Nintendo Switch hardware review

The big day is here. Nintendo has finally released either its seventh home console or its sixth handheld console, depending on how you look at it (I’ve already made my stance clear).

The Nintendo Switch is a hybrid device that can be played both on your TV and on the move, and Nintendo is hoping it’ll get things back on track after the Wii U’s disappointing sales.

Yer man Scullion was fortunate enough to receive one from Nintendo ahead of launch, so now it’s here it would be downright rude of me not to give my needlessly in-depth thoughts on every aspect of it.


The console

The Switch console itself is essentially a slab with a screen on it. It’s got a bit of heft to it, mainly because everything that powers it is contained within said slab.

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On the Switch you’ll find:

• The power button, obviously. It recesses into the unit, so it’s a little tricky to push at first until you get used to it: this is presumably to avoid it accidentally being pressed when it’s in your bag.

Volume buttons. The Switch’s built-in speakers emit a decent noise: nothing too booming but not too quiet either. Ideally though you’ll want to play it with headphones, which brings me to…

• The headphone port. This is at the top of the system, which is useful because it lets you continue to use headphones when the Switch is docked.

• A USB-C charging port. This lets you charge the system with either the official Switch USB Adapter or, more likely, any standard USB-C charger. It’s located on the bottom of the Switch, which can sometimes be an issue: more on that later, though.

• The cartridge slot. It’s a bit like an SD card slot, this: it’s under a little flap and the cartridge clicks into place when you press it down.

• A kickstand with a Micro SD card slot underneath it for storage. We’ll get to the kickstand later.

Slabbed dab in the middle of the Switch is a 6.2”, 720p screen. It is, quite frankly, fucking lovely. The display is nice and crisp, and its viewing angle is wide – it’s just as well, given that Nintendo hopes multiple people will be looking at it in Tabletop mode.

The screen is also a capacitive (multi-touch) touchscreen, which theoretically means developers can create touch-screen only games. If this means we might end up with Professor Layton out of retirement, for example, I’m all for it.

Calm down mate, I said "might".
Calm down mate, I said “might”

It’s something that’s underutilised at launch, though. Other than eShop rhythm action title VOEZ, there are no other games – including Nintendo’s three launch titles – that make much (if any) use of the touchscreen, and given that docking the Switch covers it up, Nintendo’s created an odd situation for itself.

On one hand, if more games start making use of the touchscreen this creates a hierarchy in which playing on your TV means some games are restricted, or in the case of VOEZ outright unplayable.

On the other hand, if studios choose to ditch touchscreen controls in order to ensure their games play in both handheld and TV modes, the Switch is left with an arbitrary, underused feature that could have been scrapped to lower the console’s price.

Time will tell.


The JoyCon

A big slab with a screen on it is all well and good, but if you can’t do anything with it you might as well jam it up your arse.

Thankfully, Nintendo’s seen fit to also include a couple of JoyCon with the Switch as standard.

By default these slide into the side of the Switch via a couple of nifty rails. Attaching them is easy, and there’s a really satisfying click when you do: both physically, visually (there’s an on-screen effect indicating the connection’s been made) and audibly (the trademark ‘Switch’ click is heard over the speakers).

When playing as a handheld the JoyCon are comfortable, and their placement gives the system a super-widescreen feel not unlike the Atari Lynx (but in a good way, honest).

The analogue sticks may not be to everyone’s tastes – they’re a little on the springy side – but they’re probably the best seen on a handheld system by some distance.

The other big selling point of the JoyCon is that they can double as two smaller controllers, allowing for two-player gaming straight out of the box. Like so.

switch-multiplayer

When playing at home with the Switch docked, the JoyCon can be removed and either held separately (like a Wii Remote and Nunchuk) or attached to the JoyCon Grip, which combines them into a makeshift traditional controller.

Playing with the Grip is an acquired taste but I think it’s perfectly comfortable. For some the buttons may be too small and the lack of a traditional D-Pad could be an issue, particularly when you consider the slew of retro-themed indie games headed to Switch in the coming months. I had no issue with either but others may differ according to their own personal preferences.

