A Gadget Too Far?

I am not sure exactly how this happened, but after a pleasant interregnum, we seem to be back in the throes of gadget lust. The iPad, of course, is the poster child for unreasonable tech cravings, but recent gushery over 3D TVs, eBook readers and smart phones real and promised underscores the return of the toy. Perhaps I just wasn't paying close enough attention during the recession, or maybe gadget porn was humbled by the downturn, but it smells like Tech Spirit again. And this is a good time to remember that most of the tech innovations we see fail, misfire or disappoint. Not that the iPad won't be all that. Just sayin'.... 

Slipping under the hype radar this week was the launch of Nintendo's strangest entry yet into the handheld gaming space. The DSi XL is a super-sized version of one of the most successful mobile media gadgets in history, the DS. It expands the size of the current DSi display by over 90%, creating a package that is now something larger than a DS and smaller than a Netbook. It is a gadget too far.

As readers of this column may know, I have an unabashed romance with the DS. In my mind, it's been the perfect blend of portability, power, input innovation and sheer creative vigor. Years ago, when mobile phone games were an overhyped letdown of a market, the DS platform continued to prove that medium-res handheld hardware of the right sort really could produce high-involvement experiences.

For years I urged mobile game makers to pay closer attention to the likes of WarioWare on DS, because these titles showed how much raw imagination could overcome interface limitations and screen size. At the same time, I longed for Nintendo itself to come in and own the mobile gaming market simply by proliferating the company's creativity to a platform that sorely needed it.

Yet even when I asked Nintendo directly about its non-DS mobile plans, I was told its strategists had no immediate intention of playing here. A while back, Silicon Alley Insider's Dan Frommer "dared" Nintendo to make an iPhone game. There is no doubt that an Apple/Nintendo partnership on mobile gaming would be an incredible force.

 Don't hold your breath. I have to say that for all of the success of games on the iPhone/iPod Touch and likely on the iPad, I don't think developers have matched Nintendo DS in terms of gaming goodness.

 

It was only last year that Nintendo updated its DS line with the DSi, which enlarged the screen and added two video cameras for enhanced game and multimedia input. These changes were welcome but not game-changing -- more of a timely refresh.

The arrival of the XL last weekend is a real puzzler, however. Presumably, Nintendo is trying to appeal to homebodies like me who use our DS mainly in bed or on the couch. Portability is less of an appeal than sheer convenience. This little sucker is booted and running a game long before my TV game consoles have even gotten into their main menus. And beating that next boss in end of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is the kind of small victory that makes up for a day of frustrations just before falling to sleep.

 

The problem is that Nintendo ups the screen real estate without enhancing or interpolating the game resolution. This problem was starting to show itself in the DSi release, where the standard DS games were looking a bit pixilated and text looked warped under the slightly larger display. Now, frankly, the XL screen makes much of the operating system interface look just butt-ugly. Letters are fuzzy and icons have the jaggies. Apparently, Nintendo didn't increase the processing power, which might have been used to upscale the images and actually add value rather than girth to this upgrade. Oddly enough, the company did improve the audio noticeably.

An even bigger disappointment is this device's poor nod to Web connectivity. Both major handheld game platforms, the DS and the Sony PSP, have embedded Wi-Fi and Web connectivity that just plain sucks. In this generation of portable game machines, both companies wanted to leverage the efficiencies of the direct download channel -- but the poor store interfaces on both, and their weak wireless performance, undermine this good idea.

The Nintendo DSiWare store in particular is awful. Even sitting on top of my wireless router, this thing plods along through the store. The interface requires page load after page load to get through the simplest catalogs. The Opera Web browser is serviceable, but again the performance makes the DS hopeless as a remote browser. I have bookmarked the "m-dot" mobile versions of many sites to make the experience more palatable. Many graphics are slow-loading and a lot of the functionality of the full Web sites is either broken or too sluggish to be useful.

In making mobile device Web browsing and content merchandising palatable, the iPad actually has a low bar to jump. As it is, I think a lot of publishers and surfers will be in for a rude awakening this weekend, when the lack of Flash support on the Apple device leaves their favorite sites with large fields of blank space and a useless prompt to download the plugin.

What do you think is going to happen to all of those Flash-based rich media ad units? The HTML5 world is working overtime to hawk "Flash-free" alternatives, of course. But the arrival of remote access to the Web across TV, in-auto, handhelds and eBooks is going to add yet another layer of complexity to everyone's job. I have been testing ultra-mobile PCs, game console browsers and handheld game Web experiences for years -- and, in my view, it seems harder to make the Web portable than many people would like to think.        

Tags: mobile
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