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Nintendo has a history of iterating and improving the various handheld consoles it has produced over the past few decades. The original monochrome Game Boy started this trend of gradual enhancement — with the Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Light offering tangible advantages over the 1989 original — and since then we've seen revised Game Boy Advance consoles, updated DS hardware and, more recently, three versions of the 3DS platform. However, all of these iterations pale in comparison to the drastic changes seen in the "New" Nintendo 3DS — the fourth edition of Nintendo's current portable and an offering which comes in not one but two flavours.

We're focusing on the standard New 3DS in this review, with the "XL" variant offering the same core tech but lacking the interchangeable face plates. The standard version is certainly the one that seems to be garnering the most attention, thanks to the aforementioned customizable covers, its more pocket-friendly size and those iconic SNES-coloured face buttons. The good news is that this edition is just as appealing in the hand as it is in photos; it's a tad larger than the original model 3DS but has larger screens, making it a viable option if you've become accustomed to the gargantuan displays of the 3DS XL.

Keeping with the screens for a moment, it's remarkable how much improved the 3D effect is on this updated model. The original 3DS and 3DS XL were plagued with less-than-ideal viewing angles; even the slightest shift in posture could "break" the 3D effect, making it hard to discern on-screen activity and encouraging many players to switch if off entirely. While it's still possible to lose that all-important sweet spot, it requires a somewhat more drastic movement. During normal use, shifts in position or grip have no real impact on the 3D effect — an impressive achievement, given how finicky the auto-stereoscopic tech has been in the past.

It's also worth reiterating that the New 3DS screen strikes what we feel is the perfect balance between the tiny display of the first model to the larger XL screen. While the former was simply too small for comfort, the latter shows up the resolution shortcomings of Nintendo's portable. The happy middle ground of the standard New 3DS allows for a larger viewing area without the pixel-heavy nature of the XL's screen. We've not been able to test the New 3DS XL, but we can't see how it would shake our love of its smaller stable-mate. Indeed, after spending a few hours with the new console it was genuinely hard for us to go back to our trusty and long-serving 3DS XL.

The other truly obvious differences between this model and what has gone before are a combination of largely cosmetic and pleasingly functional adjustments. The second nub stick — the c-stick — is unquestionably the most significant enhancement when it comes to control options, negating the need for the unwieldy Circle Pad Pro attachment. It feels very stiff when you first touch it, not entirely dissimilar to the old-fashioned "nipple" mouse pointers that were used on laptop keyboards in the days before touch-pads became the norm. A tiny amount of pressure is all that is needed to work the stick, and despite its diminutive size it's very easy to use; the placement next to the face button cluster might appear awkward, but this allows you to switch between the two with minimal effort. There's no software out there to really accurately test the analogue sensitivity, but in titles such as Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate accuracy won't necessarily the priority — it's simply a means to shift the camera quickly.

The additional shoulder buttons — ZL and ZR — could prove to be just as handy, although they're arguably not as intuitive to use. They are located to the side of (rather than behind) the pre-existing shoulder buttons, pushed a good way inward on the upper edge of the console as to avoid accidental presses during play. This means that to use all four buttons simultaneously, you have to place the L and R buttons underneath your middle knuckle so that the tip of your fingers are resting on the ZL and ZR keys. Those with small hands might find this a struggle, but it should be remembered that many games won't require you to use all four keys at the same time, and toggling between them with a fingertip isn't much of a bind. Given that Nintendo has had the unenviable role of introducing two extra buttons into an eminently pocket-sized handheld, the end result is satisfactory.

Elsewhere on the unit, there are a host of placement changes which will take some getting used to when moving up from the previous 3DS XL model. The volume control is now located on the upper screen, directly opposite the 3D slider, while the stylus dock is on the bottom edge of the device — joined by the game card slot, which has moved from its traditional position on the top edge. This area of the console is quite crowded, as it also includes the headphone socket and power button. Moving this key button to the bottom edge could be something of a mixed blessing; even when the unit is totally switched off and closed, pressing the power button brings it to life. However, when the console is on and closed, the power button doesn't switch it off — so while you don't have to worry about the machine accidentally being powered-down when it's in your bag and you're trying to get StreetPass hits, you could find it being turned on when you don't want it to be — and that could result in unwanted battery drain. Finally, the Start and Select buttons are set to the right of the touchscreen, and the 4GB Micro SD card can only be accessed by removing the backplate with a screwdriver. The shift from SD to Micro SD means you may have to shell out for another card if you've got loads of downloads to carry over, but they're pretty cheap these days.

