Nintendo wants to win you back. Following the failure of its last home console, the Wii U, the publisher of Mario and Zelda announced very quickly that it was hard at work on a new console. Though the legendary publisher made some amazing games in the meantime — such as Super Mario Maker and Splatoon — it felt like Nintendo was holding back, and fans accepted that because they knew a new era was on the horizon. Going into our Nintendo Switch review, the question was, “can Nintendo turn things around with new hardware?” The answer is a resounding “yes.”
What’s in the box
The Switch is a “hybrid” game console. It’s designed to plug into a TV just like a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, or it can be carried around as a portable device, similar to the Nintendo 3DS, or Game Boy.
The Switch itself is a small tablet with a 6.2” LCD multi-touch display. Inside, the console has a custom Nvidia Tegra processor and 32GB of internal storage. It also has what you’d expect in a portable device: an accelerometer, gyroscope, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, Wi-Fi, and Wireless LAN capability (IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac).
On the outside, it has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, stereo speakers, power and volume buttons, ports for game cartridges, a MicroSD slot for expandable storage, a USB Type-C port for charging, and a kickstand.
It also comes with a dock, a cradle that the Switch slides into when you want to charge it or play it on a TV. The dock is effectively a hollow plastic hub that connects via the console’s USB Type-C port. It has three ports on the back — USB Type-C for charging, HDMI for audio and video output, and a USB 2.0 port. There are also two additional USB 2.0 ports on the side. The rear ports are exposed via a simple door in the back, which also hides some cords.
The Switch is a perfect reflection of Nintendo’s own gaming sensibilities.
Also included are two detachable controllers called “Joy-Cons,” which have all the controller buttons and slide onto the tablet, two Joy-Con straps, and the Joy-Con Grip, which fuses two Joy-Cons together as a single controller.
While the Switch can be used on the go, it’s not quite as portable as Nintendo’s 3DS. With battery life ranging from 2.5-6 hours in portable mode, depending on the game, the Switch won’t last through most flights, though it’s fine for the commute to work. The Switch also doesn’t fold up to protect its own screen, as does a 3DS, so a carrying case is a good idea.
What’s not in the box
The console (and dock) are missing a couple hardware features. First, neither the console nor dock has any kind of camera, an omission that is more annoying than anything else. Since most people already carry around a smartphone with a camera, it’s a feature that would likely go unused, though it does seem blasphemous to release a portable electronic device without a camera in 2017. Nintendo itself put cameras in its Wii U and 3DS systems.
Second, the Switch can only connect to the internet via Wi-Fi out of the box. Third-party LAN adapters are available, but they only work when the Switch is docked because they need a USB Type-A port.
Play your way
Though the Switch is a small tablet, it wears its soul outside of its small casing. The Joy-Cons can be used to control games in many different ways. The small, remote-style controllers slide and snap into place on either side of the Switch, turning it into a handheld gaming device á la Nintendo’s Game Boy and 3DS systems.
Both the console and Joy-Cons feel sturdy and have a solid, “premium” build.
Sliding the Joy-Cons on and off may be one of the best physical design features of any game hardware in modern memory. It is easy, fun, and there’s a nice click that you can both feel and hear when the Joy-Cons are in place. It’s a seamless transition to make, even in the middle of game.
The Switch feels good in-hand. Both the console and Joy-Cons feel sturdy and have a solid, “premium” build. The Joy-Con’s matte finish makes the console look and feel modern, whether you buy the grey or colorful red-and-blue version. At 398 grams (0.9 pounds) with the Joy-Cons attached, it is light enough to hold for long stretches in portable mode.
Though the dock doesn’t feel as sturdy or well-constructed as the console itself, it gets the job done. Though only the USB-C port holds it in place, the Switch seems secure in the dock, and we never experienced connectivity issues between the console and dock. It can be tricky to connect the Switch console to the USB-C port in the bottom of the dock on the first try, and it could use the same “click” of recognition you get from the Joy-Cons to let you know that the console is secure.
