Almost two years ago, Nintendo announced that it was working on new hardware code-named NX. The system was intended as a platform for Nintendo with a "brand new concept". After months upon months of speculation, the NX was revealed as the Nintendo Switch, the endpoint of two lines of Nintendo thought: home console and portable. While previous systems sat in either category, the Switch is supposed to straddle both categories; a "third pillar", if you want to call it that.
I've spent ten days with Nintendo's latest console. Let's see if this brand-new concept is all it's cracked up to be.
Switch On The Portable Power
The "Switch" in Nintendo Switch refers to the system's primary selling point: it's a modular console. The Switch can be either portable or home console, while also being a device that offers single-player or multiplayer play right out of the box. In Handheld Mode, the Switch itself has its Joy-Con controllers docked on either side, letting you play games on the go. In TV Mode, the Switch is placed in the Switch Dock, which seamlessly lets you transition to playing on your TV. In-between those two endpoints, there are a host of different system configurations.
At its basic level, stripped of all marketing talk, the Switch is a portable system with a television play solution. It's not the first portable console to offer TV-play, but it is the first to have an elegant solution, one that's offered with every system Nintendo sells. As a portable, the Switch excels.
The Switch is deceptively light for its general size. The system itself looks like a tablet, recalling Amazon's later Kindle Fire devices. At .66 lbs (10.56 oz, 297g), it slots in between the original 3DS and the older 3DS XL. It's constructed of glass and metal, setting it apart from the mostly plastic housings of those previous Nintendo handhelds.
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This core part includes the 6.2-inch LCD capacitive touchscreen (1280x720 resolution), slots for the game cards and microSD storage, a 3.5mm headphone jack and USB-C port for charging. It's a tight piece of engineering. There's a heft to the Switch, a weight that screams, "Don't drop this expensive piece of technology!"
Two Joy-Con controllers attach to either side of the system. Each Joy-Con has it's own metal attachment rail and when docked with the system, they bring it to what I'd consider its true size and weight. The whole package is only .88 lbs (14.08 oz, 398g), spread across a device that's 4 inches high, 9.4 inches long, and a scant 0.55 inches deep (102mm x 239mm x 13.9mm for those on the metric system). There's no give in the Joy-Con/Switch connection; for all intents and purposes, it feels like one device.
The general size is bit ungainly. It's rather wide and transitioning to the Switch from the 3DS or PlayStation Vita requires a bit of adjustment. You don't hold it in quite the same way, as it sort of splits the mental difference between those devices and an iPad mini. Playing in bed on my side is a 3DS and Vita past time, but the Switch feels slightly too long to do that; it's better on my back or front.
Heat feels negligible, despite the system being silent. It'll get a bit warm to the touch in a hard play session, but since you're not actually holding the system - you're holding the Joy-Cons - you won't feel it.
The size means a compromise on the portable side of things: the 3DS XL was stretching the limits of pocketability, but the Switch tears those boundaries apart completely. You'll need a bag or a carrying case to bring the Switch along. Even with the carrying case, I was always worried about the Switch, though I think that's something that will probably pass with time and familiarity.
The premium feel and dimensions of the Switch actually push it beyond the 3DS's age demographic. I wouldn't want to leave this is the hands of a young child, at least not unsupervised. When Nintendo says they want to keep the 3DS around for the time being despite the Switch's obvious portable leanings, it's probably because the 3DS is a kid's toy. The Switch is not. With the Vita on its last days, the Switch is a strong successor to Sony's device as a portable meant for older players.
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You Talk Some TV?
You can't ignore the other side of the Switch's selling point though. Slide the Switch into the Switch Dock and the system will change to TV play. The Dock weighs .72 lbs (11.52 oz, 326g) and sits at approximately 4.1 inches high, 6.8 inches long, and 2.12 inches deep (104mm x 172mm x 54mm). There are guide points on the Dock, making the process of sliding the Switch into place rather easy.
Reinforcing my point that the portable side is where the Switch really belongs, the Dock feels a bit cheap in contrast to the Switch itself. It's a plastic shell that handles the handshake from USB-C to HDMI, offering an HDMI out, a USB-C power port, and three standard USB ports. The Dock doesn't hold onto the Switch at all; it looks like a single system, but if you move or jostle it, there's nothing actually keeping the Switch in place other than gravity. Once again, not really for the kiddies, meaning parents are best putting the Dock behind something else.
The concept still works though. Put the Switch in the dock and your game jumps from the portable's native 720p resolution to a full 1080p signal. The switchover takes a second at most and you can jump back and forth at will. In middle of a gaming session and you need to hit the bathroom? Just pull the Switch out of the dock and go.
To facilitate TV mode, Nintendo designed the detachable Joy-Con controllers. By holding a button on the back of each, they slide off the Switch itself. The Joy-Cons themselves for 4 inches high like the Switch and around 1.41 inches long, coming in at around 1.7 oz (48g) in weight. As a 6 foot tall dude, they each fit comfortably in the palms of my hands.
