Buried below the Nintendo 3DS's eye-popping screen is another impressive upgrade with nearly equal implications for the future of the console: Completely re-architected Wi-Fi powers.
Nintendo, unfortunately, is being coy about the precise specifications of the wireless component - preferring it remain a black box of magic, a la Apple - but based on what they are saying of the 3DS's wireless feats, we can suppose a few things.
The big wireless feature is that it'll hook up with other 3DSes and the internets while it's sleeping. It's constantly searching for other 3DSes and open Wi-Fi points, to talk to them "without you knowing it," as Nintendo put it. The wireless features are more baked in to the system-level software than before - with previous DSes, communication would stop when you switched games, but now it can keep talking. For instancey! With the old DS, if you and a friend had Nintendogs, you could connect with their DS so your dogs could play together, but only while the game is on; now, you can pass somebody playing Nintendogs with your sleeping 3DS, and things can happen. So in other words, it's a more legit P2P machine too.
The big concern here is battery life, since it sounds like the 3DS is constantly searching for other hardware; presumably, when you put the system to sleep, you don't want the battery drained like a fumbled can of Coke at a fat kids' camp. You can turn off wireless altogether, but Nintendo won't talk about how they're balancing battery life when you leave it on while sleeping, or even about what the expected battery life will be, yet. (Though they say they're "working" on battery life "similar" to the DSi - around 9-14 hours rated.)
The other interesting aspect is that it'll automatically download content not just from other 3DSes, but when you take the system to specific places, which suggests it's got loose location powers - perhaps via Skyhook's Wi-Fi access point geolocation capabilities. Nintendo, again, wasn't getting detailed on how specific the location-aware content is, so it's hard to tell - maybe it's so broad they're just using the IP address of the wireless connection to determine location.
A weird omission, but we couldn't get Nintendo to specify exactly what kind of wireless the 3DS pack. Officially, it "communicate in the 2.4 GHz band" and "will support IEEE 802.11 with enhanced security (WPA/WPA2)", but no word on whether it's wireless G or N. (It's probably G, though if you're going to be able to install games, perhaps one day wirelessly, we'd really like some wireless N.)
Better wireless seems like a small point - I mean, it's a 3D portable! - but the bigger picture is that Nintendo is taking connectivity more seriously, and by making that easier for developers to tap in their games (the API is more open now Nintendo says), we're looking at games radically more capable and expansive than what the 3DS has offered in the past. Online multiplayer action that doesn't suck to setup; augmented reality games that dynamically pull in information from the interwebs (think like an insane augmented reality Little Big Planet); superlocal connected games; and a lot more. A truly connected console offers so a vastly greater array of possibilities. Which is exactly what the 3DS needs to deliver in a world populated by iPhones and Androids and iPads.
Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton