Nintendo hit a rich vein of form with the Nintendo Switch back in 2017. A feature-packed games console in the palm of your hands – with few compromises – the original Switch remains a masterpiece in engineering with its detachable controllers, next-gen rumble and the ability to dock with your TV.
But if you’d rather spend a bit less on a console that would only ever be used in handheld mode, then your only option up until now was the comparatively underpowered Nintendo 2DS and 3DS family, which simply aren’t as impressive and don’t support the increasingly-bloated library of Nintendo’s AAA games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey.
With the recent release of the Switch Lite, however, Nintendo is finally offering a compromise. If you’re planning to reach the podium in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe without ever using your TV, and you’re fine with compromising on a few small features, then the Switch Lite could be the ideal choice.
Costing less than the original model, the Switch Lite is a handheld-only version of Nintendo’s popular games console. No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to pop it in the dock (it doesn’t fit) and play it on your TV at home. The controllers on either side of the device aren’t detachable, either, and it doesn’t have a kickstand on the back – so that means no tabletop play.
It might be immediately clear that this is a pared-down approach, but the Switch Lite isn’t bereft of benefits. The Switch Lite is more of a dedicated handheld console than the original model – it’s both lighter and small enough to fit in your jacket pocket. The 720p screen is reduced in size, of course, but only by 0.7in (it now measures 5.5in across the diagonal).
It might be smaller, but the Switch Lite is equally powerful. In fact, the core components have seen a (very) slight upgrade, with an improved Tegra X1 processor and 2GB of more efficient LPDDR4X RAM. However, as you might expect, the battery capacity has been reduced from 4,310mAh down to 3,570mAh.
As for competition, well, the Switch Lite stands alone. Sony’s PS Vita is no more, and Nintendo will likely discontinue the 2DS and 3DS family of handhelds in due course. Regardless, if you did fancy picking up one of Nintendo’s dinky dual-screen consoles, then you should be able to find a 2DS for around £80 these days.
Design and key features
Lift the Switch Lite out from the box, and it’s immediately clear that this is a very different device. Aside from the new directional pad (more on that later) the layout of physical buttons and triggers hasn’t changed much – with two analogue sticks, four face buttons and top-mounted trigger buttons – but the Switch Lite feels like an entirely different breed of handheld.
That’s mostly because of how small it is. According to my calculations, the Switch Lite is around 22% smaller in volume when compared with the 2017 model, measuring only 8.2in across the width of the device and only 4in tall. It’s the same thickness at 0.5in, however, which I suspect is due to the near-identical arrangement of internal components.
This reduction in size makes a huge difference when it comes to portability. It allows you to slip your Switch Lite into your jacket pocket – poking out just a little – and can be placed in carry-on luggage without taking up too much space, even with a case. The latter of which is particularly beneficial for the jet-setting tech journalist with time to spare on a long-haul flight.
Speaking of which, the Switch Lite won’t tire your arms out quite as quickly during lengthy gaming sessions, either. That’s because it weighs only 275g, or 31% less than the normal Nintendo Switch.
Nintendo has managed to do this, not only by reducing the size of the device, but also by constructing the chassis out of a lighter plastic, rather than the metal body of the original. It may not look as sturdy, but the Switch Lite feels much nicer in the hands than I anticipated, with the matte, textured plastic chassis adding a reassuring level of grippiness. If you did manage to drop it, however, it seems built well enough that it might bounce back without a scratch – although that's still something you should try and avoid.
The 720p screen may be smaller, but it looks just as good to my eyes – producing bright, punchy colours that appear to leap right out of the display, with a decent level of brightness. I was unable to fully test the screen using our display colorimeter – the Switch still doesn’t have a web browser – but I’m confident that whatever game you throw at it, things will look as good as can be.
One weird difference between the two versions, however, is that there’s no auto-brightness setting for the Switch Lite’s screen. This isn’t a major problem, of course, and you can still adjust the brightness by using the on-screen slider, but it seems Nintendo has ditched the front-facing ambient light sensor with this model, for whatever reason.
