It's no exaggeration to claim that the Switch is Nintendo's most important console release so far. After the commercial disaster that was the Wii U and the decision to reshuffle internal teams to remove the schism between handheld and home development, the Switch represents a one-shot strategy for the Kyoto giant; while the fortunes of its home systems have ebbed and flowed over the past two decades, Nintendo's handhelds have always become the market leaders of their respective eras, and now the company is possibly sacrificing that advantage in a bold move which – for some commentators – feels like a final desperate throw of the dice. Add to this Nintendo's burgeoning interest in the smartphone arena – where it has seen impressive returns on relatively low-cost ventures – and the arrival of Switch becomes even more significant. The company is clearly more than capable of becoming a very successful third-party publisher, but if Switch fails, where does that leave Nintendo as far as the hardware sector is concerned?
Switch is, in many ways, a concept which feels happy to borrow existing ideas rather than create its own. The notion of a tablet-like device which plays games isn't especially new – there have been countless Android-based offerings over the past few years, some of which even share the same controller concept – and the motion-sensing Joy-Con feel like a direct evolution of the Wii Remote, the wand-like input device which played such a significant role in shifting over 100 million Wii consoles. Even the concept of plugging the system into a TV isn't exactly new – Sega's Nomad pulled the same trick back in the '90s and some versions of the Sony PSP could do the same. What is unique about the Switch is the way in which Nintendo has taken all of these ideas and bonded them in a cohesive manner, creating a console which convincingly straddles the line between the portable and domestic markets.
Nintendo Switch Review: The Hardware
Comparisons with tablet devices have perhaps harmed preconceptions of the Switch; while it's definitely a "tablet" it's a lot smaller than your average Android or Apple slate, so you can put to rest any fears of it being an oversized burden in your backpack. The 6.2-inch screen has a 720p resolution which, for a display of this size, is perfectly adequate. In the smartphone arena many handset makers seem hell-bent on cramming as many pixels into their panels as possible with no truly discernible benefit to the end user; beyond 1080p on a 5 or 6-inch screen, the additional pixels offer no real benefit – unless you happen to use your device with a magnifying glass. Granted, it is possible to pick out individual pixels on the Switch's screen, but the trade-off is an acceptable one – a 1080p display would have put more load on the console's internal tech, compromising performance and battery life. 720p might not sound all that impressive in this day and age, but ignore the willy-waving antics which typify mobile tech these days – in real world usage, it's fine.
It also helps that the Switch's LCD panel is bright and punchy, with good colour replication, striking contrast and solid viewing angles. There's an auto-brightness option which adjusts the level depending on your environment, and this generally works pretty well. You have the option to disable this if you so wish and boost the brightness to maximum, but this naturally has a detrimental effect on battery life.
At 28.4mm, the Switch is quite a thick customer when compared to your typical Android or Apple tablet, and is constructed almost entirely from plastic. The front is dominated by the aforementioned 6.2-inch capacitive touchscreen, a quantum leap ahead of the resistive displays used by Nintendo in the DS, 3DS and Wii U. Capacitive screens don't rely on pressure for input so it's easier to use your fingers; the screen is incredibly responsive and typing is a real joy. There will no doubt be those who lament the passing of the stylus on Nintendo hardware – something that has been commonplace since the DS launched in 2004 – but this is a step forward. Besides, if you're really missing the feel of prodding a stick at the screen, you can always purchase a third-party capacitive stylus. One thing which is worth noting is that the panel itself is plastic rather than super-tough glass like you'd find on an iPhone or iPad. As such, it's very easy to scratch – our review unit picked up a mark within 24 hours despite being handled with utmost care – so you'll almost certainly want to purchase some kind of carry case if you're looking to take it out of the house, and perhaps even a screen protector.
At the bottom of the screen you'll find the ambient light sensor for the automatic brightness feature and two small slots which allow the stereo speakers to pipe through; the console supplies a surprisingly impressive aural experience, especially for a device of this size. On the back you'll find the kickstand – which pops off when force is applied, rather than snapping entirely – and underneath that the Micro SD card slot. Sticking with the kickstand for a second, it's fairly sturdy but not totally reliable – we experienced a couple of "collapses" during the review period – and after a week of use we're sorry to report that it's already failing to clip back in place securely, and now sometimes pops open when we're playing in portable mode.
