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Nintendo Switch: Tips, games, problems and everything else you need to know

Your ultimate beginner's guide to Nintendo's hybrid tablet/handheld/TV game console.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Caitlin Petrakovitz Director of audience
Caitlin Petrakovitz studies the Marvel Cinematic Universe like it's a course in school, with an emphasis on the Infinity Saga years. As an audience expert, she rarely writes but when she does it's most certainly about Star Trek, Marvel, DC, Westworld, San Diego Comic-Con and great streaming properties. Or soccer, that's a thing she loves, too.
Morgan Little Senior Director, Audience
Morgan leads the teams managing CNET's presence and content across social media, news platforms and more after stints in the marketing world and LA Times. Eventually his last byline on the site will be about something other than Godzilla
Sean Hollister
Caitlin Petrakovitz
Morgan Little
10 min read

What is the Nintendo Switch?

It's Nintendo's new Wii and Game Boy merged into one -- a handheld game system that transforms into a TV game console when you slide it into a dock. Or into a touchscreen tablet, complete with kickstand, when you snap its nifty wireless controllers off! It costs $300, £280 or AU$470.

Assuming you can find one.

That's what the ad says. Real talk: is it console or handheld? (updated 3/10)

Both! Seriously: slide this sleek, portable handheld into the TV dock, rip off the controllers, and boom -- it feels like you're playing a Wii or GameCube.

Except you only get a few hours of battery life on the go...and onscreen text is pretty tiny...and the controllers can feel a little cramped...and the screen's a little small to play in kickstand mode...and when the system's docked, the graphics can get a little choppy...and some wireless controllers sometimes have trouble staying connected. Here's our full Switch review.

And here's a lengthier discussion of the merits of each Switch mode.

Up close with the Nintendo Switch

See all photos

So it's an iPad with a pair of tiny snap-on controllers?

You're not listening. Also, the touchscreen is so useless right now. No apps, no Netflix anytime soon, no web browser (unless you count the secret bare-bones one) -- and no matter how many times you stab the screen with your pinky, Link won't put his shirt on.

Can I actually buy one now? (current as of 3/23)

Probably not? Like the mini-NES Classic, it's pretty hard to find at retail price. We're keeping track of where to buy the Switch at this link.

Does it come with any games?

Not even one.

Can I use my old games?

Nope! The Switch doesn't have a disc drive or a 3DS-sized cartridge slot, and right now there's no way to transfer any games you might have bought on the Wii, Wii U or 3DS's online shops.

(Will Nintendo make us buy Super Mario Bros. 3 for the fifth time? Stay tuned!)

So... what's there to play? (updated 3/23)

Perhaps you've heard of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? The one game critics are losing their minds over? And...Bomberman? To be fair, launch lineups are always a rough hodgepodge of ports, throwaways and bare-bones titles. But the Switch's lineup feels particularly sparse beyond Zelda, with 1-2 Switch failing to amaze and third-party support all-but nonexistent.

But at least there's Snipperclips! And some old NeoGeo games! And some very old indie games like World of Goo and Little Inferno.

I'll be the judge of that. Show me the games!

Sure thing:

Nintendo Switch: All the games you'll get at launch (and beyond)

See all photos

Zelda it is. Does it really live up to the hype? (updated 3/23)

It's nowhere near as approachable as previous launch titles like Wii Sports, but for the Zelda die-hard or an experienced player, Breath of the Wild really is something to behold. It's a huge game, and it might be enough to carry the Switch (for a while) all on its own. We're still playing it non-stop as of March 23.

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This is Link. Not Zelda -- Link.


Where's Zelda? Why am I a shirtless boy in a cave?

That is the existential question, isn't it?

Anyhow, "The Legend of Zelda" is, and has always been, the adventure of Link, a (typically) hunky-yet-petite male elf who swings a mean sword. Zelda is the magic-wielding princess. If you take anything away from this FAQ, please take that.

Why does Link have an iPhone?

It's so meta, right? Because there's a tablet inside your tablet.

Do I have to use (ugh) Friend Codes for multiplayer stuff?

