M3 Adapter Review

Brief Description:

The M3 adapter is a flash cart that can be used with the DS for a variety of purposes. "M3" basically means Movie Player Version 3. However, the features that this "movie player" has are quite beyond only "playing movies". You can even use it as a flash cart to play your Nintendo DS Backups (Commercial) or Homebrew Roms. The main advantage being that you're using regular Compact Flash or Secure Digital media and the capacity is insanely high compared to normal Flash carts. Example: Flash Cart 4Gb = 512MB Flash CARD. (Card being the one that goes into the M3..)

This review will give you an insight into each feature that the M3 boasts of, and an objective analysis of what they have been able to deliver in the final product.

What You Need:
  • Nintendo DS or Gameboy Advance (If you're on GBA, you won't be able to use the NDS functions, obviously.)
  • PassME/PassME2/WifiME/FlashME or equivalent. (This allows you to run NDS code from the GBA slot.)
  • An M3 Adapter CF/SD Version
  • Compact Flash/Secure Digital Card
  • Compact Flash/Secure Digital Reader/Writer
First Impressions:

The M3 is available online for purchase at a variety of sites in different geographical locations. I bought mine for $89.99 from Divineo.com. Divineo has many shops worldwide, so you can order from any one of them in or near your location. They carry lots of other flash hardware as well, alongwith Mod-Chips for other systems as well. The M3 adapter comes in two flavours, one is the CF version and the other is the SD version. I bought the CF version, reason being that Compact Flash is cheaper and I already had a 512MB Compact Flash card with me (which I use with my GBA Movie Player Version 2). I also already had a PassKey from NeoFlash, so I didn't order a pack with a Passkey in it. Well, only two days after ordering, the postman (much to my excitement..) delivered the M3 at my place. Here are a couple of box shots:


The box was pretty well made, with catchy graphics, and details on the M3. There were some grammatical errors indicating the Asian roots of the M3 adapter. On opening the box, the contents were simple, and to the point. An M3 Adapter, and a Mini-Disc (I assumed this would contain the necessary drivers..). If I would've ordered a PassMe version, I suppose that would've been included as well. One thing to note about the Passkey that ships with the M3 is that it's Self Updateable. It seems to carry some kind of flashable BIOS which you can update to make it compatible with later games. (If the requirement ever arises..). I won't be able to provide you a detailed description of this procedure since I don't have it with me.

Getting into the groove:

Nintendo DS Roms:

I run linux as my native operating system. I figured I'd have to boot into Windows to try out their nifty software. So that's what I did. Later, I tried running the software through VMWare on Linux and it ran flawlessly, so there, I can use it in linux now :). The installation was pretty simple. There's a readme on the disc telling you what to install and when. Just follow the sequence and you should be good to go. Once all the software was setup I put the CF Card into my Compact Flash reader. Now, me being me and everything, the first thing I wanted to see was the Nintendo DS ROM support. (Having had extremely bad experiences with previous DS Flash Equipment..) So I fired up the "M3 Game Writer" and wrote in a bunch of Nintendo DS Roms to my flash card. Here's what I got the moment I fired up the Game Manager.

The first roms I wrote were:

  • ElectroPlankton
  • Advanced Wars DS
  • Mario Kart DS
  • Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow
Alright so here is what is amazing about the M3. Since it's writing to a Compact Flash card (or an SD card..) the write speeds are stellar in comparison to regular flash carts. On a normal flash cart it could take me upto 3 minutes to flash large roms. On the M3, all it takes is a few seconds. (And my PC uses USB 1.1, it'd be much faster on USB 2.0). However, I've tested the write speed performance on my laptop (which supports USB 2.0), here are the results:
Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow (64MB) - 24.91s
Trauma Center - Under the Knife (16MB) - 7.81s

As you can see, the results are nothing but impressive! On a standard flash cart, the write times are usually in the order of ~ 2 minutes for a 64MB file. Writing roms onto the flash card is quite a simple task. You're presented with a few options, as per the screen below:

They're basically different ways of writing the rom onto the DS cart. "Trim Rom" removes excess (unneeded) data from the ROM and while this causes ROMs to not work sometimes, it leads to an optimised boot process (if you select Fastboot) wherein it takes a blink of an eye to load a ROM. The M3 seamlessly supports Multi-Boot (that is, having more than one ROM on your flash card, and choosing which one to boot). You could also just copy over your NDS Roms to the M3, but you won't be able to Save properly in that case. The only problem here is that it doesn't support direct ZIP loading. So you need to have your NDS roms unzipped for them to be loaded onto the card.

