Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Nintendo Freshens a Game Player

Nintendo Co.’s strategy of creating videogames with simple graphics that anyone can play has worked well on its Wii and portable DS. Earlier this month, the company released the $170 Nintendo DSi in an attempt to spruce up its three-year-old DS Lite and 5 1/2-year-old DS. At first glance, this plain, rectangular clamshell with dual screens appears to be the same as its predecessors.

But a deeper dive into the DSi reveals its improvements. It now has two cameras: one facing the user and another facing out; its earlier iterations had none. It also now has a SecureDigital memory-card slot, so you can plug in an SD card and listen to AAC music files from iTunes on your DSi, which now works as a portable music player, or expand the DSi’s storage capacity.

The DSi is also Wi-Fi enabled in a more secure way than previous models and can be used to buy and download games and applications directly from Nintendo’s DSi Shop online marketplace. This solves the problem of carrying around multiple game cartridges or losing them, but might bother people who like swapping games with one another. The DSi’s Web browser is also faster than its predecessors.

These physical changes affect the way the DSi works in good and bad ways. For example, its two cameras can be used for photo-related games like WarioWare: Snapped!, a clever photo-booth-like game that tricks you into making funny faces while secretly taking your picture.

But while the DSi’s newly added SD card slot expands the device’s memory and brings music on to the DSi, this replaces another slot that was used for playing GameBoy Advance games on the older DS and DS Lite. The physical slot for DS games remains.

Overall, the Nintendo DSi is a fun little portable gaming device. I’ve been fooling around with it for a few weeks, testing games and applications since they became available on April 5. My DSi tapped into various Wi-Fi networks with no trouble and its browser was straightforward and zippy. The DSi speakers sounded great for a tiny device. On the downside, the DSi Shop is still in its infancy so only 10 games and apps are available there. The DSi retains an aging, boxy look — a design that could have been freshened up.

Until Oct. 5, Nintendo is running a promotion for its DSi Shop, which accepts points to buy games and applications; $1 is equal to about 100 points. People who buy the DSi will receive 1,000 free points for the DSi Shop. New content is added to the shop each Monday. This content ranges in price from free to 800 points or more. I bought and downloaded a variety of things, ranging from the free Web browser to a 200-point magic-trick game called Master of Illusion Express: Funny Face. I also downloaded WarioWare: Snapped! for 500 points.

Points for the DSi Shop can be purchased online or at retail stores and they’re sold in increments of 2,000 for $20. Before purchasing and downloading, a notification with each game and app tells you how many “blocks,” or memory, it will take up on your DSi. WarioWare: Snapped!, for example, took up 61 blocks. This information really doesn’t mean anything unless you go to your system settings to see how many blocks you’ve used and how many remain. By default, each DSi is shipped with 256 megabytes of flash memory or 1,024 blocks.

The DSi cameras are only .3 megapixel each and don’t use a zoom or flash, but photos taken with them looked colorful and clear on the DSi’s two 3.25-inch, 256×192-pixel-resolution screens. Instead of sending photos to friends directly from the DSi, you have to save them to the SD card and transfer them to a computer to share them.

Nintendo DSi

The Nintendo DSi is a spruced-up successor to two of the company’s earlier game players.

Nintendo says the “i” in DSi is meant to represent the personal aspect of the device since it has built-in tools to let you create your own content. For example, a game called DSi Sound lets you sing or hum into a built-in microphone, then rearrange your recording to change its pitch, speed and sound — or even to add harmony. AAC music files pulled on to the device via SD card can be changed in various ways, though they can’t be saved. Photos taken with the cameras can be morphed in nine different ways including cutting different photos and piecing them together on the screen.

The DSi has parental controls, which the DS and DS Lite didn’t have. These controls let parents turn off Web browsing completely. A better compromise might have been to let parents limit kids to certain sites. The parental controls can also put restrictions on the DSi so it can’t play games with certain ratings. For instance, if a child goes to school and tries to play a friend’s M-rated game in his DSi, it won’t work.

The DSi works well as a music player, albeit a lot chunkier than an iPod. A high-capacity SD memory card could potentially add hundreds of songs to the device, and you can press buttons to play on-screen instruments in the background while listening to your tunes. If you’re using headphones (not included with the device) and you close the DSi, music will keep playing through the headphones so you can put the DSi in a bag and go. In past versions, the DSi went to sleep when closed. It plays only AAC files, not MP3s.

I used the DSi’s Web browser to read some news on WSJ.com and to check my Web-based email, plugging letters and symbols into the touch-screen keyboard. A stylus can be used for precise lettering, but I got by with my fingernails.

The DSi games are approachable for all types of people, and are obviously not geared toward the graphics-rich visuals that hard-core gamers adore. I liked the way they incorporated the device’s touch screen for drawings and its cameras for photo games.

The Nintendo DSi is $20 more than the price of the original DS, and $40 more than the DS Lite. But its two cameras, snappy Web browser and music-player capabilities make it a likable and well-rounded device that any family member could use.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

Corrections & Amplifications

Photos taken on the Nintendo DSi can be sent to other DSis. Due to inaccurate information provided by Nintendo, yesterday’s Mossberg Solution erroneously stated photos couldn’t be shared between DSis.

The Little Robot Made to Clean the Icky Spots

April 05, 2011 at 1:24 pm PT

PC Downloads as Easy as an App

March 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm PT

Games to Flex Your Brain

March 22, 2011 at 3:14 pm PT

Nintendo’s 3DS Brings Dizzying Fun On the Go

March 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm PT

A Digital “Magazine” With One Subscriber

March 08, 2011 at 9:05 pm PT