The nonstop war for your attention is no longer contained to the living room.
We live in a world full of constant entertainment, thanks in no small part to our phones and tablets. Every movie we could possibly want, every news source on the planet, and more books and magazines than any one person could choose from much less read is at our fingertips. The only part of our entertainment to remain partially tethered to the living room has been gaming.
Nintendo saw a void, and has attacked it from multiple angles.
Try as they might, mobile games can't hold up candle to the experiences available on living room consoles or computers. A vast majority of mobile games are quick time wasters, great for playing in five or ten minute bursts while you wait for something. While there are some real gems in mobile gaming with compelling story and incredible art, there are no real mobile equivalents to the most popular Steam, Xbox, or PlayStation games. Even if there were, the cost of those experiences on your battery would stop many from playing with the same intensity as "traditional" gaming experience.
There's a clear vacuum here, and little has been done on the console side of things to address it. Microsoft's strategy leans on Xbox Play Anywhere, games that can be bought once and played on your Xbox, Desktop, or Laptop. It works well enough as long as you only use Windows and own a gaming laptop, which is a relatively small group of users. Sony, which has largely abandoned its PlayStation Vita portable console, has moved on to PS4 Remote Play across Windows, Mac, and of course other PlayStation hardware. This relies heavily on having a very strong data connection at all times, which obviously doesn't apply to your average commuter or hotel traveler.
Nintendo saw a void, and has attacked it from multiple angles. For mobile gamers, Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes fill that need for quick gaming, with more coming later this year. The people still partially tethered to the living room needed something more, and that's where the Nintendo Switch exists. It's a hybrid home and portable console with some classic Nintendo flair, and the start of a wild new expectations from our gaming experiences.
Controllers that make the console
Nintendo Switch Hardware
When removed from its packaging, the brains of this new console fit in your back pocket. This is a tablet with a display not much larger than an iPhone 7 in casing roughly the size of a Kindle Paperwhite. The tablet portion of this console is a little on the thick side compared to an iPad Mini, with a USB-C port on the bottom and a headphone jack up top with the power and volume rockers. There's nothing on the sides of this tablet save for a pair of grooves, which hold the two most important parts of the Nintendo Switch experience.
Nintendo calls the gamepad included with Switch a Joy-Con, and it doesn't take long to figure out why. A single Joy-Con starts out as two halves, giving you several options for how to play your Switch. You can attach the two halves to either side of the tablet, where suddenly the console feels like a larger and sturdier portable console and the thickness of the tablet suddenly makes a lot more sense.
You can attach both halves to the included Joy-Con Grip, which feels more like a traditional game console controller wirelessly connected to this tablet. Or, if you're really into the two halves, you can simply play with a Joy-Con half in each hand. This may seem odd, but quickly becomes an incredibly comfortable way to play every game because your hands don't need to sit in front of you to grip anything.
This isn't just a portable console, which is a detail that is both significant and trivial at the same time.
Not all games are single player, which is why the two halves of the Joy-Con can also become two separate controllers for some games. The split multiplayer mode gives each player a controller with an identical set of buttons for identical play, but each half also includes motion controls for games that require movement. The two halves act entirely independent of one another in this mode, with no action from the user required. Each of the halves includes a light indicator for Player One and Player Two, making it very each to separate the halves and jump into a game no matter where you are.
This isn't just a portable console, which is a detail that is both significant and trivial at the same time. Included with your Switch is a dock that connects to your television through HDMI. This dock is little more than a plastic shell with a single USB-C port to charge your tablet while transmitting video to the television. There are some additional USB ports on this dock for attaching accessories you may want for future games, but there truly is very little to this dock.
When you set the tablet inside, whatever is happening on your tablet is now instantly happening on your television. If you remove the tablet from the dock, whatever you were doing on the television is now instantly happening on the tablet. It's a simple thing that requires very little thought because it very simply does the one thing it needs to do with very little effort on behalf of the user.
Connecting your Switch to a television reveals one important thing that does not come in the box, and that's a way to charge your Joy-Con halves when sitting on the couch. The grooved rails on the side of the tablet act as a charging mechanism for these controller halves, which means they only charge when connected to the tablet. There are no power ports on these controllers to charge them away from the console. If you want them to be charged like your other console controllers, you need to either purchase a separate charging grip for your Joy-Con or invest in the more traditional Switch Pro Controller with its own USB-C port.
Variable with noticeable compromise
Nintendo Switch Performance
Nintendo's big message with the Switch is being able to play your whole game, to have the whole experience, wherever you are. To pull this off, your experiences with the Switch are somewhat varied depending on where you are. When docked at home and playing on the television, your Nintendo Switch will output at 1080p instead of the 720p available when portable.
