One Week with the Switch: Thoughts & More Thoughts on Portable Gaming

Last week, I picked up a lovely neon-coloured Nintendo Switch. It’s the first time I’ve bought a console so close to launch, and I’m usually more pragmatic before committing to purchasing a piece of hardware, but two things about the console really made me want to check it out. The first was the positive response surrounding Zelda: Breath of the Wild. While it sounded like a fun adventure game in it’s own right, I became very interested after hearing conversations about the different systems of the game interacting in interesting ways. I’m a Zelda fan, and it sounded like a good Zelda game. Secondly, I bought a New 3DS about two years ago, and I really love it. The Switch, while touted as a console/handheld hybrid, seemed to me to be primarily a handheld, and that made me want to check it out more so than it being a TV console. Also, and perhaps the main reason that tipped me over to buying the Switch, is that I’m 30 and my wife and I don’t have children. We can afford to buy toys for ourselves sometimes.

Initially I had been very skeptical of the Switch. It looked to me to be something that would have been popular and cutting-edge back in 2012. From the 720p screen with large screen-bezels, to reports of 30 fps caps and limited internet functionality in the typical vein of out-of-touch Nintendo; this seemed very much to be portable technology that had been left in the dust years ago by the mobile phone and tablet industry. On announcement of the Switch, I thought that everyone already had something better; whether that be the 1080p smart devices in most of our pockets, the 2K/IPS tablets many people use on a daily basis, or our consoles and/or PCs already attached either to giant TVs or LCD panels on our desks. Nintendo has it’s dedicated fans, but what about the Switch would make the general public want to buy it?

However, the biggest revelation for me was actually using the Switch for the first time, and realising how forward thinking its central design actually is. This is a device that I want all my other devices in the future to model themselves after. Except for the use of Friend Codes. Oh, Nintendo!

Switch free license

REACT!!

After one week with the Switch – I’ll say outright that I really love it. It looks and feels good, and despite others’ criticisms regarding Joycon connectivity issues, and trouble with the size and feel of the Joycons as a game controller, these are things that I haven’t encountered and have become comfortable enough with. But first, let me address one of the major short-comings of the system from my viewpoint. Considering this device being what it is at the time it has been released, there really isn’t much of a ‘wow’ factor in firing up such a good-looking and massive Zelda game on a hand-held device. It’s impressive, sure, but not amazing – and I feel like it should be. It should be blowing my mind to have such a massive HD game on a handheld, but then I realised that I’ve become accustomed to beautiful-looking things on handheld devices over the last few years; I’ve even played expansive games in 1080p resolution on a screen smaller than the Switch’s. If the Switch had been the successor to the original Wii, rather than the Wii U, I think that it would’ve been a massive hit in the same way that the Wii was a cultural phenomenon. It would’ve packed a true ‘wow’ factor, being at the cutting edge of 2012 tech.

Portable gaming is very appealing, and when we think about what needs to be achieved in creating a successful portable gaming device, the Switch has done very well. It’s at – what I think – an acceptable price-point (except for the games; these are far too expensive), and the device is thin and relatively attractive. While I’ve complained that the screen is only 720p, I also understand that outputting large-scale games like Zelda at 1080p resolution with a consistent frame rate would probably necessitate higher-end hardware and a larger, less attractive design. Even if the Switch had shipped with a 1080p screen, my guess is that many larger games would need to scale down to a lower resolution to be able to play for an acceptable experience. And all things considered, I’m having a wonderful experience with the Switch.

I want to talk a bit more about portable gaming in general, and my interest in it. Since the start of the latest console generation, I’ve resisted buying into the new consoles (like the Xbone & PS4 – even though the latter has some very appealing looking games) simply for the fact that I have too many damn games in my Steam library. Every five years or so, I might invest money in building a desktop PC, and recently I bought a nice gaming laptop to play these games when I travel. I often play PC games on my couch with a game-pad. PC gaming in the last seven years or so has satisfied my need for both couch gaming, and also sit-down-at-the-desk experiences (shout out to Mount & Blade and Rise of Nations!), that kept me invested in playing games on the PC at the time when I did own an Xbox 360 and Wii. More recently, something that very much interested me was a portable handheld option for playing my Steam games. I travel a lot for work, and a very portable method for plowing through my Steam-list-of-shame while travelling in cars, planes and trains is very appealing. Thus last year began my search for a capable Windows tablet. I didn’t expect to be able to play high-resource requiring games on such a device, but rather the smaller indie and older games that I wanted to revisit and get through.

