It’s been a big month for handheld devices. Apple released its iPad 2 to the world, and, despite being an incremental update on the iPad we already have, the device attracted legions of fans to line up for hours to get their hands on it.
Elsewhere, Nintendo has just released the Nintendo 3DS (Australians can pick it up from Thursday morning). Coming from the same company that has dominated our lounge rooms with the Wii console and Wii Sports, the promise of glasses-free 3D has been riding a heck of a hype train.
Both hardware vendors are headed straight towards a head-to-head battle for space in the carry bag – it might be difficult to imagine the typical person carrying both around on a daily basis, and with Apple showing a great deal more interest in the gaming market (it launched Game Center just last year), it will be competing with Nintendo for space in the public transport commuter’s bag, as well as those $$$s that are spent on time eating games and entertainment.
So, while the two devices are quite different in design and vision, they may well end up competing for the same discretionary spend. So which will win? Nintendo’s the incumbent in the handheld gaming space, to be sure, but will the iPad 2 prove too difficult to ward off?
Neither device is what you would call cheap – the iPad 2 starts at $579. The 3DS which only plays games, has an RRP of $350. This gives Nintendo a slight advantage on raw price. However, as gamers will know, iPad games tend to be much cheaper than Nintendo console games. No iPad game – even the very highest quality titles – will cost more than $20. 3DS games will retail for upwards of $70.
The general quality of 3DS games can be expected to be somewhat better than what you’ll find on the iPad. It takes some digging to find quality games in the app store; it takes a walk to your local games shop to find some much better stuff on the 3DS, and ‘good’ on the iPad is measured on a different scale to Nintendo’s vision of ‘good’ - Angry Birds is a must have iPad game. It’s barely a minigame compared to Mario’s adventures.
Next, consider the functions of the devices. Obviously, the iPad 2 will be better for non-gaming applications, but in terms of broader entertainment, the two are roughly equal. The 3DS, like the iPad, plays music (both .mp3 and .aac formats), and is capable of playing 3D movies (assuming Nintendo works out an arrangement with the movie publishers). The iPad 2 has a legacy advantage in iTunes, and has its own dedicated movie and music shop, which the 3DS doesn’t have.
It’s also worth noting that the 3DS will be almost useless for reading books and magazines – two things the iPad does better than anyone this side of the Amazon Kindle.
A final important battleground - connectivity. The iPad 2 is 3G enabled. It has a fast browser, an app store, native email support, and for gamers connectivity with friends, high score leaderboards and virtual trophies to unlock.
The 3DS browser, meanwhile, is not expected to be all that fast (and is not available out of the box), there is no 3G model, no non-gaming applications, and Nintendo hasn’t got its online shop ready in time for launch – you’ll need to wait until the end of May for that. Furthermore, Nintendo has had a checkered past in connectivity, with the Wii and previous handheld consoles providing poor online experiences.
On the other hand, the 3DS is creative - there are a few neat features that encourages socialising with the 3DS (there’s a pedometer build in that rewards walking with in-game rewards, and there’s a feature called “StreetPass” that allows the exchange of game data between other 3DS owners you’re nearby). Despite this, the 3DS itself seems is a very disconnected mobile device.
And of course, the 3DS does 3D without glasses. By now we’ve all see the advertising blitz “it needs to be seen to be believed.” I agree – as I’ve written in the past, the 3DS is a maverick trick that puts Nintendo in a position not unlike Disney in its heyday – people might understand where the magic comes from on a technical basis, but in operation we allow ourselves to be wowed nonetheless.
And we should never forget that Nintendo has successfully beaten off competitors to its throne in the past. Gaming giant Sony was only able to capture a small fraction of the handheld gaming market… despite offering a more powerful console with movies, music and comics.
Although they have wildly different visions, and although they have very different approaches to the market, Apple and Nintendo will be fighting for similar dollars. Previous the casual gaming kings of the world, Nintendo will compete with an ever-more understanding and intelligent iPad 2 gaming kit, and though the 3DS will likely be a success, it will be facing a slow cannibalisation of sales from devices with broader features, that just happen to be good at playing games, as well.