Feature Article

Nintendo Switch OLED Is For Handheld Players With Commitment Issues

The new Switch OLED isn't the massive hardware upgrade many hoped, but it seems like a perfect fit for handheld players like me who weren't swayed by the Switch Lite.

Nintendo's announcement of a new Switch OLED model was met with more of a whimper than a bang, judging by the reaction of many on the internet. Perhaps expectations had been bloated by the months of reports and rumors suggesting that this new model would be a significant power upgrade. Maybe after four years with the Nintendo Switch, fans are just itching for a bigger splash. For whatever reason, the modest feature upgrade isn't the game-changer that many Switch users (or prospective owners) hoped for. But as a handheld player who has never felt comfortable committing to the Switch Lite, it looks to be the perfect fit for my use-case.

The Switch OLED's upgrades are undoubtedly minimal. The simple fact that Nintendo is naming it after its biggest new feature--the new, slightly larger OLED screen--should show that this is more of a step than a leap. It packs some other improvements, like a better kickstand, more internal storage, and a LAN port built into the dock. None are exactly earth-shattering, especially when compared to expectations that a new Switch would bring performance upgrades including the ability to output to 4K. A real "Switch Pro" upgrade with 4K support and a faster processor may still be coming, but this isn't it. And while a technical upgrade would be welcome as some games have shown poorly against the hardware's limitations, the OLED model feels like a welcome upgrade until that theoretical newer model shows up.

I've always treated the Nintendo Switch as a handheld system. I can probably count the number of times I've docked it on both hands, and it's never stayed docked for long. This habit made the Nintendo Switch Lite a tempting proposition: A smaller form factor and bright colors looked like a fun way to keep playing my Switch library in a method more akin to my long history with Nintendo handhelds.

At the same time, I was always held back by a nagging doubt. Would I miss the option to dock the system on the rare occasion that I want to? What if my kids want to play multiplayer games on the big screen with me? Would I be missing out? I never did pick up a Switch Lite because those questions made me perpetually afraid to take the plunge. I didn't want to cut off access to the Switch's namesake feature. I wanted an upgrade that catered to me as a handheld player but didn't lock me into it.

I will admit to a certain degree of tech lust. I'm the type of person who happily followed Nintendo through various DS and then 3DS upgrades. This probably makes me Nintendo's ideal customer--the 30-something with disposable income, childlike affection for Mario and Pikachu, and a high degree of temptation toward the shiny and new. So part of my lingering desire for a Switch Lite was simply that I wanted the newest thing, but what held me back was that it didn't really suit my needs.

The Switch OLED, by comparison, appears to find that balance much more cohesively. It's slightly larger and heavier, but by such a small margin that I doubt I'd ever notice. The screen upgrade will be appreciated, and I love the new white/black color scheme. The built-in LAN port is a nice-to-have for when I want to dock the system, but more importantly, the upgrade doesn't negate my ability to dock the system. I still have the option to switch with my Switch.

I wanted an upgrade that catered to me as a handheld player but didn't lock me into it.

The Switch OLED isn't right for everyone. Obviously, if you treat it as a console first and foremost, the major marquee new feature is essentially meaningless to you. This system is targeted toward handheld players, and more precisely, toward ones like me who still want to dock their systems. Nintendo's account data from 2017 showed that 30% of Switch owners played in handheld mode more than 80% of the time. By comparison, 20% played in dock mode 80+% of the time, so there's a relatively small but still significant difference in system use. And naturally, this is old data, so the breakdown may have changed since then--especially with the flurry of new adopters last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, if we assume the numbers are still roughly accurate, it's easy to see why Nintendo is putting out this new model. With more than 80 million Switch systems sold, an upgrade that appeals to roughly 30% amounts to tens of millions of potential customers. In fact, that 2017 data may have influenced Nintendo's decision to release the Switch Lite in 2019. By all accounts, the Switch Lite is doing fine for itself, but Nintendo must see an open market opportunity that it didn't reach with the handheld-only model. The internet's reaction to the Switch OLED may have been muted, but the impact on sales almost definitely will not be--particularly when considering the higher price tag.

So, assuming I can find one--an open question if there ever was one, given recent trends in hardware shortages--I'll be satisfied with a modestly upgraded Nintendo Switch. It feels aimed squarely at me, as a handheld player who never felt fully comfortable committing to handheld-only forever and ever.

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Steve Watts

Steve Watts has loved video games since that magical day he first saw Super Mario Bros. at his cousin's house. He's been writing about games as a passion project since creating his own GeoCities page, and has been reporting, reviewing, and interviewing in a professional capacity for 14 years. He is GameSpot's preeminent expert on Hearthstone, a title no one is particularly fighting him for, but he'll claim it anyway.

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