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Nintendo Switch Lite review: A great Switch, without the Switch part

If you think of it as the true Nintendo 3DS sequel, you'll love it.

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The Switch Lite, in all three colors. It's handheld-only, but it feels great.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Nintendo Switch Lite arrived in our office earlier this week and I eagerly took it out of the box. It's a lighter, more colorful and weirdly better-feeling version of the first Switch. Everything about it feels streamlined, easy. It's like a gaming Kindle.

It's a good season for gamers who want to play on the go. Nintendo's newest iteration of the Switch is the best $200 gaming portable I've ever used, and it already has a giant library of games. 

Should you buy one, though? It all depends on whether you're fine just using the Switch as a handheld like the Nintendo 3DS and all the gaming handhelds Nintendo made before this, or whether you want it to connect to a TV, too. Because, with the Switch Lite, you can't switch between TV and handheld anymore.

Let me explain.

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The Switch Lite is a far better travel gaming handheld.

Scott Stein/CNET

I'm sitting in my regular New Jersey Transit train seat, playing Zelda: Link's Awakening (which feels made for the smaller Switch Lite). A yellow Switch Lite sits in my hands. It's a familiar feeling. I've played the Nintendo 3DS for years on this commute. The Switch Lite feels exactly like those handhelds: lightweight and wonderfully made. Plastic, yes, but comfy. It's Nintendo. I love that the noisy vent of the original Switch is gone. It's quieter, now (but still vents some heat out of the top). It's easier to tuck in a bag.

At home, it's a different story. It's a personal device now. The Switch Lite can't connect to my TV, and unless I paired other controllers and we all somehow huddled over this 5.5-inch screen, multiplayer on one device is out of the question. I feel a little sad. I miss the bigger Switch. I give it to my 6-year-old son to play, and of course he loves it. He asks me, "Can we connect it to the TV?" I say no. He asks, "Why?" 

Good question.

Maybe I could go back to the other, larger Switch, but no, Nintendo doesn't make that easy. Nintendo makes you choose to either set up a secondary Switch as a system that can only play games while connected to Wi-Fi, or you move your stuff off one Switch and onto another in a relatively quick but anxiety-inducing process (more on that later). I felt like I was moving out of an old, familiar house into a new apartment. 

Giving up the TV connection, the rumble vibration, the extra controller flexibility, means losing some of the wild magic that the Switch was all about. What you have left in the Switch Lite is still a superior gaming handheld... one of the last true gaming portables, now that Sony no longer makes the Vita, and the 3DS feels like it's one foot in the grave. It's this, or a phone or tablet.

The Switch Lite has all the stuff you'd need to play Switch games, including a microSD card slot to store more games, Bluetooth (but not for headphones) and USB-C charging that also works with wired controller accessories. At $200, it's a great price for a system with a fantastic library of games.

The age of Apple Arcade is upon us, and so are plenty of great games on mobile devices. The Switch is still my favorite hardware and platform for family games, but I hope Nintendo finds a way to make the Switch family work better with game sharing, and evolves the next Switch to be more portable and still have video-out and multiplayer, too. 

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The Switch Lite is so compact. So is the box.

Scott Stein/CNET

Consider your other options: Nintendo has just updated the larger, more versatile Switch to include better battery life. We call that version the Switch V2 (yes, it can get confusing -- here's how to tell the difference between the Switches). Also, consider that Nintendo's method of transferring games and saves between systems is really not fun.

For those who want the latest and most affordable Nintendo game system and don't care that it doesn't connect to a TV, the Switch Lite is for you. But if you want flexibility and are thinking about playing two-player games a lot, I'd get the V2 version of the regular Switch instead. If you already own a Switch, and wanted a second one for your family or kids, this is the obvious choice.

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What still strikes me as great about the Switch Lite

The lower price. $100 less matters when you're considering paying $200 instead of $300. (It's £200 versus £280 in the UK, or AU$330 versus AU$399 in Australia.) It's the least expensive Nintendo Switch system available. That's a key price difference, although sometimes the original Switch ends up being available in specially priced hardware bundles that could be tempting.