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The Xiaomi Mi Pad 2 runs Binding of Isaac wonderfully – great portability, but not perfect.

The Microsoft Surface looks like it can run some games, but also seems far too expensive for what is essentially a near-yearly-updated device. Samsung and ACER have offerings at better price-points, but I ended up picking up the Xiaomi Mi Pad 2. This is an attractive looking Windows 10 tablet for under US$200, and has a 7.9 inch display at 1440p. While I really like this device and it has found a place in my daily-life as a very portable Windows PC that runs essential software such as Office, it didn’t quite meet my expectations for a portable Steam device; however this is not so much an issue with the Mi Pad 2 than an overarching issue with PC gaming that I’m sure we all encounter on a semi-regular basis – i.e. poor software optimisation, wrestling with Bluetooth connectivity, and often needing to fiddle with game patches and X-input emulators for older/unsupported software. For a portable device, reliability is essential. The Mi Pad 2 was a great device for playing Binding of Isaac and Theme Hospital (among others). I actually even had Skyrim running on it at it’s lowest settings, but the frame-rate often dipped to un-playable levels. It’s been a fun and functional little device to tinker with. My point is that I don’t think Steam and Windows are ready for reliable portable/handheld gaming just yet, and they may never be.

So coming back to the Switch; earlier, I wrote that despite a few outdated design choices (or necessities, as it may well be), I think that the Switch is very forward-thinking in it’s central design. I’ve come to think of the Switch as three devices, rather than just as a handheld and a TV console. The Switch feels very different to me when I set it down on it’s kick-stand, and play games with the Joycon-grip. In this set-up, it is a portable device, but it’s not a handheld. While functionally, it’s not so removed from when the device is in my hands with the Joycons attached at the sides of the screen, it lacks that intimacy of hand-held gaming as we’ve been used to since our first Game-n-WatchGameboy, DS or PSP (or Lynx, or Gamegear, or whatever). I think this is a distinction worth making, because the feel of it really surprised me.

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Portable-non-handheld mode. 1 of 3 Switch modes, alongside handheld and TV modes.

I want my next PC to be like the Switch. I think this is where personal tech is moving. I want to have a tablet-like device with a HD screen, loaded with decent CPU, GPU, a lot of RAM, and a lot of storage space. I want it to be able to dock with my PC monitor, and also to my TV. I want to be able to play my Steam games on it, and I also want it to be able to run high-end software like my audio and video editing suites. Importantly, it will all be on one device; no more mucking around with often unreliable cloud sharing or network hosts in using multiple devices during the course of a day – phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. A true high-end all-in-one; that’s what I want. The Switch has basically achieved this for it’s function as an excellent Nintendo console, in what we’ve come to expect from them, which is impressive. Next, I want this same thing but for my high-end PC requirements. I think it’s probably not too far off, but I’m sure it won’t be cheap!

All that said, I still think that the Switch released aesthetically outdated. Which brings me to my final point of consideration; I think that the Switch has been designed lacking certain features, and will be re-released in the future at a point when these features can be added at a cheaper premium for Nintendo, and once the console proves to be a hit. Nintendo does this with it’s handheld devices routinely, and has done so all the way back to the original Gameboy (they gave us the Pocket, then the Color), the Gameboy Advance (SP and Micro), the DS (DS-Lite, DSi and DSi XL), and the 3DS (3DS XL, New 3DS and New 3DS XL). My prediction is that in the next two years, if the Switch is selling well, we’ll get a New Switch with front and rear cameras, and a slightly larger 1080p screen achieved through smaller bezels, but within the same form-factor size so that the Joycons won’t need to be redesigned or re-sized. You heard it here first, folks!

I like the Switch a lot. If you’re very interested in Breath of the Wild, then I’d recommend picking one up. If you’re on the fence, wait for more games and a price reduction – or the new model that’ll be released in two years time.

2 thoughts on “One Week with the Switch: Thoughts & More Thoughts on Portable Gaming

  1. Personally I’m hoping someone comes out with a larger grip for the joycons. I like the idea but my hands can’t take the contortion required.

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    • I think we’ll see custom shaped joycon grips and comfort additions arise as a bit of cottage industry around the Switch – especially once/if it has widespread adoption.

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