Interfacing with the 3DS
This first part of my impressions/early review will focus on one of the most important concerns of handheld system; the hardware that lets you control your games. Unlike home consoles, the controller of a handheld console is integrated around the components that take controller data and game data and use it to produce what you see on a(n also separate) television screen, so you can't buy a new controller for them if you hate a particular aspect of it.
Pointing out that the 3DS doesn't have a capacitive touch-screen seems to be the basis of many arguments that Nintendo is "stuck in the past". While it's certainly true that the touch-screen isn't capacitive like so many smart-phones, it's also true that's it's easy to still use a finger to use touch-screen functions. I can't say for sure, but it seems likely that the resolution of the touch-sensitive film has increased (different thing from the pixel resolution of the LCD behind it). It may just be an old DS lite touch-screen, but the 3DS' is much more sensitive to finger use compared to that.
The A, B, X, and Y buttons have a very pleasant snappiness to them. They're not soft like the DS lite's; more like the original DS', but not quite as clicky and loud. I've heard people on both sides of fence, saying they preferred the immediate response of the DS' buttons, or saying they preferred a softer feel with the DS lite. I'm personally on the side of preferring clicker buttons. However...
However, the d-pad is also the same consistency as the buttons. If I were designing a handheld, the d-pad would be soft like the DS lite, but the buttons would be clickable. The d-pad is actually a little bit smaller than the DS lite's, and of course located lower than on any other system in the DS family. All of these things combine to make using it for constant character/cursor movement in games that also use the L button fairly hellish for me. It's comfortable enough to use it to move a selection cursor item by item while using the L button for example, but I haven't mastered or even attempted to control a character's 8 directions with my thumb at that angle to the d-pad. This definitely could be a problem for DS games, but for most that I've tried, the slide pad is a great and sometimes better alternative for me.
It's been awhile since I took the time to notice the function of an analog stick in detail, but one of the first things that I was reminded of when sitting down to think about it was how I let the analog stick roll under my thumb when I push it forward or pull it backward. I'm no longer in contact with the broad, flat portion of the stick, and instead my thumb is pushed up against it's edge. Even after about 12 years of using analog sticks, this can still irritate my thumb after maybe an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how the game requires the analog stick. This rolling action isn't present when using the slide pad; your thumb is always in contact with the broad, flat portion when it's in use. Does this make it better than a conventional analog stick? I wouldn't say that yet, but I can see the potential, and look forward to experiencing games in different genre's using the slide pad. The sliding action is unfalteringly smooth like the rolling of a good analog stick, but the distance of the motion is reduced by a tangible millimeter or two on all sides. The sliding and change of movement mean I need to learn the control, rather than instinctively knowing the subtleties of it, but the springiness of the re-centering mechanism is almost if not exactly the same as that of the Wii's Nunchuk and Classic Controllers. If you're familiar with Nintendo's analog sticks since the N64, then you'll notice it is with out the trademark octagon notching. I'm not positive, but that notching may be a necessary part of the patent for the analog stick they usually use. The slide pad is considered a different invention, so if the notching isn't included, then it seems like Nintendo would actually prefer to do away with it.
I feel like shoulder buttons sometimes get a pretty short end of a very valuable stick. Occasionally it seems like the designers would rather give the buttons a shape that looks attractive with the rest of the device or simply different from the previous controller, rather than something that is highly functional. DualShock 2 to SIXAXIS, GameCube controller to Nunchuks and Classic Controller, Game Boy Advance to GBA SP; they all seem like regressions in functionality in terms of shoulder buttons. I'm used to the DS lite's shoulder buttons, and not the DSi/XL design that the 3DS now has (comparison). The 3DS' shoulder buttons are a bit shorter (longest dimension) than the lite's or DSi's, don't extend down the back at all, and effectively have the same clickiness but without much noise. Generally, this doesn't really effect your usage of them, but when the screen is opened as far back as it will go, I feel like I barely have room to push the buttons. This situation hasn't been great in general since they reduced the system size after the original DS, but it's worse off than the lite was since those do extend down the back of the system a bit. The 3DS' top half doesn't lock into that position like the DS or DS lite, so it seems they might be aware that it's a general problem of the clam-shell design when applied to thinner systems. I hope that unlike my GBA SP and DS lite, the 3DS has resilient shoulder buttons that stand up to use, shock, and pocket lint.
Volume and 3D Depth Slider
On the bottom half's left side is the volume control, an analog slider for adjusting the volume. One was present on the DS and DS lite, but the DSi and DSi XL opted for a button system. If you read some of my brother's thoughts on the 3DS, he would prefer buttons over the volume slider. I don't really have a preference, though I like that I can bump it to max and mute instantly, which you couldn't do with the button controls without additional buttons. If you've heard Nintendo talk about the 3DS, you've probably heard about the 3D screen. If you've heard Nintendo talk about the 3D screen, then you've probably heard about the "3D Depth Slider", an analog slider to the right of the top screen that affects the 3D of the 3DS. If you haven't heard anything about the 3DS, the change that occurs is a bit difficult to explain.... let's say you had a red flag that marked the object that is closest to your eyes, and a blue flag that marked the farthest object from your eyes. When the slider is at the bottom, the image is 2D, and the flags appear to be at the exact some physical plane. As you slide it up, the red flad and blue flag begin to separate, the blue flag appearing to be some distance on a plane behind the red one's plane. As the slider goes higher, the apparent distance that separates the flags increases. The slider works great, and I agree with Nintendo that the effect is best left as an analog control.
The 3DS' power on/off button is placed to the bottom right of the touch-screen, on the face of the bottom half of the 3DS. When tapped, there is no response, but if held a bit longer than that, it will close out of the current game or application and remind you of Sleep Mode, where you can have SpotPass and StreetPass active. You can choose to enter Sleep Mode from there, where it then reminds you you can just close the 3DS instead next time, or choose to turn off the system. Coming from the DS lite, the power button is without question in a poor location, but like the DS before that, there won't be any problem of accidentally hitting the power button with time.
The dedicated wireless switch is a great addition. You can activate StreetPass and SpotPass without even opening your system. Much like the power switch of the DS lite, you push the switch forward to activate wireless functions and the switch springs back to it's original position. The spring plus the recess of the middle layer mean you won't likely accidentally activate or deactivate it.
Gryroscope and Motion Sensor
Super Monkey Ball 3D and Steel Diver were the two other games I was considering pairing with PilotWings Resort to take advantage of Toys-R-Us' sale on 3DS games, both happen to use the motion controls of the 3DS. The games I have now don't use motion controls, or at least not in obvious ways (Face Raider might be using them), so I'm not confident in judging them. Since these aren't physical, though, it's more about implementation.
Cameras will be included in a different portion of my impressions.