The Nintendo Switch benefits greatly from powerful, well-designed mobile hardware that puts the home console experience in the palm of your hand. That said, great hardware is only as good as the software that runs on it, and while the Switch’s operating system is both sleek and responsive, it’s clear that some very crucial pieces are missing. This portion of our Switch review will focus on the operating system itself, how it works, and where it could be improved.
It all starts, of course, with the HOME menu. Nintendo has stated repeatedly that it wants the Switch to function as a gaming machine above all else, and so this screen is designed around getting you into your games as quickly as possible. Like the PlayStation 4, the Switch features a large row of square icons running across the screen, which you use to launch games and keep track of what you’ve recently played. An icon next to a game’s title will let you know if that game’s cartridge is currently inserted into the system.
Beneath the row of games is a set of additional icons for other system functions. The News feature is exactly that: a curated feed of information about the Switch and its games. As on past systems, the eShop is your portal to digital content on the Switch, though without the Virtual Console, the store is strikingly empty right now. The Album stores your gameplay screenshots and little else at the moment. Through Controllers, you manage how your Joy-Con are connected to the system and gives you multiple ways to connect new controllers.
System Settings provides the usual bevy of options like sleep timing and theme selection. Players can access the Mii Maker from here, as well as some useful controller calibration tools. Of particular note is a setting enabling TV power state matching; if your TV supports it and the Switch is in its dock, you can turn your TV on by waking the console up from sleep, and you can put the console to sleep by turning your TV off. Finally, the top-left of the HOME menu houses your player icon, which also lets you access user settings and your friends list. Sadly, the dreaded friend code system returns, though you have the option of adding friends more directly, and Nintendo claims that additional friend management methods are coming in the future.
With all of that said, perhaps the most striking feature of the Switch’s operating system is its speed and simplicity. The entire interface feels designed to address the most common criticism of the Wii U by performing its basic tasks as quickly as possible. Wii U owners will recall actions as simple as opening the settings menu taking upwards of twenty to thirty seconds – on the Switch, such operations are instantaneous. The Switch also gets you back into your game faster than any current-generation console; going from sleep mode to gameplay takes just five seconds or less, which is far faster than what its more powerful brethren can achieve.
Much as the functionality has been streamlined, so has the presentation; in a radical departure for Nintendo, the system is completely devoid of flourishes like music or bubbly graphics. In fact, a cute chirping noise as you access your user settings is the only fun touch here. It’s all solid colors and sleek typefaces, which certainly makes this the company’s best-looking operating system to date, but those who appreciated the bouncier interfaces of consoles past may feel a bit disappointed.
So yes, the operating system is streamlined, but perhaps too much so; many of the more interesting features pale in comparison to everything the Switch currently lacks. As it stands, the operating system falls short in many key areas, some of which seem almost fundamental to the modern console experience. So, since we’ve talked about literally everything the Switch can do, it’s time to talk about what it can’t do.
Let’s start with data management. As the Switch does not currently support external hard drives, expanding the console’s paltry 32GB of on-board storage will require a microSD card. Unfortunately, there are many limitations on what one can actually use that microSD card for, some of which are bound to cause frustration. Save data from games cannot be saved on external storage; those files must reside locally on the Switch itself. Once an SD card contains data from your Switch, it cannot be used on another Switch without you deleting that data first. In our modern, cloud-enabled world where data can be accessed from anywhere at any time, seeing Nintendo continue to treat user data so restrictively is, in a word, discouraging.
There’s also the matter of Nintendo’s new paid online service. Ostensibly, this service will open the Switch up to more connectivity and functionality, but the implementation of this service looks downright confusing. Online multiplayer will obviously be included, but will also be free for non-subscribers until the fall as a sort of “free trial.” Subscribers will get access to one free NES or SNES game per month, but unlike PSN or Xbox Live, you don’t get to keep these games forever. At long last, party chat and game lobbies will be available on a Nintendo console, but only through a separate smartphone app that doesn’t launch until the fall – except for a free and limited trial version that launches this summer! I’m sorry, what? This is a textbook example of how a company should not roll out new features, and it shows that after all this time, Nintendo still doesn’t understand how to live in an online world.
Finally and most fundamentally, beyond playing the launch lineup, there’s a distinct lack of things to do on the Switch. Streaming apps such as Netflix and Hulu are currently nowhere to be found, so you’ll need to use another device, perhaps even your Wii U, to satisfy that urge. There’s no internet browser to speak of, so general internet consumption is off the table as well. With no way to message or otherwise interact with other players, all you can really do with your friends list is curate it. Most, if not all, of these missing features will likely arrive down the road, but this does little to rebuke the notion that day-one purchasers are also acting as implicit beta-testers.
As it stands today, the Switch’s operating system falls victim to many of the same problems that befall most new consoles, namely high expectations and a relative lack of features. In many ways, the system feels barren and incomplete, the victim of a possible rush to get the console into players’ hands. The speed and responsiveness of the Switch provide a solid foundation upon which more features and capabilities will be built, but until that day comes, users will need to make due with the basics.
So we arrive at the big question – is the Switch worth it? Right now, that depends entirely on how much you’re willing to accept the system’s shortcomings. I personally love using the device, and given my excitement for the upcoming slate of releases, I do not regret my purchase whatsoever. That said, anyone who is not a hardcore Nintendo fan or a passionate early-adopter would do well to wait a few months and let the system mature. Once the holiday season rolls around, the console will have many more games, and its fleshed-out online experience will presumably have put its sloppy introduction behind it. There’s no doubt that the Switch is a creative feat that harbors incredible untapped potential, but if Nintendo wants to make that potential a reality, there’s lots more work to be done.