It should have been a simple task. Though the Nintendo Switch is a very popular console, there are a few known issues with the console's Joy-Con controllers. Namely a disconnecting problem, and its tendency to drift over time. I never had that problem with my own launch Switch, so I never gave it much thought. It wasn't until one day, when I was asked by my boss to find out whether Nintendo fixed the Joy-Cons' connectivity issue for good after rumors of upgraded models swirled around, that my journey into this heart of darkness began.
I'd heard from plenty of people that newly-purchased Joy-Cons were working much better than the old pair being replaced, but I'd also heard stories of new controllers having similar issues as the launch ones. What I ended up discovering was a labyrinth of Switch Joy-Con model numbers and colorways leading me down dark corners of the internet in search of a flawless set of Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons.
The Problem with Joy-Cons
The Nintendo Switch came out in March 2017, and though the console was a huge hit critically and commercially, the launch wasn't entirely pristine. Key issues have to do with the Joy-Cons disconnecting from the console, and "drifting," meaning the reticle would move further away from the center, even if the thumb stick wasn't being moved.
These two problems are largely separate from one another, but there are several articles from March 2017 from news outlets, YouTube channels, and tech forums about the left Joy-Con disconnecting issue, and how to fix it. Various technical breakdowns showed that the reason the left Joy-Con disconnected so often was because of the way the antenna was designed in the first place.
To fit so many components into the tiny Joy-Con shell, Nintendo made the antenna a tad too small. What's more, when I reached out to engineer Daniel Cherubini—who published one of the many DIY fixes for the Joy-Con disconnect problem—he explained that there was also an issue with the antenna's placement.
Cherubini, who was having problems with his launch Switch, figured it was an issue with the antenna and opened up his Joy-Con. "[I] noted that there was an antenna in different places on the left and right Joy-Cons. Where the antenna is on the left Joy-Con is basically under your hand when you hold the Joy-Con," he explains. "So just by holding the Joy-Con you're already putting some interference between the controller and the Switch."
As for the drifting issue, that was covered in a more recent Joy-Con teardown by Reddit user rainbopython. According to them, the problem could be a result of the way the components of the joystick itself interact with one another.
"With what electrical knowledge I have, my guess as to how [the Joy-Con joysticks] work is that the black pads are a soft printed material, possibly graphite, which acts as a sort of resistor/potentiometer. The circuit is able to detect where on the pad those metal prongs are by measuring the strength of the electricity coming through the pad. If the slider is farther away, the electricity has to travel through more of the pad and comes out weaker. The computer measures this and translates it into X and Y position."
In their teardown, rainbopython notes scratches on the pad, likely from repeated use. "See those marks on the pads? Because they are a softer material than the metal prongs that rub against them, the pads have wear marks after heavy use. These wear marks probably cause fluctuations in the resistance of the pad, screwing up the X and Y readings," hence the drift that develops over time.
Cherubini fixed the connectivity problem by adding a little conductive foam over the Joy-Con, which also happens to be Nintendo's official fix for the problem; some models are even shipped with the foam now. There is no helping the drift that results from the scratched pads though. "This is why contact cleaner is only a temporary fix," writes rainbopython. "Contacts do get dirty and affect readings... but there is no way I can think of to reverse this wear."
A Real Fix
Jamming in a piece of foam is all well and good, but due to how widespread the problem was, many expected Nintendo to start rolling out a second version of the Switch Joy-Con that came with a more permanent fix. A software engineer by trade, Cherubini tells USG that a "software fix could increase the power output to the antenna," but because of the size and placement of the antenna in the first place, "a hardware fix would be best."
In April 2018, it was reported that Nintendo did in fact submit designs to the United States FCC that it redesigned the left Joy-Con with the antenna moved towards the bottom of the controller. Problem solved and case closed, right?
Well, kind of. When I reached out to my colleague at Digital Foundry, John Linneman, to enlist his tech expertise on the left Joy-Con issue, he told me that he himself has three Joy-Cons with varying levels of functionality.
