holder on the right hand side of the console. Where, frankly, we wished it had been on the original 3DS. The headphone jack has migrated to the bottom left corner of the device, while the Wi-Fi communications indicator has been wrapped around the top right of the lower case, making it easy to see from above without tilting the XL mid-game.
Battery life has been increased to approximately 6.5 hours while playing a top-end 3DS game, while DS titles or downloadable games will last about 6-8. Nintendo's estimates are on the money, and this extra time makes all the difference when you're taking your game on the road. It's also worth noting that sleep mode battery capacity has also been massively increased, to the extent where you can leave it on for an entire weekend. Oddly, however, it's important to note that an AC adaptor isn't included, so you'll have to buy one separately or use a DSi/3DS charger. I was set to make an unboxing video, but disappointingly, there's literally nothing in it bar the console itself, a deck of AR cards and a few leaflets.
Without mincing words, the 3DS XL is a superbly built machine, surpassing its progenitor in every conceivable way. By far the biggest improvement comes in the form of an infinitely sturdier hinge that can be locked at two preset angles, making it much more comfortable to play on your lap or a table. The days of the lid flopping around with every step are well behind us, which was a key concern with the original 3DS.
Buttons and triggers are also far more solid. The two digital triggers yield a satisfying click, while the D-Pad and face buttons feature no rattle or play. A chunkier 3D depth control slider can be locked in the 'off' position, meaning that you won't accidentally dislodge it during gameplay. Admittedly, however, the circle pad does offer slightly less resistance than before, but it's still fit for task and doesn't interfere with gameplay.
As mentioned, the new 95mm stylus is a single solid piece of plastic. Its 4.5mm depth affords a better grip on the once-spindly prodding device, and it won't fold back into itself while playing 'poke-heavy' games like Theatrhythm Final Fantasy.
Despite the matte plastic chassis brooking no fingerprints, I'd argue that the XL doesn't quite match the original in terms of looks. Sure, its reflective surfaces attracted smudges, but the 2011 3DS resembled a quality piece of design and engineering. While the XL is more solid and unquestionably better made, the plain two-tone plastic shell makes the pricer system look like a child's toy, and a cheap one at that. If you ever owned a low-end electronic PDA back in the day, you'll know what I'm talking about. Some of the DSi's professional matte finishing wouldn't have gone amiss.
The 3DS XL's increased size and rounded edges give players a better and more comfortable grip on the device... meaning that most games finally start to make sense. Playing the likes of Ocarina Of Time 3D and Star Fox 64 3D soon became finger-crampingly uncomfortable on the original 3DS, but now, it's nearly as comfortable as a control pad throughout extended gameplay sessions. Indeed, the chassis is the right size for a standard console controller, as you can see above. You can still reach the touchscreen with either thumb while clasping the console on both sides - it's a brilliant piece of engineering comfort-wise.
However, since the XL is heavier, games that require a stylus input are a little more problematic. Holding the console in one hand can become slightly draining (depending on your upper body strength, of course), meaning that stylus-centric titles like Kid Icarus Uprising and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy can severely tax your left arm. Thankfully, the click hinge means that it's much easier to play on your lap or a flat surface.
Graphics, Resolution & Gameplay Experience
As many of you are doubtlessly aware, the XL's stonking screen 'boasts' the same resolution and pixel density as its predecessor. This doesn't lead to a darker or grainier visual experience (as doomsayers incorrectly prophesied), but the larger screens essentially act as a magnifying glass; putting the graphical prowess of each individual game under the 2x microscope lens.
Jaggies become twice as jaggy. Fuzzy textures become twice as fuzzy. The worst-looking games on the system therefore look twice as bad, with offenders like Ridge Racer 3D appearing apocalyptically hideous. DS games with 3D graphics also suffer badly if you don't activate the 1:1 pixel scale option, though sprite-based titles still retain their charm.
Conversely, however, the most graphically capable 3DS games actually look better on the XL, since you can now appreciate the level of detail packed into the models, textures and environments. I described playing Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater 3D as "peeking through a keyhole" on the original DS, but XL's larger screen gives the once-indistinct visuals a new lease of life. Resident Evil: Revelations absolutely astounds on the new system, revelling in Capcom's lavish attention to minute detail. Critically, the XL's whopping screens provide a superior gaming experience, hands-down, compared to the 3DS' pathetic little offerings: the difference between squinting at a tiny monitor through a camera obscura or basking in front of a widescreen telly. It's a huge step up, and a giant leap forward in terms of gameplay experience.