When the console is connected to its dock, or if you simply don’t feel like holding the whole console, you can use Joy-Cons freely or slot them into Joy-Con Grip, which turns them into a conventional controller. The Grip works like any other gamepad, but it’s much smaller than the PS4’s Dualshock 4 or the Xbox One controller. That can cause discomfort for most adults. The Joy-Con’s small control sticks aren’t as large as usual, either, so they can seem hard to grip. The optional Pro Controller fixes this problem — and is a great gamepad all-around — but it’s a $70 accessory.
A multiplayer machine, even on the go
Having two Joy-Cons opens the door for self-contained local multiplayer experiences. Some games allow players to each use a single Joy-Con as a controller. The Joy-Cons also have all the motion sensors necessary for gesture-based, motion-controlled games, similar to the Nintendo Wii.
However, using the individual Joy-Cons as mini-controllers for local multiplayer can be downright uncomfortable. The controllers are very small and, when turned horizontally, have a rounded rectangular shape. Holding onto them can become painful after sustained and/or intense play sessions.
The console’s included “Joy-Con straps” add more comfortable shoulder buttons and, of course, a wrist strap, to each Joy-Con – but they only slightly improve comfort. The Joy-Cons aren’t identical, either. The analog stick and buttons are in different positions on the left and right Joy-Cons.
The analog on the right Joy-Con is basically in the center of the controller, which makes it difficult to get a grip on the stick. The player with the left Joy-Con definitely has an advantage if a game uses the thumbstick. If you need a controller in a pinch, it might be a better option to use a spare GameCube controller — thanks to a recent update, they’re compatible.
There is one poorly built element of the Switch: its kickstand. It is a flimsy flap of plastic that flips out of console’s back panel and keeps the console upright for on-the-go multi-player matches – or if you’re tired and don’t want to hold the console. The console will stay upright so long as it isn’t touched or jostled, but after opening it even one time you will be afraid that it could break. That would be especially bad, because the kickstand doubles as a protective covering for the MicroSD slot.
A toy chest of peripherals
There are slew of third-party peripherals that made to compliment all the little issues with playing the Switch in its wide range of use-cases. Not only do these “optional” items greatly inflate the cost of the Switch, but they bring to light that the cost of the Switch’s “jack of all trades” approach to hardware design has created a console with acceptable, but annoying flaws.
For example, the console’s 32GB of internal storage can store plenty of screenshots, short video clips (for a small number of first-party games) and probably more than a few small indie games, but players accustomed to buying games digitally will need a large MicroSDXC card for additional storage.
If you travel often and for long stretches, you will need an extra battery pack, similar to the kind people carry around to charge their phone. Third-party accessory makers have even begun creating portable docks and battery packs built specifically for the Switch, such as the SwitchCharge, which replace the console’s flimsy stand.
If you play competitive games, or play for long stretches at a time, you want to shell out for Nintendo’s Pro Controller, which costs an additional $70.
No Netflix here, yet
For its multitude of play-styles and parts, the Switch is actually a very simple gaming machine. Unlike other consoles, which aspire to become all-in-one living room or mobile online entertainment devices, the Switch is dedicated to gaming and gaming alone (at least for now).
The user interface is very simple — there are a series of large squares, which shows your available games. There’s a second set of smaller round buttons below the games with a Nintendo-curated blog feed, the eShop, a place to view and share screenshots, etc.
That said, there are very few non-gaming apps available right now — Hulu is the only current major streaming service — and Nintendo hasn’t said when or if those features will make their way to the console. Like the camera, their omission doesn’t feel like a huge loss.
Most players already have a large number of devices — phone, tablet, laptop — on which to watch Netflix and YouTube. At the same time, with its sharp screen and third-party stand, the Switch would make a good personal viewing screen.
A lean, mean Nintendo machine…
The Nintendo Switch is not as powerful as the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or a mid-tier gaming PC, but it doesn’t need to be. While you won’t get the latest, most technically astounding games, what we’ve seen on the Switch looks sharp and runs very well. The Switch outputs games at 720p in portable mode and runs at 1080p when connected to a television. In fact, due to the size of the screen and its sharpness, some games, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, look better on the portable screen. While a certain number of games do feature a higher framerate when the console is docked, every game works in both modes and runs very well.