Right now, yes. Though it's possible to add players you've run into during online games, and friends made via any of Nintendo's mobile games can be brought onto your Switch, you're mostly going to have to deal with friend codes. (No clue why Reggie told us different.)

Just click your profile icon on the home screen to get your dreaded 12-digit code.

Will the Switch fit in my A: Pants, B: Purse, C: Backpack?

No. Maybe. Definitely. The Switch tablet is surprisingly small, but unless you have some particularly roomy pockets, you're most likely going to want to keep it in a backpack or handbag. Just don't put anything else in the same pocket unless you've got some protection.

How big is the Nintendo Switch? These photos show you

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Wait, I need a screen protector?

Yes. Yes yes yes. The Switch's plastic-covered screen may be resistant to shattering, but it's highly susceptible to scratches. Early buyers have been scrambling for solutions to keep their screens safe, and the dock has been identified as a likely cause of damage. Nintendo says it hasn't seen this issue, though.

I hear the hardware's pretty janky in other ways, too. True? (updated 3/23)

Not everyone who bought a Switch is complaining about these problems, but there are a few day-one issues you might want to steel yourself for:

Nintendo suggests -- and I am not making this up -- you might want to keep the Switch away from aquariums, thumb drives, microwaves and any wireless gadgets if the Joy-Cons flake out.

Update, March 23: If you're having the Joy-Con desync issue, Nintendo is offering a quick fix -- and we were impressed how well it works, considering it consists of a tiny dot of foam! Nintendo also says it's fixed this issue at the factory and it shouldn't affect newer batches.

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You probably won't have any Joy-Con connection issues at this distance.

James Martin/CNET

Does it have a headphone jack?

Yep! But your wireless headphones won't work. There's no way to pair them.

How do the controllers stay attached? How do I take them off?

The plastic Joy-Cons slide into metal rails, and they feel pretty secure! There's not a lot of give. It feels... weird holding the entire Switch up by just one Joy-Con, but it's not like it'll break.

To remove them, press and hold the round black buttons on the back of each Joy-Con, just beneath the triggers. Or, if you've slotted them into the terrible straps, pull down on the white lock tab, pull the attachment up, hard, and then never do that ever again.

Stop trying to make "Joy-Con" happen.

It already happened. Sorry.

If I lose the controllers, can I buy new ones separately? (updated 3/9)

Consider this your trigger warning:

The Joy-Cons cost $80 (£70, AU$120) for a pack of two. They're the most expensive standard first-party gamepads ever made, unless we're very mistaken. (We're not counting Microsoft's Elite, which is 100% luxury.)

At least they're flexible: thanks to the standard Bluetooth connection, you can also pair 'em to a Mac, PC, Android phone or tablet, or even an NES Classic if you add this adapter.

And you can buy a single replacement Joy-Con for $50, £40 or AU$70 if you lose just one.

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The optional Switch Pro controller costs $70, £65 or AU$100.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why won't it let me play?

  • Are both the Joy-Cons attached? (You can remove both, but you can't always remove just one.)
  • If they're both detached, is the Switch actually on? (You may need to walk closer and hit the right controller's Home button).
  • Is the tablet's screen locked? (You've gotta press a button, or tap the screen, three times in a row.)

Cartridges. Why cartridges?

Because it's not a console? Remember, cartridges have come a long way since their bulky N64 days. The Switch's cartridges are more like their 3DS counterparts: small, portable and durable little cards. Plus, flash memory can hold way more data than optical discs these days -- a major perk considering the Switch comes with just 32GB of storage.

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Cartridges have come a long way, and Switch is the tiniest yet. (You could fit every one of these inside an original NES cart.)

James Martin/CNET

Uh, my buddy's PS4 has 500GB. What's the deal?

MicroSD, that's the deal. Though the Switch comes with next to zero internal storage -- particularly when you realize Breath of the Wild is 13.4GB -- you can pop a microSD card into the slot beneath the kickstand and put downloaded games there. A 32GB microSD card will run you roughly $11, and you can get 128GB for around $70.

Remember, the Switch is portable first, console second.

You say that... but my battery is already dead.

