The other major launch this week, besides AMD’s Ryzen 7 1800X, was Nintendo’s Switch console. We’ve talked about the platform, its theoretical capabilities, and the games Nintendo has showcased already. But there’s no substitute for hands-on time with the hardware. PCMag, Ars Technica, Eurogamer, and Kotaku have all published their reviews of the platform, and they agree on a number of points. As we suspected, the Switch is at its most impressive when it’s operating as a portable. The matte screen is much easier to use outside, and the console maintains a playable frame rate, even in games like Breath of the Wild.
Performance in docked mode is rockier. While the GPU overclocks itself from 307 or 384MHz (the developer chooses) up to 708MHz, that’s not quite enough to pay for the shift from 720p to upscaled 1080p. As a result, the Switch’s performance in Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t as good when docked as it is when portable.
How you rate the console will depend a great deal on how much you love Nintendo franchises and what you’re looking for from the Switch itself. The system gets high marks for its portability, screen quality, and the ability to play with two Joy-Con controllers while putting your arms in any position you want. The system doesn’t get hot in portable mode, topping out at roughly 42C. Eurogamer describes it as “giving a lukewarm touch during play.”
On the negative side, you’ve got an extremely flimsy kickstand that’s described as nearly guaranteed to fail, the weirdly small and difficult shoulder buttons on the Joy-Con controllers, the weak launch lineup, poor battery life, line-of-sight issues that prevent Joy-Cons from remaining synced when the console is in docked mode, no headphone output on either the Joy-Cons or Pro Controller, no way to charge the device while in kickstand mode, and no option to connect the Switch directly to a television.
Kotaku points out that while the base Switch is “just” $300, that doesn’t get you everything you need to realistically use the system. The Switch’s limited ~26GB of storage has already been exceeded by Dragon Quest Heroes, which uses 32GB of memory. Buying a microSD card to expand the base storage capacity isn’t really optional. Toss on a Switch Pro Controller (which Kotaku vastly prefers given the Joy-Con tracking issue), and that’s another $70. One game (Zelda, according to everyone) is $60, Add in some additional modest accessories, and the net cost of the system is approaching $500.
Ars Technica liked the Switch, but ultimately felt it sacrificed too much to be a primary console, while the limited software support and tiny game library made buying in early a risky proposition.
Eurogamer declares that the Switch is “a compelling piece of technology,” but also states that Nintendo’s $300 price point is a painful proposition given what the Switch brings to the table. Toss in the price of a game, an external power pack that can top the Switch off while gaming, and a Pro controller, and you’re looking at a lot of cash on top of the already-steep asking price. Still, they end on a high note, saying they can’t wait to see where Nintendo takes this concept.
Kotaku loves Zelda: Breath of the Wild and praises many aspects of the system, but also notes that Nintendo has said very little about a number of features and capabilities that gamers are interested in. Ultimately, they also recommend that readers wait and see how game and peripheral support evolve over the next six months.
My own thoughts
There’s been some confusion in the past over what the purposes of these round-ups are, so I thought I’d make it explicit. In the main body of a roundup, it’s my job to concisely explain what other publications have said. If I’ve got anything of my own to add, I’ll do it here.
I agree with those who have said the Switch is another attempt by Nintendo to redefine what a console is. This time, instead of attacking that question through specialized touch controls or a second-screen gamepad, they want to tackle it through a hardware platform that transitions seamlessly from your TV to a commuter train. The platform isn’t perfect — no launch ever is — but it represents a genuine shift in console design.
The biggest risk Nintendo is taking, I think, is betting that people will buy a Switch for its features even if its games end up looking like refreshed Wii U titles. Ultimately, I suspect that’s what’s going to happen here, and initial reviews seem to bear that out. Shrinking the Wii U’s 20-30W power consumption into a tablet form factor was a huge accomplishment, but it didn’t leave Nintendo much room to actually improve visuals or performance. Clearly the company has gotten some good work done in Zelda when the Switch is in portable mode. But Nintendo can’t drive a smooth 1080p experience from the dock — at least not yet.
If you know you love Nintendo and don’t care about other franchises, then the Switch is an easy purchase. But if you’re on the fence, I would also wait and see. With Scorpio launching this year and the PS4 Pro already in-market, it would take a truly mammoth install base for game developers to be interested in bringing versions of these titles to the Switch.