Hands On: Putting the Nintendo Switch Hardware Through Its Paces

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As you’re no doubt aware, press events are currently taking place to showcase the Nintendo Switch, with some also open to the public this weekend. We attended the London event and took the opportunity to put the hardware through its paces, testing out its varied control options and functions. We’ll be previewing a whole lot of games, while a number of our writers will be sharing their personal opinions on the Switch, but we thought we’d kick off with impressions on the actual hardware. Nintendo, after all, puts a lot of focus on its concepts and how they are realised.

We’re splitting this into two sections. Anthony Dickens is going to focus on the build quality of the system, considering aspects like screen resolution / quality, ergonomics and so on. Tom Whitehead will then focus on key aspects of playing the system, looking into its various configurations and tricks; we’ll then wrap-up with a conclusion of our early thoughts.

We think you’ll be slightly surprised; this is certainly a different approach from Nintendo, in a good way.

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The Build and Quality of the Nintendo Switch Hardware

In lots of ways the Nintendo Switch perhaps seems slightly more of a handheld than it does a home console, and because of that the final form factor of the device itself is critical to its success. Nintendo has also decided to ditch its successful handheld “clamshell” design to make way for the marriage of its 30 years of console evolution. Handheld technology has advanced exponentially in the past decade, and you would be right to instantly think about the Nintendo Switch as a small to medium-sized tablet with mini controllers attached on the end – but is it a good quality tablet, or one of those nasty cheap ones that currently flood the market?

Having finally had the device in our hands we can answer some of our burning questions about weight, general feel and the quality of the screen. Even though we only had our preview with the device in a rather low-light environment the overall quality felt good; not as slick as an iPad Pro, obviously, but well finished and well constructed. It’s a much thicker device than an iPad, but the extra “chunk” gives you something for your hands to grip onto, and it does not feel so thin that you could accidentally bend or break it. It’s robust.

Weight wise it’s slightly heavier than a Wii U GamePad – unsurprising as it’s a console with plenty of innards – but also feels much more solid. With Joy-Con controllers plugged in the left/right analogue sticks and general button configuration is smaller and more compact across the board, and it took a couple of seconds to get used to the new layout. It’s also worth noting that the sticks are nevertheless bigger than those on the PS Vita, as a point of comparison. The lack of real analogue triggers may be a disappointment to some, but the digital trigger buttons feel responsive and satisfying during a power slide in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Interestingly the shoulder buttons, whilst relatively thin and sleek compared to the rather chunky variants on the Wii U GamePad, feel like an improvement and ‘click’ nicely when needed.

To give you an idea of scale, when holding the Switch your hands are almost double the distance apart compared with a standard New Nintendo 3DS. For an adult gamer, like most of us, this should be a far more comfortable position to play your games. Naturally this extra space between your hands is now filled with a lovely bright and colourful 720p screen, just over 6 inches in size. The resolution seems absolutely perfect for the screen size on offer, and gone are the pixelated memories of your 3DS or DS. As mentioned earlier the Switch preview was held in a relatively low-light environment so we were unable to test the screen in a well-lit area, however we felt the screen performed excellently in the dark room, with vibrant colour simply dripping from the screen after a quick Turf War battle in Splatoon 2.

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Using the Switch in “Tabletop” mode – in which its little stand is used to prop it up – was also a pleasant experience, providing you don’t place the screen too far away from the players. There’s a sweet spot of around 0.5m to 1m between player eyeballs and screen before things start to get too small, depending on the game, of course. This setup worked great on a coffee table with both of us sitting forward clutching our Joy-Cons. Unfortunately, we were unable to slide the controllers off the console ourselves, but we gave the neon miniature controllers a good fondle. They do feel small, of course, but they do not feel flimsy or cheap; they feel modern, well built and should be easily held by players of all shapes and sizes.

Playing the Switch in Various Ways

The Nintendo event, somewhat typically of the company, seeks to control the experience rather tightly. Demo units were configured in specific ways in London, so we worked around various available options to really test out the controllers and configurations for playing games on the system. The only thing we didn’t physically do was clip and unclip Joy-Con controllers to the console, but we managed to cover pretty much every other angle.

