It seems strange to say that the last brand new, dedicated handheld release from Nintendo was the New Nintendo 3DS, which arrived way back in 2014. Since then, a company that has always had a reputation for being a best-in-class designer of handheld systems has instead focused on the Nintendo Switch, a console that forced everyone to take a step back and rethink what defined a handheld. Even if fans ultimately arrived at the idea that the Nintendo Switch was not a true handheld, one thing remained as clear as it has always been: Nintendo understands how to deliver on gaming away from home. It's been the best at it - perhaps spelled, if only briefly, by the ill-fated PlayStation Vita, the most tragic handheld device in history - and the Nintendo Switch Lite has a lot to live up to as a result.
At $199 USD, the Nintendo Switch Lite occupies an attractive price point for people looking to pick up their first current-gen device from a company that has been so consistently delivering on excellent exclusives it feels almost like owning a Switch is an obligation. The Nintendo Switch Lite is a Switch in name alone, however, and prior to its launch the big question was whether or not stripping the device of its versatility - the ability to dock the system and have it seamlessly transition from handheld to console on a television, among other smaller features - was worth the price cut and smaller size. Those fears were, it seems, unfounded. The Switch Lite can't be hooked up to a television, and it's controllers aren't detachable. It doesn't matter. The Nintendo Switch Lite is the best handheld gaming experience available today, and it's an impressive system both on its own and when compared to its already appealing older sibling.
First, the Nintendo Switch Lite specs: at a 5.5-inch touchscreen display, the Switch Lite is barely giving anything up on the Switch's 6.2-inch display, although the difference is noticeable for those who have played both devices. That trade-off in screen size has allowed the Switch Lite to become much more compact as a result, however, at a featherweight .61 pounds. The difference in weight is much more obvious - long gaming sessions with the Switch Lite while in a relaxed position, like in bed or on one's side, are much less taxing on the arms and result in a more pleasant experience. As far as device layout goes, it's almost the same, with some key differences we'll discuss in a bit, and it has the same basic features fans would expect from a handheld gaming device at this point, including a headphone jack and a microSD card slot to expand the device's storage.
In our experience, the Nintendo Switch Lite's battery makes good on the promise to slightly surpass its predecessor's, though that only makes it the middle-child in the Switch family when it comes to battery life thanks to the new base models. In testing a classic game in the Final Fantasy 7 port to the Switch, the Lite delivered big on its maximum battery life of seven hours, while testing out Fire Emblem: Three Houses had it clock in at around four-and-a-half hours of play instead. Those are both improvements to the original model, but not everything about the Nintendo Switch Lite is an addition - there are some major subtractions here, too. The biggest missing feature, aside from no docking, is the lack of detachable Joy-Con controls. While that hasn't been an issue in our experience so far, if the controls ever begin suffering from the same Joy-Con drift problem the original model's did, that could become a major issue. There's also no rumble feature, for those who enjoyed that blast from the past, and we did have a tiny bit of trouble with the text in Three Houses, though it was still perfectly legible, just a little smaller than desired.
The negatives are minor, however, when the Nintendo Switch Lite is evaluated as a handheld gaming device. Simply put, the Switch Lite is the best handheld gaming experience on the market today. The quality of the system is immediately apparent to anyone who holds it. As a result of not having detachable Joy-Cons, the Nintendo Switch Lite feels sturdier than its bulkier sibling. It is rock solid while feeling impossibly light, a combination that is rare in handheld gaming, and nothing about the construction of the Nintendo Switch Lite feels lacking.
The Nintendo Switch Lite also just looks better. It comes in three different colors, presents a much sleeker look, and the matte finish on the system's body makes it easier to grip. During particularly intense gaming sessions, users may have noticed minor sweat streaks on the back of their Switch when they were using it in handheld mode - especially when the device itself grew a little hot. That just doesn't happen with the Switch Lite.
Truthfully, though, the big get for the Switch Lite is the addition of a dedicated directional pad, something the original Switch lacked due to needing two Joy-Cons that could both function as stand-alone controllers, necessitating a directional button system that didn't connect the buttons together. We didn't know how badly we missed that feature until we held the Nintendo Switch Lite and played a game on it for the first ten minutes. Using the directional pad is incredible and it makes it much more responsive, too. That's especially important for platformers, of which the Nintendo Switch has no shortage of excellent options, and competitive games like the upcoming Overwatch Switch port. It's genuinely difficult to overstate how big a difference a dedicated directional pad makes for the system - it makes it feel like a premium offering and, in some ways, an upgrade on the original Switch.
Other small improvements include the frame's shrunken size making it easier on hands in general and the smaller screen bringing handheld representations of Switch games into clearer, crisper focus. We haven't experienced any slowdowns in frame rates or trouble rendering titles, but it's also worth noting that the Nintendo Switch base model also sees a reduction in visual quality when in handheld mode rather than docked, so expectations should be that the Switch Lite will have about the same representation as a handheld base model.
Make no mistake - the Nintendo Switch Lite is by no means an outright replacement for the Nintendo Switch base model. The functionality the latter delivers is still massively appealing, and will ultimately make it a better fit for a lot of consumers. With that said, though, the Nintendo Switch Lite now has a clear audience: anyone who wants the best handheld gaming experience of this generation. It's frankly incredible that Nintendo has managed to put together a system that so wholly fulfills every handheld gaming need we could think of while somehow improving both the Switch design and battery life. And that d-pad. Oh, that d-pad. For anyone who wants a dedicated handheld - or for those who want a second Switch in their household - the Nintendo Switch Lite is about as close to perfect as it gets.
The Nintendo Switch Lite is available now for $199 USD. Screen Rant was provided with a Switch Lite device for the purposes of this review.