Oculus who? The men from Nintendo sharpen up glasses-free 3D gaming
It’s not often that you can use your own kids as part of the teardown research team, but in the case of Nintendo’s New 3DS XL handheld gaming device it was entirely appropriate. They were among the millions of youngsters worldwide (and, admit it, a few of you adults) who swapped their initial joy at the original 3DS’s glasses-free 3D gaming… for some sore necks.In earlier versions, the console used solely a parallax barrier to achieve the 3D effect. This effectively positioned the two images required for stereoscopic viewing beside one another to reflect what each eye sees but without any need for a filter. And, at a certain perspective, your brain was tricked.
The problem was that there was a very limited range of distances and viewing angles before the effect collapsed or became fuzzy. So gamers would intensely try to maintain the ‘right’ posture until, well, it hurt… or, as time passed, they just got fed up.
The New 3DS XL (and the ‘New’ is part of the name) has addressed this by adding facial tracking using a top display-mounted camera. The verdict chez nous is that this is a winner, and we’re not alone. The console was launched in Europe and the US this February and is selling faster than either the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Some 395,000 were sold in North America alone during its first month on sale, according to the NPD Group.
Nintendo’s claim to ‘super stable’ 3D is pushing it somewhat, but the experience is certainly much improved. Within reason, the gamer can now bob and weave, console in hand, and remain immersed.
This requires some heavier processing inside the console, as the two ‘parallax’ images (400 pixels per eye) are adjusted to match the viewing angle determined by the main camera. Nintendo has been typically gnomic about exactly how it has achieved this, but is generally thought to have shifted from a tri-core heterogenous CPU architecture (dual core ARM 11/single core ARM 9) to a quad-core homogeneous ARM 11.
It's not just the 3D experience that has got an upgrade. The extra processing muscle improves game-loading times and the general smoothness of 2D play. It then delivers some convincing augmented-reality features, in which owners create their own animated Mii avatars and see them imposed upon and interacting with real-world surroundings thanks to a second rear-mounted camera.
At the same time, Nintendo has added NFC wireless to the existing Wi-Fi connectivity. NFC is the same short-distance RF standard that underpins Apple Pay, but its main role here is to allow gamers to connect the New 3DS XL to the company’s range of amiibo interactive figurines.
There are also an extra C-stick joystick and rear-mounted left and right controls that didn't feature in earlier generations
So, are the kids all right with all this? Absolutely. But the top-of-the-range device is still asking a fair bit of parents. The pre-VAT UK retail price is £150 ($200 in the US) - although the cheaper and smaller 2DS model is still marketed to the very young.
Still, it is at this point that we need to turn to the physical side of the teardown because, as pulled apart by iFixit, the New 3DS XL insides are a bit messy even though build quality in-the-hand does feel quite robust. We are putting these products mostly in the hands of youngsters, accidents will happen and repairs may well be necessary.
Our exploded view of the New 3DS XL highlights far more individual components than we usually see. This teardown identifies 22 main categories, and some of those (such as the C-stick) refer to multiple parts in themselves. Even on much bigger devices, the typical category count is 12-15.
Also notable, iFixit found the display assembly to be a particularly awkward feature. “There are several cables leading into the side of the display assembly. Our bet is that these control the parallax barrier, used to generate that awesome glasses-less 3D effect,” says its analysis.
“Good news: the display assembly is only mildly adhered to the frame, meaning we can pop it free with little effort. Bad news: its ribbon cable, and two others, are routed through the hinge, and need to be rolled up and pulled through in a horrible, painstaking, risky manoeuvre.”
And there’s more beyond the wires and (often tiny) bits. “The majority of connectors are ZIF, and it’s difficult to ensure each one is connected properly without reassembling the whole thing and starting up the device,” says iFixit. “The headphone jack and charging connector are soldered to the motherboard, meaning you need to take out your soldering iron if you accidentally break them.”
For overall repairability (and by extension mechanical design complexity), iFixit scores the New 3DS XL at a sobering 5 out of 10.
The console will go through some further design revs over its lifespan. Based on iFixit’s observations - particularly about the twisting cabling - the New 3DS XL cannot be the easiest product to manufacture. It’s a fair bet that its contract manufacturer, the ever margin-aware Foxconn, will be working hard to winnow the build cost already.
However, it is a little bit disappointing that while Nintendo’s technical enhancements to its handheld console are worthy of great praise, it once more raises the question of how robust a design standard we should particularly apply to products that are meant for kids.