As much as anything, graphics aren't the main reason why we buy into handhelds, and the joy of playing on a larger screen is worth the occasional disaster.
3D: Deep & Fickle
Since the 3DS XL screen is 90% larger than the original 3DS, many of us expected the 3D viewing angle and 'sweet spot' to be larger and more forgiving. This, sadly, is not the case - parallax barrier technology simply doesn't work like that. The sweet spot is just as finicky as before, and thanks to the extra weight, it can be harder to maintain on a train or car ride.
However, the larger the screen, the more intense the 3D experience. Cranking the slider (which now has a lockable 'off' position to avoid accidental activation) up to maximum results in truly breathtaking virtual depth - go easy to avoid potential discomfort. Games like Star Fox 64 3D are absolutely mindblowing, with a profound feeling of objects and effects 'coming out' of the screen as well as set into the backgrounds.
Is the 3DS XL practical and portable? It's a matter of perspective. Due to the unchanged depth, the heftier console will still slip into a coat pocket or bag. Surprisingly, it's also more practical than the original 3DS, since its increased battery life, beefy hinge and smudge-free casing come into their own on commutes, road trips or long-haul flights.
But, as you may have surmised, the XL is pretty damn big. Stashing it in jeans pockets is almost impossible (at best, uncomfortable), and you'll need to decide just how important portability is to your daily gaming life.
Nintendo maintains that their decision to not include a second circle pad was twofold: taken to avoid splitting the install base and make room for a larger battery.
I'm not entirely sold on the latter argument (the PS Vita managed it just fine, even in the sliding PSP GO-style prototypes), but the first point is nonsense. Since the Circle Pad Pro is extremely cheap and freely available, and the XL is unlikely to outsell the base model, all a second circle pad would have done is provide developers with options. They could choose to support it or concentrate on the core audience, who can easily shell out £15 quid for the optional add-on if necessary.
As things stand, the lack of a second circle pad is incredibly problematic in the short term, since it effectively stops players from enjoying compatible games like Snake Eater 3D and Resi Revelations to the full. And, for the record, just how big will the Circle Pad Pro XL be? The very existence of the plastic peripheral proves that omitting the second thumbstick was a fundamental design flaw - and Nintendo bottled the opportunity to rectify their mistake.
If you're upgrading from a 3DS to 3DS XL, you'll need to transfer your Mii information, Mii Plaza details, system data and digital content licenses over to your new console. This is actually a fairly simple (if time-consuming) process, which is explained in step-by-step prompts on both devices. Note that you'll need to briefly connect both consoles to the internet as part of the procedure before sitting back and watching an army of Pikmin go to work.
You can read the details here, but basically, you need to remember that the system transfer only deals with system memory, while the SD card data (save files, music, pictures, downloads etc) remain untouched - you'll be prompted to swap it over during the process. The XL ships with a 4GB SD card, so to transfer your purchases/save files over after the transfer, you'll simply copy and paste them using a PC. Be sure to back up first, just in case.
- Superior build quality and gaming experience
- Massively improved comfort
- Stonking screens
- Enhanced battery life, both active and sleep mode
- Simply a better machine for dedicated handheld gamers
- Tacky two-tone plastic casing
- Lack of a second circle pad is a shortsighted, blinkered mistake
- No AC adaptor
- Extra weight can make stylus games more difficult to play without a flat surface
The Short Version: The 3DS XL corrects almost all of the problems with the original 3DS, providing vastly improved comfort and giving the games library a new lease of life on gorgeous screens. The Big Dog On Handheld Campus proves to be sturdier, more reliable and plain better than its predecessor, and lasts far longer on a single charge. However, increased bulk and weight, coupled with the lack of an AC adaptor, will make it less practical for some users.
Dedicated handheld gamers should definitely consider an upgrade or purchase, since the 3DS XL provides an unquestionably superior gaming experience. If you need to prioritise portability and convenience, though, the original may still be the way to go.
Sadly, Nintendo's questionable decision to omit a second thumbstick may come back to haunt the XL, not to mention the 3DS line as a whole.