They've also recently added the "Software Reboot" option, which allows you to reboot the M3 without shutting the DS off. For this you have to press A+B+X+L+R to reboot. This comes in handy if your M3 battery has died and your gamesaves cannot be backed up (because of the reboot requirement..). However, not all games work well with the Software Reboot option (Example: Mario Kart DS)

The save support is excellent, only minor gripe here is that when your game makes a "Save", it gets written to the M3 SRAM. Once you restart your DS (sometime later..) the SRAM gets backed up to the Compact Flash. An on-the-fly (without rebooting) backup solution would be more convenient since I'd hate to imagine how saving would work (you'd have to software reboot..) when the M3's batteries run out. (And apparently the battery change procedure is not very simple..), luckily the battery they install in your M3 initially is of pretty good quality and will last you a few months atleast. All the ROMs I loaded on the first go worked flawlessly. Infact, since then I've added many more ROMs and they've all worked flawlessly. Here's what's on my M3 right now:

  • 0001 - Electroplankton
  • 0111 - Advance Wars - Dual Strike
  • 0121 - Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow
  • 0122 - Trauma Center - Under the Knife
  • 0124 - Nintendogs Chihuahua and Friends
  • 0127 - Phoenix Wright - Ace Attorney
  • 0129 - Zoo Tycoon
  • 0168 - Mario Kart DS
  • 0213 - Monster Trucks DS
  • 0216 - Mario & Luigi - Partners In Time
  • 0223 - Animal Crossing - Wild World
  • 0324 - Age of Empires - The Age of Kings
There's a detailed compatibility list at this page. Note that almost every ROM works, I'd say a 99% compatibility rating!

Wi-Fi Compatibility:

The M3 Wi-Fi compatibility is perfect. You can log onto Nintendo Wi-Fi seamlessly. This is because the M3 runs all your games the way they're supposed to run natively on the DS hardware. Thus, any game that runs on the M3 (and this is most titles..) will run flawlessly on Nintendo Wi-Fi. I've tried the following titles online and played successfully: Mario Kart DS, Tetris DS, Animal Crossing, Tony Hawk's American Sk8Land and Metriod Prime.

Gameboy Advance Roms:

Writing GBA Roms is the same as writing NDS Roms, except that you click on Write GBA instead of Write NDS (Duh!) in the Game Manager window. The options displayed are however different. You get to choose from the following:

Alternatively, you could just copy your .GBA files to your flash card. However, in this case, you won't be able to use the Real Time Save function. The GBA Roms also feature ZIP support so you don't need to unzip your roms. You can just click on the zip files and the software will unzip them, patch them, and place them onto your flash card.

Compatibility here too, is 99%. However, certain games do have problems, and I'm hoping that they'll work around them in future versions of the Game Manager software. For example, I tried to get "1789 Pac-Man World (U)" running and tried every possible method out there, but it just wouldn't budge! A neat feature here is the Real Time Save facility for GBA Roms. All you have to do is hit A+B+L+R while playing a GBA game. You get options, to Save, Load, Restart (The same game), or go back to the M3 Main menu. Pretty Nifty. This is going to be incorporated into the NDS ROMs as well in the future. GBA ROMs do take slightly longer to load than the "Fastboot" NDS ROMs. It can take upto 8 - 10 seconds to boot the larger GBA Roms. Most ROMs boot up in 5 seconds or so.

Also, to play GBA Roms you need to bootup into GBA Mode. This has to be done since the DS needs to access it's GBA hardware to boot up GBA Roms. You can go into GBA mode either by booting the NDS without a PassME or pressing SELECT in NDS Mode.
I'm currently working my way through Donkey Kong Country on the NDS and thoroughly enjoying myself!

Other Features:

Emulation:

This really is an important aspect of the M3. You can write Game Boy Mono, Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, PC Engine and NES ROMS to your M3 and play them.(You could also use SnesAdvance or SnesDS if you feel like, to run SNES Roms). The M3 Game Manager writes them to your CF as a GBA file and you can play them through that. The emulators used are ofcourse well known freeware emulators. (eg. PocketNES)

Moonshell:

By far one of the most important extensions to the M3. It is an alternative interface to use for the M3's multimedia functions. An enhanced version of Moonshell specially developed for the M3, ships by default with the newer M3 firmware. Once you've installed the new firmware (a simple task..) into the M3, all you have to do is hit Select after booting your M3 into NDS mode. You'll be logged into Moonshell. From here you can play Videos, Mp3's/Ogg's, read eBooks, and view JPG files. It also has Multi-Tasking support as in, you can read an eBook and listen to music at the same time. Mp3 playback quality is good. You can even set it to play files randomly (shuffle mode) from a particular directory. The different modes you can choose from are: Play the Next Song in the List, Repeat the same song, Play a random song next, and Power off the DS at the end of the song.

