It’s incredible to fathom, but the Nintendo Switch is fast approaching five full years on the market. Launching in between mid-gen refreshes from completing console platforms, the Switch opted for versatility over technical prowess and that strategy proved to be a winner, catapulting it to huge success across the globe. Fast forward to now though and with both PlayStation and Xbox crossing over into a brand new generation, the Switch is starting to feel a little longer in the tooth. For the time being, Nintendo seems to be sticking to its guns from a raw power perspective, but it does at least have something of a hardware refresh for the 2021 holiday season in the Nintendo Switch (OLED Model).
Thanks to Nintendo Australia we’ve been lucky enough to have the OLED Model in our hands for the last couple of weeks to determine whether this is a must-buy new system or a mostly skippable update.
Let’s get the important bit out of the way first – the Nintendo Switch (OLED Model) does not represent any kind of shift in the Switch’s internal processing capabilities. There has been a bump in its internal flash storage up to 64GB and there may or may not be undisclosed tweaks to the components in use, but games on the OLED Model won’t play any better, faster or sharper than before. This means that, aside from a networking update that we’ll cover later on, the experience of playing the Switch on a TV hasn’t changed whatsoever. Even the Joy-Con controllers, long a point of contention due to their tendency to fault, are exactly the same as they’ve always been (slick new white variant aside).
Where the OLED Model differs, and it’s obvious given the name, is the console’s shiny new OLED display. It’s slightly bigger, coming in at seven inches – 0.8″ larger than the original – but more importantly it’s a massive step up in image quality in much the same way an OLED television tops a traditional LCD TV. It’s the single biggest selling point of this refreshed model, so it’s with great pleasure that we can confirm it’s positively gorgeous in use. Games absolutely pop off of the handheld’s screen with vibrant colours, deep blacks and searing whites in a way that makes the older model’s display look like a relic.
Looking at both models side-by-side (something we aren’t allowed to show you in images or video, sadly) it beggars belief that I’d ever played any of Nintendo’s modern classics on the OG Switch’s panel. The moment you first push the power button on the OLED Model and the recognisable Nintendo splash screen appears in the most red red that it’s ever been, you know you’re in for a treat. Outdoors, the screen doesn’t suffer as much as I thought it would given OLED panels’ reputation in natural light, but it’s plenty bright overall so as long as you dial the brightness right up when necessary it looks great wherever you are. I’m yet to see any evidence of the kinds of short or long-term image retention that users might be concerned about with the OLED display, but the technology has come far enough that I’ve not experienced anything of the sort in my phone or TV either.
Coming into this review I was fully prepared to lead with the notion that anyone who plays their Switch predominantly on TV needn’t give the OLED Model a second look, and that’s still largely the case. If you’ve already got a Switch and you’re not going to be playing games on the go then the OLED Model simply isn’t worth upgrading. But after spending decent time with it I’ve actually found myself actively discouraged from playing on TV at all – the portable experience is just so compelling. Switch games for the most part are much better suited to the small screen and now that said screen is incredibly handsome, the handheld equation of the Switch’s use case has finally come good.
Performance-wise things are about what you’d expect for the OLED Model, which is to say it performs exactly like the current flagship Switch. Where it will differ slightly is in the console’s thermal specs and battery life, two things that are actually kinda hard to test comprehensively given how wildly they can differ based on software and use. Playing Metroid Dread (you can read my review right here), I found that my OLED ran somewhat warm in portable mode, but no more than I’ve experienced from my regular console. Similarly battery life looks to be mostly on par with the refreshed version of the Switch at a reasonable brightness – sliding it up to full glow with the OLED-exclusive ‘Vivid’ setting switched on saw it drain in less than four hours with Metroid which seems about right.
That setting is an interesting one, actually. I hadn’t even realised it existed on the console at first, and it’s switched on by default, so it’s something that a lot of users will probably wind up using without knowing there’s another option. It’s hard to ascertain exactly what Vivid does, whether it’s some kind of take on an auto-HDR effect or simply a boost to screen brightness and saturation across the board, but in practice that’s essentially what it looks like. It’s only available on the OLED Model, and has no effect when playing on TV, but its inclusion begs the question of whether Nintendo simply wanted to give buyers a much more exaggerated impression of what the OLED screen brings to the table. I imagine savvy users will likely end up switching it over to the Standard setting though, as it’s real saturated.
A large portion of Nintendo’s marketing and media for the Switch console has shown its ‘tabletop’ configuration to be suited to multiplayer gaming on the move, but anyone who’s actually tried to play it this way will attest to two facts – that the screen is a touch too small for most multiplayer situations, and the kickstand is just woeful. While the OLED Model’s screen isn’t exponentially bigger the extra 0.8″ definitely makes a difference (I would know), but more importantly the kickstand now runs end to end along the back of the Switch and has a soft hinge that keeps the console upright and completely stable. How this wasn’t a part of the original design is beyond me, but halle-bloody-lujah all the same. It works wonders.
As far as the body of the Switch (OLED Model) goes, it’s a case of a few minor tweaks on an otherwise largely similar machine. The console itself is ever so slightly wider than the existing Switch, but for the most part the extra screen real estate is achieved by narrowing the previously-chunky screen borders, and I can’t see there being many issues fitting the console into existing carry cases. Said bezels are now a nice gloss finish, while the back of the console is more matte than before. The buttons and grille at the top look and feel a little nicer as well, which is a small but appreciated touch. I’m not enough of an audiophile to correctly articulate how much better the ‘enhanced’ speakers sound in the OLED Model, but they’re definitely an improvement as well.
It’s not just the Switch itself that’s seen a tweak or two, the OLED Model comes with an updated dock in either an all-black or black and white finish depending on whether you opt for the box with white or neon Joy-Cons. The dock looks and functions similarly to before, some glossier plastics, more rounded corners and a removable backplate rounding out the surface-level changes. But this new dock also comes with one huge advantage in a dedicated LAN port that replaces one of the three USB ports the previous dock had. This is sure to be a godsend for anyone who plays their Switch online to any serious degree, and like the kickstand it stands out as something that should’ve been there from the start. Better late than never though, right?
As a bonus, the docks themselves are interchangeable so you can use the OLED Model in the original dock and vice versa – meaning that once Nintendo starts selling the new dock separately there’ll be a way to get the benefits of the LAN port inclusion without buying a whole new console. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any less risk of scratching your Switch’s screen when sliding it in and out of the new dock, if that’s of concern.
In keeping in line with compatibility across the Switch console family, Nintendo has opted not to update anything about the Joy-Con controllers. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but it also takes some of the sheen off of the brand new hardware to know that its controllers still have great potential for issues. An overall refresh of the Joy-Cons to coincide with the new model could’ve made for a good opportunity, but the best we get for now is the (very suave) new white colourway. The white and black combo is en vogue for video game consoles now it seems.
If you’ve already got the refreshed version of the original Switch, or you’re someone who rarely takes theirs out of the dock, there probably aren’t enough compelling reasons to fork out a premium to update to the Nintendo Switch (OLED Model). That said, if you’re buying a Switch for the first time or you’re constantly playing on the go it’s a pretty compelling offering. The gorgeous OLED screen and improved kickstand and dock are well worth the difference of less than $100 if you’re torn between the OG and OLED. Until we get a proper hardware refresh to truly change the game, this is absolutely the best version of the Nintendo Switch available.
Review unit supplied by the manufacturer