Nintendo’s back, reinventing themselves after the dismal performance of the Wii U. The Switch is the antidote, a combination of home console performance in a portable package that hopes to salvage the best bits of the Wii and DS brands.
Early signs are promising, the Switch has already smashed Nintendo’s first week sales records in the US and Europe, while The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most successful Nintendo launch title ever, beating even Super Mario 64.
So should you buy a Switch right now, or should you wait?
A Portable Home Console Hybrid
You get a lot of things in the box when you buy a Nintendo Switch, starting with the console itself, two Joy-Con controllers, and a dock. You’ll also find a USB type-C power adapter, two rails for attaching the Joy-Con to your wrist, a grip that turns the Joy-Con into a more traditional controller, and a rather short HDMI cable.
The tablet is the brains of the operation, with all the important hardware hidden behind a shiny 6.2 inch IPS panel with a native resolution of 720p (1280 x 720). Even with the Joy-Con connected it’s lighter than the Wii U Gamepad, though much slimmer and more pleasant to use. It’s a smart design, with solid metal rails for the Joy-Con to slide into, finished with the same matte plastic found on the controllers.
On the top edge of the device is a recessed power button, volume rocker, a fan vent through which you can see a heatsink, a standard 3.5mm stereo jack, and the game card slot. Nintendo has embraced the game cartridge this time round, opting for small SD card-like bits of plastic. Unfortunately pulling open the game card flap doesn’t feel great, and I thought I was breaking it the first time I did it.
On the back of the device you’ll find some Nintendo branding, two air vents, and a flimsy kickstand. The kickstand might be the worst part of the whole console, and never seems to close properly once opened. To its credit Nintendo designed it to be replaceable, and it cleverly hides the microSD card slot on the underside too. The bottom edge of the device is where you’ll find the USB type-C connection, for charging and connecting to a TV via the dock.
The included controllers, or Joy-Con as Nintendo has called them, offer several ways to play. In handheld mode they slide into the rails either side of the main tablet, which is a painless ordeal. Getting them off using the small buttons on the rear can be a little tricky the first time you try it, but you get used to it.
Once detached you can use the Joy-Con in either hand like a “Wiimote and Nunchuk” combination, or slide them into the grip which more closely resembles a regular game controller. Certain games allow you to use one Joy-Con each, providing an analogue stick and six buttons (four face, two shoulder), which is cramped but works just fine.
The controllers are perhaps a touch on the small side, but that’s the way Nintendo had to go to keep things portable. There’s quite a jump to get from the ABXY buttons to the right analogue stick, and hitting both triggers while resting on the right-analogue stick can take some getting used to. Despite this the buttons are satisfyingly clicky and the analogue sticks are a joy to use, though there’s no proper d-pad this time round.
Another feature that Nintendo has hyped is the addition of HD Rumble, haptic-based feedback like you’ll find on the latest smartphones. It’s the sensible evolution of force feedback, but not as revolutionary as Nintendo led us to believe. I’ve played the “balls in a box” 1-2-Switch tech demo mini game, and yeah it feels good, but beyond that I’ve not encountered anything particularly revolutionary.
Finally the dock is a big hunk of black plastic which sits somewhere near your TV, allowing you to charge your console and play on the big screen. It’s a cheap and hollow-feeling stand made from rough plastic, which connects to the system via USB type-C at the bottom. The dock houses no real hardware, instead it tells the system to harness the additional power and increase clock speeds to achieve higher resolutions on the big screen.
Switch in Use
When you first turn the system on you’ll be invited to create a user account, but without the online push you’d expect from Sony or Microsoft. You only need to create or link a Nintendo account when you finally launch the eShop, probably because the Switch’s online service is still six months away from completion.
Overall the system feels speedy, like a new piece of hardware should. There’s no Wii-like grid layout, and only two themes to choose from: light and dark. They’re dull, sure, but the addition of a night-friendly UI is great for playing in bed without blinding yourself. You’ll need to patch your Switch to use online features and fix a few bugs, but the jump to system version 2.0.0 took mere seconds to download and install.
If you’re playing retail games, all of the data is stored on the cartridge and there’s no need to install anything to the internal storage. It’s a breath of fresh air in an age where buying, installing, and updating a new game seems to take an age. You’ll still need to download patches however, which are installed to microSD if you have one.
Games look great on the native 720p tablet display. With no upscaling, the pixel density of 237 ppi results in a crisp image, and during my time playing Breath of the Wild I only encountered a brief moment of slowdown while undocked. Handheld mode really does deliver a home console experience in a small package, and image quality is unchanged beyond the resolution bump.
