Thoughts on designing a Switch dock

There really wasn’t any good title for this post, and I’m most likely going to make this an incoherent ramble. In my previous post, the review about three Switch stances, I mentioned that that making designs for a game console is damn difficult. Regarding a console itself, the reign’s free as long as the hardware sits in, everything else has to be build for purpose like the controllers, but at the same time they need to be unique pieces that stand out from the competition, adhere to the overall branding and still offer what now are considered as universal necessities from e.g. a controller.  The stuff like four face buttons, two sticks, a D-Pad, and four shoulder buttons are industry standards generally regarded started by the SNES controller and set in stone by PlayStation’s controllers. Pretty much every controller afterwards have included some variation of these, with the Wii probably being the best example of breaking the mould with its standard Wiimote. Of course, there was the Pro Controller that still keeps itself around as a brand, meaning Nintendo continues to use some variation of it still. This is gonna end up as a companion to the review, isn’t it?

With the Switch docks reviewed, each and every one of them had lacked something while beating another in something. The stock official was an absolute waste of space but had HDMI. The DIY one, one of the many that share the exact same design, doesn’t offer the best support for the console on favour of smallness. Pretty much the exact opposite for the stock one, but at least it doesn’t scratch the screen. The HORI one excelled and beats the two other in every respect, except it lacks the HDMI connection. The faults of the designs are intentional, as the designs are driven by their primary idea, the rest be damned. If a design does one thing right and keeps doing it as intended without breaking down in use, its done its job. If it can’t do what it is not designed to do, that’s not exactly a problem.

If this is the case, wouldn’t it be wrong of me to detract points from each of the docks for what is essentially core of their design? The stock dock is intended to be that big in order to accompany the system overall and provide the best stability possible while keeping the glare from the Switch’s screen behind a layer. The DIY stand is meant to be as small as possible, so few sacrifices had to be made to minimise the form and usage. The HORI stand lacked HDMI because it is intended solely for table mode gaming, and had to find a sweet spot between the two sizes to do so in a sensible manner. Who am I to say that thing X in these designs are not wanted or is a terrible direction? As a customer I do have certain expectation and wants from the products. It is unreasonable to expect a car to fly in the sky, but it would not be unreasonable to expect one of these three docks to support the Switch standing in a vertical position. HORI’s table mode stand should have taken this into account, especially considering it is a dedicated for doing just that. It is understandable that the USB-C connector can make this a challenge, as it might have force directed at it from 90-degree angle that could lead to some damage, but that’s where the dock’s design must accommodate this. Such stand could utilise parts that extend or has to be unfolded, like HORI’s stand. This of course would raise the price of the product, as the design time would extend, more tooling would be required to produce the moulds and assembly time would increase. Additions that probably would add to a significant increase in price, at least towards the end-consumer. Hiking the price from thirty bucks to forty or more usually does make or break a purchase decision.

I omitted a fourth stand from the review altogether, mostly because it’s a generic two dollar Chinese stand for everything under the sun, from phones to handheld consoles. It’s flip-flop design is pretty excellent, able to collapse to a flat state and supports Switch every which way you throw it at it. It may not be powered, but its rubber pads keeps it extremely stable and keeps the Switch in place just fine. No wobbling here. It has no power or USB port support, but allows the USB-C power to be attached if wanted. As stupid as it sounds, this cheap hunk of plastic is indeed one of the better overall stands for the Switch and beats even Hori’s stand in overall usability. I’m sure you could just chuck some sort of USB-C hub at it for additional controllers. With some slight modding, you’d probably be able the Nintendo stock dock’s PCB with it after some generous additions to the bottom case, something I should probably look into.

What’s the deal with the vertical mode?, I was asked in the wake of the review. The Switch isn’t he first portable games console to naturally lend itself to a vertical mode. The first handheld specifically designed for it was the Wonder Swan. Namco Wonder Classic is an excellent example of this, as the game benefits everything by being vertical. Vertical shooting games benefit of this as well, like the ported Psikyo games Gunbird and Sengoku Ace. Screen space is better used and there is no need for separate bars at the sides to fill in the space with artwork or other useless junk. However, due to whatever reason, Nintendo opted not to consider system’s vertical nature at all, as the standard leg does not support Switch sideways, and none of their games thus far have even hinted any sort of vertical usage. This is strange, considering Nintendo usually wants to utilise their system’s peculiarities to some stupid extent. Yet, this self-evident mode has been just dismissed thus far. For all the talk of innovation and moving forwards, they’re missing a dimension of their console that would have opened new possibilities for game design. Holding the Switch vertical in your hands may be a bit awkward, but you can find at least three positions for you hands on the system; hold it from left side only, accessing the stick and C-buttons; hold it high with left and low with right, accessing the left Joy-Con’s action and shoulder buttons, and C-buttons; and holding having your left hand on the left Joy-Con while accessing right’s stick. Of course, the system has not been designed for these, but they’re less awkward that you’d imagine and more comfortable than e.g. clawing the PSP. Of course, the table top mode comes in play in this. Sadly, the Switch has no legs or rubber pads to keep it from sliding to its back, so a stand is more or less required, and only a two-dollar stand seems to be offering a solution for this. This is  simply waste of potential.

Ultimately, the question I want to ask about Switch docks and stands in general is “What are they for?”. Naturally the answer is to provide a standing support for the Nintendo Switch itself in a stationary form and possibly offer support for docked mode. Just like when designing a chair, the end results from this starting point vary just as much as there are people tackling it, but as a simple eBay search shows, it’s just easy to take an existing design and toy with it a bit. Just like a chair example I wrote years back on just how stupidly varied and difficult a single simple design can be in the end, designing a stand for a console has its own harsh limitations. At least with a chair you can trust it being usable for the most part in the far future, excluding the obesity problem this modern world has been facing, but with something like this you’re going to get few years worth of existence before being phased out by the next product down the line. Who wants to put the effort to make the definitive product for anything that’s essentially a flashby, when you could try to immortalise yourself elsewhere?

Guess that’s the same effort that goes into this blog.

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