When reports emerged of a lower-cost Nintendo Switch that wouldn't have detachable Joy-Con controllers and couldn't plug into a TV, my son had one question. What's the point of a Switch that doesn't Switch? Good question. But that's exactly what Nintendo is releasing on Sept. 20. The Nintendo Switch Lite is handheld-only and costs $200 (AU$330, £200). That's $100 less than the original Switch and also shrinks the previous model down a bit, with a 5.5-inch, 720p screen. But it also ditches TV connectivity via USB-C, and no longer has detachable rumbling controllers. Despite missing some features, it did feel great in my hands. (Since this story has been published, we've had a chance to play the Switch Lite again: see here for even more impressions.)
Is it really a Switch? Does that even matter? I play my old Nintendo Switch in handheld mode most of the time. Nintendo's holiday version of the Switch is making a bet that, for many people, that will be good enough.
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To be clear, the original Nintendo Switch, which sold 34 million systems globally in the first two years, will stick around alongside the Switch Lite at the original $300 price.
"We believe the two systems will complement each other and coexist in the market," Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser said in a conversation with CNET, distinguishing the Lite as a "compact, lightweight, dedicated gaming device."
The lower-cost Switch Lite is missing some features, but also seems like Nintendo's handheld future beyond the Nintendo 3DS. But even though the Switch Lite looks like the beginning of the end of the 3DS/2DS, according to Bowser, those handhelds aren't disappearing yet either.
Switch Lite feels compact and solid
The Switch Lite's packaging looks brighter and so do its colors. Gray, yellow and turquoise models will arrive Sept. 20 when Nintendo's Zelda: Link's Awakening remake hits. A limited edition Pokemon-themed design with pencil-like etchings on an off-white case will be timed to launch with Pokemon Sword and Shield, but it won't come with the game.
I immediately noticed that the Lite felt more compact than the original Switch. It's about as long as a Switch minus one of its Joy-Cons. It's slimmer, and the 5.5-inch screen makes the 720-pixel resolution look a bit sharper than the 6.2-inch Switch. But in some cases, it's harder to read smaller text.
The matte plastic and solid feel reminded me a lot of the recent Nintendo 2DS XL handheld. No detachable Joy-Cons means the sides of the Switch Lite don't flex or creak as much, either.
The Lite feels bigger than Sony's dearly departed gaming handheld, the PlayStation Vita, but I didn't have one nearby to directly compare the two. The Switch Lite still isn't exactly pocket-sized, but it's a lot more jacket-pocket friendly, like a gaming Kindle.
And it's rock solid, with pretty much the hardware build I expected. It feels like a cousin of the 3DS.
The Switch Lite has most of the same internal Switch features intact: 32GB of storage, a microSD card slot, same volume button layout, a headphone jack, USB-C for charging (it comes with the same charger that comes with the Switch). The touchscreen has the same resolution, but it's smaller (again, 5.5 inches versus 6.2 inches). It still has Wi-Fi, NFC and can connect to extra controllers. And it should also have better battery life -- roughly 20-30% more, depending on the game. The Switch Lite uses a more efficient processor that enables smaller heat vents on top of the system. Sadly, like the original Switch, it won't connect with Bluetooth audio headsets.
There's also a new true D-pad on the left side, replacing a set of four buttons on the Switch's Joy-Con that offered those same functions. It looks like a better option for playing NES-type retro games, but according to Bowser, don't expect a D-pad on a future Joy-Con: "There are no plans, or nothing to announce, in terms of further variations of Joy-Con."
I got to play bits of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch Lite. That's a great test of the most demanding Switch games. They all looked nice and nothing seemed that cramped.
What I miss: Switching and rumbling
The Switch Lite makes compromises to hit that $200 price and some of them will hurt. First off: Its nondetachable controllers mean you won't be able to replace them if they start wearing out.
This Switch can't do any video output at all: The USB-C port won't work with the Switch dock. That means it can't double as a TV-connected console, which is half of the Switch's appeal. As a result, your only display option is the Lite's 5.5-inch screen, which also lacks an auto-brightness sensor.
Nintendo promises that all handheld-mode-capable Switch games (indicated on Switch software) will work on the Switch Lite. You could play games like 1-2 Switch or Just Dance on the Switch Lite. You'd just have to pair Joy-Con controllers to that little 5.5 inch screen. Oh, and find a way to prop up the Switch Lite, because it lacks a kickstand.
But the Switch Lite won't really work with Nintendo's weird and wonderful Labo cardboard construction kits, because it's a completely different size. To clarify, some Labo features will work if you find Joy-Cons and pair them wirelessly, but some sets like the VR kit won't work at all.
The thing I'll miss most, though, might be rumble. The Nintendo Switch has some capable haptic vibration in its controllers, but that's all gone in the Lite. It's weird to play Mario Kart or Super Mario Odyssey without the rumble. It's doable if you pair a rumble-equipped controller, but I doubt I'd do that.
Does losing any of that Switchable stuff even matter, though, if all you're using the Switch for is to play games on the go... and saving $100 in the process?
A budget Switch, or a perfect second Switch?
I kept turning around the idea of the Switch Lite in my head, again and again. I love the feel of the hardware, and for $100 less, it stands to be an excellent gaming handheld. But the Switch Lite also loses the key transforming features that made the Switch magical in the first place.
Maybe that's OK.
I think about the Switch Lite as the game system my kid would want. And it could be the Switch for anyone who doesn't care about playing on a TV.
But it could also be the perfect second Switch for a house that already owns one. Like, one for the kids, or the gaming equivalent of a two-car garage. "You're absolutely right, I could see this fitting into a household where there are multiple players ... and one flagship Nintendo Switch," Nintendo's Bowser says.
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I could see myself wanting to take the smaller Switch on trips while leaving the household Switch behind. But then, how would I transfer games between systems? Nintendo hasn't made it easy to do that, but there might be a solution coming.
"Yes, you will have the ability to transfer between devices, your gameplay experiences. More to come on there, but that is the intention," Bowser told me. Could that be the multidevice account solution I've been waiting for? Maybe Nintendo has a plan in place to make it easier to switch Switches.
The Lite isn't a sequel to the Switch. It's more of a lower-cost spin-off. It'll also be the only new Nintendo Switch hardware this holiday, as Bowser says the larger Switch won't get an upgrade right now. But maybe that's exactly what's needed. At the least, it's finally a lower-priced Switch.
In exchange for that, you're losing... the Switch part.
But for many people, that might not matter at all.