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Nintendo Switch was 2017's best gadget. What does it mean for 2018?

The most amazing gadget I used this year played Zelda and Mario, fit into my bag and points to where tablets, phones and PCs could go next.

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Nintendo's modular game console feels like the future of mobile tech.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I've seen VR, AR, iPhones, smartwatches, laptops and robots. But the gadget that impressed me the most, by a longshot, was the Nintendo Switch.

It was a familiar story. Nintendo has a weird, wild idea. Detachable controls on a tablet. A dock that turns a handheld into a console. Even the name of the little wireless, button-studded mini-remotes was weird: Joy-Cons.

Nintendo's done this before. The minimalist, motion-control-driven Nintendo Wii and its deconstructed remote control. The bizarre two-screened, stylus-laden Nintendo DS.

I had some preparation this time, however. In fact, Razer had an idea that was incredibly similar for Windows PCs just a few years before, called the Razer Edge. When I reviewed it, I thought it was a sign of the future: it could transform from handheld to console, changing its form. Then there was the Nvidia Shield, the true predecessor of the Switch, which started as a funky Android game handheld with a flip-up screen and became a dockable, switchable tablet. I thought that was cool, too.

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Nintendo, obviously, agreed (and put Nvidia's Tegra processor into the Switch, too).

Now that the Switch has become a success, and a must-have holiday toy, it's also a real showcase of how a modular piece of tech can work. Nintendo's game lineup for the Switch has been stellar. It's also fun and easy to use.

And, I bet, 2018 is going to be full of companies trying to pull off the same trick.

I can't wait for some of the ideas. I also hope things don't go overboard.

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The Nintendo Switch, unplugged.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Perfect storm: Price, hardware design, software support

The Switch's ideas already existed: the Nvidia Shield Tablet was a test run, but the Switch did it better. Nintendo's games, from both first and third parties have been stellar. Its new Zelda and Mario games are ones for the ages. Nintendo's also done a great job rounding up indie game developers and producing a collection of decently priced software, with titles like Rocket League, Stardew Valley, Thumper and Steamworld Dig 2.

Meanwhile, the price of the Switch hovers right at the border between impulse buy and splurge. No, the $300, £280 or AU$470 price isn't cheap, but it's a completely fair price for a handheld and console with two controllers in-box.

After a year playing it, I love it more than I did before.

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The missing link: is it still about good controllers?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Mobile gaming needs a kick in the pants

There have been a lot of really great mobile games recently: Fez, Inside, The Witness and The Talos Principle. Many of these games were ported from the PC and console. These little phones are powerhouses capable of great graphics and gameplay. But they're totally hampered as far as game controls go.

Phones and tablets are great for touching and swiping, but there's been a slowdown on adopting connected game controllers for mobile games. It was a trend a few years ago, but not so much anymore. Maybe that's because those controllers never worked as well as the Nintendo Switch's subtly rumbling, totally flexible Joy-Cons do. Two can become one controller, or become separate tiny ones. They work in multiple orientations. They have great motion controls. They enable all types of games.

Mobile games are only going to be as good as the controls available to them. Modular controls and well-made controller accessories can help. So, too, could letting mobile devices connect directly with TVs like the Switch does. There's no reason why a phone or tablet couldn't be a console/mobile hybrid just like the Switch. Some already have toyed with it, for games (the Nvidia Shield) or even work (Microsoft's Continuum, or Samsung's Dex for Galaxy phones).

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Razer Edge came out over four years ago. It's time to revisit the idea, post-Switch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

PCs are designed to be modular now: Let them be!

Microsoft's Surface tablet and its various Book/Laptop iterations, and the wild evolution of flexible/hybrid laptop/tablets as a whole, show that Windows hardware is already very capable of turning into new things. (Apple's Mac hardware, not so much). So, maybe, it's time to re-explore what Razer was trying for with the Edge gaming tablet: make transforming game systems, ones that are both mobile and stay-at-home. Battery life is better now, and graphics can be shrunk down to achieve more in smaller forms. It all comes down to what games will support various transformational play modes, but at least many apps are now enabled for touch and game controllers.

Sony, Microsoft must think beyond the big black box

The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are venerable systems, but they feel archaic to me now. They're big, rooted in one place. They're graphically powerful (more than the Switch), and can play lots of great games. But the Switch's perfectly mobile spin on consoles is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too moment. Not everyone wants a portable game console, but if it means being able to play games on a trip or move gaming more easily to other rooms or connect with others, why not?

I play the Switch in handheld mode more than I do in console mode. Meanwhile, my son plays his favorite console, the Wii U, in handheld gamepad mode, too. Sony and Microsoft still haven't figured out a way to make this happen as easily and in as self-contained a way as the Switch, despite efforts like the PlayStation TV, the remote play features of Vita and Microsoft's Xbox-to-Windows game stream connectivity.

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1-2 Switch is almost forgotten, but it's a great example of fun Nintendo games my kids loved playing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I love Nintendo's focus on family

Nintendo hasn't done a great job making the Switch's parental and online settings easy to use, especially when it comes to a complete pack of cloud storage for game saves, game libraries or any sort of family account for purchases. But, I've come to let my kids play with Nintendo games more than any other hardware -- iPhone and iPad included -- because the whole experience feels more curated and safely contained. It's a good experience, and it's easy to set up and use. It's not pandering, but it works for everyone. It's a rare thing in the tech world.

It's not perfect yet

The biggest mistake companies could make in 2018 would be to expect that Nintendo's formula instantly translates. I could see a lot of cracks at Switch-like hardware that would feel like duds: poor game libraries, badly-optimized software, expensive hardware or accessories that feel under-supported. For now, the Nintendo Switch nails the balance. Still, the Switch isn't backwards-compatible with hundreds of games I already own. It doesn't have great battery life as a handheld. It's a little clunky to carry in a bag. And yes, my Switch has slightly warped from keeping it in the included dock.

But the Switch finally proved that wild modular ideas can work. Now, we just need to hope that the next wave of Switch-alikes don't fall down the same rabbit hole that motion control games did after the Nintendo Wii.

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