There’s one far bigger flaw surrounding the JoyCon – be it in the Grip or on their own – and it’s one that really needs to be addressed pronto if Nintendo doesn’t want a PR disaster on its hands.

Simply put, as you may have already seen in reports elsewhere, the JoyCon have connection issues. Specifically, they have incredibly weak wireless signals.

As is the case with all wireless controllers, the further you are from the receiver (the console), the weaker the signal gets and the more likely it is to drop.

Unfortunately, for the Switch this distance is far shorter than with other systems, meaning by the time you’re around 8 feet away you’re risking having some issues with temperamental controls.

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It’s also affected by things getting in between the dock and the controllers. I initially sat my Switch dock behind my TV, just to have it temporarily set aside while I planned how to shuffle my current set-up with my other consoles.

Because the TV was in the way, the JoyCon signal couldn’t properly reach the dock and I had major issues with the controls frequently dropping out.

Some have been falsely reporting this as sync issues, but this isn’t the case: the JoyCon remain synced to the Switch throughout this issue for me.

Once I moved the dock in front of my TV, everything worked perfectly. That’s all well and good for me, and most Japanese gamers who traditionally have smaller living rooms, but for western households this has the potential to be a big problem.

It’s not quite at the same level as the Xbox 360 Red Ring Of Death or the time Sony had to kill the PS3’s online services for 23 days after a security breach. Unlike those incidents, this particular ‘scandal’ doesn’t render the system unplayable as there’s a fix: either get closer to it or play it in handheld mode.

To say it isn’t an issue, however, would be completely false: it’s simply not good enough and Nintendo needs to find a way to sort it or risk mass confusion as less tech-savvy consumers return what they believe to be ‘broken’ Switches to stores in their droves.

There is another solution, but it also isn’t ideal because it costs more money…


The Pro Controller

Designed with the more traditional gamer in mind (the ‘hardcore’, if you’d rather… but I wouldn’t), the Pro Controller is designed more like a classic joypad, with twin sticks, larger buttons and a lovely big D-Pad.

It also, as luck would have it, has a significantly stronger wireless connection, letting you stray a healthy distance from the Switch and maintain flawless control.

Even the intelligentsia love it, which is usually a good sign
Even the intelligentsia love it, which is usually a good sign

Again, this shouldn’t have to be the fix. The JoyCon should work just as well but here we are: if you plan on playing your Switch mostly at home, you should give serious consideration to investing in one of these.

At £59.99 it’s undoubtedly pricey, but then so were other controllers at launch. The Xbox One controller was £59.99 if you bought a Play & Charge kit with it, and the DualShock 4 was only a fiver cheaper at £54.99. This is a gaming-wide issue, not one exclusive to Nintendo.

In fairness, the price is likely down to the fact that the Pro Controller also has a lot of the JoyCon functionality built into it.

Motion-sensing is present, as is the brilliant HD rumble feature (I’ll discuss that in more detail in my 1-2-Switch review). It’s also got amiibo support, so there’s a lot of tech in there to partially justify the premium price.

Ultimately though, I recommend you hold fire and mess about with the standard JoyCon Grip first. See if it’s comfortable enough for you and doesn’t have any connection issues, and if so you can likely do without a Pro Controller.


The playing styles

Obviously the Switch’s main gimmick is its ability to be played in a number of ways, and in promoting its console Nintendo has highlighted three different playing ‘modes’ specifically.

TV mode

TV mode is perhaps the least immediately impressive, even though it’s likely to be the mode many players will make use of most.

Running the Switch through your TV by placing it in the dock ups the resolution in some games to 1080p, with the dock providing the extra juice needed to increase the console’s clock speed so it can handle the increased detail.

nintendoswitch_hardware-0-0

During this launch window some games handle it better than others. Zelda has noticeable frame rate drops at times when playing on the TV, whereas playing on handheld results in a smooth, practically locked 30fps thanks to the drop to 720p.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, meanwhile, runs at perfect 720p and 60fps on handheld and perfect 1080p and 60fps on TV (based on my time playing it at the Switch press event in January).

Handheld mode

It’s only when you hold the Switch in your hands and stop thinking of it as a home console that you realise just how much power it’s packing.

