Nintendo’s next generation of gaming hardware is here! With a merging of their handheld hardware experience and home console game design, the Nintendo Switch looks to be finally bringing the two world of home and portable gaming together. How does it hold up in practice? Is it a revolutionary breakthrough, or a waste of time and money? $300 Zelda Machine jokes aside, the Nintendo Switch is an impressive piece of hardware.
Let’s start with the most rigid aspect of the Switch; the hardware. All of the console’s components are built into the tablet. With a custom Nvidia Tegra X1 chipset, 4GB of RAM, and a 4310mAh battery, the tablet is surprisingly light for being substantially more power than the Wii U. While mostly plastic, the Switch is also very sturdy and well-built.
As a tablet, it sports a 6.2” multitouch capacitive touchscreen with 720p resolution. While you’ll find higher resolutions on more premium hardware, 720p is plenty, especially compared to the PlayStation Vita at 540p. The screen size also helps with pixel density and the wide-angle IPS display is the icing on the cake.
The screen itself is actually not glass, but plastic. This makes for a strange touch when you first get your hands on it. It helps in its overall flexibility in avoiding damage, but since it’s not as scratch-resistant as glass I highly recommend grabbing a screen protector.
The Switch’s compatibility with standard hardware connections is one of its strongest aspects. There are good quality front-facing speakers built in, but it’s nice to have a regular old headphone jack. Using USB-C for charging and TV output is also a better design over a proprietary connection.
This means that third-party USB-C products like chargers and powerbanks will work just fine with the Switch. In my testing, it works perfectly with USB-C wall chargers and powerbanks, even charging the Switch during gameplay. It’s also possible to charge it using USB-A ports with up to 2.4A, but it will charge noticeably slower.
Because of its portable nature, the Switch ditches discs in favor of cartridges like the 3DS. It’s more annoying to remove these carts because of the Switch’s slot cover, but the benefits far outweigh this. Load times are much faster than optical media, pretty much being as fast as games installed to the internal 32GB of space.
Although this space end up being around 25GB with the OS, it can be supplemented by microSD cards. Located behind the kickstand, the Switch can support microSDXC cards up to 2TB.
Speaking of the kickstand, this is easily the Switch’s biggest hardware weakness. It is barely stable enough to keep the system upright and only locks into one position. The official carrying case is the way to go if you want to stand it up stable with a more flexible viewing angle.
The Switch’s Wifi strength also leaves something to be desired. While supporting wireless ac, Wifi range is much smaller compared to other mobile devices. Battery life averaging around 4 hours is also a bit of a bummer.
It wouldn’t be a game console if you weren’t able to control it, and that’s where the Joy-Cons come in. Sliding into the Switch tablet, these turn it into a handheld console. They can also be slotted into the Joy-Con Grip to function as a traditional controller, held separately like a Wiimote and Nunchuck, or used individually for local 2-player action.
Slotted into the Switch, the Joy-Cons feel nice and sturdy to match the console itself. I was concerned that the Switch would put pressure on the Joy-Cons over time and cause them to loosen, but they’ve held up very well in my experience. Sliding them in and out of the Switch hasn’t affected their build in any way either.
When slotted into the Grip, it feels identical to the Switch with a smaller gap between Joy-Cons. However, they’re at their most comfortable with one in each hand. Gameplay is more relaxed and the feeling of gyroscopic aiming with just the right hand is the best.
Individually, each Joy-Con serves as its own controller, complete with shoulder buttons hidden inside the rails. You pretty much need the included Straps to raise these, as without it, the Joy-Cons are small and uncomfortable.
The control layout is the biggest flaw of the Joy-Cons. Since their design skirts the line between single and multiplayer, it has to make sacrifices for both. The stick and buttons have to be horizontally level for holding sideways and playing comfortably, but it makes for awkward positioning between the face buttons and right stick.
The controls have to be positioned close enough to be comfortable when playing traditionally and in Handheld Mode, but this makes for controls that are uncomfortably close together when used sideways. It’s by no means impossible to get used to this, but they will take some time.
The other less subtle functions of the Joy-Cons were somewhat lost on me. Built-in amiibo functionality and HD Rumble are nice touches, but I never used the IR Camera in the right Joy-Con. This is probably because the only game to use it is one minigame in 1 2 Switch. With its specific use case, I doubt many future games (if any) will make use of it.
Range was also a sticking point in early impressions, so I made sure to fully test mine. In practically every test, I had no issues whatsoever. It was only when I was standing over 20 feet away from the Switch with my hands behind my back that I noticed some dropped inputs. It really does seem to be a rare design flaw in some Joy-Cons.
The other half of the Switch’s main appeal is outputting to your TV using the Switch Dock. This is proprietary hardware, so don’t expect to be able to use a USB-C to HDMI adapter. The Dock does include an HDMI cable and AC Adapter, so no need to buy those separately.
The Dock also houses additional USB ports on the side and one USB 3.0 inside the back panel. The panel provides management for the HDMI and AC Adapter cables as well. Pins help to guide the Switch to the docked USB-C port and the connection sits loosely in the Dock. This prevents damage from aligning the Switch in the Dock wrong.
