- Versatile hardware
- Attractive display
- Respectable battery life
- Innovative features
- Clean user experience
- Some hardware looks unfinished
- Flimsy kickstand
- Low internal storage
- Small games library at launch
- Underpowered versus rivals
Nintendo Switch review: We’ve taken the time to live with the new Nintendo Switch for almost a month to see whether the company’s new home system really can live a double life whilst its competitors remain slaves to the power socket.
Ask anyone who holds a modicum of curiosity for Nintendo’s new console and after trying one out they’ll attest to the fact that the Switch makes a very good first impression.
Nintendo Switch review: Hardware and design
It’s a pretty out-there concept when you consider what it’s bringing to the table, especially when placed alongside the PlayStation and the Xbox, but then again, only Nintendo really has the stones to try something as off-tempo a console as the Switch in a world now frequented by 4K, HDR-ready and virtual reality-capable gaming hardware.
As you’ll have seen from our unboxing, the Switch isn’t really a singular object, but rather a collection of components that can be configured and reconfigured to suit your play style and environment. The brains of the whole thing live in a rather unassuming black tablet, about the size of an Amazon Kindle (although notably thicker and heavier). It could pass for developmental hardware were it not for the large logo printed on its back, which is to say, it looks a little unfinished on its own.
Speaking of its back, the most notable feature on the console’s body has to be the offset kickstand. It snaps out from the underside and locks into a single position at a pretty decent angle for use on your average office desk or dining table, but its placement, far to the edge of the console’s right side, means that on anything other than a perfectly flat, level surface the whole unit is off balance and likely to fall over. What’s more the plastic used looks so thin and the hinge mechanism too flimsy to stand the test of time. If anything on the Switch is going to fail or break, this may well be the first casualty.
Beyond that, however, the rest of the console feels decidedly sturdy and well built, which is particularly reassuring if it’s going to be carried around in a pocket or a bag and live at least part of its life as a handheld on a regular basis.
Under the kickstand, you'll find the microSD slot (able to accept cards up to a mighty 2TB), whilst along the top sit all the essential hardware controls (namely the power button and volume rocker), as well as a cooling vent and a covered port for game cartridges. Sony's already had to contend with the challenge of placing a spinning disk inside of a portable system (remember UMDs?) so we applaud Nintendo's decision to opt for cartridges as on its 3DS. Not only are they more reliable for a device in the vein of the Switch, but they don't require local installation (at least with what we've tested thus far), an essential trait considering the console's meagre 32GB (about 6GB of which comes pre-occupied by the system's software) of internal storage.
The Joy-Cons are the Switch's unique new controllers. They both feature a thumbstick and ten additional buttons each; designed to operate independently as two discrete controllers for some multiplayer experiences or together when slotted onto the sides of the main unit or the Joy-Con grip, which comes in-box. Mounting them to either is simple and seamless, with a satisfyingly audible snap. Sliding them back off the rails is a little less elegant, but still relatively simple, by pressing a latch release button on the back of each and pulling upwards.
As a result of having to operate as a portable system, each Joy-Con is relatively minuscule compared to the likes of an Xbox controller or even a Wiimote, so button and thumbstick placement feels pretty cramped. Despite the expectation of discomfort over longer play sessions, however, it never actually arrives and despite their size, they feel surprisingly pleasant to use without issue for hours at a time. If comfort is a concern, those thinking of using their Switch as a home console more often than not can always invest in the new Pro Controller (although at around £60 a piece, they don’t make for cheap additions).
Being able to snap the Joy-Cons onto the console directly is only part of this package’s appeal, with the dock serving as the true key to unlocking the Switch’s genius. In essence, it’s a glorified HDMI over USB-C adapter, but it also routes in power you can charge multiple devices or controllers from its various USB-A ports (there are three) and it even offers a bit of cable management.