The top edge of the system features the game card slot, power / volume buttons and 3.5mm headphone jack (take that, Apple) while the bottom edge has the USB Type C connector for charging (USB power banks are supported, thankfully) – this is also the link between the Switch and its dock. The vent on the top edge of the device allows the internal fan to cool the console, and under heavy load this can become quite noisy. However, it clearly works effectively – we never experienced the system becoming uncomfortably hot during use. The sides of the Switch – or "rails" as Nintendo prefers to call them – are where you slide in those lovely Joy-Con controllers. There's a set of pins on the controller which link with the main unit, providing a non-wireless connection and charging for the Joy-Con's internal battery.
The dock itself feels like a lump of empty plastic when you first remove it from the box, yet it's one of the one important elements of this package. When docked, the Switch benefits from a power boost (well, it pushes its components harder) and can output a 1080p signal to your HDTV. The process of docking and removing the system may seem like a marketing gimmick at this stage but it sure does feel nice; the "switch" between portable and home console mode is practically instantaneous, with gameplay picking up exactly where you left off. It should also be noted that boot time is also astonishingly fast, and when placed in sleep mode – which you really should do, given how meager the battery consumption is – it's possible to jump right back into your game instantly. For a console which is being sold on its ability to game on the go as well as at home, this is a boon – and it puts to rest the rather unpleasant memories of the Wii U's lengthy boot times and the terrible sleep mode stamina of the 3DS.
Nintendo Switch Review: Joy-Con
While it's doubtful that any controller can have the same seismic impact as the Wii Remote did back in 2006, the Joy-Con may come close. The Switch's ability to toggle between home and portable modes is its unique hook, but the Joy-Con come a close second. They come in pairs – left and right – with the physical controls being mirrored on both so that they can operate as self-contained controllers. Each has an analogue stick and four face buttons, while on the top edge there are two shoulder buttons. The left-hand Joy-Con has a screenshot button, while the right-hand one has a Home button as well as a Kinect-like IR sensor which can detect objects such as your hand and (in the case of 1-2-Switch) your mouth. The NFC touchpoint – used for amiibo – is also located on the right-hand Joy-Con.
The Joy-Con are seriously small, yet they never feel too diminutive. When the bundled wrist strap attachment is in place the pads become even more comfortable; the plastic which slides onto the top of the Joy-Con makes it easier to grip and also makes the L and R buttons easier to press. The only annoyance here is that the wrist strap is a little awkward to fit and remove, and if you're taking the machine out of the house they're easy to leave behind. When fixed to the console itself, there's a tiny bit of play on each Joy-Con, but nothing to be overly concerned about – they certainly don't feel like they're about to snap off at any point.
The Joy-Con charge when attached to the Switch console itself via the aforementioned physical connector, which means you'll most likely be topping them up on a daily basis. In terms of stamina we've yet to encounter any drained batteries, but if you're using the Joy-Cons with the bundled grip and you mainly play on the TV, you might want to think about investing in the fancy Charging Grip, which tops them up when connected to the dock or a USB power outlet; the bundled grip lacks this functionality.
Much has been made of reported issues relating to the stability of the connection between the left-hand Joy-Con and the console itself. There is certainly mounting evidence that the left controller randomly loses connection, and anecdotal reports indicate this could be something to do with distance from the main console. A disconnect happened to us once during the review period, shortly after the Joy-Con was detached from the console's rail; instead of briefly disconnecting and then reconnecting as normal, it remained unpaired from the system until manually re-paired. We imagine this is a software issue and will be remedied by an early update, never to be spoken of again. All in all, the Joy-Con work wonderfully and toggling between them is hassle-free – the console always defaults to "active" Joy-Cons, so if you happen to have two pairs and one set is connected to the system, it will automatically reconnect to the "loose" pair without any need to dig into the settings.
Nintendo Switch Review: The UI
Those of you who have fired up your Wii recently may well shudder at the kind of user experience Nintendo was serving up not so long ago; even the 3DS and Wii U leave a lot to be desired in this regard, with the latter suffering from lengthy load times before Nintendo issued a series of very welcome software updates. The good news with Switch is that Nintendo has delivered a solid UI experience from day one, creating an excellent foundation on which we hope it will build more features and functionality.