The controls on either side of the Switch Lite’s screen might be fused to the device this time around, but they remain comfortable to use. The rear trigger and shoulder buttons feel a bit cramped, but not massively so, although the new left-side directional pad is a huge improvement over the original.
While we’re at it, I might as well talk about the dreaded stick-drift issues that have been plaguing the Joy-Con controllers on the original Switch. This is a problem where the analogue stick gets stuck in a certain position – affecting in-game movement – and things have apparently become so bad that a class-action lawsuit has been taken out against Nintendo.
Alas, there have been early reports that the Switch Lite’s sticks are facing the same problems – the hardware, aside from the lack of IR and rumble, apparently remains unchanged – although this isn’t something I’ve experienced during the last week or so, but please do bear this in mind if you’re thinking about picking one up.
One more thing to note is that the Switch Lite doesn’t have a kickstand on the back. This means you won’t be able to play in tabletop mode if you wanted to and although you can pair external Bluetooth controllers, this would be a bit of a faff to set up and besides, the smaller screen might make it a bit tricky anyway.
My biggest problem with the Switch Lite – and the original Switch for that matter – is the lack of support for Bluetooth headphones. You can still use the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the handheld, like you can with the normal model, but if you’ve invested in a decent pair of wireless headphones like I have, then you might be sorely disappointed.
Hardware and performance
Just before we move on to how the device performs, it’s about time we discuss the Switch Lite’s lack of video output. This isn’t a problem for someone like me, who only ever uses the Switch in handheld mode, but if you’re the sociable sort who regularly plays couch co-op games on the TV, then you won’t be able to do this with the Switch Lite.
Of course, this means that the Switch Lite is the first-ever Switch that doesn’t, erm, switch. You can charge your console via the USB Type-C port, but there’s absolutely no way you can successfully plug it in to your TV.
The Switch Lite is also limited in the number of games it supports. Because you can’t unmount the controllers, motion-based games such as Mario Party and 1-2-Switch aren’t supported on the base device, although you can get around this by pairing an extra set of regular Joy-Con controllers if you wish.
That’s enough about what the Switch Lite can’t do, it’s now time to discuss what it can do. For starters, the Switch Lite still has a gyroscope and accelerometer – allowing you to fine-tune your aiming in games such as Breath of the Wild – and you can also expand the system’s 32GB of on-board storage up to a further 400GB via microSD.
The Switch Lite is powered by a slightly newer version of Nvidia’s Tegra X1 processor – codenamed ‘Mariko’ – which was first seen in the refreshed model of the original Switch earlier in the year. This new chip is built using a smaller 16nm fabrication process, rather than the original 20nm architecture, and is more power-efficient as a result.
While gaming performance seems to be identical – both consoles delivered a reasonably stable 30fps in Doom 2016 and Astral Chain – the Switch Lite’s battery life is ever-so-slightly improved, despite the 20% smaller battery.
Nintendo suggests that you should be able to squeeze out up to seven hours of use on a single charge, depending on the game, compared to the original Switch’s 6.5-hour battery life under the same conditions. This certainly feels similar to my own experiences with the console – after a two-hour flight slaying pesky Bokoblins in The Legend of Zelda Link’s Awakening at max screen brightness, the Switch Lite dropped to 72% from full.
That’s very impressive for such a small device, but this isn’t the longest-lasting Switch available. As I mentioned earlier, the new Nintendo Switch – starting with the model number HAD – also uses the improved Tegra X1 chip, and can reach up to nine hours of play on a single charge. If you’re willing to spend an extra £80, then this is the model to get.
With that, we’ve finally reached the main problem with the Switch Lite. Depending on your preferences, the price differences simply aren’t big enough to justify the lack of features, and if you’re not like me and want to play Zelda on the big screen, then you’re going to want to fork out the extra dosh for the proper model.
However, if you are (unfortunately) like me and only ever use the Switch while you’re out and about, then the Switch Lite represents the very best handheld console that Nintendo has ever brought to market. The new design is far better suited for on-the-go gaming sessions, it’s equally as powerful and the slightly improved battery life over the original version is also a big plus.
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