Here’s something I’ve only said a couple of times in my life: a new Nintendo console is coming out this week.
The Switch debuts Friday for $300, and it is finally the system that will fuse the publisher’s home and handheld gaming divisions into a single product. It is a tablet-like device that you can connect to your TV through a dock, use on a table with its kickstand, or hold like a traditional portable in your hands. It comes with two JoyCon controllers that connect to the side of the unit to turn it into a portable, and they can be used individually as tiny controllers for multiplayer games. The Switch even still supports motion controls in addition to everything else.
Nintendo hasn’t turned on the online capabilities for the Switch yet, so we couldn’t take these into account for our review since they’re not operational as of publication time. –Ed.
But does all of that make it a console worth owning when it launches Friday? Yes — if you want The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and don’t already own a Wii U.
What you’ll like
Small and powerful
Nintendo has delivered on its core promise of a system that can transform from a home console into a portable in a flash. To accomplish that, it needed something compact that could still push a lot of polygons, and it has that in the Switch. The system is neither as small as a traditional portable or as powerful as the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but it’s close enough. It’s worth sacrificing the size and some horsepower to have what is essentially a more powerful Wii U on the go.
Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the showcase launch release for the Switch, is often stunning even if you’ll see occasional framerate dips and other signs of a struggling processor. But I can go from playing the Switch on my television, to playing in the bathroom, and then to playing at the airport, all on the same device, without having to upload my progress. And now, after living this life for a week, having the option to play anywhere is a killer feature for the way I want to game from now on.
Docking on the TV, undocking on the go, and waking from sleep is a snap
Size and graphics processing are the key to enabling the Switch to work, but Nintendo has taken a few extra steps to ensure the system has a buttery smooth user experience. If the console sits in its dock, all you have to do is lift it out to get it working in portable mode. The reverse also works, where you can walk in the door from your commute and plunk the Switch down into the base to play your games on the television. You don’t have to go through a syncing process or authentication — it just works.
The transition is so smooth that it was a no-brainer for me to take the Switch out of the base when I wanted to run upstairs or into the bathroom for a few moments.
It’s also easy to put the Switch into sleep mode. Pressing the power button on top will turn off the screen while saving your spot in the game you finished playing. Turning it back on is a matter of hitting Home or the power button and then confirming with three button presses.
Screen is sharp enough for high-fidelity 3D games
The Switch has a 6.2-inch 720p display, and while that might not sound like a lot in a world with 70-inch 4K televisions, it’s exactly right for a portable. The combination of size and resolution means that complex-looking 3D games like Zelda are easy to visually parse. That’s different than a lot of 3D games even on smartphones with more pixels. The screen is so crisp that I think traditional games should work on the Switch without a problem, which means that developers don’t have to resort to simplistic 2D visuals to ensure that players can understand what they’re seeing.
JoyCons are relatively comfortable
The Switch comes with two controllers … sort of. The JoyCons really are best used with one in each hand while they are connected to the central Switch unit, but they can serve as their own input devices if you want to play multiplayer games in a pinch. And in this situation, the JoyCons are more comfortable than you would expect. The key is that you’re not supposed to hug the JoyCons in the palm of your hand. Instead, you need to hold them with your fingertips.
To improve the ergonomics of the JoyCons, Nintendo included wrist-straps that slide onto the tiny controllers and add a bit more bulk to the overall design. This works — although I know I’m going to lose these dumb things.
Snappy user interface, sleek design, and future-proofed storage
With the Switch, Nintendo has finally made a gaming device that looks like an expensive piece of consumer electronics. It looks professional, which is a huge improvement over the Fisher Price toy quality of the Wii U. That’s thanks in large part to its smooth edges and its high-quality plastic materials for its chassis. I also love the black-on-gray paint job.
The impressive design doesn’t end with the exterior. Nintendo has also made a huge leap forward with the software interface for the Switch. Unlike the Wii U, navigating menus and games is simple and instant. You can use the touchscreen, which is finally a 10-finger capacitive sensor, to enter text and select certain options. And you can hit the screenshot button at any time to grab what is happening without ever having to worry about loading or bogging down your device.
I also appreciate the Nintendo built-in support for the SDXC memory card standard, which will eventually support up to 2TB on one card. No vendors sell 2TB microSDXC cards yet, but Nintendo is future-proofing the Switch — and that’s smart.
The Switch’s battery works for me. Zelda dies after about 3 hours, and that’s respectable. If you have an older iPad or something that you use regularly, I bet it loses power quicker than the Switch does. The addition of USB-C means the console is also compatible with USB powerbanks or car chargers for those of you who have more than 3 hours of gaming time before you’ll have the opportunity to put the system back on its dock.
What you won’t like
Kickstand is only good for tables
I think Nintendo is likely overstating the three states of the Switch. It works great on the TV and as a handheld, but I’m not sold on its capabilities as a table-top device. The screen works if you huddle around it and the JoyCons are serviceable, but the Kickstand is too flimsy and it only has one setting. You’ll need a flat surface for the Switch to survive standing up, but in that case you have to hope that the table is the right height because you can’t aim the screen directly up at your face. You can’t articulate the kickstand like that.
JoyCon button placement and radio problems
While I find the JoyCons comfortable relative to their size, they still aren’t perfect. The right JoyCon has a particularly troublesome problem where the control stick is directly below the face buttons. When you’re thumb tries to go from controlling the camera to performing an attack, you’ll have to scrunch up your digit in ways that I found sometimes painful in the first day of using the Switch.
I’ve grown used to the button placement, and I’ve learned how to hold the Switch with a clawed thumb that doesn’t cause any discomfort or pain.
The JoyCons may also have a radio connectivity problem. I noticed some occasional desyncing, where Link would continue to run in a certain direction with no input from me. I could only really re-create this problem when I was sitting around 15 feet form my consoles, and I think most people will end up within that range.
The Switch is still an enigma.
Even after playing it for more than a week, I still don’t know what Nintendo really plans to do with it. Its online features are a mystery, its day-one update still isn’t live, and it doesn’t have a lot of games.
Yet, if I didn’t have a Switch, I’d go out and buy one after this experience. This is just how I want to play games these days. Booting up a console and a TV is a lot of work compared to turning on the Switch.
And that’s the key to the Switch. It is removing a lot of the barriers between you and your games. If you’re not at home or can’t use the TV, you can still play Zelda. And that is exactly what I want.
For the rest of you, if you’re on the fence, I think it’s easy to recommend waiting until Nintendo launches a Switch bundled with Zelda, 1-2 Switch, or something else.
Nintendo provided GamesBeat with the Switch system for the purposes of this review. Switch is out March 3 for $300.