And So I Tried the Switch...


Since it’s selling like hotcakes these days, you may have come across the Switch from Nintendo, or at least heard about it. Just about a month ago I saw one of my friends who recently bought it, and I have even had the opportunity to test it a little. Wait, what does this have to do with Linux gaming? Just hold on a second, we will come back to that later.

At first, I have to say that while I like the idea of the Switch, I was not particularly convinced that this was the right way to go for Nintendo. But after seeing one hands-on, my opinion has changed a little. The first thing that struck me is that this is a MASSIVE console, for something that’s supposed to be portable. It definitely does not fit in anyone’s pockets, and requires a proper bag to carry around. It’s not like I did not know the dimensions beforehand, but seeing it in person really made it much more tangible.


So the size could be seen as a disadvantage, but it’s actually its strength as well. On such a screen size, games look much, much better. I’m used to playing on very large screens so still, everything on a smaller screen tends to feel unimpressive, but if you do take it and compare it with a smartphone or a 3DS, the difference in screen area is huge. On top of that, the screen was not complete garbage, so that’s altogether quite impressive for some hardware sold that cheap (about 300 USD in the US).

In terms of controls, the detachable side pads feel good, both when attached to the screen or when attached as a regular pad together. They connect wirelessly to the console, using the Bluetooth protocol. They are tiny and I have big hands but they still manage to feel just right. I am not sure about the shoulder buttons though, but that’s not as relevant.


The only game I could try and check out was Zelda, and as everyone has mentioned already it is a very convincing game. It makes very good use of what the hardware can offer, and it runs quite well (well, 30 fps, but all things considered that’s better than most tablet games) on this form factor. If you consider the fact that the Switch is a portable console, then there’s basically no game on portable systems out there that can touch Zelda. Sure, there are powerful smartphones and tablets on the market, but the kind of games you get on Android and iOS cannot rival the production qualities that we see here. Maybe the true concept of the Switch could be summed up as “bringing true AAA games on the go”.


The OS, based on FreeBSD, was very responsive and you could make a main menu appear anytime using the home button. The Switch can be put into a standby mode, making it possible to quickly continue and pick up your game right where you left it. Pretty neat, and this was apparently working very well based on what I heard, making it totally seamless to pause and restart the game any time. However, you can’t do anything else with the Switch yet: no browsing, no video or audio playback, this is a pure gaming console, at least at this point in time.

So let me summarize a little bit:

  • The Switch is big, but it’s more of an advantage than a weakness: large screen estate.
  • It has good physical controls that feel familiar.
  • It strikes a good balance between performance and battery life (apparently 3 hours on a full battery).
  • While not the most powerful machine ever made, in its category it’s unrivaled.

So why is it worth talking about it ? Well, as you know since I wrote several times about it, I am cautiously optimistic about Linux-based consoles, such as the Smach Z that is still in development after a successful crowdfunding campaign. Since it’s made by a very small company and their deadline to delivery seems very short, I don’t think it will ever be as good or as polished as it needs to be, but the concept is a good one nonetheless.

But the Smach Z’s main selling point is the fact that it integrates physical controllers, just like the Switch. It’s not that its screen or hardware is going to be exceptional in any way. So, the Switch is kind of interesting in that regard. Instead of trying to make a portable console from scratch with controllers and the like, why not integrate external controllers with existing, off the shelf hardware? So, how about buying a cheap tablet, and attaching external controllers to it?

This is certainly not a new idea, there is a plethora of controllers for tablets out there, like this one:


The problem is that many of them are ugly or expensive, or simply cumbersome to use. But the Switch changes that, by providing portable controllers that can be connected to any device via bluetooth. Of course, you would need a way to attach the sticks on your tablet, but that’s where 3d printing can come in handy to support the large amount of tablet dimensions and shapes out there. There are many Intel-based tablets out there, available for cheap with low display resolutions just like the Switch (720p) - that strike a good balance between good enough resolution and GPU performance. On many of such tablets it is possible to install Linux, and while they may not be very powerful to play AAA games, they are very capable to play any 2D indie game and relatively simple 3D games, hardware-wise. So, with proper controllers like the Switch’s ones, and a Linux or SteamOS install, you could make yourself a pretty decent portable gaming machine. The only potential issue is battery life. I’m not sure if you would get more than 1 or 2 hours out of a full battery.

Here’s what it would look like with a cheap Onda 820w tablet, with the switch controllers at the right dimension vs the tablet size.


Of course, it won’t win a beauty contest any time soon, and you’d still need to find a way to attach the Switch controllers (I mentioned 3d printing, but any DIY solution works too), but consider you can play several hundred good indie games on such a device with Steam for Linux, and once the controllers are properly supported via bluetooth (which seems to be the case, but I have not tested them myself), they should act as a good replacement for a Xbox360 controller.

You would end up with something that’s probably about as capable as the upcoming Smach Z (not as powerful, but powerful enough to play the same kind of games anyway), a large Linux games library, and something very, very cheap (we are talking about 200~250 USD, controllers included). And it’s a full small Linux computer, on top of that, once you connect a keyboard on it.

I’m actually glad the Switch made it to the market, since it will open up opportunities for other devices, too.

What do you think ?