While it’s well built, it’s a shame that the inside of the Dock is lined with the same plastic material as the rest. It makes sliding the Switch in feel risky when you don’t want to scratch the screen. Favoring the back when sliding and having a screen protector alleviates this, but it sucks that it’s still an issue.
The Switch Pro Controller
While not included in the base package, I have to give props to the Switch Pro Controller for being perhaps the best controller I’ve ever used. The weight and mold feels just right in the hands, and the analog sticks have a much smoother feel and further travel distance than the Joy-Con sticks.
The face buttons are nice and broad, the shoulder buttons are better-spaced, and it has a dedicated D-Pad for precise input. It charges by USB-C, has a built-in gyroscope and accelerometer, amiibo support, and HD Rumble. Best of all, it sports a 40-hour battery life! I’ve charged mine fully on launch day and haven’t even gotten close to needing to charge it yet!
These awesome features do come at a cost. At $70, it is the most expensive first-party controller on the market (barring the Xbox One Elite). For the best home console experience, it’s well worth the investment.
Switching Between Modes
How well does the Switch work in action? Switching from TV Mode to Handheld Mode is by far the fastest. Once the Joy-Cons are slid into place while docked, lifting it out just switches displays and allows you to continue. Switching into Tabletop Mode or back to TV requires you to resync your controllers by pressing the L and R buttons (SL and SR for individual Joy-Cons), but once synced you’re back in.
There are some restrictions to specific modes. Airplane Mode can only be used in Handheld Mode since the Joy-Cons are connected by Bluetooth otherwise. While the vast majority of games will support all three modes, some won’t. The upcoming ARMS only supports TV and Tabletop Mode, while the recently released VOEZ only runs in Handheld Mode.
The User Interface
With hardware out of the way, let’s dig into the software side, starting with the OS. The best way to describe it is with one word; clean. Well, for better and worse. Everything about the interface is what I love about the PlayStation 4 but faster. Downloading and installing games, switching between them, and quick menu functions feel super quick and responsive. Taking screenshots is also a snap (pun intended).
However, if you want to do anything on your Switch besides playing games and browsing the eShop, you’re out of luck. There are currently no entertainment apps available, not even a built-in web browser. There is a browser (thankfully) that pops up for hotel landing pages. Even if you have other streaming devices, the Switch lacking a feature expected of modern devices is a shame.
While battery life is alright, I’m more impressed with the Switch’s Sleep Mode performance. The Switch has incredibly low power consumption in Sleep Mode, even with suspended games. While testing from a full battery, having Breath of the Wild suspended in Sleep Mode for 12 hours only brought the battery down to 98%, a massive improvement over the 3DS.
Memory management between the card and internal storage is nice and simple, but you can’t transfer downloaded titles between sources like the Wii U. You have to archive or delete the game and redownload it with the card set as your default storage device. Save data is also stored on the Switch and can’t be moved. Unless a cloud save option comes with the paid service in the fall, don’t expect to get back that 30-hour Breath of the Wild save if your system fails.
Lastly, let’s take a look at some of the games for the Switch. Going through the paces with 4 launch titles, it really shows the pros and cons of the system.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild shows off how well large-scale games can look both at home and on the go. The Gyroscope controls with the Joy-Cons and Pro Controller also make a great showcase for things like archery and using Sheikah Slate items. However, its graphical demand as a massive open-world title drains your battery quickly, even when being conservative by lowering the brightness and turning on Airplane Mode.
Fast RMX shows off how well games can upscale when docked and running on increased power. It also makes the best case for HD Rumble with distinct vibrations for different track conditions. It even lets you fully map out your preferred control layout. You will probably want to do that, as the button placement is awkward when playing with the small Joy-Con buttons. The Switch Pro Controller is a better showcase of features like HD Rumble.
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
Treasure Trove shows off the Switch’s built-in local multiplayer with the right and left Joy-Cons without needing to buy more controllers. This works very well for goofy co-op play (which let’s be honest is what side-scroller co-op usually devolves into). However, if you want to play more serious or even just use one Joy-Con for single player, the control layout and lack of a D-Pad hampers this control method for serious technical play.
VOEZ shows off the clarity and responsiveness of the touchscreen, as well as makes good use of the Switch’s multitouch capabilities for combos. The headphone jack provides the best way to immerse yourself in the music without proprietary connectors, like a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter (for a random example). However, it’s generally better to play it flat on a table or other surface, as the kickstand isn’t nearly stable enough to hold up to repeated tapping.
The Nintendo Switch is a handheld/home game console hybrid that’s currently only good for playing games. It’s an impressive piece of tech, but your appreciation of it will likely depend on your perspective.
As a home console, it lags behind the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Big third-party titles are likely to get some significant downgrades, and its lack of content apps makes it a hard sell as a modern home console.
However, it is one of the most powerful handheld consoles on the market. The ability to play full home console games on the go with little-to-no tweaking required is incredible, and a simple TV-out option is a dream for a handheld.
Right now, a lot about it is hard to recommend. While $300 will get you up and running, throwing down money for a Pro Controller, screen protector, microSDXC card, powerbank, and another charger or two will give you the optimal experience. Adding $150 to the tag won’t make this early-access console easier to digest. Unless you need the top-of-the-line in handheld console tech (or just really want to play the new Zelda), you’re better off waiting for a more robust library and more features.