One of the saving graces of proprietary game consoles, particularly those that don’t seek parity with PC, is the ability to set your own standards and expectations. Games will run great on the Switch when and if developers take the time to make games with its hardware in mind. Still, it is worth noting that choosing the Switch over pretty much any non-Nintendo console means passing on many AAA games that you would have access to on other platforms.
…For better and worse
While the Switch has, in many ways, balanced Nintendo’s mandate to create innovative, offbeat hardware with the public’s demands for a tech-saavy device, the Switch’s approach to online play and social networking remains woefully outdated. While it is easy to connect the Switch to the internet, connecting with your friends isn’t as easy as it should be, and the benefits of doing so are extremely limited.
Rather than allowing you to look up a friend using his or her Nintendo Account, a cross-platform social system baked into the console, relies once again on Nintendo’s much-maligned “friend code” system. On the Switch, you can send friends a 12-digit code that will link your accounts. While this is an improvement over the game-specific friend codes of Nintendo consoles past, it is not nearly as easy as it should be.
There are also a handful of other simple, direct means of connecting with friends: you can send friend requests to people who you’ve played game with recently, or between two nearby Switches on the same network.
If you already have connected with a friend using 3DS, Wii U, or mobile apps like Super Mario Run, you can also use these to easily connect. While these seem to be well-made, they will be edge-cases for the majority of players, and most of us will, sadly, be forced to share long passcodes.
Nintendo announced that it plans to offer more ways to connect two accounts, including social networks, more like PS4 and Xbox, but they still aren’t available more than a year after launch.
Though the Switch is a small tablet, it wears its soul outside of its casing.
There are similarly misguided design choices scattered across the console’s online feature set. You can share screenshots to Facebook or Twitter, but cannot send them via email. Should you connect with friends, by whatever means, you can only chat using a dedicated smartphone app, and if you open another app while chatting with a friend, the call will end.
For everything interesting and intriguing about the Switch, Nintendo’s understanding of the internet seems like a fairly strong indicator that the Switch will not make a great home for online-multiplayer-focused games.
The Nintendo Switch comes with a one-year limited warranty from the manufacturer.Our Take
The Switch manages to blend Nintendo’s penchant for weird, gimmicky hardware with the high quality design we’ve come to expect of consoles in the modern era. From a hardware perspective, it is the best console from the company in generations — possibly ever.
Still, the Switch is a Nintendo machine made for playing Nintendo games. Despite all the measures taken to make it feel more “mainstream,” its flaws reveal that the console was designed so that Nintendo’s developers could make interesting games. If you love Nintendo, this bodes well, as the big N seems to be hitting a new stride.
Is there a better alternative?
The Switch is unique. There are no platforms that offer the same home/portable “hybrid” functionality, or such a wide range of controller options. Also, many of its best franchises, such as Splatoon and Mario, will not be playable on any other platform, Nintendo or otherwise.
If you can do without Nintendo games and play on a TV or monitor, you would be better served purchasing a PS4, Xbox One, or gaming PC. If you already have any of these, the Switch is a fantastic second system that will give you access to more original games than any other option.
If you’re specifically looking for a portable platform, we would recommend the Switch over the 3DS, if only because it seems unlikely that Nintendo will make its strongest games for a console that now seems obsolete.
How long will it last?
Historically, successful game consoles have a shelf-life of about five years before the manufacturer makes a new console. We should also note that console makers have been working to shorten the lifecycle of systems, even when hardware is successful, so it’s possible that a “Switch 2.0” might come along in a few as three years, or as many as five.
Should you buy it?
Yes. If you love Nintendo and want to keep playing new Nintendo games, or already own a modern game console, then the Switch should be your next game console. However, if this is your first modern console, or if you mostly like to play a lot of games online, you should pass.
Updated on 05-07-2018: Review language updated for timeliness.