When the 3DS was first announced in 2010, I was kind of indifferent. I owned the original Nintendo DS and enjoyed it at the time, but steadily lost interest in its games and all of its size/hardware variants (DS Lite, DSi, DSi XL, etc). Mobile gaming stopped appealing to me in general, and it's been about seven years since I've given it a fair chance. It started in September when I bought a PlayStation Vita, and now after Christmas I also own a blue 3DS XL. I've been playing it for a little while, so here are my initial thoughts and impressions on it.
The first thing that struck me with the 3DS XL is that it feels much more comfortable and ergonomic than the original 3DS model. Having played the original model briefly in stores and at a friend's place, I found its angular edges, rectangular shape, and somewhat small size a bit awkward to hold. With the 3DS XL, the edges and corners are more rounded, and its larger size makes it fit more comfortably in my hands, making it feel all-around much nicer to hold.
However, I still find the 3DS XL much less comfortable than the PlayStation Vita. That's mostly a testament to the Vita's superior, well-rounded design, with the edges and shoulder buttons allowing the hands to wrap around it quite naturally, and its overall thickness is nearly twice the size of the bottom half of the 3DS XL (the part that you actually hold). With the 3DS XL, I still find its blocky design awkward to hold, in particular how it has to be held to reach the shoulder buttons, and its flat backside and thin profile has me clutching the device awkwardly in my fingers, instead of resting comfortably in my palms. After playing for an hour or two, my hands started to cramp slightly.
In terms of the hardware interface, the 3DS' slide pad does a fairly adequate job of simulating a three-dimensional joystick -- certainly much better than the crummy slide pad on the original PSP. It has a nice grippy feeling to it, and the concave indentation allows your thumb to stay securely on it. It does not, however, feel as good as the Vita's actual joysticks, and with the increased real estate of the 3DS XL, it makes you wonder why they didn't try to fit a second slide pad on the right side of the device. Considering Nintendo "solved" the problem on the original 3DS with that weird-looking add-on attachment, it seems silly that they'd resort to the same trick for their newer, improved 3DS model.
The rest of the hardware obviously pales in comparison to the likes of the PlayStation Vita -- the GPU, CPU, and RAM are all substantially less powerful than the Vita's leading to much less graphically impressive performance, and the lower screen resolution (stretched out over a larger space on the 3DS XL) is especially underwhelming. When you can look at the screen and count the pixels, it's a bit disappointing. It's equally underwhelming how relatively useless the bottom screen actually is in gameplay, at least with the games I've played thus far. The operating system on the 3DS is adequate, but doesn't feel as modern or as streamlined as the Vita's smartphone-inspired design.
I used to think the whole 3D craze a dumb, pointless gimmick, but having spent some time with the 3DS, I now realize that it really does enhance the visual experience. It has virtually no effect on actual gameplay and still ultimately amounts to a superficial gimmick, but on the small screen of the 3DS it's quite nice. I usually find myself playing with the 3D slider turned all the way up just because it makes the visuals "pop" more (figuratively, literally). In terms of practical benefits, I find it does help for gauging depth -- ever since 3D rendering became prevalent in gaming, you still had to rely on things like shadows and changing camera angles to sort of estimate distance, but seeing the actual 3D helps tremendously with that.
The 3DS has some other unique features that, to me, feel like truly pointless gimmicks. The key feature in this category is StreetPass -- a sort of social networking system that gives you in-game items and benefits whenever you pass someone on the street who's also carrying a 3DS. The problem I have with this feature is primarily that it requires you to keep your device turned on (in sleep mode) with the wireless on to get any kind of benefit, which makes me worry about preserving battery life. That and the fact that I don't generally take my 3DS out of the house. I don't think I'll be getting much use out of StreetPass, but the actual benefits aren't enticing enough for me to try it.
So far, I've preferred the Vita to the 3DS, just in terms of build design and hardware, but where the 3DS makes its mark is in its games library. Whereas the Vita has had a slow trickle of games since its launch in 2012, the 3DS has had a much more constant flow of new games. Couple this with the 3DS' backwards compatibility with original DS games, and you have a much more expansive library at your disposal. But this is still a much closer comparison than you might actually think, because the two devices offer somewhat different styles of games, and it mostly comes down to preference.
With the Vita, you get a console-quality gaming experience on the go, with staple console franchises like Uncharted, Killzone, Assassin's Creed, LittleBigPlanet, and Metal Gear Solid, as well as original IPs like Gravity Rush and Tearaway. Whereas the Vita strives for console-quality gaming, the 3DS strives instead for quality mobile-gaming -- games that aren't as technically impressive but which work really well for casual, short stints. At first, I didn't think the 3DS' library was all that appealing, but now I realize its games satisfy a whole different desire and I'm having more fun than I thought I would with "casual" Nintendo games.
That said, I still don't see the appeal in the staple franchises that have been selling DSs and 3DSs for all these years, like Pokemon, Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Animal Crossing, Scribblenauts, Kingdom Hearts, etc. These are the games I usually see people recommending whenever anyone talks about the 3DS, and yet I just have zero interest in these games. Thus far I've bought Super Mario 3D Land, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, and Resident Evil: Revelations. These are all games I look forward to playing (I've already finished Super Mario 3D Land and was a impressed, but ultimately underwhelmed by it), and in a few days when I travel across the country, I'll probably bring my 3DS with me instead of the my Vita just to play some of these games.
So, the 3DS itself doesn't impress me very much. I find it kind of uncomfortable to hold, it's technically inferior to the Vita, and many of its most high-profile, device-selling series just don't interest me. But the 3DS has a much bigger library of games to choose from, and the 3D effect is pretty cool. If you could somehow blend the two, we'd have the perfect system. As it stands, I prefer the Vita, but find some of the games on the 3DS too alluring to pass up.