It’s not particularly attractive to look at, made from cheap-feeling black plastic that offers a notable amount of flex, but it makes locating and docking with the console’s in-built USB-C port quick and painless. And therein lies the magic of the Nintendo Switch, turning portable into home console in one swift move with minimal setup and just two wires.
Nintendo Switch review: Screen and audio
If you’re planning on using the Switch as a handheld more often than not, you’re going to spend a lot of time staring at its 6.2-inch IPS LCD panel. It’s set within a rather thick bezel for reasons unbeknownst to us, but whilst many have scoffed at its relatively paltry 720p HD resolution, when compared to your average smartphone screen, in reality, it’s actually a delight to look at.
The technology at play ensures that it’s brighter and more vibrant than the experience offered up by the Wii U’s gamepad and viewing angles are excellent, especially for a Nintendo handheld, with no real brightness drop-off to speak of. It’s perfectly sharp for its purpose and at 237ppi (pixels per inch) it actually boasts a higher pixel density than the likes of Apple’s 2560x1600 13.3-inch MacBook Pro Retina display (227ppi), so it’s no slouch. Considering the distance it’s held from your face too, it works a treat, ensuring fine detail and text is completely legible, whilst 10-point multitouch, although underused right now, is a welcome inclusion that feels decidedly more current versus the resistive experiences of the 3DS or Wii U.
The aforementioned bezel contains a brightness sensor, which is particularly visible in direct sunlight, along with a pair of front-facing stereo speakers. Whilst audio is directed via HDMI when the Switch is docked, in handheld or tabletop mode you have the option of these speakers or any 3.5mm audio jack-compatible headphones using the port on the console’s top edge. Bluetooth headphones aren’t, unfortunately, compatible simply because the Switch’s settings menu offers no functionality with which to connect them.
Speaker quality is very good, with round, even sound, notable clarity and surprising bass for such small drivers. At maximum volume, quality does start to break down, but at that level, we’d recommend switching to headphones or connecting an external speaker anyway.
Nintendo Switch review: UX and games
The Switch’s main interface is clean and minimal, divided into two key sections: a series of tiles for your games front and centre, under which sit six icons granting access to a dedicated news feed, the Nintendo eShop (where you can download games and demos), settings, power options and more. It’s a decidedly more grown-up and refined interface versus the softer, more cartoon-like aesthetic of the company’s previous efforts that paired with console’s marketing, reinforces the notion that the Switch is aimed at a slightly older range of gamers.
You get news and new releases presented to you on waking the Switch up at a lock screen of sorts, which unlocks into the main home screen by triple-pressing any of the buttons on the controllers. Every action is accompanied by short, sharp audio cues which help to navigate around the Switch’s interface feel responsive and tight. Right now, there’s little in the way of customisation, with the option to jump between just two themes, a white and black option. The ability to create multiple accounts helps keep content divvied up between users and means you can password protect your purchases if you’re sharing your console as well.
Whilst the day-one update opened up some elements of the Switch's online capabilities, like the eShop, we're yet to gain full access to a functional service. You can download the Splatoon 2 beta right now but you're still locked off from actual gameplay. Nintendo is launching the Switch's online component as a free trial from March 24th, with plans to turn it into a fully-fledged paid service later in autumn this year.
Right now there are 13 games and demos up for grabs on the Nintendo eShop, with the ‘coming soon’ tab highlighting a further five more titles (at the time of writing), but the roster is decidedly lacking in third-party offerings, something Nintendo has been keen to push with this latest console.
Our particular Switch has predominantly been a Zelda machine thus far, but titles like 1-2-Switch are on-hand to better highlight the console’s more unique capabilities. Aspects like its HD Rumble, which does an impressively good job of simulating objects like ice cubes or ball bearings moving around inside one of the Joy-Cons, as well as the right Joy-Con’s infrared camera, which can distinguish basic hand gestures in a game of rock, paper, scissors. Whether such distinctive features are well utilised by third-party developers, however, remains to be seen.