One of the big advantages the standard New 3DS has over its larger sibling — aside from those awesome SNES-coloured face buttons, of course — is the ability to swap out the front and back plates for more colourful alternatives. This process involves using a small screwdriver (not included) to loosen two screws on the rear plate and isn't quite as quick and speedy as we'd like, but it is sure to become one of the defining features of the system and one of the main reasons people will pick this model over the larger New 3DS XL. The plates are available in a wide range of designs and are sure to become a modest revenue stream for Nintendo; we're already planning which plates we're going to buy and could find ourselves in a situation where our New 3DS has a different "outfit" for each day of the week.

Moving away from the obvious cosmetic improvements, under the hood the New 3DS is sporting a faster processor which isn't really apparent when running standard 3DS games (titles which will make use of the additional grunt are incoming, with one of the first being a 3DS port of Xenoblade Chronicles) but noticeably speeds up other elements of the console considerably. Web browsing is much faster, as is moving around the user interface — pressing the Home button no longer results in a pregnant pause, but an instant response. However, perhaps the most welcome upgrade is download speed; on the older systems grabbing a large game from the 3DS eShop usually meant having to put your system into sleep mode and coming back some while later, but the New 3DS increases the pace massively. Anything smaller than a retail download will be playable within minutes, while the bigger file sizes don't take anywhere near as long to find their way to your console's memory as they did previously.

There's also support for Nintendo's forthcoming amiibo interactive toys thanks to an NFC chip secreted beneath the touchscreen. Like the analogue nub, this isn't something we were able to truly test during the review period, but given our experience of NFC on smartphones and with home console titles like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, it shouldn't be anything less than straightforward. Aside from Nintendo's own efforts, we hope that third-party developers will find ways of harnessing this unique feature in future releases. In terms of battery life, we've not had the console long enough to form a definitive conclusion, but Nintendo is quoting between 3.5 and 6 hours for this model, which is more than the original 3DS offered. We'd guess that titles like Xenoblade Chronicles will drain the battery faster than standard 3DS games, but naturally we can't test this hypothesis until such games actually hit the market.

It's an impressive showing from the latest member of the 3DS family, but there are the usual Nintendo niggles to contend with here. There's no power supply included with the Japanese version, but thankfully Nintendo has kept the plug consistent across all of the 3DS units, meaning that it shouldn't be too hard to track one down in your house if you've owned a system previously. We also have some minor issues with the system's construction; while the matte-effect casing is preferable to the glossy plastic of the past, it still feels a little on the cheap side, especially when compared to Sony's lovingly-assembled PS Vita. Of course, the use of chunky plastic is intentional on Nintendo's part — this is a console which has been designed to withstand serious punishment rather than make tech fanatics feel envious. Even so, we think it's high time Nintendo embraced the premium end of the spectrum and made its products physically desirable to a wider audience, rather than just appealing to existing fans — those legendary SNES buttons are intended to entice a very specific sector of the market, after all.

However, such complaints are moot when you look at the bigger picture — this is one of the most convincing hardware updates Nintendo has undertaken, and is without a shadow of a doubt the definitive iteration of the 3DS hardware — which is a good thing, as it is also likely to be the last before the Kyoto giant moves onto its next portable system. What shape that will ultimately take is anyone's guess at present, but in the meantime the 3DS has been given one final and wholly convincing hurrah which should ensure that it performs well and remains commercially relevant throughout 2015 and beyond.

The New 3DS and New 3DS LL are currently available in Japan. The system launches in Australia in November. A wider western launch is expected in 2015, but solid dates have yet to be revealed.