Nintendo Switch hardware hands-on impressions

Yesterday I attended the UK Nintendo Switch Premiere in London’s Hammersmith Apollo (or whatever it’s called these days).

There I went hands on with a bunch of games planned to launch for the Switch in its first couple of months.

Over the next week or so I’m going to be writing up a series of in-depth hands-on articles for each of these games, one at a time (except for Splatoon 2, which I unfortunately didn’t get time to try out).

Before that though, it makes sense that I would give my thoughts on the Switch hardware itself: its strengths, any weaknesses it may have and, ultimately, whether I personally think it’s worth the £279 / $299 price that’s caused so much controversy.

The Switch itself (the handheld unit)

The meat of the Switch is obviously the handheld unit itself. This standalone, tablet-shaped bit is the ‘Switch’ itself: this is the console. The dock it plugs into so you can play it on the TV is exactly that, just a dock.

The first thing that hits you when you first hold it in your hands is how small it actually is (ladies). I’m not sure if Nintendo hired little people for the initial reveal video and the subsequent presentation, but in my head I pictured something much bigger, almost tablet-sized.

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Instead what you get is something that maybe looks more like a really big phablet than a tablet. Its screen is actually a similar size to that of the Wii U GamePad, but because it doesn’t have all the hollow plastic bulk surrounding it, it feels much smaller as a result (because it is).

The other big surprise is the screen: it’s fantastic. There was plenty of scaremongering after its debut on the Jimmy Fallon Show when people who had no idea how intense studio lights work complained that the screen looked washed out and hard to see. Get it in your hands and those fears are punted into the fucking sun.

The display is beautiful. Though it only has a 720p resolution, the fact it’s only a 6.2” screen means the pixel density is high and the picture is sharp and clear. The viewing angle is good (especially useful for tabletop mode: see further down) and overall it just feels high quality.

Indeed, ‘high quality’ is the general feeling you get from the Switch handheld unit in general. But I’ll get to that later.

The Joy-Con controllers

Because the Switch is smaller than I expected, that means the Joy-Con controllers were also much tinier than I’d pictured in my head.

I’ve seen conflicting reports on Twitter as to how comfortable they are, so it seems that will come down to personal preference. All I can say is that as someone with a deformed thumb and a gammy wrist, I had no comfort problems at all.

Each Joy-Con is packed with tech. The motion sensing seems accurate enough (I’d roughly put it on the same level as a Wii Remote with MotionPlus added) and the analogue stick has a nice feel to it. The buttons are just the right level of sponginess when you press them too, which is important.

Even more impressive is the ‘HD rumble’, which was shown off in some of the 1-2-Switch mini-games. One game I played had me trying to guess how many marbles were trapped inside the controller by slowly tilting it and feeling them rolling around inside. I was genuinely amazed at how accurate this felt, but also concerned that I don’t see many developers taking full advantage of it in the future.

One element I like about playing the Joy-Con controllers is that they essentially act like a couple of Wii Remotes, and this allows for more comfort as you play: you don’t have to have your hands together in the classic ‘holding a joypad’ position.

When I played games like Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, I’d do it lying on the couch with my arms in totally different positions. It made for some of the most comfortable gaming sessions I’d ever had, because I didn’t have to keep both my hands together. Having two Joy-Cons allows for this again.

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This is even more important for disabled gamers, which is an issue not covered enough. When I was working at Official Nintendo Magazine, I got a letter from a chap who had a disability that meant his arms only had minimal movement.

For years this guy was unable to play traditional games because controllers required two hands and he was unable to bring them together in the traditional ‘controller’ position. The Wii changed this for him because he could have the Wii Remote in one hand and the Nunchuk in the other, and his hands could remain far apart.

I thought about that chap when I was at the Switch event: the Wii U GamePad would have made it impossible for him to play again but the Switch brings that ability back. There may only be a few people who will benefit from the Joy-Con controllers being able to be separated, but for these people it will be literally game-changing.

Tabletop mode

Although the Switch can be played either as a handheld or a home console, there’s a third method which Nintendo was pushing quite heavily at the event.

Tabletop mode involves placing the Switch on a table (using its built-in kickstand), removing the Joy-Con controllers and essentially turning the Switch into a portable TV/console hybrid.

This mode is mainly designed for multiplayer gameplay on the move: after all, if you’re playing on your own you might as well just hold it like a handheld.

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Because of the Switch’s small size, though, how enjoyable you’ll find playing multiplayer games in tabletop mode really depends on what game you’re playing.

The first thing I tried in tabletop mode was a two-player battle in Super Bomberman R and, frankly, it was a disaster. The sprites in Bomberman are tiny so both of us were huddled together, squnting to see what was going on.