The Switch UI is everything it needs to be right now; clean, slick and easy to navigate. Rather than bombard users with a myriad of options in the way Microsoft did with the Xbox One, Nintendo has streamlined things to make booting the system and firing up your game an almost effortless affair. The main menu appears within seconds of turning on the console – it's even quicker when you're waking it from sleep mode – and presents with you with a series of tiles which denote your game library. Games downloaded to the console appear here, as do games you've loaded from a game card; attempting to boot one of these titles will result in a message asking you to insert the relevant card should it not already be present. Also, if you have multiple users setup on the system each will have their own save data in games, and when you select a title you then quickly pick which user is playing, too.
Arrayed beneath these tiles is a series of icons which relate to different features and options. "News" is where you'll find updates relating to special offers as well as handy guides on how to use the console. "eShop" is self-explanatory, while "Album" is where you can browse all of the screenshots you've captured before adding amusing text and posting them to your social media accounts. "Controllers" also needs little explanation; from here, you can see which Joy-Con are paired with your console as well as check on their respective battery levels, change the player order and pair new input devices. "System Settings" is where things get more complicated, as this menu is home to a wide range of different options, including screen brightness, parental lock, data management, Mii creation, theme selection (only white and black are available at present) and much more besides. The final option is "Sleep Mode", which can also be activated by pressing the physical power button. It's worth noting that you can navigate your way around the console's UI using nothing but touch, if you so wish.
In typical Nintendo fashion there are loads of neat little extras to be found in the UI; tapping your finger on the screen gives a slightly different noise every time, while touching the battery icon reveals a percentage reading for more accuracy. When the console is asleep you have to press the same button three times to fully wake it (when in handheld mode), and depending on which button you press you get a different series of sounds. In short, the UI is exactly what we want from a Nintendo console - playful yet simple. There's plenty of room for expansion here and we don't doubt for a second that more icons will be added to that bottom rail as the years roll by (Netflix please, Nintendo), but for now, it's hard to think of a better start in pure user experience terms.
Nintendo Switch Review: Conclusion
Every Nintendo console is important in some way; the NES established the company as a major player in the domestic hardware arena, while the N64 introduced analogue control to mainstream players. The Nintendo DS gave an entire generation of players touch input, and the Wii will go down in history as the console which kick-started the motion-control craze. Despite all of these past successes, it's no exaggeration to claim that the Switch is Nintendo's most important hardware release, ever.
The reason is twofold; this is a console which unifies the company's previously separate portable and domestic hardware interests, a significant change for a firm which for so long as utterly dominated the handheld market – a market which is arguably shrinking due to the popularity of smartphones and tablets. Secondly, the Switch comes at a time when Nintendo is more marginalised in the industry than ever before; Sony and Microsoft now preside over the "core" gamer market, with Nintendo almost alone in choosing to cater for younger players, families, and those seeking a different gaming life from that given in the multi-platform 'Triple-A' market. With that in mind, the Switch is a very sensible call; it has been built from the ground-up with local, social play in mind and should hopefully build upon what the Wii achieved in this area.
While it sounds like a cheap parlour trick, the Switch's ability to effortlessly transition from home console to portable is a revelation; to be able to play a AAA adventure like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the big screen and continue that quest on public transport without any loss of scale or immersion is a truly remarkable selling point, and one which Nintendo is wisely pushing in all of its marketing efforts. However, that's not the only trick this console has up its sleeve; those delightful Joy-Con are perfect for impromptu local multiplayer sessions, with Super Bomberman R already proving the surprising potential of this particular arrangement. With titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and FIFA 18 on the way, this hardware configuration could prove to be as appealing to the mainstream public as the Wii's waggle was back in 2006; it's basically like having a portable TV set with you at all times, offering scope for multiplayer fun no matter where you happen to be. Couple this with the unique feature set of the Joy-Con controllers – HD Rumble is something we can see Nintendo's rivals copying in the near future – and you've got a wide selection of elements for developers to leverage over the next few years.
Nintendo and its third-party partners stumbled with the Wii U and failed to present a convincing case for second-screen gaming; we'd be surprised if the Switch suffered a similar fate, but nothing in the world of gaming is certain. While the intrinsic charm of its hardware is already blindingly obvious and the USP of the system – play anytime, anywhere, with anyone – is easy to communicate, it remains to be seen if Nintendo's most important hardware release yet will resonate with consumers; what we've seen so far, however, certainly fills us with confidence.