Nintendo Switch review: Performance and battery life
We’ve been able to at least sample what the Switch’s hardware was going to be capable of for some time, as it’s powered by a variant of Nvidia’s Tegra X1 processor (the same chipset found in the company’s own Shield TV) and 4GB of RAM. In this case, it’s put to good use, making the Switch arguably the most powerful handheld console around, no doubt helped by the fact that stylised art of titles like Zelda play to the strengths of the hardware, rather than highlighting its limitations versus the beefier dedicated home consoles.
Its strength lies in its fast boot time and its impeccable sleep functionality, which automatically suspends whatever experience you're enjoying perfectly. Whether you're mid sword swing or about to loose an arrow, the moment you wake the Switch back up, it'll place you back into your game as if you hadn't gone anywhere, and all within a matter of seconds.
The transition when moving from portable mode to playing on your TV also only takes a second or two and despite the jump in resolution, you’ll only notice the occasional stutter, dropped frame or slowdown in gameplay. The fan can also be heard firing up when the console is docked, otherwise, but the whole system doesn’t appear all that stressed most of the time, which might have something to do with the heavy down-clocking Nintendo has instigated. When the Switch is being used as a handheld its GPU performance, in particular, is actually locked at 40 per cent of the clock speed it's able to achieve when docked.
Living with the Switch initially seemed to be a case of juggling multiple batteries, with the console and each of the two Joy-Cons running on its own internal rechargeable cell. Thankfully, the more you use it the less you worry about each Joy-Con’s battery and the fact that Nintendo didn’t include the Charging Grip accessory as standard. Unless you actively avoid reconnecting the Joy-Cons to the console when you’re not using the Switch, they’re quoted as offering up to 20 hours of usage per charge and we seldom found ourselves dipping into the last 25 per cent of power in a single play session. The console unit itself doesn’t offer quite the same impressive longevity, but it does performs consistently, holding true to Nintendo’s claims of around three and a half hours of usage when playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild solidly on-the-go.
Recharging its 4310mAh cell takes a little longer than promised, though, able to jump up to around 95 per cent in around three hours, with about another half an hour for that remaining five per cent. It’s not really that much of an issue as 90 per cent charge will still get you through a commute at each end of your day or a full lunch break without throwing up a warning indicator.
Nintendo Switch review: Verdict
If all Nintendo had to do was make good on the promise of a modular home console that you can pick up and take with you for under £300 (£279.99), then the Switch does its job perfectly, but that’s really just a baseline for expectations of the company’s new hardware. Like any next-gen system, the Switch now steers the direction of user interaction, game design and development for Nintendo for years to come.
In its current state, it may still look a little clunky and unfinished in places but in practice, the Switch is a smart blend of hardware and software with a little something special that realises a concept many in the gaming community may have wanted but never expected to be realised in such a complete and seamless manner.
You have to judge the Switch as both a home console and a handheld, and it feels more at home as the latter rather than the former. It's a powerful portable device, but raw performance unquestionably places it behind the likes of the current PS4 and Xbox family, not to mention the PS4 Pro and the impending arrival of Microsoft's Project Scorpio.
As for the games, the lineup is growing fast, the software feels like a welcome refinement over previous Nintendo experiences and the ability to seamlessly move from home to on-the-go gaming in a heartbeat is an undeniable draw, we now just need to hope that once the platform's online service is up and running, it's actually good for once.
Nintendo Switch: Specs at a glance
|Screen resolution||720p HD (1280x720)|
|Output resolution||Up to 1080p (game dependant, e.g. Zelda runs at 900p)|
|Processor||Nvidia Tegra X1 (variant)|
|Storage||32GB. Expandable via microSD up to 2TB|
|Battery||4310mAh (console), 525mAh (Joy-Cons)|
|Connectivity||USB-C, 3.5mm audio jack, 802.11ac WiFi, HDMI (dock), USB-A 2.0 x2 (dock), USB-A 3.0 x1 (dock), Bluetooth 4.1 (console), Bluetooth 3.0 (Joy-Cons), NFC|