For a game that requires lightning fast reaction times, spending a while trying to figure out what you’re looking at just isn’t good enough. And that was just with two players: this is a game for up to four. Picture a shitshow.

However, I then tried out a two-player splitscreen Mario Kart 8 Deluxe race in tabletop mode and it worked an absolute treat, partly because your racer is big enough to be clearly seen.

The Joy-Con Grip

The Switch has an optional Pro Controller, sold separately, which will set you back a bowel-bleedingly steep £59.99. Luckily, you don’t need one – or at least, I wouldn’t say so – because of the Joy-Con Grip.

Bundled with the Switch, the Joy-Con Grip is essentially just a plastic shell that you can plug both Joy-Cons into, turning said amalgamation into a makeshift controller.

I wasn’t expecting to like the Joy-Con Grip but it’s actually very comfortable, and I can see myself using it most of the time when I’m not in my aforementioned ‘lazy bastard lying on the couch’ mode.

haca_012_eupkge_r_ad-0_lrOne thing to point out, however, is that there’s a different type of Joy-Con Grip that’s sold separately, called the Joy-Con Charging Grip. As the name suggests, it’s exactly the same as the Joy-Con Grip, except you can plug a USB-C cable into it and charge the Joy-Cons as you play.

The standard Joy-Con Grip that comes with the Switch doesn’t have this charging function, but before you start calling for Reggie to be executed via firing squad, don’t worry: you really don’t need the charging version.

Nintendo has stated that the Joy-Cons have a battery life of up to 20 hours. As long as you connect them back up to the Switch when you’re finished a session (either in its dock or just lying around) and have the USB-C cable plugged into that, you’ll never run out of battery.

The Charging Grip, then, is only really for people who plan on always playing the Switch on their TV, and either 1) plan on doing so for more than 20 hours at a time, or 2) are too lazy to walk over and connect the controllers to the Switch every time they finish a session.

In short, you don’t need to buy the Pro Controller and you don’t need to buy the Charging Grip. The Grip that comes with the Switch is perfectly comfortable as it is.

Graphical power

This isn’t really the sort of thing you tend to discuss when talking about Nintendo systems: after all, Nintendo doesn’t try to compete graphically with its competitors, it prefers to do its own thing, blah blah.

The Switch is different, depending on how you look at it.

As a console (which is how Nintendo’s currently promoting it), it’s fine. The games I’ve seen on it so far look like a slight improvement over the Wii U, though that’s because most of what we’ve seen so far – Mario Kart 8, Zelda, Splatoon 2 – are either Wii U ports or are based on Wii U predecessors.

Super Mario Odyssey’s trailer hints that the Switch is boasting more visual oomph than the Wii U, but that has to be properly investigated later.

That’s if you treat it as a console, though. Treat it as a handheld – which despite how Nintendo tries to sell it, is what it really is, a handheld with an HDMI-out – and it’s an absolute beast of a system.

To have 720p and 60fps visuals that are (at the very least) on a par with what the Wii U offered, and to have this in a handheld much smaller than the Wii U GamePad – let alone the Wii U console itself – is a ridiculously impressive feat.

It’s been a while since I’ve been properly blown away by the sheer power of a Nintendo system, but the Switch is far and away the most powerful handheld gaming device I’ve ever seen. It’s fantastic.

Build Quality

The last element I want to talk about is the Switch’s build quality. It’s something I feel is important to address because, in my eyes at least, the Wii U was massively disappointing in this regard.

The Wii U GamePad was light and hollow: it’s little wonder, given that it was just a screen, some buttons and the tech needed to accept a video stream from the console. Its chunky, plastic feel made it look a bit like a tablet aimed at children.

The Switch (the handheld unit on its own) is the complete opposite. It’s thin, it’s got a nice weight to it (without being uncomfortable) and it feels anything but hollow.

Again, this too is no surprise: there’s a whole games system – and a hugely powerful one, too – tucked away in there this time, so when you hold it you can tell you’re holding something sturdy that’s got a lot going on inside it.

Crucially, though, it never feels hot when you play it and that’s because you hold it by the Joy-Con controllers, which aren’t part of the system itself. For all I know the Switch itself probably gets hot while you play, but I didn’t notice it once during my four-hour session because, since I was holding the Joy-Cons instead, I never actually touched the Switch at any point.

It’s something that it’s hard to get across in writing, and you’ll only really appreciate it when you get it in your hands, but the Switch feels like a premium piece of tech.

Is it worth the money?

And so we come to the big question: should you buy the Switch? Well, it depends.