By attaching the JoyCon to either side of the device you can take it with you wherever you like (unless you’re a deep-sea diver) and play games at almost the same quality on the move.

I say “almost the same”, but the quality of the screen means that even though the resolution drops to 720p in handheld mode, games still look fantastic on it.

Naturally, one of the big talking points about handheld mode is the battery life, and despite cries of tragedy swarming the internet it isn’t bad. Ranging from 2½ hours (a graphically intensive game, screen on max brightness, sound up full, WiFi on) to 6 hours or so (the opposite of everything I just listed), it’s on a par with the Vita and the original 3DS.

Similarly to the Vita, it has a cracking sleep mode which hardly uses any battery at all. After leaving it out of the dock on sleep mode overnight, my battery had only dropped by a couple of percent.

Tabletop mode

Finally, tabletop mode has you taking out the Switch’s built-in kickstand and disconnecting your JoyCon, turning the system into a makeshift mini-TV.

The idea is that you can play multiplayer games like this, or sit it in front of you on a plane and play it in greater comfort than in handheld mode.

To be honest, I’m not really feeling it. I don’t see myself ever using the console in this mode unless I really had to – if I was on holiday with someone who wanted a game of FIFA, for example.

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The kickstand is too flimsy and the Switch is at risk of falling over if it’s nudged. The situation isn’t as ridiculous as CNET’s frankly embarrassing attempt at creating drama out of nothing, but it’s enough to make me question the airplane scenario if mild turbulence kicks in.

You also can’t charge the Switch while it’s in tabletop mode, which could be an issue on longer trips if you’re planning to use a portable power pack to keep its battery topped up.

If you can see yourself playing in tabletop mode a lot, it might be worth investing in HORI’s Switch stand. It looks sturdier than the kickstand, can be adjusted to various viewing angles and has a hole in the bottom so you can actually charge it while playing.


Operating System and online functionality

Finally, we come to the Switch’s operating system. For those who’ve struggled with the Wii U’s heartbreakingly slow menus and game boot times, the Switch is one hell of a breath of fresh air.

Its menus are nice and nippy, with only occasional moments where it stops for a brief second to gather its thoughts.

If you suspend a game and start it up again later, a boot from sleep mode can have you straight into the action in less than 10 seconds, as seen in my tweet last week:

One thing Nintendo fans may be disappointed with, however, is the fact that the Switch’s home menus have less character than the company’s other systems.

There are still lovely little touches if you look for them – the stories in the News section are charmingly written and conversational, and choosing a pose for your Mii when creating a profile pic raises a smile – but by and large this is a more mature, cleaner interface with no pissing around.

There are no Miis running around on your screen like the Wii U had, no bonus AR games and sound manipulation software like on the 3DS, no weird Wii-style apps like the Everybody Votes Channel. It’s just game icons, settings, an eShop and not much else.

This stripped-back approach could go some way to explaining the OS’s increased speed, and if this is the case then it’s a compromise many Nintendo gamers will probably be happy enough to live with: after all, the games themselves are still where the magic happens.

Online functionality is a mixed bag at this early stage, essentially offering a mix of ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’ moments.

Bad news – Friend Codes are back. Good news – you don’t have to trade them anymore, a friend can just enter yours and it’s job done.

Bad news – the eShop doesn’t have cool music anymore, and there’s no Virtual Console yet. Good news – it’s a much quicker eShop, and you can access eShops from other regions with relative ease.

Me on the Japanese eShop
Me on the Japanese eShop

This final point is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Switch for import gamers. Not only does the Switch mark a return to completely region-free gaming for Nintendo for the first time since the original DS, it goes even further than that.

If you make a couple of extra Nintendo Accounts and set their locations to the United States and Japan, by linking them to new accounts on your Switch you can easily access the North American and Japanese eShops by simply choosing which account you want to use when you tap the eShop icon.

These eShops won’t accept your foreign muck credit card, but you can get around that by visiting one of the many online boutiques selling US and Japanese eShop gift cards and redeeming those for eShop funds.