The smaller size feels great: I prefer it. Even with a smaller 5.5-inch screen, I haven't seen a game that doesn't look good on it. I've played bits of Super Mario Maker 2, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Odyssey on it, and so far, so good. The more compact size is also great. The Switch Lite isn't as small as a Nintendo 3DS, but it feels a lot more portable -- it's about one Joy-Con width shorter, and not as wide. The display ends up looking better, too, since the identical 720p resolution on a smaller screen means higher pixel density. I haven't had to squint (yet).

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Holding both side by side.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In fact, this feels sturdier and better than the original Switch. Playing games, mashing buttons, holding it while standing... the Switch Lite feels like the superior hardware. I'd rather play games on this in handheld mode than the bulkier-looking, slightly creakier Switch.

The D-pad on the side is new, and good. I prefer having a real cross-shaped D-pad on the left side of the Switch Lite than the four round buttons that the Switch has. It makes games like Super Mario Maker and Tetris 99 feel so much better.

Hey, I also like the colors. Blue is my favorite, but yellow and gray are nice, too. It just looks more Nintendo-ish than the black original Switch. (Nintendo sent me the yellow to try, and it's growing on me.)

Now playing: Watch this: Trying out the Nintendo Switch Lite actually surprised...
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What's not great, though

You can't dock this into a TV. Losing video-out through USB-C, which the regular Switch has, means it's not a TV console at all. That not only means no big-screen couch gaming, but it effectively kills multiplayer without buying another Switch. My favorite Switch games are multiplayer ones (Mario Kart, Smash Bros, and some old-school NES and SNES games). You could gather around a Switch Lite's smaller screen and pair other controllers, technically, but that sounds terrible, because the Switch Lite lacks a kickstand, and…

Its controllers can't be detached. The Switch is awesome because its Joy-Con controllers can pop off and be swapped if they wear out, or they can each be used as mini controllers for two-player games. The Switch Lite ditches that for fixed controls, like other 3DS/2DS game handhelds. The problem is, Nintendo has been having some Joy-Con drift issues for some people. Will those issues continue on the Switch Lite? At least, on the Switch, problematic controllers can be swapped out. This also means...

You'll miss out on Nintendo's weirdest experiences. Nintendo's folding-cardboard Labo sets are bizarre works of brilliance, and the upcoming Ring Fit Adventure is like a fitness game with a hoop thing you play in front of your TV. If you want Weird Nintendo, you'll want the original Switch, with its detaching controllers (one of which has an IR camera). The Switch Lite can technically have Joy-Con controllers paired to it to play Ring Fit Adventure, but you'd need to buy more controllers and sit in front of the little Switch Lite screen. Labo's cardboard parts mostly won't fit the Switch Lite and needs those Joy-Cons, too. Short answer in this case: Just get the regular TV-dockable Switch.

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The length difference between Switch and Switch Lite (also, those controls can't be removed on the Lite).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nintendo has a game-sharing problem. If you thought you'd easily swap games between a Switch and Switch Lite, I have bad news for you. While physical game cards are no problem, Nintendo still hasn't solved digital game family sharing. Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser seemed to suggest that a better solution was coming when I spoke to him earlier this summer, but it turns out, much to my frustration, that no better fix is happening after all.

There are ways to share digital games between systems if you either transfer your system data completely from one Switch to another (Nintendo's support page for transferring account data is here). Or, you could make one Switch a "primary" system and one a "secondary" system, but then one Switch would be able to play games anywhere, while the other would require online authentication every time a game was played. (Read Nintendo's support page for an explanation of what that means -- good luck.)

It means that anyone considering a Switch Lite as a second household Switch should think about whether or not this awkward setup would work for them, or whether a workaround (using physical game cards) is OK. Also note that transferring either your entire user account or an individual game's save data will cause that same data to disappear on the original console. You could keep going back and forth like this, but it would get annoying fast.

That last sticking point is what makes me think the Lite is really just an option for players who were only interested in handheld. Yes, it's basically the same as a Switch in most other ways, as far as gaming and memory card support (and USB-C charging). But until Nintendo lets its family of Switch hardware share game libraries as easily as Apple or Google do with tablets, phones and Chromebooks (Apple Arcade handles multiple devices with ease and I'd love to see Nintendo do the same), the Switch Lite won't be the perfect choice for as many people as you might think. Unless you plan on owning mostly physical game cards.

Originally published Aug. 27.
Update, Sept. 19: This is an ongoing review.