Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Micro Machines

In the span of a week, I’ve splurged on two cool new gadgets from Apple and Nintendo respectively.

The iPod Nano is my first real iPod and I’m converted to the brand having only used it for a few days. Having used previous flash based players from Creative and other manufacturers, the wealth of features Apple was able to cram into the Nano is simply amazing. That is clearly the benefit of a market leader with an infrastructure of software talent to make a great OS for the iPods and a powerful music manager for the desktop.

The real draw for me, aside from the vastly increased storage capacity (compared to the 256 MB mp3 player I was using prior to the Nano) are the color screen, the customizability of the tracks, and the features. The hard-disk function is interesting, especially the ability to import text files into the Nano. The files could then be accessed and read while music is playing. I’ve tried this feature and the text is surprisingly readable on the Nano’s tiny screen. It’s a poor man’s e-book function, but I could see myself using it.

A major problem with the Nano however is its fragility. The Nano’s screen as well as the chrome backing is quite delicate. The backing on my Nano already has a hairline scratch on it, which I assume must have happened while I was simply moving it around my computer desk when I was setting up my Nano. The chrome backing also attracts ugly thumbprints, smudges and grease. The thought of handling the Nano with sweaty palms or accidentally leaving grease on is distressing to me. I have therefore resorted to keeping the plastic skin on the front of the Nano unpeeled, and I wrapped the whole thing in Seran wrap to keep the backside from smudging up and scratching and offering an extra layer of protection for the screen.

In contrast to the Nano, my Creative flash player came with a durable leather jacket right out of the box and I’ve thrown it into my pocket with my keys and never had to worry about it. After eight months of intensive use, including dropping it a few times, the unit itself is in mint condition, well protected by the leather sleeve. It’s really puzzling why at the premium prices Apple is commanding for these Nanos that they don’t offer users some sort of cheap protection. According to one online report, it costs Apple just over $100 USD to manufacture the 2 GB iPods. Even a garment pouch that they can probably buy in bulk for less than a dollar apiece would have been better than nothing.

The next item on the list is the GameBoy Micro. At $99 apiece, Nintendo is making a killing off these 15 year old game hardware, or at least that’s what its detractors would tell you. Except 15 years ago, the GameBoy Micro would have been $350, came in at the size of a Sega GameGear and probably just as heavy with the battery life of about 2 hours on six AA batteries.

The first thing I noticed is just how small the unit is. The Micro is slighter taller than the Nano and a little over twice its thickness. The second thing I noticed was how different it looked from previous GameBoy designs. When I power it up, the Start and Select buttons either flashes blue to indicate good battery life or red to indicate low battery. It’s a cool touch that makes the Micro look really sleek and is reminiscent of a cellphone’s keypad. The Micro comes with a built in microphone jack which was a feature lacking in the GameBoy SP, and it feels metallic, which I think is a first for a portable game machine. The metallic body gives the Micro a unique tactile feel on the user’s hands. I think the Micro is really a good first step for Nintendo to move in Apple’s school of aesthetic design. But at least with Nintendo, they also care about durability of their hardware.

The Micro is clearly the more durable of the two machines by a wide margin. With changeable faceplates, which include a clear plastic window in the middle to protect the LCD screen, the Micro is not going to be prone to screen scratching. Even if the faceplate is scratched, there are two replacement plates right out of the box with new plates sold by Nintendo for $5 in its on-line store.

What the Micro is ultimately about is that it is gaming portability perfected. The screen is absolutely fantastic. It is superior to the backlit screens of the Nintendo DS and is clear and bright under all manner of lighting conditions. It also has one feature the Nano doesn’t have, five adjustable brightness levels to save battery since the screen is backlit at all times and the Micro’s Li-Ion battery is still expected to last up to 10 to 14 hours.

Since the Micro is essentially a miniaturized GameBoy Advance, it can play a whole library of AAA games right out of the box and a library of what is arguably some of the best 2-D games developed after console gaming moved to 3-D games. The only downside is, Micro does not support the older GameBoy Color and GameBoy Classic games. Playing The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap on the Micro is a real treat. The introductory cut scene looks crisp and the text is readable even when holding my micro at arms length. The viewable angle of the LCD is as good as any other LCD based unit on the market. I don’t have to be playing the Micro straight in front of me to get the full quality of the picture.

While I have some reservations about the Nano, I love both machines. Both the Nano and Micro represent evolutionary steps in successful lines of branded hardware. Neither hardware are particularly innovative or groundbreaking, nor were they intended as grand platforms for world conquest as both brands have already conquered the world. These two machines are simply great redesigns of established brands.

I’ll end my post with a funny anecdote. Nintendo packed in the Micro with a pull-string garment pouch, which I assume was a thoughtful gesture to gamers. It probably didn’t cost them much. However, it is Nintendo’s thoughtfulness that saved the day for my Nano. I’m now using the pouch for my Nano when I’m not using the Micro. The pouch also happens to be big enough to fit both the Micro and Nano with room to spare. I think the two portables are really meant to be together.

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