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Joystiq presents

Homebrew: Using the DS as a PDA

One thing that's been brought up countless times in DS-related discussions is "if only it could be used as a PDA." Well, with the right combination of hardware and software, it can! But just how well does it stand up to other devices with that classification? Read on as I take the DS through its paces to see how it performs as a personal digital assistant.

To get started, you'll need a G6 flashcart or an M3 adapter, and a flash memory card. Once you've got the hardware, you can copy the freely-downloadable PDA software to it. Power up your DS with G6 or M3 inserted and select the PDA icon from the main. The icon is pre-loaded on the G6 and M3, and it remains inactive if the PDA software hasn't been copied to the flash memory.

Gallery: DS PDA

NotesPhone contact listingPhone contact searchPDA settingsTime

The DS is a proven hit as a gaming platform, but, as a PDA, it's got some stiff competition from hundreds of other multifunctional devices that aim to serve as your personal digital assistant. I'm judging the DS on several criteria that I have come to find important from years of experience with gadgets that fit the PDA role.

An M3 or G6-equipped DS has many ways of accessing media. The main menu has a movie player and a music player, but these are only compatible with proprietary, low-quality formats. The Extend application has in it the Moonshell media player for your MP3s and pictures, plus it can handle specifically-formatted MPEG video. With my DS's decently loud built-in stereo speakers, I've found Moonshell to be quite handy for playing music. But I've been iPhone-spoiled, so the smaller, lower-resolution screens of the DS aren't particularly attractive for watching videos.

The iPhone raises the bar pretty high in this category. The fluidity of the scaling, fading, and scrolling of menus, web pages, contacts, playlists, and pictures is the perfect compliment to the intuitive multi-touch controls. It's nothing for the DS to feel down about, as usability is where Apple generally excels against competitors. The M3 team and homebrew community have a lot of work ahead of them if they ever hope to achieve the fluid functionality of an iPhone. My hope is that the next generation DS will upgrade to a multi-touch interface and a faster CPU to speed up reactions to our input.

There's no docking station for swapping data to and from your DS, so M3 users like myself need a flash card reader. The PC Linker software for importing, editing, and exporting PDA data between computer and flash memory is compatible with the M3's flash cards and the G6. What's cool is that you get the same editing interface on the computer as you do on the DS.

Click for larger
Click for larger image

The DS Browser and homebrew solutions make the DS almost as web-capable as my PocketPC. The main drawbacks in DS web surfing are being restricted to wi-fi hot spots and having such a tiny, low-resolution screen. There are cell phones that handle web-surfing far less elegantly than the DS, but they at least allow you to do it in more places.

Battery life
Like some sort of stimulating hare, the DS keeps going and going. My Slot 2 M3 adapter pulls a little more juice than a DS game card, but it's got enough battery life that I don't really notice a difference in run time. Using the wi-fi capability further drains the battery, but not enough that I'd complain when my real PDA dies after being online for fifteen minutes.

The DS supports a few voice-over-IP apps that are more complicated to work with than a proper Smartphone. It might be a fun diversion to get VOIP set up and working on your DS, but even if it were easy to use, it wouldn't keep Steve Jobs awake at nights, fretting over this unlikely competitor. There are certain mobile phone design conventions that the DS doesn't exactly adhere to, and holding a DS to the side of your face looks crazier than sidetalking. The DS as a phone also shares a few of the iPhone's weaknesses, such as tactile keys and voice-dialing, which means you'll have difficulty placing a call with it while driving (if you're lucky enough to be driving in a city that has seamless wi-fi coverage).

The clamshell design of the DS makes it easy to travel with. The screens are exposed and vulnerable to scratches when it's open, but closing it makes it safe to drop in a pocket, purse, or European carry-all. Unfortunately, while the DS is petite and demure in its Lite form (and huge and tawdry in its Phat form), it's toy-like associations could jeopardize any chances you have of getting a promotion if you pull it out in a board room. Even if the PDA functions outlined here are broad enough to cover your business needs, it just won't look professional.

Probably the best reason to turn your DS into a PDA is because it's so affordable. If our homebrew guide has already convinced you to pick up an M3 or other flashcart, you're just a few downloads away from having a DS PDA.

Because I have a Hot Rod Red DS Phat and feel too insecure to take it with me everywhere, the PDA application hasn't been of value to me. If you've got an unabashed commitment to your DS and are looking for a device to manage contacts and appointments, or convert units and do calculations, the DS may be suitable.

For any number of possible reasons, PDAs never quite took off the way someone would expect of a multifunctional personal computer that could fit in your pocket. After reading about Windows CE handhelds and Palm Pilots for over a decade, I finally got myself an astoundingly-spec'ed Dell Axim X50v. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was boarding the PDA train just before it hit the end of the line. People did finally start buying into the miniature-computer marketing, only they showed preference for keypad-interfacing Smartphones instead of telephonically-challenged touchscreen handhelds. Now Smartphones are getting smarter with the iPhone seeming to have re-kindled consumer interest in touchscreens -- but only after Nintendo assured everyone that "Touching is good."

You do have more options for turning your DS into a PDA than getting an M3 or G6 and the associated PDA software. If you want or already have a different homebrew-enabling cart, check out Widen the horizons of the DS where we present another application to help you get organized, and also highlight how to turn your DS into a VOIP phone.

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