Each Joy-Con has different capabilities: Joy-Con L has the primary analog stick, a series of four buttons acting as a faux directional pad, a Capture button for taking screenshots, and a Minus button that acts as the traditional "Select" function. Joy-Con R has the four face buttons (X, Y, A, B), a Home button for the system menu, the secondary analog stick, and a Plus button, which doubles as the "Start" function. It's worth repeating that you're not getting a real directional pad here at all, you just have to muddle through with analog or the weird buttons on the Joy-Con L; seriously, trying to play Shovel Knight on the "D-Pad" is painful.
Detached from the Switch, you can hold them free hand, one in each hand. Each Joy-Con contains an accelerometer and gyroscope, allowing for motion controls like Nintendo's Wii Remote. Each can vibrate with Nintendo's HD Rumble technology, which supposedly allows for more distinct vibration, but none of the games I had (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Bomberman R, and Just Dance 2017) put the feature to any real use.
Outside of free hand play, you can slide both Joy-Cons into the included Joy-Con Grip, which makes them look roughly like a traditional controller. Once again, compromises had to be made. In the Joy-Con Grip, the controllers feel like a normal controller, but the shape is a bit tall. Further, the analog sticks and buttons make concessions for the portable size. The sticks are relatively squat, feeling better than the 3DS Circle Pad, but not quite as good as a PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 or Xbox One Controller.
The face buttons are a bit tiny for my bigger thumbs, but I didn't have many problems in real-world play. The shoulder buttons are small too; if you're used to holding your pointer and middle fingers on the shoulder bumpers and triggers at the same time with other controllers, you'll have to shift back to pointer finger alone for the Switch.
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Multiplayer: Crowded Around the Fire
Remember I said that multiplayer is available right out of the box? If you turn the Joy-Cons sideways, they each operate like their own tiny controller. Additional SL and SR buttons are hidden on each Joy-Con where they attach to the Switch, offering shoulder buttons in this mode.
In Super Bomberman R for example, one player can take Joy-Con L and the other can take Joy-Con R for two player play. In TV Mode, it's just two people, each with their own tiny controller, having some fun. If you're out in Portable Mode, you can pull out the Switch's kickstand and lay it on a tabletop to accomplish the same thing. (The Kickstand is a cheap bit of plastic that can be popped on and off of the system.)
This isn't really an optimum experience though. The Joy-Cons themselves are only 4 inches long and in order to accommodate the Switch's primary use, the analog sticks and buttons don't have the best placement for standalone play. Joy-Con L is closest to sustained usability given its analog stick and button placement. Joy-Con R is going to be relegated to the off-brand controller position, with players rushing to call dibs on the L controller. Nintendo offers Joy-Con Strap attachments to fill each Joy-Con out a bit, but this is width only, not length. (Warning: The Joy-Con straps are painful to remove. I broke a nail pulling one off.)
The Switch's tabletop multiplayer doesn't feel up to snuff in comparison to the other modes. It works, but it feels like something that is meant for a pinch. Short play sessions are where it's at. From an engineering standpoint, Nintendo's priority clearly goes portable > home console > portable multiplayer. Portable multiplayer is the facet of the Switch that seems more apt for children. Two adults crowding around a 6.2 inch screen with tiny controllers just isn't enjoyable over long play sessions, at least not during my time with the system.
Your Life With The Switch
Everything up until now is roughly what the Nintendo Switch is. How does it feel in your general lifestyle though?
There's something to be said for a portable with a dock. When the Switch is in the Dock and you're playing with the Joy-Cons (or the Pro Controller), you forget the touchscreen tablet section is there at all. It's just you and the television, just like any other home console. It plays games quite well and if you're a Wii U owner, you'll feel right at home here.
What changes is what happens when you need to be anywhere else. Like I said above, if you need to go to the bathroom for a bit? Take the Switch with you. Upstairs? The Switch is a great companion when you're laying in bed. I wouldn't recommend it on a basketball court, a party, or while you're walking the dog like Nintendo's first Switch commercial, but the system can go where you go.
If you're traveling, the Switch is a great companion. You'll have to store it a bag, but the reward for the additional forethought is The Legend of Zelda on-the-go. The 720p screen is striking, detailed, and bright, making playing games on the thing an absolute joy.
The portable nature of the Switch adds another benefit to the console in the home environment. The Sleep Mode is nearly instant-on and off, like a Vita or 3DS. Unlike rousing the Xbox One or PS4, the Switch is the kind of system where you'll think "Oh, I should check that real quick" and you can. I can't tell you how many times I'd have a thought about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, pull the system out of sleep mode, take a quick look at a menu or map, and put the system back into sleep mode. You know how you check your smartphone? Imagine checking a console like that and you have a glimpse into the magic of the Switch.
Of course, the fairly beefy Nvidia Tegra processor that powers the Switch's graphics isn't free. Nintendo crammed a large 4310mAh lithium-ion battery inside this thing, but we're still a long way from the battery life of the DS and preceding portables. Those days are gone until battery technology improves.