Oh, you got Breath of the Wild? Bad news: In our tests, in portable mode the Switch lasted just a bit more than 3 hours while playing the game. Nintendo says the Switch can last up to 6 hours undocked, but it depends on what you play. A hardware-intensive title like Breath of the Wild will kill your battery life much more quickly than say, Shovel Knight.

On the bright side, the Switch charges via USB-C, making it much, much easier to get a battery boost on the go than with previous Nintendo handhelds. Plus, you can start playing a fully drained Switch about four minutes after you plug it into the dock or charger.

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It's thin and relatively powerful -- but doesn't have great battery life compared to previous Nintendo handhelds.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How long does it take to charge? (added 3/9)

Nintendo says the tablet takes 3 hours to top up, and 3.5 hours for the Joy-Cons. (You've gotta plug them into the Switch to get charged.)

Can I use an external battery pack?

Sure -- but know that not just any ol' pack will let you charge and play at the same time. You'll need a hefty one designed to charge laptops, likely one that supplies more than 9 volts at 2 amps (9V@2A) and supports the USB PD (Power Delivery) spec.

Update, March 8: (Even then, you might run into issues: We initially had some luck with Dell's USB-C Power Companion -- with the Switch's screen brightness set low -- but later today we had another Zelda session where the Switch's battery level kept decreasing while we played.)

Most USB batteries are more like 5V@2A. They might only trickle-charge the system when it's off, or merely keep it topped up. Also, you may need a USB-C adapter cable (this list of known-good cables was famously compiled by a Google engineer) if the battery doesn't have a USB-C output.

Update, March 17: The gigantic Aukey PB-Y3 will charge and play, slowly, but only with a USB-C to USB-C cable. We've also heard the Ravpower Turbo 20100mAh USB-C will charge and play, again with a USB-C to USB-C cable, but haven't independently tested it. With an older Anker Astro E5 and a USB-C adapter cable, we were able to keep the Switch topped up while playing but not charge it any higher.

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Switch vs. previous Nintendo handhelds, including a Game Boy Advance SP, DS Lite and 3DS XL.

James Martin/CNET

Is the Switch kid-friendly?

The UI is simple enough, and there are kid-friendly titles on the way, like Mario Kart and a sequel to the excellent cartoony paint shooter Splatoon. But for kids raised on iPhones, Minecraft and more powerful consoles, the Switch may face an uphill battle.

Can I keep kids from draining my bank account at Nintendo's online shop? (added 3/9)

Yep! Nintendo automatically asks for your password each time you visit the eShop, so that should take care of your wallet. Better still, there are parental controls that can keep them from playing mature games, or visiting the shop at all. You can even set limits on how long they can play -- the game will freeze when time's up -- and you can do it all remotely from your smartphone.

Plus, you can make profiles for each of your family members (up to 8) so they don't mess with your Zelda savegame.

If I break or lose the Switch, just how screwed will I be? (added 3/10)

Pretty screwed. Nintendo says you can't transfer save games from one Switch to another, and they're not saved in the cloud. You can't move a microSD card from one Switch to another, either, without wiping the data. Nintendo hinted that cloud saves might arrive in the future, but didn't give even a ballpark estimate.

Is there a single place I can get a simple chronological list of all current and upcoming Switch games? (added 3/9)

My, aren't you specific! Here's Nintendo's official game guide, and here's a handy sortable Wikipedia page. No promises they'll stay accurate, but they're your best bet.

The Wii U kinda...flopped. Why should I trust Nintendo again?

You shouldn't? I mean, you shouldn't put blind faith into any company. The Switch is a potent portable device, and there's a ton of promise in the titles beyond the slim launch lineup. But the system also has some serious software and hardware issues on day one. We're looking at you, left Joy-Con.

As far as sales go, the Switch isn't printing money yet, but at least it's getting off to a better start than the Wii U. That means a better chance of more game developers hopping on board.

But can it run Crysis?


The Nintendo Switch has an Nvidia Tegra X1 chip inside, and Nvidia showed Crysis 3 running on that chip in the past... who knows what wonders hackers might discover when they tear into the Switch.

Any burning Nintendo Switch questions we didn't answer? Hit us up in the comments.

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