With the Nintendo Switch not seeing a predecessor (at least any time soon), its design will be a hard one to surpass.
Before I get into the reason why the Switch is the best designed console, I wanted to break down what a console is. I know… I know… we already know this, but as a designer, I like to break things down. One of the easiest things for a designer to do is lose their way, and that’s because you forget what you’re designing for. That philosophy is the same with a game console; you start building features, add technology and you forget what the thing you’re building was originally for.
So, a game console, it’s a box that plays video games in a sort of plug and play method. You don’t have to worry about compatibility, downloading drivers for things like controllers or cameras and the main focus on the box is gaming. You can have added features, but it should never diverge from that main focus…the gaming experience. Friends list, chat, online store, rating systems, etc… can all be part of that gaming experience.
When we start to leave this realm is where game consoles are going now. They’re feature-rich, media boxes that are built behind streaming services and advertisement platforms. They’re still doing a good job of game focus first, with Sony splitting games and media for a much better user experience and design, but Microsoft going all in on that ‘gaming as an experience’ feature, where you’re not quite sure how to navigate or play your game interface.
We’re also a generation of mobile first individuals who understand touch UI and expect it so much, that infants are trying to expand images on physical magazines and purchasing a laptop without a touchscreen, is a bit weird in today’s market. Even the UI of the XBOX series and the PlayStation 5 dashboard lends itself well towards a touch screen setup.
So now, with all that out of the way… The Nintendo Switch. Let’s break down why it’s the best designed console ever…
The Nintendo Switch is a handheld console first and a couch console first. Yeah, you read that right. The designers at Nintendo built a perfect “Play it your way” console. It’s truly, a no compromise system with the only issue being, if you have larger hands, you may get cramps with extended handheld play, but there are peripherals that will help with that.
This isn’t the first time this layout was utilized in game consoles, but they’ve always been handheld focused with the exception of the Sega Nomad as perhaps the only console that tried this same setup.
The layout is precisely designed to give a gamer the best handheld experience while not compromising the docked layout. The speakers are forward facing, built within the tablet and out of the way from your hands. Even the iPhone has issues with this, as if you try to play a game, you’re probably covering up a speaker.
The power button is recessed and out of the way just enough that you can’t accidently hit it and while the volume rocker is right next to it, the touch and texture design, is defined enough that you don’t have to look at it to know if you’re pressing the volume up or down. I do wish the game card slot flap were more rigid and the headphone jack was towards the bottom, but I do understand why they went this route; to accommodate the kick stand. Which is a very smart dual-purpose mechanism that also hides the micro sd card slot.
And finally, the ventilation pulls air from the back, and pushes it out through the top (away from your face) so while the Nintendo Switch does get hot, it never gets too hot and you’re not getting a face full of hot air every time you play.
The controllers are just as impressive as and somewhat rival that of the original Wii Remote reveal. Which, we’ll have to go into the evolution of the Switch and how every Nintendo handheld and console were basically an amalgamation of the Switch. But getting back to the controllers, the Joy-Cons are versatile, with about 4 ways to hold them this is another design choice of, “Play it your way.” Connected to the Switch, detached in both hands, with only one Joy-Con and in a specially designed dock to feel like a more traditional controller. And they all pretty much work. Again, I’ll say if you have large hands, the flat design is not the most comfortable thing in the world, but that’s where the detachable system comes into play. There has been a cottage industry of third-party controllers that vary in shape, size, and technology. While not officially coming from Nintendo, there are numerous Joy-Cons released by third party companies which are licensed, by Nintendo.
And let’s talk about that dock. Maybe the weakest part about the system, the dock for as low tech as it is, is a great design. It cradles the Switch perfectly and with absolutely zero things to turn on or connect (minus that initial installation). The system even knows when it’s docked and just switches to an HDMI signal for your TV.
The sound… no, I’m not talking about the speakers, (which are actually pretty good, given the size of this device) I’m talking about the click sound when you connect the controllers. It’s very satisfying and Nintendo marketing does play with it, enough to know it was designed that way. While the next post will cover the software, I did want to mention how, when the system is on, it will do the snap sound when you connect a Joy-Con to the tablet. I do think sound design of hardware is usually overlooked, but as someone who loves the sound of mechanical keyboards, this was a nice feature.
The system also went back to cartridges. I know… I know… carts? But as we move forward with faster load times and larger games, Discs are finally (N64) becoming obsolete. And I mention the N64, because one of the ideas was, it was a solid-state system, so essentially no or short loading times. Just look at a PS1 game trying to load into a level and an N64 game loading into a level. Even with Blu-ray and faster drives, modern consoles are trying to make you live that digital-only life and for good reason. They can stream the game faster within the console if there are no moving parts.
How The Switch is Different
This all fits within the design language of the hardware and with that whole idea from the beginning, what is a game console? It feels like the hardware designers at Nintendo, never strayed from that one question. We’ve seen third party consoles come out like the GDP WIN line, which are great systems, but try to be more than just a gaming console. We have seen handheld systems like the Vita trying to be a console counterpart but not having the hardware features to match it. But I think the worst contender to this (At no fault to the hardware designers) is mobile gaming. Mobile gaming hit the design wall with a sledgehammer.
While technically, mobile games are very impressive and the devices you can play them on are capable, you never had that one thing most involved games require. Precise controls. Now they’ve tried this with the Nokia N-Gage and third-party controller support, but then you’re adding something, your syncing, your downloading software, your purchasing bridge devices to create a console gaming experience. The issue is the form factor of that original design has changed. These phones were never meant to have a controller attached to them, all the time. You need to purchase specialty cases, worry about out of sync firmware or worn-out connectors over time. Some don’t even have passthrough devices and essentially block a way for you to power your phone.
With the Switch, it truly is a portable gaming console matching a couch console system. It is, its own ecosystem. It was designed for this purpose. You can take your games on the go and play them at a friend’s house, on a bus, pretty much anywhere, and that session is unbroken when at home and playing on a big screen TV. And that’s where we get into the Nintendo Switch lite. But that’s a post of its own.
Let me know in the comments what you think about the Switch’s hardware design. Do you think it’s the best designed console of all time? Or did I miss something? And if you’re interested, check out my opinions on the PlayStation 5 design and if industrial design matters for game consoles.