Nintendo Switch Lite review: handheld gaming that's difficult to resist

Mobile magic.

Who would have believed it? The Switch that cannot actually switch is an absolute triumph - a pared back rendition of the hardware that demonstrates quite spectacularly that beyond the hybrid console functionality that defined the system, this was always a handheld at its core - and a brilliant one at that. Yes, the new model is cheaper, pared back, significantly simplified and missing some nice features, but there's the sense that having settled upon a dedicated handheld companion product, Nintendo aimed to make it the best it could possibly be. Is it perfect? No. Is it worth buying? Absolutely.

The simplicity of the Lite is perfectly summed up when you first open the box. Beyond some supporting cardboard, the contents consist of the console, the power supply and a flimsy manual - and that's it. Compared to the standard Switch with its additional Joy-Cons, grip, Joy-Con straps, dock and cables, you immediately get the sense that this is a no-nonsense, zero fuss alternative. It's not trying to dazzle you with clever new ideas - it's a handheld console, plain and simple.

Lift out Switch Lite from the packaging and it's immediately apparent that this isn't a re-run of the cheap-but-robust almost agricultural 'handheld for kids' formula we saw with the 2DS line: this is a small, light, beautifully designed device - the decent-quality matte plastics aren't premium grade but the device still feels great in the hands. When you first power up the machine, it's difficult not to be smitten: the screen may be smaller, but it's pin-sharp, bright and beautiful.

From a glass full empty perspective, the handheld focus and cheaper design does mean that you're losing functionality. Even though it would have been simplicity to add - and I suspect it may be included at some point - the USB-C port lacks docking support, meaning that even if you wanted to add TV support, you can't (and to be clear, the unit won't even fit into the standard dock anyway). No kickstand also means no tabletop play if, say, you own a Pro controller. The good news is that the USB-C port still has data transfer support, meaning that USB peripherals work just fine - it's just the video output that's been cut.

Finally, being a dedicated handheld, there are no detachable Joy-Cons - standard controls are part and parcel of the package and to be honest, that's the way I prefer it. Fewer moving parts means less that can go wrong and a proper, classic Nintendo d-pad is restored into the bargain. However, this does mean that games using HD rumble, the IR pointer or Joy-Con motion controls are ruled out. You can wirelessly pair Joy-Cons if you want - you just won't be able to charge them. The only other cut-back I noticed is that the screen's auto-brightness adjustment feature is gone, suggesting that the sensor used in the original Switch is also absent in the Lite.

Having covered everything the Lite can't do, we should focus on what it does actually deliver - and that begins with the cute form-factor. In terms of dimensions and volume, Switch Lite is 22 per cent smaller than the standard model (thickness is essentially unchanged) but what really sets it apart is how light it is: at 275g, it's 123g lighter than the vanilla Switch with Joy-Cons attached and 31 per cent lighter overall. The simplified design and controllers go a long way in miniaturising the device, but the Lite also uses the new T210b01 rendition of the Tegra X1 processor - codenamed Mariko - which is a smaller, cooler and more power-efficient rendition of the original chip.

Power draw can be 40 to 50 per cent lower than the original Switch processor, so Nintendo takes the opportunity to reduce battery capacity - a key component in shrinking the form factor. The 4310mAh/16Wh battery of the standard Switch is miniaturised to 3570mAh/13.6Wh - a 15 per cent reduction. The good news is that the Mariko processor - backed up by more efficient LPDDR4X memory - more than makes up for this shortfall in battery capacity. While the Lite can't hold a candle to the revised Mariko Switch, it still lasts longer than the original model.

Using our standard Zelda: Breath of the Wild power consumption test, Switch Lite lasts 16 per cent longer than the original model at 50 per cent screen brightness, rising to 28 per cent longer with the brightness slider pushed all the way to the max. These are impressive figures, but the lower battery capacity also means good news for recharging too. While the Switch Lite is still slow to charge, the fact is that it gets you back to full capacity 45 minutes faster than the original model. As it's USB-C based in terms of charging, external power banks still work just fine for extended play sessions.

mariko
Launch Switch power consumption vs new Switch (not the Lite) - 13.3W vs 7.0W. It illustrates the new processor's efficiency and how the Lite can last longer than the OG model with a smaller battery.
Switch Lite HDH-001 New Switch HAC-001(-01) Original Switch HAC-001
Battery Life: 50% Screen Brightness 3hrs, 35mins (215 mins) 5hrs, 2mins (302 mins) 3hrs, 5mins (185 mins)
Battery Life: 100% Screen Brightness 3hrs, 5mins (185 mins) 4hrs, 18.5mins (258.5 mins) 2hrs, 25mins (145 mins)
Battery Charging: 0-100% 2hrs, 17mins (137 mins) 3hrs, 3mins (183 mins) 3hrs, 1mins (181 mins)

There's good news on the thermal side too. A smaller device running the same processor at the same clocks as a larger equivalent - the new HAC-001(-01) model - is more likely to retain heat. However, the Switch Lite pulls off a neat trick: while the vent is marginally hotter, the actual skin of the machine itself is actually cooler to the touch based on measurements from a thermal camera.