Personally, for me it’s a no-brainer: it’s the most powerful handheld I’ve ever played by a hefty distance and having the likes of Zelda and even Mario Kart 8 on the move on that beautiful screen is something I’m already eagerly awaiting.

For you the decision may depend on the software already confirmed for the Switch and whether they’re games you’re particularly keen on. I’ll be covering a lot of them in the coming days, so hopefully you’ll eventually have a good idea as to what the new offerings like ARMS, 1-2-Switch and the like offer.

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Purely in terms of the hardware though, as soon as you hold the Switch in your hands, feel its sturdy premium design and see that lovely screen showing fantastically detailed images, you immediately realise why it costs £279.99.

Its accessories are less easy to recommend. £59.99 for a Pro Controller is entering into ‘more money than sense’ territory, while £69.99 for another pair of Joy-Cons is nothing short of ludicrous.

Thankfully, the controllers and accessories you get included with the Switch should be enough to meet all but the pickiest of needs, and so these daft prices should be of no concern to you.

The games are a different story, and I’ll get to them later. But the system itself is genuinely something special, something brilliantly powerful. Now it’s up to Nintendo to get that message across.

9 thoughts on “Nintendo Switch hardware hands-on impressions

  1. Great overview Chris, it really does sound like an amazing handheld, which I never considered too much as I have been thinking of using it as a console up to now.
    Agreed the accessories seem very highly priced. Do you think ARMS will come bundled with another set of Joy-Cons otherwise local multiplayer is going to cost a fortune!
    Personally I’m happy to wait until Mario Odyssey is out before taking the plunge, by then there should be a healthy library of games (some as yet unannounced hopefully). Until them I’ve got plenty of Wii U and Xbox One games to keep my household happy.
    In the meantime I’m looking forward to ready more about the games on Tired Old Hack, keep up the good work!

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  2. The fact that the switch doesn’t come with the charging grip is kind of frustrating. Since it’s reveal I was worried about it being frustrating to have to switch the joycon back and forth and this was before I knew this.

    I don’t know… Nice article though.

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  3. I don’t think I agree with the “It’s a handheld first” notion. If you’re single or the only person playing games in a household, then that’s fine. But are people going to buy a Switch for each and every family member? So that every one has his or her own second screen? It’s like very few people see this “problem”.
    It seems the 2DS did much good for the Pokemon franchise. You can buy two 2DS’ and two Pokemon games for less than a Switch, if you have two children. That’s why I hope that we will see a 3DS successor or anything along the lines, like the screen sold separately. Something that has a low entry point.

    The price for the Joy-Cons doesn’t strike me as that much, because you get two. And with all the tech that’s inside those little things, it does seem to be okay.

    Thanks for the hands-on impressions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to admit I agree with you on the options for families. I hope there will be the ability to switch (pun unintended) between multiple users easily. Spending £280 on each child and £40 on each individual Joy-Con that gets lost (let’s not forget they’re tiny and meant to be constantly attached and detached) sounds like a finances disaster for parents used to the odd Pokémon game on a £80 almost indestructible 2DS.

      Like you, I feel that at some point they might release a true 3DS successor – maybe a less powerful version of the Switch hardware that is just the handheld, designed as the low entry point for kids. Something like this was casually mentioned a few years ago by the late Satoru Iwata – a home console and a handheld that run the same OS and the same games at different quality. Of course it seems like this idea is what turned into the Switch as we see it now and that original idea was shelved, but I don’t want to see people priced out and leave Nintendo behind.

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  4. I was lucky enough to attend the London event yesterday and couldn’t agree more.

    When Nintendo announced they were marketing it as “a home console on-the-go” I was honestly confused that they were pushing it as the opposite of what the thing is – a powerful handheld. I played the thing, and my position wasn’t shifted.

    The handheld screen is beautiful, and 720p is just right for the size and the distance you’ll be playing it at, but docked into a 1080p TV I was shocked how lackluster certain games looked. I’m no Digital Foundry (and I resent the implication) but I noticed the poor textures and low resolution of Disgaea 5 – a 1080p game on the PS4. When asked the staff assured me that Zelda running at 720p in the dock was a temporary thing and on launch it will be 1080p. Unsurprisingly, Mario Kart 8 is still stunning in it’s Deluxe version in or out of the dock.

    The selection on show left me wondering if the Switch as a home console was never the intention, but that with the 3DS still doing well into it’s 6th year the will to replace it over the Wii U just wasn’t there. Despite the “home console” push, enough people were put off by the high price – because they were (probably rightly) comparing it to the £230 PS Vita, not the £350 PS4. The £250-at-launch rumour didn’t help either.

    At the end of the day I wanted a new handheld and the fact it can plug into a TV and run the utterly fantastic ARMS is a bonus.

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