Teardown: Nintendo Switch gaming system
Image credit: Nintendo
Clever trade-offs underpin the first true hybrid console.
The Nintendo Switch is an ambitious attempt to be all things to all game players. It can be connected to a display as a traditional console, used in handheld mode with its controllers attached to either side of the 6.2in screen, or propped up by a kickstand on a tabletop with the wireless controllers once more removed.
The main criticisms aimed at it following early March’s launch were a currently anaemic online service and a lack of compelling titles other than ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’. However, that game has earned rave reviews and the Switch shifted 80,000 units in its first weekend on sale in the UK.
That is fewer over the comparable period than either Sony’s PlayStation 4 (250,000) or Microsoft’s Xbox One (150,000) but twice as many as the Wii U (40,000) in late 2013, according to newsletter gamesindustry.biz.
The Switch’s commercial test will come later as Nintendo fills out the game roster – about 20 titles today but rising towards 100 by Christmas in both cartridge and online formats – and adds apps for streaming video and more.
Meanwhile, what about the hardware design?
The Switch is necessarily modular out-of-the-box. The console fits into a charging cradle during display use. On its sides are the two removeable wireless Joy-Cons. These can be used individually, left attached during handheld gaming, or fitted into a holder for single-player use.
Satisfying multiple configurations has required some compromises on both ergonomic and industrial design, as well as the technical specs. The Joy-Cons are one good example.
Constrained by the 6.2in screen size, they work well enough for those with smaller hands (perhaps White House staff could encourage President Trump to work out his frustrations on the Switch instead of his cellphone) but some adult reviewers have found them fiddly.
Also, as the controllers can be used by one or two players, their button layout is identical (but flipped in single-player mode). This apparently takes some getting used to if your manual muscle memory is of earlier Nintendo systems.
In terms of technical firepower, Nintendo has taken a conservative approach to the load placed on the main processor. This is a custom implementation of Nvidia’s Tegra X1, a quad-core ARM Cortex-A57-based device. According to an analysis by Digital Foundry, the Stretch’s chip is clocked at 768MHz, against the X1’s 1GHz ceiling. However, it has been reported by Eurogamer that this clock is restrained further to 307MHz in handheld mode.
A point worth remembering is that the Switch is battery powered and features both a power-hungry fan and cooling vents, reflecting a long-standing challenge in delivering high-quality gameplay on a handheld device.
Resolutions vary according to the use-case: 1920×1080px in console mode and 1280×720px in integrated display modes.
Having said all that, the compromises are thought to have worked. Battery life for a processor-intensive game, such as the latest ‘Zelda’, is said to be around two and a half hours, ample for a morning and evening commute but less so for a long road trip (for the record, Nintendo claims a maximum life during less intensive gameplay of six hours). However, while the Switch has juice, the quality of gameplay is considered very high by any standard.
Another plus point comes when you open up the Switch. Nintendo has taken the modularity theme inside its product: important given that it faces a higher likelihood of breakages when used as a handheld.
For example, the iFixit teardown team found that the LCD pops out easily and its touchscreen digitiser is not fused in place but attached with double-sided adhesive tape that runs around the display’s perimeter.
“Most components, including the analogue sticks, game cartridge reader, and headphone jack are modular and can be replaced,” iFixit adds, also noting that Nintendo has opted for screws rather than glueing the device together.
It found one surprising exception, though: “Sadly, the modularity ends at the USB-C [charging] port [on the gaming console]. This high-wear component will require some intense soldering skills to replace.”
Overall, iFixit scores the Switch at a very creditable 8/10 for repairability.
Nevertheless, some early Switch users have claimed the device has flaws. The most commonly cited is for the left-hand Joy-Con to inexplicably lose connectivity. Another is that inserting and removing the console from its cradle can result in scratches to the display.
Some of that could simply be the result of clumsy usage; some could be fixed with firmware upgrades, and there will be several as Nintendo expands the online service towards the goal of completed the full roll-out by autumn.
This brings us back to the point that the Switch is still a device-in-progress. It has much potential, but only a small amount is being exercised today.
Most reviewers are advising gamers that they can wait before shelling out £279.99 for the console. It certainly needs more titles and perhaps a few more software patches. In principle though, the Switch is a well thought-out design, cleverly balancing the trade-offs demanded so far by its hybrid uses. It is a product to bookmark, if not yet buy.
Nintendo Switch games console
1 Inner back cover
2 Outer back cover
4 Main chassis
7 Front panel/digitiser
10 Joy-Con attachment rail
11 Game card reader/headphone jack
12 SD card holder
13 Memory daughterboard