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Review: Super-sized Nintendo 3DS XL is a big improvement

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It's been a rocky road for Nintendo's 3DS handheld.

Debuting in March of 2011 to all sorts of hype over its ability to display 3D images without the need for special glasses, the system shot out of the gate to solid reviews and swift sales. But once users zipped through the initial software lineup, those sales began to slow down. Really slow down. A mere four months after releasing the system, Nintendo dropped its price by $80, a move considered by most to be a last-ditch effort to revive a troubled  system.

Nintendo's cagey, however, and sure enough, sales rebounded nicely over the remainder of 2011. Now firmly ahead of the competing PlayStation Vita (which is itself going through a bit of a sales crisis), the 3DS is ready for its second act.

And so are we, because it turns out the redesigned 3DS XL is an all-around improvement over the original system.

Releasing August 19th for $200 (a $30 premium over the standard model), the 3DS XL eschews one of the key selling points of the handheld system -- its portability -- in favor of a larger screen. It's a curious move, for sure, but not without precedent: Nintendo did the same for the DSi back in 2010, and that worked out just fine.

For the most part, so does the 3DS XL. The system's screens are 90% larger than the standard 3DS, and boy, it makes a difference. Games and programs simply look better on the larger top screen, which has the added benefit of expanding  the narrow visual window for comfortably viewing 3D images. You don't need to sit like a statue just to get the 3D working anymore, though the 3D tech itself is still something of a gimmick.

Nintendo made a handful of nominal hardware improvements beyond the bigger screens, and while they seem pretty basic, they pay off in aggregate. The stylus has been moved from the back of the machine to the more convenient right side. It's no longer telescoping, either, and feels sturdier than the original. The 3D slider gives a satisfying 'click' when turned on, and the bottom Home, Start and Select buttons are now actually buttons instead of an unresponsive flat pad. The system's pre-installed SD memory card has been upped from 2GB to 4GB, which will come in handy for those who download lots of games over Nintendo's eShop service. And while the XL is indeed wider and longer than the regular model, it's still truly a portable system. You can slip the device into the pocket of your jeans without looking like too much of a weirdo (provided you're not wearing hipster skinny jeans).

Most impressive of all is what Nintendo managed to do with the system's battery -- specifically, not screw it up. In our testing, the 3DS XL actually outperformed the 3DS in terms of battery life by upping the average charge from about four hours to roughly five. Of course that number will change dramatically as you tinker with battery-suckers like Wifi or screen brightness, but the fact that the battery isn't actually worse than the 3DS is enough of a win for us.

Not all hardware tweaks are for the better, however. The smaller speakers dampen one of the 3DS' strongest suits: its booming sound. You'll need headphones to truly appreciate the audio work put into some of the system's burlier games. Despite the increased screen size, the 3DS XL's dual cameras received no upgrade whatsoever; the .3 megapixel lenses take blurry shots that will only be appreciated by the very young or the marginally blind.

So is the 3DS XL for you? If you've yet to get into the game, then yes, absolutely. It provides enough improvements over the original to justify the marginal price increase, and for anyone over the age of about 13, the size just makes for a more pleasant experience overall. Concerns about the somewhat thin 3DS software library are still relevant -- Nintendo continues to have problems releasing games at an acceptable pace -- but when it comes to hardware, the XL is the way to go.

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