A stealthy battery upgrade makes the Nintendo Switch a must-have console
“The Nintendo Switch is a homerun for Nintendo, and delivers on its innovative premise.”
- Game at home or on the go
- Sharp display
- Unique multi-mode controller
- Excellent game library
- Great battery life
- Limited internal storage
- Some controller options are uncomfortable
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.
Battery life and portability
The original Switch has a battery life of 2.5 to 6 hours, and its lifespan is dependent on how demanding the game you’re playing is. A game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for instance, leans heavier on the console’s resources so the battery will last about 3 hours, even less if you’re playing at full brightness. All this to say, it won’t last through most flights, but it’s fine for the commute to work.
For a system that touts portability, this is disappointing. While both the Nintendo 3DS and the PS Vita last between three to five hours, Nintendo could’ve easily used the original Switch as an opportunity to improve on the standard.
Luckily, a new version of the Switch with improved battery life arrived in 2019. The updated console, which has a new chip layout and a revised Tegra X1 processor, drastically improves on the original Switch’s battery performance, offering 4.5 to nine hours of battery life. That’s two precious hours of playtime added to your Breath of the Wild gaming session. This change to one of the Switch’s biggest flaws takes the console to new heights, especially for players who frequently game on the go.
Speaking of gaming on the go, while the Switch is not quite as portable as the 3DS, the upcoming Switch Lite promises to be. Bringing a smaller, lighter, and more compact build to the family, the Switch Lite aims to satisfy players who prefer the handheld gaming lifestyle. It features the same revised chip layout and Tegra X1 processor in the updated Switch, and promises a battery life of up to seven hours. Releasing on September 20, it may just add the missing portability that the hybrid version of the console lacks.
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 a 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 is a slew of third-party peripherals that were 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.
Still, not all of the peripherals were created to address the system’s shortcomings. Nintendo Labo, which launched about a year after the Switch itself, allows younger players to combine the Switch and its Joy-Con controllers with cardboard kits to create entirely new experiences. These include everything from playable pianos to RC cars and even a fishing rod, each of which make use of the system’s infrared cameras and rumble to do unexpected things. Support is even coming to existing games, including Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, giving fans a novel new way to race.
All about the games
Nintendo’s Achilles’ heel with some past home consoles was a lack of software support. The Wii U had trouble releasing games on a consistent basis over its short lifespan, and the Wii had trouble attracting third-party developers.
Over the first year-plus of the Switch’s life, though, that hasn’t proven an issue. Major first-party games like Super Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 have come out at a rate even the most devoted fan would be satisfied with, and partners like Ubisoft and Bethesda have launched several of their biggest games on the system, as well.
Things look even better for the Switch this holiday season, as we’ll see the release of Pokémon: Let’s Go — complete with Pokémon Go connectivity — as well as the much-anticipated Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and sequels like Bayonetta 3 and Metroid Prime 4 are also in the works.
It isn’t just large AAA games, though. Independent developers have found the Switch to be the perfect platform for their games, offering what the PlayStation Vita did but with significantly more horsepower and versatility. From Hollow Knight to Rocket League, if you want to play it, it’s probably on Switch.
Better online, mostly
Nintendo hasn’t been at the forefront of online gaming innovation over the years, but the Switch offers a relatively stable multiplayer experience in everything from Arms to Splatoon 2. Some games, like Mario Kart 8, work fantastically well online.
Still, limited matchmaking options in some of the biggest games, as well as the bizarre decision to omit voice chat without a smartphone app, are baffling, and they pale in comparison to the quality-of-life options available on both PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.
Nintendo has also, unfortunately, used its online service as a barrier for online play and its popular Virtual Console system. While a paid subscription for online access is a common practice among current-gen consoles, restricting access to some of Nintendo’s most beloved retro games is unfair. Rather than allow you to buy classics to own as we’ve seen on previous Nintendo consoles, you’re given a selection of NES and SNES titles as part of your subscription. That is a fine option, but making it the only option feels like a mistake.
That being said, Nintendo has shown a surprising willingness to work with other platforms in some of its online games. If you want to play Minecraft or Fortnite: Battle Royale on Switch with your friends on Xbox or PC, you can, and in the former game’s case, you can even earn Xbox achievements.
No Netflix here, yet
Despite its multitude of play-styles and parts, the Switch is actually a straightforward 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 — 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.
There are 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.
Maybe Link can save our world, too
You probably don’t think about the power a game console uses, but it can be substantial. An Xbox One X can suck down more juice than a small refrigerator while gaming. That damages our planet and, over time, can add a hidden cost to your power bill.
Nintendo’s portable Switch sidesteps the issue. It draws about 12 watts while gaming in docked mode. The Switch’s total power draw is even less when other factors, like standby use and data center use, are considered. PlayStation and Xbox consoles frequently download large patches and can be used to stream content from power-hungry data centers.
That all adds up. A study by the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory found the Switch uses less than a 10th as much power as the PlayStation 4 Pro when all sources of energy use are considered. It’s far less demanding than the Xbox One S or Xbox One X, as well.
The Switch can also save your wallet. A light gamer will spend $47 less on her utility bill if she buys the Switch instead of a PlayStation 4 Pro. A gamer who frequently spends all day gaming could save up to $180. That’s enough to buy three new, full-priced games.
Nintendo also offers free recycling for your old console and peripherals through its Take Back program. Microsoft and Sony offer similar programs, but they’re more difficult to find on each company’s website.
The Nintendo Switch comes with a one-year limited warranty from the manufacturer.
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. With improved battery life and an extensive collection of games available on the Switch, you would only be limiting your options by entertaining an inferior handheld that is at the end of its lifecycle.
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 the hardware is successful. This is the case with the Switch.
Two years following its initial release, Nintendo launched an upgraded version of the console with improved battery life. The Switch Lite, a compact version of the Switch made exclusively for handheld play, arrived shortly after. Original Switch owners that aren’t interested in a more handheld-friendly console will likely pass on the Switch Lite, but the revised version of the Switch will is a permanent replacement for the original that significantly improves battery life, which was a bit short on the debut version.
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 8-22-2019: Updated information on new Switch chip and improved battery life.
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