Release Date: 3/3/2017
Colors: Gray Joy-Con version, Neon Blue+Red Joy-Con version, Red Joy-Con version
I wasn’t a believer. I saw the Switch as a gimmicky train wreck straight into financial debt as Nintendo revealed the system last year. The concept was neat, the first home console that was built into a tablet which felt like the last 2 Nintendo consoles smushed into one. The only issue that still remained was graphical power and online play as Nintendo is notoriously known for not doing well in these two departments.
Fast forward over a year later and I have one sitting next to me. To be honest, it was a spontaneous purchase during Black Friday weekend as there were more and more games coming out that I really wanted to play. It was still a gamble as there’s a huge divide on the Switch. Nintendo fanboys refuse to admit faults in the system, and naysayers refuse to admit the originality and fantastic games that are available, as few as there are.
As I opened the box I was actually surprised how much smaller the system was than I originally thought. I thought it was going to be some hefty, unwieldy thing with controllers slapped on it. The tablet is just slightly bigger than any standard 7″ Android tablet on the market (Nvidia Shield K1 for example) and looks sleek, ergonomic, and not too heavy, really. The buttons are nicely laid out on top of the unit with volume control, power, the card slot, and a headphone jack. There’s a USB-C charger power at the bottom as well as a kickstand. They seemed to have thought of everything and didn’t overthink too much else, which is surprisingly nice. The system is meant to be used in landscape only so this helped solidify their design ideas.
Once I popped the Joy-Con controllers out I was also surprised, these things are surprisingly small and light, but also feel nice and have great ergonomics. These could have easily been messed up and killed the system, but it feels like the Wii Remote mixed with 3DS buttons, which is a good thing. It’s also designed with offset thumbsticks like the Gamecube controller which is a huge plus here. The aligned sticks on the Wii U pad were uncomfortable. The design is also meant to be symmetrical so each controller can be used separately. The left Joy-Con then turns the directional buttons into face buttons, but the only small complaint is that the left stick is closer to the edge of the controller while the right is further in, so playing Mario Kart, for example, made me want the right Con so my hand didn’t cramp. There’s also an issue with the screenshot button (which works amazingly well and just like it should) not turning into the Home button.
Joy-Cons: Is the Name a Premonition?
The controller frustrations aren’t really all of that, the Cons are interchangeable with a grip that turns these things into an actual controller, they slide right in, but the release button on the back is small, hard to get a grip on without pressing buttons, and having to take them off to slide them on the tablet in docked mode to charge is annoying. Then you have the side rails with the SR and SL buttons for playing with the controller landscape or separately for motion controls. These rails go on easily but are a pain to get off and I’ve scraped and cut my fingers pulling these off. They are tight and require more strength than needed to get them off. The easiest mode to get these out of is tablet mode. Sliding them on the side of the tablet is easy enough as well as getting them off. I just wish there wasn’t so much configuring for each game as with Skyrim, I had to slide the side rails off to put on the grip as I was tired of holding them for motion controls. Then I had to slide them off the grip and onto the tablet when I went and played in the bedroom.
Switch: The New DS
Speaking of tablet mode, this is the main attraction for this system. Nintendo wanted the power of a home console in your hands, and this is the first time it’s done correctly. The PSP started this with being sold as a portable PlayStation home experience, but it didn’t have the power or the controls to do this correctly. Sony sold that same idea with the Vita, and while it did have both, the pirating from the PSP caused developers to back away. Nintendo has never sold their portable systems as home experiences, but here we have it. The games play in 720p while undocked, which is a bit disappointing seeing as tablets can display up to 2K resolution these days, but a lot more power would have to be built in causing bulkiness, less battery life, and more cost. It still looks clean and crisp in this mode and most people won’t notice.
The Big Screen
Docking the console is easy enough, but there was another problem here. There’s no click, no satisfying “snap” of the system connecting to the charge port, and no sound or feedback of any kind. The system kind of just flops in the dock and rests there. The only indication is the green light flashing on the dock and that’s it. This could have been done much differently, with better feedback. While docked, games usually run in 1080p, but with some graphical hits like frame rate cuts or aliasing. The Switch is intended to perform better in the docked mode as the CPU isn’t underclocked to save battery life, but there are varying theories about how all that extra power is used to render the picture in higher resolution and not really performing better. It’s something Nintendo needs to iron out, and even 8 months later, it’s still a tad bit of an issue. Battery life is also not that great in portable mode. You will maybe squeeze 4 hours out of the system on a game that doesn’t push it to its limits. I haven’t been able to time it just yet so I will update this as time goes on to see if I can get 4+ hours.
Under the Hood
Let’s take a look at what runs this device first. For starters, the system has 4GB of RAM in the form of LPDDR4 which is what is seen in phones. I was surprised to not see X RAM which is much faster, but it’s a good start. The system has a Nvidia Tegra X1 chipset which is seen in the newest Shield device from Nvidia. It has an 8-core CPU running at 1.20GHz, and the GPU is Maxwell based running at 768MHz docked and 384 undocked and has a 6.2-inch screen in 720p. As you can see it’s a very powerful portable device, but clearly doesn’t have any power close to the other competitors, but can easily be seen as the most powerful tablet on the market. Why Nintendo chose off the shelf parts instead of custom hardware is very interesting, it definitely is easier to program for. The SD slot can hold up to 2TB (which isn’t available yet) in microSDXC format.
Let’s talk about the software. The Switch features a much more streamlined UI over the Wii U. No longer is a huge ring of bubbles with Miis running around everywhere. We get a clean and minimalist UI that just shows a row of “blocks” that are your games. Near the bottom, you can select settings, Joy-Con arrangement, eShop, and brightness. I love this UI and it’s even better than the 3DS UI. This is designed to be easy to navigate with the touchscreen in portable mode. Another nifty feature is being able to “archive” games, so when you’re done with them you can delete the game data, but it will keep all your saves to free up HDD space. If you run out of the 24GB (8 are taken up with OS) you can insert a microSD card which is something that was much needed on the Wii U and really hurt sales. 24GB is plenty for physical games, but if you have a large digital collection you can move screenshots and those games onto that SD card which is awesome.
So, Is It Worth It?
Overall, the Switch is well worth the $300 purchase if you like all the games available. If you’re just a Nintendofile, or just like one genre of a game then you should stay away. This is a great system that is revolutionary in its own right that takes a traditional home console and takes it on the go, but with the usual sacrifices that Nintendo is willing to make. It’s not very powerful (for a home console), the Joy-Cons are cumbersome to configure, the battery life isn’t too great, and the graphical difference between docked and undocked various way too much and needs to be ironed out. There’s also the lack of games to mention that has been an issue since the Wii. The ones that are available are fantastic, there aren’t a lot of games that are downright awful on this system, with Nintendo’s own games being some of the best games in years, period.
To Nintendo’s credit, people are giving this system a harder time than it deserves. The Wii U deserved all the backlash it got, it was a terrible console, that was terribly marketed and executed. The Switch is actually trying to be something completely new with some of Nintendo’s past, and best, ideas at play. With the support of more third party developers (as we’re seeing as the year comes to a close) Nintendo could be back on track as the best video game company out there. Only time will tell, but they don’t have long.