Computers / Hands-on Review

Why You Must Own a Nintendo Switch

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It’s been five years since the last Nintendo gaming console, and while the Wii U may not have been able to follow the popularity of the Wii, it did introduce some interesting ideas. The Wii U Gamepad felt like a prototype for the Nintendo Switch. The Joy-Con controllers feel like upgraded Wii remotes. In fact, it feels like Nintendo took all the good things about the Wii and the Wii U and fused them into the Switch. I took one home to find out if they succeeded.

The System

The Nintendo Switch has a unique design, compared to the other major gaming consoles. While the others are focused more on graphics-intensive games and home entertainment, it’s clear that Nintendo wanted the Switch to be about more than just pushing pixels and being the 500th device with which to stream Netflix.

When I opened the box, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Nintendo Switch was a lot smaller than I anticipated. I don’t know why, but I imagined some behemoth device that would be impossible to transport. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The Switch measures just less than 9.5 inches across with the Joy-Con controllers attached. If you remove them, the Switch measures slightly less than 7 inches across, which isn’t too much larger than an iPhone 7 Plus in landscape mode. It also weighs a little more than a quarter of a pound with Joy-Con controllers attached. That’s not bad at all.

Along with a 720p, 6.2-inch touchscreen—capacitive this time—and unlike the Wii U’s low-res, resistive screen of the same size, the front of the Switch has dual front-facing stereo speakers and a brightness sensor. The speakers can get loud, and the sound quality is acceptable. At the top, there’s a power button, volume up and down buttons, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a game-card slot. There’s a setting in the Switch that mutes it when headphones are not connected. That’s a helpful feature I inadvertently tested when my earphones got disconnected after they had snagged on an old lady trying to beat the subway doors (she didn’t).

Nintendo Wii U tablet and Nintendo Switch in Tablet Mode

Located at the bottom is the USB Type-C connector. It’s great to see more and more companies adopting the USB Type-C standard. Maybe one day we’ll be able to use the same cable for all our devices. (A guy can dream.) Anyway, moving on to the back, there is the kickstand with the microSD card slot cleverly hidden behind it. To access it, you just need to open the kickstand. I appreciate having the kickstand, but it feels a bit flimsy. You must open it up until it clicks, which sounds awfully like the sound it would make if it was about to break. I recommend being delicate when it comes to the kickstand, just as a precaution.

Joy-Con

The Joy-Con controllers slide onto the Switch and connect with a satisfying click. They felt snug, too, since I didn’t notice any jiggling. The Joy-Con controllers are unique in that they can be used together as one controller, as well as separately for compatible games, such as 1-2 Switch. So technically, the Switch comes with two controllers. That gives Nintendo the advantage over other consoles. Split-screen multiplayer is becoming rarer on those consoles, but not for the Switch. You can play with a friend right out of the box. I will confess that using one of the Joy-Con controllers feels a bit awkward, since there’s a lot of unused space on one side. Of course, the alternative would be that the Joy-Con controllers would be shorter than the Switch, so I guess Nintendo settled for the lesser of two evils.

Let’s go over the buttons. The Joy-Con L has a L button, a ZL button, a “-” button, an analog stick, four directional buttons, and a capture button. The Joy-Con R has an R button, a ZR button, a + button, an analog stick, A/B/X/Y buttons, and a home button. Both Joy-Con controllers have SL and SR buttons, as well. The included Joy-Con Straps extend these shoulder-type buttons, making them much more practical.

When your Switch is connected to the dock (see below), you can slide your Joy-Con controllers into the Joy Con Grip that comes included. It felt better than having the Joy-Con controllers separately in each hand while playing a game, but the Joy-Con Grip did feel a bit cramped. If you’re planning on docking the Switch and playing on your TV a lot, then I would recommend getting the Switch Pro Controller. You may also want to pick up a Joy-Con Charging Grip, as the included one will only hold your Joy-Con, not charge them. They have battery lives rated for 20 or so hours, and in my time with the system, that seems about right.

Joy-Con's added to the Joy-Con Grip

The Dock

The dock is straightforward, but it’s crucial to the Switch experience. See, the thing that makes the Switch unique is that it can be used in either tablet mode, on its built-in screen, or docked to the television. When docked, it charges and takes full advantage of its processor, which is under-clocked when used portably.

The dock features a TV Output LED indicator in the front and two USB 2.0 Type-A ports on the left side. The back panel opens to reveal the USB Type-C port for power, a USB Type-A port, and an HDMI-out. There’s a little cutout to the right of the dock, so you can snake all your cables through for a clean setup. It’s nice to see that Nintendo cares about cable management, as well.