I'm a big fan of Japanese art and the default Moonshell theme sure is beautiful. Looks aside, the functionality is incredible. There is a slight pop if you're listening to music and then try and switch directories, but once the switching is done, the popping goes away. Another interesting thing to note is how you can send your applications to the top screen and do different stuff on the touch screen. I tried reading an eBook (.TXT file) and while it's a pleasant experience (contrary to what I believed earlier..) to listen to music and read an eBook at the same time on the DS, the text-wrapping in moonshell isn't all that great. Sometimes it misses out characters at the end of lines. Maybe it was because of the characterset of my .txt file, I'll have to look further into that. Hopefully this will be fixed in future releases.

Music Playback:

Apart from using Moonshell, the M3 interface uses the proprietry GBM format to play music on your DS/GBA. To tell the truth, this format isn't all that great and the sound isn't as good as Mp3. However, fear not, for Moonshell comes to the rescue, over here. I would recommend using Moonshell over the .GBM format of the M3 since it supports Mp3, you don't need to convert your music, and the sound quality is good.

Movie Playback:

While you may argue that the DS has a teensy weensy screen, movie and music video playback are quite satisfying on the DS. The M3 comes with movie conversion software which does pretty well to cut your movies down to size! Quality is decent, however, don't expect any DVD like performances. Overall, if you're on a long flight, the M3 can provide you with some decent entertainment. Animated sequences look especially good on the DS hardware.

I tried ripping Guns N Roses - November Rain to my M3. It was a 9 minute 3 second video. I set the conversion software to NDS mode and carried out the conversion. The conversion took 30 minutes on a 1.8Ghz Centrino Laptop. The software does provide queueing functionality, so you can set it to run overnight. The initial file was 126MB and it came down to 80MB (Which was without any compression since I set it to just convert and not compress..). The resulting sound and video quality was excellent. The older GBA Movie Player (Version 2) used to have some syncing problems, at times the sound and video would go out of sync and you would have to try some tricks to get it back together. The M3 doesn't have this problem, probably due to the NDS hardware.

All in all, it's a pretty good quality Movie Player. And there has been an impressive improvement over it's predecessor, the GBAMP V2.

eBooks:

Not much to say here. It supports standard text documents which you can open and read. Though the eBook function through Moonshell is fancier to look at, the M3 eBook function CAN wrap text correctly. Thus the readability is much better. For this reason, I'd go with eBook reading on the M3 any day.

Picture Viewer:

This is a pretty nice feature. Mainly because the DS Screen seems to have a close aspect ratio to 320x240 and the pictures look quite nice albeit a little stretched. You need to convert them to BMP before you can view them. (Or you can view them in Moonshell as JPGs). Very handy if you like to keep some pictures on you. :)

Software Support:

The software support for the M3 is very good. They update their software frequently with new features and additions. Even the firmware of the M3 is upgradeable and provides new features and enhancements with each update. The software itself is well designed, stable, and very user friendly. I have no complaints on the software front.

Community:

The M3 has a very large user base. They're not a company which is going to disappear overnight considering that they have past experience with the GBA Movie Player and that they have a number of different products in the market. The M3 forums are an informed and helpful bunch of people, if you ever have a problem you can pay them a visit. There are a number of FaQ's as well which help you do different stuff with the M3. The DS ROM compatibility list is complete and well maintained.

Battery Life:

A lot of people ask about the battery life of the DS when the M3 is running on it. Well, it really depends on what you're doing. If you're playing GBA games, it can give you upto 12 hours of battery life. (In my experience..) For Nintendo DS titles, the battery life is around 7 hours or so. For movie playback the battery life is shorter, ofcourse, around 3 hours or so. Mp3 playback can be performed for a long time on the DS. Especially if you shut it off and use it in compact mode (Use the shoulder buttons..). It can last you around 7 hours that way
All in all, the M3 battery consumption is minimal, and you get very good performance.