"My launch Joy-Con are 'HAC-A-JCL-C0' and the ones I have from last summer are 'HAC-A-JCL-C2.' [...] Here's the thing though, I have three Switch consoles and three sets of Joy-Con and they all behave differently." Linneman says that based on the "behind the back test" where he stands about eight feet from the Switch system with the Joy-Con behind his back, they've given different results.
"The C0 gray Joy-Con are horrible and drop out like crazy, making it impossible to play. The red/blue C0, however, is perfect and I couldn't create issues—but that's also an older set. The C2 pair, however, was mixed. The left Joy-Con was perfect and I couldn't cause drop-outs, but the right one was dropping."
I performed the same test with my C0 gray Joy-Cons and couldn't find any issues with my launch pair. Linneman also repeated Cherubini's assessment that this was a common issue with Bluetooth antennas based on the small size and placement in the hands. But he also mentioned something interesting: there was a new motherboard revision with "11" in the model number.
I found one of the new motherboards. But even then, it's still not clear if the problem has been fixed for good.
Switch Joy-Con JCL-M-11 (HAC-JCL-MAIN-11)
On the video game enthusiast forum GBATemp, members take to the Switch hardware subforum to actively discuss mods, repairs, and all sorts of new hardware findings. It's how I came across a thread from November 2018 by a member named g00s3y.
"So, it seems Nintendo has revised the main board for the left Joy-Con. It seems they have fixed(?) the 'weak connection' issue by moving the placement of the internal antenna. Other minor changes also, other onboard chips were moved the accommodate the new placement of the antenna. Not sure if anything else is different with it."
The revised model doesn't come with a foam insert, and the moved antenna matches the new design submitted to the U.S. FCC, suggesting the revised placement of the antenna was indeed meant to fix the connectivity issue. But when I asked around the GBATemp forums if there was a confirmed redesign of the Switch Joy-Con the answer was disappointing. "You need to open the Joy-Con to find out," said g00s3y.
There is no label or serial code that tells you if your Joy-Con has a improved antenna placement without taking it apart. That sucks. But if Nintendo seemingly addressed some of the connectivity problems by physically moving the antenna, what about the drift problem?
G00s3y, who's quickly becoming my go-to source for getting into the insides of Joy-Cons without having to tear apart my own, posted another discovery in October 2018, this time relating to the joystick. While putting together a set of Joy-Cons, g00s3y noticed the joysticks in a neon yellow set they bought at Walmart came with a new metal casing with an indent. You can see the two metal casings side-by-side below.
Without much engineering knowledge myself, I took the image and reached out to rainbopython, who did a teardown of the Joy-Cons earlier this week to uncover the drifting issue, and whether the revised metal case could help the drift problem.
"That indent is made where the spring rests, so it would slightly increase tension on the spring. For reference, this spring is what forces the stick back to its neutral position," rainbopython tells USG. "This could prevent the slight wobble the sticks exhibit when neutral, and may also improve the feel of the sticks in motion. While the stick does wobble slightly and this could correct it, the wobble is unrelated to the drift issue."
"To give you a short answer, I don't think that indent does anything to address drift... I'd also like to note that what we're referring to as a "new" stick could simply be a different part from a different manufacturer, and not necessarily a new model, as was mentioned in the GBAtemp thread."
This was supposed to be a simple assignment: Find out if there was a new set of Joy-Cons that didn't disconnect or drift. There are Joy-Con models with a moved antenna and no foam, but no way to tell which ones. And the drifting problem seems to be a result of wear and tear, and not necessarily a defect.
All this is to say that getting a set of Joy-Cons that will work flawlessly is essentially a crapshoot. With nowhere left to go, I reached out directly to Nintendo hoping to get any answer that will free me from this Pepe Silvia-like journey, but I haven't heard back from them in a month.
As far as the evidence indicates, there are several "revisions" of the Switch Joy-Cons out in the wild, and at least one model that physically moves the antenna to fix the connectivity issue. The problem is finding the right set of Joy-Cons. And as for the drifting problem, that's a separate matter altogether. Perhaps we'll finally do away with the guesswork of finding the "right" Joy-Cons once Nintendo launches their rumored Nintendo Switch console revisions later this year.