First of all, let’s talk about the Joy-Con controllers. Multiple demos utilised them on their own, either as a tiny individual unit on its side – for a simple platformer like Sonic Mania – or as a showcase motion-based marvel, like a much flashier Wii Remote.

The key showcase of the Joy-Con was 1-2-Switch, with 6 minigames available to play. The most impressive was a simple game utilising the force feedback in a remarkable way, as you try to guess how many virtual marbles are ‘in’ the controller. It’s incredibly tactile and effective at its best, though in a safe cracking minigame one of our controllers did lose its calibration temporarily; there were a lot of signals bouncing around the room. None of the game demos utilised the hand gesture sensor, but a few did put the motion controls to work – they function just fine, as expected. The real eye-opener, though, is the ‘HD’ force feedback – it’s hugely impressive, and could add a lot to games in the future.

Anthony’s already covered the Switch + Joy-Con configuration – it feels like a fairly sizeable but nevertheless satisfying portable device. In fact, it was easy to get blase about the fact we were playing games like Splatoon 2 on a portable screen, but it’s a pleasurable experience. The screen does the games justice, and it’s easy to imagine eager owners falling in love with the freedom to play a game on the TV, then decide to go portable and finish a level while snuggled up in bed or in a comfortable chair elsewhere in the house. Another fun note is that we played Mario Kart 8 Deluxe each with a Joy-Con in a mini wheel, bringing back memories of Mario Kart Wii in particular.

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Of course, the Pro Controller will be a big purchasing decision, especially for those eager to play the Switch a lot at home on the TV. The major switch-up is the right analogue stick dropping below the face buttons, making the layout more similar to Xbox One / PC pads. The general feel is excellent, matching its Wii U predecessor for comfort, and it has a legitimate sense of quality. The big change, though, is that it has full motion control support. We played Splatoon 2 with a Pro Controller and the combination of analogue sticks and motion inputs felt as smooth as on the Wii U GamePad. The shooter handles the map differently, of course, due to the lack of a second screen – you now view it with a press of X, and when catapulting to a location on a respawn you select a spot with the D-Pad. Overall, the addition of motion controls to the Pro Controller is well implemented.

Finally, let’s consider the console’s screen and the ‘Switch’ mechanism between handheld and TV. Demos for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had that option, so naturally we put it to the test. Starting on the TV using a Pro Controller, we simply undocked the console and its attached Joy-Cons and it switched to the portable mode almost instantaneously; it then asks you to hold two shoulder buttons and press A to confirm the change. Doing the reverse and putting the console into the dock is a little slower, with 2-3 seconds between docking and the image popping up on the TV; when you do this it then asks you to register a Pro Controller or, of course, you could use the Joy-Con options with the Grip. It’s seamless, all told, albeit with that minor delay going from portable to TV.

As for performance docked and undocked, we’d ideally like to test much more comprehensively before making a call on that. Considering the portable screen, though, the Breath of the Wild visuals suited the handheld well. Though you can soak in greater detail and see smaller features more clearly on a TV, we could easily envisage many hours adventuring with Link on the tablet-like system.

Conclusion

When discussing the look, feel and functionality of the Switch and its controllers, we ended up rather impressed with the console; we have other concerns for other articles, relating to price, launch line-up and so on, but the hardware itself is on solid ground. At its price and with its target audience in mind, it even feels relatively premium, especially the core console. It is a slicker bit of kit than a 3DS or Wii U GamePad – not a high bar, admittedly, as those systems are chunky plastic toys in design, even though we love ’em. Nevertheless, it’s a design that suggests Nintendo has recognised that it needs its systems to be sleeker and more desirable; less child-like. Children nowadays are accustomed to smartphones and tablets, in many cases, and grown-ups typically prefer tech that looks presentable and classy. The Switch certainly delivers in respect to this, even with its liberal use of plastic materials for the Joy-Con controllers in particular.

Overall, we left our preview event pleased with the design of the hardware. Beyond superficial aspects, too, it’s a smartly implemented and clever piece of technology. The Joy-Cons are little marvels when put through their paces, and even simple games like Snipperclips feel extra fun when gathered over the console’s screen with a Joy-Con apiece.

We’re looking forward to spending more time with Nintendo’s new vision for console gaming.

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