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Nintendo Switch hands-on: hardware makes a promising start, but software questions remain

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It’s like getting a new iPhone that can’t connect to Wi-Fi

Remember that episode of The Twilight Zone with the bookish guy and the broken glasses? “Time Enough at Last.” The TV Guide synopsis would go something like this: Henry Bemis is a humdrum bank teller who just wants to read books but never has the time. One sunny afternoon Bemis sneaks away to the bank vault to read, only to return to an empty bank, an empty street, and an empty city. While our man Bemis was on lunch, the world got obliterated by nuclear warfare. What luck! Bemis suddenly has decades of free time. As he bends over to grab a book, the glasses on which he depends to see, fall and crack. Surrounded by all the novels in the world, Bemis has no glasses with which to read.

I am reminded of the agony of Henry Bemis when I hold the Nintendo Switch, a magnificently designed piece of hardware with which there is very little to do — at least at the moment. In that way, it’s an inversion of “Time Enough at Last,” like having the perfect pair of glasses but little to see. As I write these impressions, the video game console is unable to download games or even sign onto Nintendo’s eShop. It’s unclear how its multiplayer features will work or if they will work, or how friendship profiles will connect Switch owners.

I am assured by Nintendo representatives these features will be added with a day one patch, and we will surely provide impressions when they’re added. But for now, nadda. Rather than further enumerate the many things I still don’t know about the console and its core features a little less than a week before launch, I’ll direct you to my peer Chris Grant’s piece at Polygon, “Nintendo is already repeating the Wii U’s mistakes with Switch.”

What I’m left with is a beautifully made slab of glass, plastic, and parts, and the complete mystery of how to use them should I ever want to do more than play Zelda. Perhaps that is enough?

The tablet summons that giddy feeling I got from Apple’s original iPhone, and long before both, Nintendo’s own original Game Boy. It’s beautiful, it’s simple, and it feels a bit like magic. Nintendo has long encouraged players to step outside, and now they’ve made a home console that allows for that. Relaxing in a lawn-chair in my backyard while tooling around an open-world Zelda feels luxurious.

The screen is bright enough to go to battle with the midday Texas sun, though it looked better in the shade. It is generously wide and tall, still smaller than an iPad, but noticeably larger than a PlayStation Vita. Sticking with that comparison, I am happy to say the dual joysticks do the best job of any mainstream portable console at delivering precision close enough to a traditional controller.

It helps that, unlike its portable contemporaries, the Switch has the dozen buttons and two joysticks expected by most console games. Nintendo has fit a smorgasbord of inputs onto the Switch’s tiny physical real estate with the skill and efficiency of a longtime Manhattan studio apartment dweller: every surface and corner has its purpose. In the rear of the console is a kickstand, which doubles as a holster for the microSD card. A screenshot button rests beneath the buttons on the left, and an NFC reader is hidden within the joystick on the right. Both “sides” detach from the Switch screen, becoming their own discrete controllers — meaning every Switch console allows for two players to play out-of-the-box. Even the little controllers have hidden buttons, two tiny nubs set into the bar that connects each side to the tablet.

A minor gripe about these detachable controllers: the sides don’t release from the tablet with the ease shown in Nintendo’s commercials. The process requires a bit of fumbling, and I strongly recommend doing the maneuver over a table or while sitting on a very soft couch, lest you drop the machine altogether with a loud crack. I learned this lesson firsthand.

Which reminds me: the Switch is built from the ground up for maximum ASMR stimulation. It intentionally cracks, clicks, snaps, and swooshes. The kickstand has a satisfying clack; the controllers snap onto the tablet with on automated crack; and the joysticks zip back into place with an elastic thwip. I’m not the first person to make the point, and I certainly won’t be the last. Surely some entrepreneurial soul will produce the Switch ASMR YouTube channel the world deserves.

That audibly appealing kickstand might sound superfluous for portable gaming. I certainly assumed I’d use the machine as I have used the Vita, the 3DS, and every handheld that came before them, essentially lifting the machine toward my face and lowering my face toward the machine, creating a slouched and unhealthy posture that makes me look as if I never matured from my fetal stage. But wow, what a difference not gradually damaging your back makes to a portable game experience. The screen is large enough to work just fine from a spot on a desk, a small distance away. I do recommend having a wireless Pro controller — a large ask, I know, for the Zelda enthusiast on the go. In the box, you will find a bit of plastic that turn the left and right controllers that detach from the Switch, turning them into something resembling a normal wireless controller, but the result is small and cramped, and holding the plastic bundle feels a bit like posing as a T. rex, your arms and hands mushed together into a space not to scale with the rest of your body.

There are some other limitations to the Switch’s portability. I can’t provide a highly technical, professional stress test, full data point breakdown of the battery life, but I can say from firsthand experience that the battery depleted to half-full in the time it took to watch an episode of The Bachelor — a little under two hours. That makes the Switch ideal for gaming around the house or on a commute, but folks who want a portable console for long flights, let me direct you to the best options in portable chargers. Speaking of air travel, the kickstand is rather precarious, and the tablet fell over while sitting on my desk during a particularly intense typing storm. I can’t say for certain, but I’m skeptical of the tablet maintaining its ground against a mildly turbulent hop from JFK to LAX.

Of course the Switch plays just fine on a TV at home. As advertised, you simply slide it into a dock that takes negligible time to connect to a television or receiver with an included HDMI cable. A tired marketing phrase, in this case, is just a blunt truth: it just works. Again, I’m going off very limited and non-technical impressions, but I didn’t notice markable performance differences between the Switch as a portable and as a “home console.” That was a big concern going into the hardware, and while I still reserve final judgement, the Switch is off to a promising start.

I just wish I could say the same about its software. A little over a week from launch, I can’t tell you a single thing about what it’s like to download games, play online with friends, or even format a microSD card. That is absurd. And while I know we will have answers, the fact that we don’t know at this point leaves me concerned, bordering on skeptical. It doesn’t help that Nintendo leadership can’t give clear answers to simple questions in Q&As.

My impression going into launch is that Nintendo has made an exceptional piece of hardware. But Sony did the same for its PlayStation Vita, a fantastic albeit idiosyncratically designed portable that was doomed by a muddy user interface and a lack of games. Maybe Nintendo will surprise us. Maybe the day one patch will solve its historic problems with online IDs, and maybe the eShop will have a crop of classic Nintendo games for some version of the virtual console. Who knows? That’s the problem. The Switch is promising hardware. You know what, I’ll just go ahead and say it: as a fan of the Vita, the Switch feels like my dream console. But hardware needs software, and right now I can’t speak to the Switch’s games — or even its user experience.

Photography by James Bareham / The Verge