Nintendo Switch vs. Nintendo 3DS: Which should you buy?

Nintendo is the undisputed world heavyweight champion of delivering quality games to play when you are not at home, and there are a surprising number of options for hardware these days as well. With a growing selection of Nintendo-made games living as apps on your phone, the seemingly immortal Nintendo 3DS line, and the recent yet explosively popular Nintendo Switch console it's a little complicated to choose.

Assuming you don't want to sit down and play games for long periods of time on your time, that boils the list of options down to two. How do you choose between the ultra-portable 3DS and the ultra-powerful Switch? While a hardcore Nintendo fan might grin and say "Why not both?" you should take a quick look at the strengths and weaknesses of these gadgets to choose which is the best for your needs.

A Nintendo DS for every occasion

Red Nintendo 3DS

Red Nintendo 3DS (Image credit: iMore)

Nintendo's "Dual Screen" handheld has been around since 2004, and seen several big upgrades since that initial launch. Essentially, this handheld offers the player a pair of screens to play on, with games that use both to create some fun experiences. The bottom screen is touch-enabled, with a stylus included in the casing of the handheld to make using it easier. When you're done playing, you fold it in half to close it and suddenly this portable gaming experience is small enough to fit in most people's pockets.

What makes the Nintendo 3DS platform so compelling is how portable and affordable the system is. The battery in these game consoles are built to last for at least a full day of play time, which usually translates to multiple days of activity on a single charge. And thanks to how long the DS platform has been around, the library of games you can play is massive. On top of a healthy library of physical games you can buy in any store, the Nintendo eShop is home to hundreds upon hundreds of games from every point in the history of Nintendo games.

Currently there are actually four different versions of this console you can buy, and that's where things get a little confusing. Each of these options offers something a little different, so it's important to know which one you are buying.

Nintendo 3DS

This is the oldest of the four options currently available, and is typically only sold used or in bundles with other games. The big feature with this console was the way the top display could show you games in 3D, and had a control slider so you could choose how intense that 3D effect was. This version of the console has the smallest displays and will not be able to play some of the most recent games made for the 3DS platform. You most likely do not want to buy this version of the Nintendo 3DS.

There is such a thing as a small "New 3DS" but it is currently not available in most of the world.

New Nintendo 3DS XL

This version of the Nintendo 3DS is considered "top of the line" when comparing the different 3DS consoles. It was designed to offer nice large 3D displays and enough power to play more advanced 3DS games well into the future. This version of the 3DS has the largest battery as well, guaranteeing much longer play times. You can find this version of the Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo 3DS kits start at $249 in a variety of color and style options.

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Nintendo 2DS

As the Nintendo 3DS grew in size to meet the needs of an aging audience, Nintendo released the 2DS to provide a hardware option for smaller hands. This version of hardware did not fold in half, and instead takes on a wedge shape with a button layout that better serves the needs of kids trying to play the latest games. As the name suggests, the 3D display on this system has been replaced with a 2D system in response to growing concerns regarding 3D tech and young developing eyeballs.

This version of the hardware will not play all of the latest games, but is currently available in bundles with games included for $99, which is much cheaper than any of the other systems.

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New Nintendo 2DS XL

This is the newest version of the DS family, and it exists to offer those who do not want that 3D display at all something to play on. The New 2DS XL looks a lot like the New 3DS XL with that folding design and colorful exterior options, and also has nice large displays to work with.

You can typically find the New 2DS XL for $100 cheaper than the New 3DS XL, and it will play all of the latest games with no problem.

Diving in with a Nintendo Switch

There has always been a divide between the games you play when you are not at home and the games you play on the television in your living room. Nintendo wanted to change that, and the Switch is how it accomplished that seemingly impossible task. This tablet-sized game console rests in a dock that connects to your television, and when you leave the living room you can simply remove the tablet and keep playing with controllers on either side of the device.

What makes this experience truly impressive is how conveniently you can keep playing your games. These are high quality HD games that play exactly the same no matter where you are. In the seven months the console has been available, three Switch games have been nominated for Game of the Year while competing with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One platforms. The trade-off for that amount of power and potential is battery life. Depending on the game you are playing, the Switch will get you between 3 and 4 hours on a single change, and in most cases will not charge quickly unless you either buy special accessories or charge it on a Nintendo Switch dock.

Nintendo is also planning to make a full online gaming network available for the Switch in the not-too-distant future, offering things like Xbox Live-style online gaming and access to a bigger library of online games from Nintendo's back catalog. Currently the list of games available for the Switch is decent for a platform that has not yet been around for a year, but small when compared to some of the other offerings available for competition.

You can get yours starting around $380.

Which should you choose?

For most people, choosing between the Nintendo 3DS and the Nintendo Switch comes down to the kind of games you want to play and how long you are typically away from a charger. The Nintendo 3DS has a massive library of games, and is the exclusive home of the Pokemon game series. The games are fantastic and engaging, but feel inescapably old due to the limitations of these portable consoles. The Switch, on the other hand, delivers games that feel modern and exciting. But there aren't a ton of those games yet and the battery on this console really wasn't built to last you all day.

There's also pricing to consider. Nintendo's base package for the Switch with no games will set you back $299, with games averaging $45 per title. Nintendo's 2DS XL starts at $149, plus an extra $20 for the power cable, and the games average $30 per title.

Is the Nintendo Switch worth the same as two Nintendo 2DS consoles? If you enjoy high quality games that also look great on your television, absolutely. But at the same time, if I were going on a long road trip with my kids in the backseat I probably would want them to have something a little more like the Nintendo 3DS.

Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at iMore. He's a passionate futurist whose trusty iPad mini is never far from reach. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Reach out on Twitter!