Now You're Playing With (Three Hours Of) Power
Nintendo rates the Switch's battery life at around 2.5 - 6.5 hours, depending on what you're doing. With auto-brightness and WiFi on I hit around 2 hours and 26 minutes in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is a bit under the 3 hours Nintendo rates for the title. The Joy-Cons are rated for 20 hours of battery life, but honestly it never became an issue during my entire time with the system.
You can probably add a bit to that by turning the brightness low and keeping WiFi off, but that's what you're working with for the most part. Some may have issue with a portable with a rated battery life that low, but that's actually on par with the New Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita. If you're used to those systems, you'll likely be ready for the Switch. The system takes 3 hours to charge from zero to full.
One area of improvement for Nintendo is in Sleep Mode and full drain situations. The 3DS bleeds energy in its sleep state, one of the most annoying things about the portable. In contrast, the Switch holds onto its charge in Sleep Mode relatively well, only losing a few percent over 24 hours. And when your Switch finally runs out of power, the system is smart about it: after a warning, the Switch drops into Sleep Mode, saving your current play session and giving you some time to find an outlet. That's much better than a portable simply dying outright, losing everything.
An Undercooked Operating System
Right now, all the Nintendo Switch does is play games. The operating system is clear, simple, and easy to navigate, with everything being right there at your fingertips. For many, that's going to be enough and I'm glad for those folks.
Following the day-one update, which adds a host of online features, the ability to add friends, and the Nintendo eShop, it's clear that Nintendo is still sorting out the Switch's software capabilities. That's not abnormal, as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One operating systems at launch are a far cry from what they are now. Nintendo has always been a bit behind the curve when it comes to general online infrastructure. Even when the company catches up, it feels like there's always a catch here or there. The Nintendo Switch operating system is full of these small catches.
Take data management for example. The Switch defaults to saving downloaded digital games on a microSD card if available, or the system's internal storage if not. There's no way to choose where your game will download if a microSD card is installed. There's no way to move data from internal storage to microSD, or vice versa.
This extends to save data. Physical games have their save data on the Switch's internal storage. The problem is there's no way to get that data off the internal storage or move it. This is odd, because Nintendo previously allowed players to move game and save data freely on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. It feels like this lack of movement is based wholly in Nintendo's worry over piracy, which is why the system lacks a web browser. People who have had to replace their Switch due to hardware issues already report losing their relatively small game saves. What happens if your system dies two or three years in?
Despite executive comments to the contrary, the online services still use Friend Codes to add new friends. The system is better than the Friend Code trade of older Nintendo systems, but it still begs the question of Nintendo doesn't let people search via account name, especially since the Friends List isn't available without linking your Nintendo Account. Screenshots only save in a single format, small JPGs for easy posting to social media. Managing multiple screenshots to move them to the microSD is a bit annoying; you can only copy one screenshot at a time, or all the screenshots on the system.
You can't check battery life or connect to WiFi via the Quick Menu, you have to head back to the Home Screen. Likewise, you can't turn off the system completely without holding down the physical power button on the Switch tablet itself.
Certain things you'd expect on a modern consoles or previous Nintendo devices are simply not here: cloud saves, trophies or achievements, the Activity Log, and a host of multimedia applications like YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or Crunchyroll.
I think the Switch hardware is mostly up to snuff in design and execution, but I think some folks might want to take a wait-and-see approach on the system. That's especially true given the reports of various launch day hardware issues: disconnecting Joy-Cons, poor Wi-Fi signal and connection errors, a faint buzzing on some headphone jacks, and game crashes. The Dock has no padding, so some are reporting scratched screens.
Do I find myself missing things I wish the Switch could do? Sure. It plays games really well and that's it's primary purpose, but man, I do wish I could get YouTube, Netflix, and Crunchyroll on it. I wish that Nintendo could stretch the battery life out a bit much. I wish there were a few more games available at launch and the Virtual Console was around.
But the Nintendo Switch itself? The system that I've held in my hands? It's the culmination of two schools of thought at Nintendo, but it's also everything I hoped it would be. It's the successor to the 3DS and to a greater extent, the PlayStation Vita. This is premium portable console that might not be able to stand up to the likes of the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but knows what it is. The Switch feels like a comfortable and confident system in a way the Wii U was not. And beyond those portable chops, Nintendo has offered a competent method of television play, in a way that allows most developers to support it. (But not all.)
The system still needs a bit of time in the kitchen on an OS level. There are hardware issues reported by new Switch owners here and there. I still don't know if the Nintendo Switch is a system for everyone. I don't know if this is Nintendo's next big thing, or if it'll sell like the Wii U and Vita did. Despite that, this is a well-engineered portable console with the ability to play on your television at home. If you told me that was going to be a thing a decade or more ago, I would've laughed at you. Well here it is.
The Nintendo Switch is a great console so far. If everything above sounds great to you, it's worth taking a look at Nintendo's latest.
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