Nintendo Switch introduces a new concept for consoles

Nintendo Switch runs on open source FreeBSD kernel and uses many open source components. I've been putting it through its paces the past few days. Here are my impressions.

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Swapnil Bhartiya

Nintendo has a history of introducing new ideas along with its new game consoles. Wii brought Wii Remote controllers, which allowed users to interact with games using gestures. Later, both Microsoft and Sony copied the idea for their own consoles. Wii U was an attempt, albeit a disappointing one, to add portability to its console by embedding a screen into the game controller. Nintendo 3DS brought 3D without the need of special glasses. Now the company is back with Nintendo Switch (find it on Amazon), which introduces a new concept for consoles.

Will Switch enjoy the success of Wii or meet the fate of Wii U?

I pre-ordered the Switch as soon as GameStop started taking orders. I received it on March 3, the same day it was made available to the rest of the world. My 4.5-year-old son and I have been playing with it for the last 3 days. Here are my impressions.

What’s in the box?

You will find the Switch console, which is more or less a tablet. There is a Switch Dock that comes with HDMI out, one USB 3.x port, 2 USB 2.x ports and a USB Type-C connector for power. And there are two Joy Con controllers, a Joy Con Grip and two Joy Con Straps.

Thanks to an iFixit teardown, we know what’s inside the console: Switch is powered by a customized Nvidia Tegra X1 chip (the same chip that’s used in Nvidia Shield Android TV) and it has 4GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage.

The touch screen has a decent 1280 × 720 resolution, which is acceptable in the age of HiDPI display because Nintendo games are known more for immersive and addictive gameplay,  not graphics. The console has a Micro SD card slot that supports up to 2TB of storage. It has a 3.5mm audio jack and a USB Type-C port for power supply, which also connects with the Switch Dock. The console comes with 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 for connectivity.

Open source powers Nintendo Switch

It's worth noting that open source dominates the gaming industry: Nintendo Switch, like the PlayStation runs on FreeBSD; Nvidia Shield TV and Steam Machine both run on Linux kernel. Xbox, which uses the proprietary kernel by Microsoft, seems to be the only exception.

Nintendo Switch also uses software components from open source projects, including Google’s Android and Apple’s WebKit.

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In the screenshot of my Nintendo Switch, you can see the use of open source software

First impression

I was shocked to see how small the Switch is compared to my PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One. It’s almost as big as Nintendo Wii, when plugged into the dock.

With Switch, Nintendo has moved away from the Wii branding, which is probably a smart move considering all the negativity around Wii U. That said, Switch has carefully borrowed features from those earlier consoles.

The name ‘Switch’ gives away what Nintendo is trying with this console. It’s a 3-in-1 device that switches between a traditional gaming console that’s hooked to your TV, a handheld game console like Sony Vita or Nintendo DS, and a standalone tablet that can be used with game controllers.

Switching it on

Setting up the device is very easy. Just power it up, either in the docked mode or tablet mode and follow the on-screen instructions. I connected the device to the internet, logged into my Nintendo account and created 3 profiles for my family members. There were some updates available and it was a glitch-free experience.

Being able to create up to eight profiles on Switch is one thing I particularly liked about the device, as my family members can play the same game, saving their own progress separately. There is no struggle to switch from one person to another. When you open a game, you have to choose who is playing it. Simple.

I wanted to test the online shopping experience, so instead of ordering cartridges from GameSpot I bought The Legend of Zelda and Fast RMX from the Nintendo eShop. As far as I know, unlike Playstation 4 Pro, Switch doesn’t support additional Bluetooth accessories like keyboards that make it easier to type text, so I had to use a Joy Con controller to enter username, password and credit card information. The download itself took more than an hour (and that's with fast internet, the best Comcast has to offer in my area).

I have been a first-person shooter gamer, but recently I finished Uncharted 4 and I discovered what I had been missing all this time.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild is a breathtakingly amazing game that is extremely immersive, thanks to a great storyline. This is the killer game that the Switch needed for the launch.

Storage woes

After playing Zelda for a while my wife wanted to try Let’s Dance. That’s when I discovered that more than half of the onboard storage was full; there wasn't enough space to download 12GB of data for the game. We ordered a 128GB Micro SD card from Amazon that was delivered in 4 hours, thanks to one day shipping. Now I had to move all downloaded games from the onboard storage to the Micro SD card. A challenge.

Managing storage is what I like the most about my Xbox One. All you need to do is plug in an external hard drive, Xbox will format it, and then you can easily move games from internal storage to the external drive. Simple.