Even better, some of the Japanese games are playable in English. I bought Blaster Master Zero (which isn’t out in the UK until next week) from the Japanese eShop, and when it downloaded it was the English language version I got.


Summary

The Nintendo Switch is a brave new piece of hardware from Nintendo.

It is without a shadow a doubt the most powerful handheld games system released to date, by some considerable margin. On top of this, its flexible range of playing styles means it should suit most gamers regardless of lifestyle.

By and large I’m happy with it. The OS is lightning fast, it’s generally comfortable to play and the promise of strong third-party support bodes well.

To be clear, though, this third-party support is not the same as the Xbox One and PS4’s third-party support. There’s a misconception that no Call Of Duty and no Battlefield translates to ‘no third-party support’, as if other games don’t exist. But with well over 120 titles already announced for the system, it’s clear there’s content coming from big publishers and indie devs alike. It’s just different content.

On top of this, the surprise region-free eShop makes things really exciting for people like me who love weird Japanese games but have considered the cost of import shipping and taxes a sticking point in the past. This (deliberate?) loophole will ultimately lead to extra software sales for Nintendo too.

switch-eshop-user-select

It would all be so brilliant were it not for the JoyCon-shaped elephant sitting in the corner in the room. Not too far in the corner, though, because we’d lose connection with it otherwise.

This JoyCon connection-dropping issue is a big deal, and it’s something Nintendo has to get on top of for fear of undoing a lot of its hard work. It’s the main sticking point in what’s otherwise a seriously impressive, mature piece of kit, and until it’s no longer something potential customers will have to take into account when choosing to buy it’ll harm sales.

If you plan on playing from home a lot and can afford a Pro Controller too then by all means go for it, leaving Nintendo to work on a JoyCon solution while safe in the knowledge it doesn’t affect you.

The problem is, not everyone can afford a Pro Controller, and for those gamers the risk of playing with a controller that may have connection issues if someone walks in front of it when you’re too far away from the console may be a risk not worth taking.

If Nintendo can sort out this sole issue, it’s onto a winner with the Switch. It’s one of the most exciting systems the company has ever made, and with the right support it has the potential to leave the Wii U’s poor sales in the dust.

As far as first impressions go, I’m pretty bloody happy.


In order that I could write this review in time for launch, I received a Switch from Nintendo. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.

If you enjoyed this review and want to help me write them more frequently, please consider donating to my Patreon account. Alternatively, if you’re a UK reader and can’t afford to support me on Patreon, please do your normal Amazon UK shopping via this link: it won’t cost you any extra, and Amazon will pay me a percentage because I sent you there.

4 thoughts on “Nintendo Switch hardware review

  1. Personally, I haven’t had any problems with the left Joy Con. Used it some distance away from the system and even tried deliberately putting an obstruction between – still worked just fine. Guess I’m just one of the lucky ones.

    Either way, I’m loving my Switch. Spent nearly the whole day playing Breath of the Wild on it. Good stuff.

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  2. I *have* had problems with the left Joy-Con. I play with my legs crossed, one on top of the other, and it turns out that a bit of thigh (steady on) in the way is enough to leave Link wandering in a straight line unchecked. And Nintendo’s advice isn’t helpful either, suggesting that there’s no plans for a fix and trying to pin the blame on consumers’ habits (everyone has a ‘phone in their pocket now Ninty, either your controller should work considering that or it doesn’t work).

    Thanks for the review Chris, good to read. If I have one criticism, it’s that there are only two pictures of Yarn Poochy. We could all do with a bit more Yarn Poochy in our lives.

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  3. Great impressions. Just a very small quibble – I don’t know this 100%, but I highly suspect that the capacitive touch screen on the Switch is actually a cost-saving measure, rather than the opposite way round. How many screens at Switch-sizes are made these days without touch capability? Not many, I would imagine, and so it stands to reason that it’d be cheaper to manufacture capacitive touch screens rather than resistive or no touch at all.

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    1. I’m not an expert on manufacturing but I’d have thought that screens with no touch would be cheaper than screens with touch because it would require extra layers of material and electronic equipment. It’s probably why you get so few cheap Windows 10 laptops with touchscreens even though Microsoft was heavily pushing touch-based Windows use.

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