M3 on the DS Lite:

A lot of people are wondering whether the M3 will work on the new DS Lite or not. Well, I have good news for you, the M3 works perfectly with the DS Lite if you're using their PassKey 2 alongwith it. This is because their PassKey 2 has an upgradeable firmware which you can flash to make it compatible with newer versions of the DS. For more information, you can check the M3 Website.

Which way to go, Secure Digital or Compact Flash ?

While my decision to go with Compact Flash was based largely on the fact that I already had CF cards on me. (Due to me being an owner of the GBA MP Version 2) The decision to choose between CF and SD is an important one. It will dictate to you, your future purchases and how high you can go in terms of capacity with your choice of digital media. At the moment, I would favour Compact Flash over the SD version. I'm listing the pros and cons of each, so that you can make an informed decision:

Compact Flash Secure Digital
+ M3 CF Version is cheaper. + SD version of M3 is smaller and lighter.
+ Greater compatibility. + SD is a faster form of digital media, you can expect good speeds.
- Slightly higher load times. + SD cards are more easily available due to them being used in a variety of hardware.
- Writing roms takes a little longer. - Some games are incompatible with SD while they work on the CF version.
- M3 CF version is larger. - SD version can be upto $20 more expensive than the CF version. (at some online stores..)
- CF is not that popular, this a little hard to find locally. - Some SD brands are incompatible.

If you want to see which games are incompatible with the SD version, you should browse through the compatibility list on the M3 Wiki.

More pictures:

A good review needs some more pictures right ? Well, ofcourse! Please excuse the quality of the pictures, if you want better pictures, consider sending me some money so that I can buy a digital camera :P. All the pictures in this review were taken with my menial 1.3 Megapixel Cellphone camera. Click on the pictures to open the full-sized image, you can check the filenames (displayed in your browser address bar) for the descriptions.



Where to Buy ?

I've compiled a list of online stores carrying the M3 and related items. I've also double checked to ensure that only reliable stores make it to the list. The main feature on the list is that I've selected stores where you get the lowest prices on the items. Basically, the best price to service ratio. (There are some shady places which do have slightly better prices, but I wouldn't recommend them..).

If you buy anything from Lik-Sang.com make sure you use our $5 DISCOUNT CODE at checkout: LS-189FBF559D.
(All links open in New Windows)

M3 Adapter
Divineo.com - WorldWide. I've bought items from these guys a number of times and they have always arrived in top notch condition. I ordered my M3 from them and it arrived in three days! The prices over here are a tad higher than other shops, but you get fast service and you end up saving the difference on shipping. (Since they have many shops in different locations, worldwide)

They have stores in USA, UK, Canada, Denmark, Italy, France, Sweden, Spain and China! Just click on the link above to go to their website, scroll down a bit, and under "Divineo Worldwide" choose your location, or the region nearest to you. Then you can click on NDS/GBA on top and find the product of your choice. (M3 CF or SD) It's that simple!

Compact Flash Cards
Lik-Sang.com - Hong Kong
They sell Kingston Compact Flash cards. These work well with the M3 and older GBA movie player. The quality is excellent and the flash cards are reliable. (I've been using mine for over a year without any problems..). While you're there, you should grab a compact flash reader/writer device as well.
512MB Compact Flash Card - $49.90
1GB Compact Flash Card - $89.90
Compact Flash Card Reader - $5.90

Secure Digital Flash Cards
Lik-Sang.com - Hong Kong
Lik-Sang is selling Sandisk Secure Digital memory which is known to work well with the M3. I cannot recommend it based on quality however, since I've never ordered SD memory from them. However, you can read the reviews on their site for a better idea of whether you should go in for the purchase or not.
512MB Secure Digital Flash Card - $49.90
1GB Secure Digital Flash Card - $84.90
2GB Secure Digital Flash Card - $159.90
6-In-1 Multi-Card Reader/Writer - $19.95

Nintendo DS/GameBoy Advance/Related Accessories
Lik-Sang.com - Hong Kong
They have all the Nintendo DS, GBA, or other goodies you could need. It does probably seem like I'm recommending them an awful lot, but they are indeed that good. Also, they have a free shipping offer going on most game consoles and software.

Final Words:

The M3 is the successor to the GBA Movie Player. It's from the same company as the G6 Flash. The hardware quality is excellent, and the ROM support is truly something to marvel at. As my closing statement I'd like to say that the M3 is definitely a quality product. In a world where flash carts are usually cheap knock off bits of hardware, the M3 is a winner. I have had experience with *some* of the competition and so far, the M3 has been the most satisfying experience.

- Review by MasJ.

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