Unfortunately, there was no option to move game files from internal storage to external storage using Switch's data management settings. The only option was to archive the game, which I assume saves the game progress on the onboard memory and deletes the game from the device. I had to download the game again from eShop, which took more than an hour. I wish Nintendo would make it easier to move data between storage devices. Also, because game progress stored on the built-in memory, not on the external storage, you can’t take your Micro SD card and play your game on a friend’s console.

I should also note that there is a USB 3.x port on the dock. According to some reports, the port is meant for adding external hard drives, just like on Xbox One. I like the idea of being able to use a 2TB external hard drive on my Switch, which will be cheaper than 2TB of Micro SD card. But I am not sure how it will work when I remove the console from the dock to use it in tablet or handheld mode because the game is stored on the hard drive. We'll cross that bridge when get there, as the USB storage functionality is currently disabled.

The gaming experience

In addition to the Switch, I also own an Xbox One, a Playstation 4 Pro, a Nvidia Shield TV and an Apple TV. I play games on all of these devices, but Switch is becoming my favorite. I simply love the modular design that allows me to use it in many different modes:

Console mode: The traditional console experience where I use the Joy Con controllers with the Grip to play games on my 43” TV.

Handheld mode: I can play anywhere in my house, and though my wife wouldn't allow it at the dining room table, it's nice to know I could do it. And I  can bring my games with me when I travel. Though the battery life is questionable (something between 2-6 hours, depending on the game), you can always plug it into a power outlet. 

Tablet mode:  Switch comes with a stand, so you can put the device on a table and use Joy Con controllers with the grip to play games without a TV around.

Multi-player mode: Switch comes with two Joy Con Straps that turn each (right and left) controller into individual controllers and two players can play the same game. Joy Con controllers are equipped with some sensors and I can use them in the same way I use the Wii Remote Controller. It’s magical!

Initially, I though that the Joy Con controllers were too small compared to Xbox and DualShock 4, but after playing with them for a few days I am getting used to them. Joy Con is lighter than the Xbox One controller and DualShock 4, so it’s more comfortable for kids. If you still want traditional controllers, you can pre-order Nintendo Switch Pro Controllers.

Unfortunately, there is no headphone jack on Joy Con so you can’t use headphones to play games on your TV without disturbing others. However, if you are using it in the handheld mode then you can use the 3.5mm jack on the console. Fortunately, my Yamaha AV system and Samsung UN43KU6300 support Bluetooth connectivity, so I paired my Bose Quietcomfort 35 with it and streamed audio through headphones instead of speakers.

No one is perfect

If you are a serious gamer, I assume you have (and need) both Xbox One and PlayStation 4. There are some great games that are exclusive to each console, but beyond that these consoles are treated equally when it comes to third party AAA titles. If there is a new game, it will be available for both Xbox and PS4. Switch has a major disadvantage here. While I am quite certain that the Tegra X1 chip can handle high-end games, I am not at all sure that Nintendo will be able to persuade studios to port their AAA titles to the console. This means that if you are a serious gamer, you will still need Xbox One or PS4.

At the launch there were no streaming apps available for the Switch, but since Wii does have Netflix I am assuming that streaming apps will arrive on Switch. Even if these services arrive to the platform, however, Switch doesn’t support 4k, which means you can’t play Ultra HD Netflix or 4K YouTube videos on the device.

The lack of AAA titles, the absence streaming apps, the lack of 4K output means Switch can’t be the only console in your living room. It can’t be the primary entertainment device. You still need another streaming box in your house. Switch, I fear will remain the secondary console.

As excited as I am about Switch, I see big challenges for Nintendo. Since AAA titles probably won’t be coming for the console, the company needs to keep churning out great games for the device on monthly basis. Once I finish The Legend of Zelda, there is nothing for me to play on the device. I am not a huge fan of Mario Kart and the game that I really wanted, Mario, won’t be released before December. So the Switch will basically collect dust. That’s a serious challenge for Nintendo. I hope they have a very good strategy to keep gamers interested in the platform.

Should you buy one?

My experience with the console has been positive so far. My son absolutely loves it and I am sure he will play Zelda and Fast RMX over and over.

If you're a Nintendo fan and adore Mario, Zelda and other games from the Nintendo universe, you should go ahead and buy Switch. From a hardware and experience perspective, Switch is the rightful successor to Wii.

For me, the biggest winning point here is that Nintendo is dramatically changing the way we play games. What I dislike the most about Xbox and PlayStation is that my gaming experience ends outside my living room where the consoles sit. With Nintendo Switch I can bring my games with me. The dock itself is so small that I can pack it and hook it to the TV in the hotel or Airbnb apartment. That alone is a killer feature for me.

I hope this article will help you make up your mind.

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