The Switch OLED represents the best version of the Nintendo Switch hardware to date.
In the four years since the launch, the core Switch hardware has received one prior refresh. The 2019 model featured a higher capacity battery and made a small change to the shape of the Joy-Cons. The Switch OLED is, largely, more of the same. It uses the same upgraded battery and maintains the more sculpted shape of the 2019 model. The other changes it makes are evolutionary in nature. Those hoping for major hardware upgrades and performance improvements will be disappointed. Everyone else will be very impressed indeed.
Lateral thinking with withered technology
If you’ll indulge me in a little video game history before we get started:
Gunpei Yokoi was one of Nintendo’s founding video game designers. His philosophy as it related to hardware was simple: always try to do more with less. He called this philosophy “Lateral thinking with withered technology,” a view he later codified in his book “Yokoi Gunpei Game House.” Yokoi held that, when designing any new video game hardware, the best course of action was to use parts that were cheap, abundant, and well understood. This worked for Nintendo because it keeps production costs low and supply plentiful. It worked for Nintendo’s developers because hardware that is well understood is easier to design for, and be creative with.
You see this philosophy at work in every Nintendo machine. Yokoi was the one that decided to eschew a colour screen on the original Game Boy as a way to extend battery life. It is still considered the key to its popularity and longevity. Even after Yokoi’s death in 1997, Nintendo has continued to embrace the philosophy of using older hardware to create new machines with unique features. Nintendo’s late president Satoru Iwata was a firm believer in Yokoi’s philosophy. The Wii was no more powerful than the Gamecube, but its motion controls were revolutionary. The Nintendo DS didn’t have the sex appeal of the PlayStation Portable, but its dual-screen LCD’s sat it astride the handheld market for a decade.
This brings us to the Switch OLED, perhaps the clearest embodiment of Yokoi’s law yet.
The Nintendo Switch OLED follows Yokoi’s philosophy to the letter. It makes only three changes to the established Switch internals — the upgraded battery, the addition of an ethernet port, and the eponymous OLED screen. If you were hoping for a more meaningful upgrade, or a Switch capable of 4K output, we regret to inform you that the wait continues.
This is not to suggest that the Switch OLED has nothing to offer. The sum total of changes it makes, from internals to chassis and port adjustments, makes it the best Switch model Nintendo has released to date by quite a way.
The first thing you’ll notice upon opening the box is the striking white case on the Joy-Cons and TV dock. The black highlights on the dock have the unintended effect of making it an aesthetic companion to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S. Though the white is nice, my sole concern is that, with time, the Joy-Cons could stain from contact with skin. I hope not, but it’s always a concern with white hardware.
On the TV dock itself, the USB port at the rear has been removed to make way for the ethernet port. With this change, the Switch finally supports a wired internet connection. An important add for those who value low and stable ping when playing online. Two USB ports remain on the side of the TV dock, so don’t sweat the loss of the rear port.
The USB-C port on the bottom of the console remains and is still primarily used for connecting the tablet to the dock. It will remain a pain to charge while travelling, but a small price to pay for this much utility.
Taking a tablet
There are several changes to the handheld unit. The kickstand, previously a feeble paddle pop stick attached to the rear of the tablet, is now a wide Surface-style aluminium blade. The range of motion on this blade is huge, allowing you to lie the Switch OLED on its back for plane travel or prop it up in the traditional Tabletop configuration. This is a vast improvement on the previous stand and will be life-changing for travellers (as regular travel returns post-Covid).
Underneath the kickstand, you’ll find the microSD port has been moved. This was previously in a vertical orientation, tucked under the kickstand stick. It’s now placed horizontally on the lower rear left, under the kickstand. Maybe it’s my giant, fat, Western fingers, but I found it harder to insert the microSD card in this new position than in the old one.
Better living through OLED
Inside the tablet, onboard storage has been increased from 32GB to 64GB. The speakers that line the lower edge of the tablet have been upgraded and sound better than ever. The CPU at the heart of the machine is still the same Nvidia Tegra X1 that powered the 2019 and 2017 models, nor has the amount of available RAM increased.
But, okay, let’s talk about that screen.
The Switch OLED expands the base hardware’s screen from 6.2 inches (15.7cm) to a full 7.0 inches (17.78cm). The bezel is now far smaller than on previous models, with the screen now occupying close to the entire face of the tablet. It still uses the same soft glass that is terribly easy to scratch, so screen protectors are still a must if you plan to travel frequently.
It’s important to note that though this is an OLED screen, that doesn’t mean the system’s overall resolution has increased. The Switch OLED outputs 1080p resolution in TV Mode and 720p resolution in handheld, same as previous models. The difference here is in colour reproduction.
The benefit of owning an OLED TV is that colour reproduction is that much better, thanks to the way OLED panels interpret black and darker tones. This allows darker or more moodily lit scenes to really pop, and creates deeper, prettier splashes of colour. Based on this, it should be clear why Nintendo chose Metroid Dread to launch alongside this new hardware. But it’s clear why Nintendo went for an OLED screen — it’s cheap to acquire, easy to implement and while it doesn’t provide a major improvement in performance, it does make every game look that little bit nicer.
I think buyer mileage will vary on the Switch OLED. As an iterative, mid-life update, the Switch OLED leaves a bit to be desired for the hardcore who are no longer asking for more powerful specs. For the first time Switch owner and those who don’t care about cutting edge 4K textures, it’s a chance to pick up the hardware at its best. Its changes are ultimately small and iterative. It will extend the Switch’s life at least another year.
If Nintendo’s current two-year iteration cycle continues, it may mean a more powerful unit is on the horizon. The Switch remains one of the most inventive and versatile home consoles on the market. It is still the home of the finest first-party games in the world, and a firehose of high-quality indie content.
It is also harder than ever for the Switch to maintain smooth performance against the competition. “Lateral thinking with withered technology” is a guiding principle that has served Nintendo well, but it only remains useful as long as the technology employed remains relevant. The question now becomes, can the Switch OLED help the rapidly aging hardware limp on for another two years?
Yokoi’s philosophy on hardware and iteration was clear. But I can’t help but wonder what he would have made of this particular scenario.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Sleek new colouring; OLED screen is gorgeous; Kickstand change rules
Lowlights: Same hardware as previous models
Price: $539.00 AUD
Available: 8 October, 2021
Review conducted using a pre-release retail model provided by the publisher.