Performance

Let’s be honest: Nintendo hasn’t really focused on graphics power since, at least, the GameCube. The company has thrived all these years because of its beloved characters and games. Plus, does anyone besides Princess Peach want to see Mario’s face in 4K?

Nintendo Switch in Handheld mode

The 6.2-inch screen on the Switch won’t exactly blow your mind. It features 1280 x 720 resolution, which is acceptable, but I wouldn’t have minded if it was at least 1080p. I mean, the system does 1080p, but you must connect it to the dock and watch it on your TV to achieve that.

I was very impressed with how seamless the Nintendo Switch could switch between modes. When I dropped the Switch into the dock, it was displayed on my aging 1080p Samsung HDTV (don’t worry, I’ll join the 4K HDR team soon enough) in about 3-4 seconds. Keep in mind that my TV was on and set to the correct input when I performed this test. Still, that’s impressive.

I was given The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to test on the Nintendo Switch. The game itself is phenomenal. It brought back childhood memories of when I used to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, on the Nintendo 64. I dare say it may even be better than that iconic game. It was so good I almost forgot to write this review (don’t tell my boss).

Nintendo Switch console and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game

I was pleased to see that graphics didn’t take too much of a hit (if at all) when it was docked. It’s higher resolution, but I did notice some significant frame rate drops when the Switch was docked. It usually happened when there were a lot of enemies on the screen or a lot of explosions were going off. The Switch worked well in portable mode, though, so if you want to experience the game at its best, it’s recommended that you play undocked.

Battery Life

With a 4310 mAh battery, Nintendo claims that the Switch can last for more than 6 hours. The literature did mention that it depends on the software and usage conditions and even gave an example where the Breath of the Wild game will only get 3 hours. I tested it and I did, in fact, get around 3 hours of gameplay with Zelda. The Switch has a Sleep Mode, so you can return to your game instantly. However, if you know you won’t have a chance to play for a while, it’s recommended that you hold down the power button and select Turn Off for a complete system shutdown.

Online

It looks like PC and mobile gaming are the only places to play online for free. Nintendo will join the likes of Sony and Microsoft by launching a paid online service. Planned for a Fall 2017 release, the Nintendo Switch online service allows you to play online multiplayer games with friends and other players. It also comes with access to an online lobby and chat app on your smartphone. The app can connect to the Nintendo Switch so you can invite friends to play online, set play appointments, and chat with friends during online matches in compatible games.

Splatoon 2

Subscribers will also get to download and play an NES or SNES game with added online multiplayer for free. Unfortunately, each free game will only be available for a month, so if you’re not available when Super Mario World makes its way to the Nintendo Switch, you’ll be missing out.

I can understand Nintendo’s decision to switch to a paid online service, but I can’t say I agree with it. It’s bad enough getting hit with the blue shell when you’re just about to win in Mario Kart; it’s going to feel even worse when you realized you also paid for it. I’m guessing Nintendo looked at Sony’s successful switch to PlayStation Plus from a free PSN service, but that’s not comparable. The PS4 has a lot of things in common with the Xbox One, so it made sense for Sony to emulate the Xbox Live Gold service. However, the Nintendo Switch is a completely different system altogether. (If nothing else, the company has far superior free-games-for-subscribers setups in place).

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Fortunately, current Nintendo Switch owners will have access to online play for free until the launch of the service in the fall. If you choose not to pay to play online, you still access to the Nintendo eShop, register and manage friends (sadly via the return of Friend Codes), share screenshots with your social media platforms, and connect to the Nintendo Switch Parental Controls app. The Switch doesn’t currently support streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, but Nintendo says “it will come in time.”

Final Thoughts

While it’s understandable that most people would compare the Switch with the Xbox One and the PS4, it really does seem like they’re comparing apples to oranges. If you’re all about AAA titles and playing technically impressive games in HDR, then either the PS4 or the Xbox One S is for you. Did you notice the “or” (I even bolded it)? That’s because it’s sort of redundant to have a PS4 and an Xbox One. The Switch doesn’t run into that problem because it’s vastly different. You can own a PS4 and a Switch. You can own an Xbox One and a Switch. In fact, you should own another console and a Switch. It provides a different gaming experience than the other consoles and complements them well.

If you’re looking for a unique gaming experience that you can play while commuting, as well as at home on your TV, the Nintendo Switch may be right for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to stress-test the Nintendo Switch some more by playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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