You'll also notice games load a little slower and some have slightly less detail when playing in the tablet mode, as the processor and graphics chips are intentionally slowed to save battery when mobile. Even on resource-intensive games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild you have to be really paying attention to notice the difference in performance.
On the topic of batteries, Nintendo claims the Switch will get anywhere from 2.5-6 hours of battery depending on the game you are playing. That claim holds up surprisingly well, and it's not complicated to figure out which games are going to consume more energy right now. Breath of the Wild and Fast RMX will bring your Switch down to 10% battery remaining at the three hour mark, where 1-2-Switch and SnipperClips can be played for considerably longer on a single charge.
This six hour mark is specifically active gameplay though, keeping the tablet on standby will last for days without a problem. If you're the kind of person to want a Switch when commuting to and from work each day, there's little concern that you'll need to charge during the day.
Any time you play a big complicated game on anything mobile, heat is a concern. Usually that's because you're holding the sides of the thing you're playing, which is less of a concern on the Switch, but also because heat is typically bad for batteries. The Switch design includes a large heat vent into a semi-exposed grate in the body, and while that ins't the most visually appealing thing in the design of a tablet it does the job well. The back of the Switch will get warm during gameplay, but it never got as hot as many phones and tablets do. The heat vent keeps the system cool without needing a fan, which is obviously an important feature in something you can slide into your back pocket.
Because this is technically a home console, there's a desire to compare this system to the current living room heavyweights. Nintendo has never released a console that offered superior graphics when compared to what Sony or Microsoft were offering that same generation, but it has rarely stopped the company from competing for users.
What Nintendo offers in this generation is the ability to pick up the entire console and leave the room with it on a whim, which is something you'll never be able to do with an Xbox or PlayStation. These are different experiences for different kinds of users, and that division becomes important when comparing the two.
A uniquely entertaining experience
Nintendo Switch The Bottom Line
The biggest questions that remain for Switch and Nintendo happen a year or more from now. Historically, game consoles have been refreshed on multi-year cycles. Nintendo has positioned itself to change that with Switch, which includes a mobile processor that simply won't keep up with the demand for better games in three years. Knowing that the tablet part of the Switch is the least interesting part of the console, it wouldn't be surprising to see Nintendo simply refresh that tablet portion of this experience in two years and keep everything else the same.
This is an experience for everyone else.
Nintendo has created something that isn't quite a home console, and isn't quite a tablet. It won't appeal to people who feel strongly about owning either. There's no effort to have the "best" graphics, and for now anyway there are no apps for streaming media or surfing the web. You won't be connecting a keyboard to the Switch when you want to bang out a long email, and you won't be connecting a Virtual Reality headset to your Switch for a more immersive experience.
This is an experience for everyone else. The person that owns an iPad but really only uses it to play the occasional game and binge a show on the train, or the person that really wants to game more but can't be tethered to the living room for multiple hours every day. It's a console for people that love playing with other people in the same room, whether that means everyone sharing a portion of a television or gathering multiple Switch players together for local multiplayer gameplay.
Perhaps most important, it's a console for people that aren't interested in managing their console as though it were a computer or tablet. When you put a game cartridge in this console — that's right, no optical discs for the Swicth! — the game is immediately available to play with no install delay. When an update is available for a game, that update is downloaded in the back ground and installs the next time you launch the game there's a very brief delay to install the update before putting you back in the game. There's very little about using this console that feels like work or set up, even when turning the console on for the first time.
Switch feels like a complete thought, and Nintendo seems eager to react to user feedback as more people experience this console.
Nintendo is also incredibly mindful of children using the console, more so than ever before. The friend invite system is careful to make sure parents know where friend invites are coming from, and includes an unrivaled set of parental controls for monitoring use and making sure the console is off at bed time. Parents have a great deal of control without ever touching the tablet, which is a very big deal.
Really, these are the things that make the Switch worth owning. It's a relatively simple console by today's standards, but it does all of the important things really well and is just plain fun to use. There are few accessories that feel required to purchase even after using the console for a while, and the games that are available at launch span all of the important age groups. Switch feels like a complete thought, and Nintendo seems eager to react to user feedback as more people experience this console.
Should you buy it? Probably!
Nintendo has a lot of exciting ideas in this console, but it's not quite something you can say is the one device for everyone. If you're already doing all of your gaming on your phone or you're fully ready to make the jump to VR with your finely tuned gaming rig, it's unlikely that Switch is something that will grab your attention for very long.
That having been said if you find yourself looking for more time to play games, or you feel you've outgrown the Nintendo 3DS, or you just want something in the living room that everyone can enjoy together when they gather, Switch is well worth it.