Switch Lite -- What Nintendo's Hardware Refreshes Tell Us About Switch's Future

Switching it up again.

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Now Playing: Nintendo Switch Lite Release Date And Price Announced - GS News Update

Nintendo has announced the Switch Lite, a smaller and lighter model that lacks the TV docking mode. That makes this version of the Switch a dedicated handheld, similar to Nintendo's long legacy with the Game Boy, DS, and 3DS. Hardware revisions have become a regular practice for Nintendo's handheld systems, for a variety of reasons. To glean why, and what this might mean for the future of the Nintendo Switch, we can take a look back at Nintendo's history of hardware revisions. [Update: In addition to the Lite, Nintendo has also announced a new Switch with better battery life.]

From Game Boy to 2DS Lite

The Game Boy, Nintendo's first dedicated handheld hardware (setting aside the Game & Watch), was followed by both the Game Boy Pocket and the Game Boy Color. The first was a revision to the form factor, while the second added color functionality lacking from the original and was backwards compatible with existing Game Boy games. The Game Boy Advance similarly was followed by the Game Boy Advance SP, which added a much-needed backlight, and the ultra-tiny Game Boy Micro.

The clunky first iteration of the Nintendo DS was then followed by the much more popular DS Lite. Nintendo followed that with the DSi, targeted at the emerging online marketplace, and finally the DSi XL with larger screens.

Nintendo's latest handheld system, the 3DS, has had the most hardware revisions of any system--in part because it split into a separate "2DS" line with its own iterations. The original 3DS was followed by the 2DS and a big-screen XL model. Confusingly, though, the system iterations also started branding themselves as "New." This left three more revisions: the New Nintendo 3DS, the New Nintendo 3DS XL and the New 2DS XL. The New 2DS is the latest iteration, though it notably ditches the flat system design of the original 2DS in favor of the clam-shell design of the other 3DS models.

Better, Stronger, Faster

The rationales behind these various hardware revisions were numerous. Some, like the Game Boy Pocket and 3DS XL, were revisions to the overall form factor without many notable changes to functionality. Others were clearly designed to reach some degree of feedback or market demand, like the GBA SP's backlit screen or the DSi's online marketplace. And some, like the original 2DS, are built more heartily and budget-priced to appeal to families who may have younger players.

One common factor remains the same throughout all of the revisions, though. By introducing a steady stream of revised hardware, Nintendo has been able to maintain or even increase sales while older models are starting to reach their saturation point. Whether by attracting repeat customers who want to trade up for new features, or expanding the market to new players, hardware revisions have consistently been a sales driver for Nintendo.

Peaks and Valleys

Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad responded to the Nintendo Switch Lite news on Twitter by publishing a pair of sales charts for DS and 3DS models. The first shows the original DS model peaking in its second year, and almost immediately becoming fully overtaken by the much more successful DS Lite. The Lite ruled the DS roost for three straight years, before becoming overtaken by the DSi. The DSi XL, by comparison, mostly kept pace with its non-XL version. In each case, we can see how the models begin to dip just as another lines up to replace it in the market, keeping the top-line sales of all units combined relatively consistent over a long period of time.

Image credit: Niko Partners
Image credit: Niko Partners

The 3DS shows a similar trajectory. Though the original model of 3DS was much more successful than the original DS, the 3DS XL helped supplement it just as it began to drop. In fact, thanks to a wider array of different models--six instead of four--the top-line sales on 3DS models remains even more consistent, though not reaching the high highs of the DS models.

Image credit: Niko Partners
Image credit: Niko Partners

Switch Lite And Beyond

The Nintendo Switch Lite is an unusual hardware revision, largely because it abandons a central part of the system's identity. The ability to "switch" between TV-docked and handheld modes was the main pitch for this console, to the point that it's even named after it. This makes the revision most closely analogous to the 2DS, which stripped out the 3D functionality of the 3DS. Also, the 2DS did not replace the former models like some hardware revisions, but began its own line. Nintendo hasn't given any indication that the Switch Lite signals a change to a portable-only future for the console, and a high-end model is still rumored to be on the way.

It may also be similar to the 2DS in that it's smaller and looks more solid. A hands-on report claimed the controllers are less "creaky" since they can't detach. All this would seemingly make it a good fit for younger players. This is especially relevant as Pokemon Sword and Shield approaches, and it's no coincidence that Nintendo is putting out a special Switch Lite model to match.

However, while Nintendo never admitted as such, the stripping out of 3D from the 2DS appeared like a tacit acknowledgement that its gamble on 3D hadn't panned out. The feature was widely regarded as inconsistent and Nintendo may have had research data that showed it going underused. It's difficult to say if the Switch Lite is a response to market trends. In a financial presentation from March 2018, Nintendo reported almost 30% of users playing primarily in handheld mode, as compared to less than 20% playing primarily in docked mode.

Time To First Hardware Revision (Earliest Territory)

  • Game Boy to Game Boy Pocket: 104 months
  • Nintendo DS to DS Lite: 16 months
  • Nintendo 3DS to 3DS XL: 17 months
  • Nintendo Switch to Switch Lite: 30 months

In terms of timing, the Nintendo Switch is now two years old. That puts this hardware revision slightly later in the Switch lifespan than the DS Lite and 3DS XL's first revisions. Switch sales were slightly down in the most recent fiscal quarter reporting, so like its predecessors, the Switch Lite appears primed to pick up the slack. If Nintendo continues its trends from prior generations, though, we're likely to see more revisions, possibly including one as early as next year, and then a steady stream of others following for nearly a decade. The original Nintendo Switch is reportedly getting a subtle update to some internal components as well.

If the Switch Lite signals a 3DS/2DS split, the company could alternate between revisions to the portable-only "Lite" line and the main console hybrid line. Either way, don't expect this to be the last Nintendo Switch.

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