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Is the Nintendo Switch better as a console or a handheld?

​Commentary: Nintendo big and small, or, my curious time with the Switch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Nintendo Switch is the idea I've wanted for years: a Nintendo handheld that's also a console. It docks in front of a TV, and it's a regular couch-friendly game thing. Unpark it, and now it's a travel system.

Yes, the Switch is a handheld and a console. But is it more of a handheld, or more of a console? Does that question even matter? The funny thing is, it does a little bit. It's the first device in a while that's made me wonder what its best use case is.

Using it sometimes makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland, trying to get to the right size. Sometimes I felt curiously cramped. Other times, everything felt too big. I don't know if I'll travel with it, or if it will stay parked in the Switch dock. After a couple of weeks in, here are my observations.

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Size: More like the iPad than the 3DS or PS Vita.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A big handheld

The Switch has a 6.2-inch screen. That's the same as a Wii U GamePad, but the actual device is far smaller and thinner. Just to give you a sense of scale, the iPhone 7 Plus has a 5.5-inch screen.

The Switch feels a lot bigger than a phone, though, because its sizable bezels are added to with side-mounted controllers. It's actually the same length as an iPad Air 2 (9.4 inches). In my hands, it sometimes feels close to an iPad Mini.

Why do tablets like the iPad bother me less? Maybe because I treat it more like a laptop. Also, I tend to use it in my lap, versus as a handheld. A company called Gamevice makes a controller add-on for the iPhone and iPad that felt a lot like the Switch, and I never used it. It felt too big for me.

I need a special bag to bring an iPad around. Same with the Nintendo Switch. It's not pocket-friendly, not by a long shot.

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The Vita used to seem big.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Does that matter? Well, I used to think the PlayStation Vita was too big. That's nothing compared to the Switch. The Nintendo 3DS XL is somewhat big, but it folds up. It can go in my jacket pocket.

The Switch is something I'd need to have a little elbow room to play. As far as a portable system goes, it's basically an alternative to having an iPad. And, it has a fair amount of gear.

I usually end up taking all the accessories, just in case: My backpack currently contains the Switch, the AC adapter, those slide-on hand grips, and the grip connector to allow the Joy-Cons to become a stand-alone game controller. All that gear means a bag to carry it all. I feel a bit like a teenager going to my friend's house with my NES.

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With Grandpa Wii and Great-Grandpa GameCube (left).

James Martin/CNET

A small console

The weird thing is that, when docked, the Switch gets small again. It's more Apple TV than PlayStation 4. It's about the size of Sony's breakout box for the PlayStation VR.

And, in console mode, the Switch isn't as effortless as a PS4 or Xbox One. Some Joy-Con controllers don't have great Bluetooth range -- mine were fine in a small living room. Wi-Fi range isn't as good, on my device. There's no Ethernet port on the back, though you could connect a USB adapter. And the system has a complete lack of any streaming video services, making it useless (for now) as a way to watch movies and shows.

The Joy-Con controllers are marvels of miniature design, full of useful buttons. But they're right on the borderline of being uncomfortable. Snap them into the included grip and they make a decent game controller. But the buttons are pretty closely packed together.

Held apart like Wii remotes, the included slide-on grips feel necessary because they add enough width to make them feel substantial. The Pro controller, which I've used, comes closest to a regular game controller in feel.

In console mode, the whole experience reminds me of using Nvidia's Shield Tablet, which did similar switching years ago. It works, but it's not entirely the same as a super hardcore game system.

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That screen gets really small in this mode.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A super tiny tabletop system

In tabletop kickstand mode, the Switch stands on its own (sort of) and I can use controllers to play it like a mini game system, almost like a Vectrex or those old mini arcades from the 80s. I absolutely love this idea: I was obsessed with the Vectrex as a kid. And I loved the novelty arcade tabletop iPad accessories that turned your tablet into an arcade cabinet.

It's a great idea in theory. In practice, that 6.2-inch screen ends up feeling small. If I'm playing with someone else, we both have to lean forward. Some games, like Just Dance, are nearly unplayable this way. If I back up more than a couple of feet I can't see anything on the screen. Snipperclips and Super Bomberman R work well in a pinch, but require squinting. Split-screen games like Fast RMX are a hint at where Mario Kart 8 will run into challenges: that small screen becomes really hard to play on.

Using each little Joy-Con like a cramped but functional travel mini controller works, but barely. And putting up with the tiny controllers takes patience. Held on their side, the Joy-Con buttons feel all mashed together, too cramped.

Some games require button remapping in odd ways: With only one Joy-Con, Fast RMX makes me press in on the analog stick to get turbo, which I needed the control menu to figure out. And the quad of buttons on each controller, when flipped sideways, means sideways lettering and new layouts. "X" is not in the same position as where "X" is vertically. Obviously, that's like a Wii Remote. But the Joy-Con juggles far more buttons than the Wii Remote did.

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So which is it?

So far, I use the Switch mostly in handheld mode, out of convenience. I dock it when playing anything multiplayer. And I stay away from tabletop mode whenever possible, because it's too hard to see anything.

The Switch is a completely portable marvel of miniature multimode gaming, and almost feels like the Microsoft Surface of game consoles. It'll undoubtedly make other companies explore multimode types of modular hardware, and explore ways of making it happen. But the Switch is so big as a handheld that it feels more like an iPad than a phone. I commute with it. I backpack with it. I'm not sure I'd take it everywhere I took the 3DS.

The fact that it works is amazing. Except, I'm still not sold on it as a two-player travel gadget, because that screen works better when held closer.

But with a screen this big, will I still want to take it around on trips and commuting in a few months? Or will I just carry it from room to room, like a disembodied Wii U gamepad? After about two weeks, I still can't figure it out.

I have a feeling I won't be the only one to wonder. What about you?