Nintendo hasn't been able to deliver a passively cooled Switch - there is still an active fan within - but even after a sustained stress test running a demanding game with the screen at max brightness and with the battery charging, the device was still silent to the point where even placing the vent directly to my ear, I couldn't hear a thing. In fact, discerning whether the fan was active at all took extreme measures: I couldn't feel anything by running my fingertips over the vent. Only by licking my laps (more sensitive than fingertips!) and placing them near the exhaust could I feel any movement of air at all.

Switch Lite is stacking up well so far, then. If you're looking for a machine with more sustained battery life, the revised version of the original model is the one to get, but the Lite still has better stamina than the launch machine - especially so if you run with ramped up display brightness. This suggests a much more efficient screen, as well as a less thirsty processor.

Switch Lite HDH-001 New Switch HAC-001(-01) Original Switch HAC-001
Max Skin Temperature (Undocked) 43°C 46°C 46°C
Max Vent Temperature (Undocked) 48°C 46°C 48°C
Max Vent Temperature (Docked) - 50°C 54°C

As for the screen itself - it's a bit of a gem. Obviously, it's smaller than the original Switch's display at 5.5 inches vs the 6.2 inch original, and it also loses some contrast compared to other models in that colours don't feel quite as rich, while blacks don't seem to be quite as black. However, there is the sense that it's the brightest screen of the bunch (that I have available at least) and while it may be a temperature adjustment compared to the other models, the white point certainly looks more 'properly' white than either of my other units.

The slight yellow tint of my original Switch is not present, while the very obvious red shift in my Mariko-equipped 'new' Switch is totally gone. Screen photography can be a little tricky, but the shot below is a pretty good representation of how my trio of Nintendo handhelds compare in terms of their displays when stacked up side by side. All three images are derived from the same photograph, so you can get some idea of how the display differ, as well as how much real estate you're losing on the Lite compared to the established design.

In Digital Foundry software reviews, we've often looked upon the Switch more as a high-end handheld as opposed to a do-it-all, take anywhere home console. Mobile is what the core technology was designed for and where it works best, while the integrated screen has an almost magical ability in helping to make the necessary technical compromises required to run on Tegra X1 look less noticeable. Obviously, with Switch Lite, the smaller area and identical resolution could, in theory, help even further with that effect: the new model has a 267ppi screen vs the 236ppi of the original - it's smaller, but detail is more dense. Well, this one is difficult to nail down but even with heavily blurred dynamic scaling titles like Wolfenstein and Hellblade, there is some sense of extra clarity. The pin-sharp native 720p titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Zelda: Breath of the Wild certainly look fantastic with a 1:1 pixel match.

screencomp3
Screen comparison: Launch model (top-left), extended battery revision (bottom-left), Switch Lite (right).

Performance-wise, it's difficult to test the Switch Lite in the way we could test other versions of the console in that HDMI output is not available. However, the same processor and tweaked memory is in the revised model, and in that review, I noted how the Mariko Switch has a very small performance advantage in what looked like memory bandwidth limited gameplay scenarios. From what I understand, the new LPDDR4X memory is rated for 2133MHz and downclocked to match the older model and as a consequence of that, latency timings on the RAM may be tighter, which may explain the small boost.

With no access to our usual tools, I filmed the Switch Lite playing a Mortal Kombat 11 replay, where the advantage of the Mariko set-up vs the original Logan model can be repeated at will based on identical gameplay. What's interesting about MK11 is that rather than skip frames, replays literally slow down. By extension, filming the screen and comparing the length of the replay and associated stutter points on the OG Switch confirms that whatever the nature is of the new model's slight performance upgrade, it does extend to the Lite as well.

In conclusion, it's very difficult to level much criticism at Switch Lite - Nintendo's miniaturisation effort has paid off handsomely with a cheaper, cut-back machine that still ranks as one of the best handhelds I've ever used. It's nicely put together with a brilliant screen and arguably, it possesses a more agreeable portable form-factor than its siblings. If there's one negative point beyond the lacklustre WiFi, it would be reserved for the ABXY button cluster. Similar to the standard Switch, the buttons are tiny and sit very closely together. With a blank sheet of paper in design terms, perhaps this could have been improved. Additionally, while we would want to verify this ourselves, the recent news that the Switch Lite's analogue sticks may well have the same 'drifting' issue as the original Joy-Cons is also concerning.

Beyond these nit-picks and concerns about the nature of the sticks, Switch Lite is a lovely handheld. I'm not sure I can remember wholeheartedly recommending an offshoot device that actually strips back the initial offering and removes features, but for my money, Switch Lite still feels like a whole, complete product at a great price-point. It works because it focuses on one aspect of the overall experience and for my money, it's the most crucial one - handheld gaming. Which Switch to buy depends very much on the extent to which living room play is important to you but beyond Digital Foundry work, I've always played Switch titles exclusively in handheld mode. And given a choice between the original model and the Lite for portable play, it's the smaller, cuter unit that I'd prefer to game with.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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