Playing the same game in docked mode results in the console rendering a 900p image, which is then upscaled to 1080p. Things aren’t as sharp as a result, and I encountered more slowdown in some areas while docked to the TV. These frame-rate problems are hard reproduce, which makes me wonder whether the problem is down to the CPU rather than GPU — possibly a result of porting Wii U software to a different architecture?
One thing that struck me while thinking about upcoming releases is how nice it is for Nintendo to finally deliver a unified control scheme for the first time in years. There’s no need to repurpose your old Wiimotes, buy Nunchuks, charge the Gamepad, or buy a Pro controller unless you really want to.
Split Joy-Cons might be the best way to play any game on the system, while in Handheld mode things feel good if a little cramped. Your portable mileage is going to vary depending on hand size and the game you’re playing. I have big hands, I’ve been playing lots of Zelda, and I’ve still spent 75% of my time with the console in handheld mode.
Battery life might hold you back though. The best I’ve managed is around three hours of Zelda on a single charge before plugging in, but you can use standard USB power banks to charge your console. Just make sure it can handle 5 volts at 2.6 amps (13w) if you intend to charge and play simultaneously. Lower power banks will work, but you’ll still deplete your battery (albeit slowly) if you can’t meet the 13 watt requirement.
Fun But Flawed
Nintendo has a habit of improving hardware iteratively, and they’ve got some issues to fix with the Switch. Some of these problems are purely software-based, while others suggest that the company is already working on a revised model for release in future.
Let’s not kid ourselves here: Nintendo shipped the Switch with unfinished software, missing several key features. The premium online service might be the most visible problem here, but the biggest single issue is that there is presently no way to transfer or backup save data. It’s all stored on the internal memory, without any option of backing up to the cloud or microSD card. This needs to be fixed.
Better data management in general would allow you to transfer game data (updates, DLC) from the paltry 32GB internal memory to a microSD card of your choice, without having to delete it first. Even if backing up to the cloud is coming as part of the upcoming premium online service, six months is a long time to wait for such basic functionality as this.
There’s no support for Bluetooth headphones or headsets either, which is odd considering the Switch uses Bluetooth to communicate with its controllers. With the technology already in place, it’s nice to imagine a software update could add support for this, but there are no guarantees.
Other issues come down to the hardware itself, with the potentially most damaging being a design flaw with the dock. Users are reporting that the rough plastic against which the tablet rests is actually scratching the screen, so a screen protector (ideally a tempered glass one) is a must if you’re concerned. The screen itself is plastic, which is another baffling design choice made presumably to save money, which results in an easily-scratchable display.
I’ve not got a single scratch on the screen of my Switch yet, but I’ve been extra careful when docking it. Be wary of “fixes” that involve putting fabric on the dock — it’ll trap more dirt, which means more scratches, and may cause the console to overheat.
The other handful of issues might not bother you. Sound quality isn’t great via the built-in speakers, it’s comparable to an iPhone 7 in terms of volume but not clarity. Battery doesn’t last as long as you’d probably like, but the same can be said for most lithium-ion powered devices.
Lastly the Switch itself can feel a bit like a money pit: it begs to be put in a case, you’ll need a microSD card, there’s an optional Pro controller to buy, you’ll probably want a spare charger or USB cable, maybe a portable battery if you’re really hammering it. Then there are the games, which cost as much as any other platform. Your reasonably priced console can quickly become very pricey indeed.
Should You Buy One?
Despite there being room for improvement, the problems shouldn’t overshadow what Nintendo has achieved here. With the best launch game of any recent generation, and an innovative hybrid approach, there’s a lot to love about the Nintendo Switch even at this early stage in the game.
Fortunately many fixes and features can be added with software updates, while others will have to wait for a hardware revision. It’s up to developers to address some of the other concerns: a lack of games, those first party system sellers, and finding innovative uses for the tech on-offer.
The important thing is that the Switch shows promise, even in its unfinished state. Neither home or portable use feels like a gimmick: it’s not a glorified portable as per the Super Game Boy, but it’s not a home console with a low-fat portable option either. It actually excels at both tasks, even if it is underpowered compared to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It’s what the Wii U should have been all along.
If you can live with unfinished software and a few bad design choices, the Switch and a copy of Breath of the Wild is a compelling purchase. A revision will ultimately fix some of the design complaints, but you could be waiting a while.