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.

Review: Nintendo Switch Docks, Official, DIY and HORI

Designing a game console in itself is sort of stupid hard on itself. There are no real rules to govern them. Sure, it needs to sit nicely and be as stable as possible while in use, offer good airflow and all that, but there are no ergonomic rules to follow. Not even the buttons are required to follow any set standard. The Famicom was designed to look like a toy, with short cords to the controllers and such, whereas the NES could be mistaken for a grey VCR at a quick glance. The Mega Drive was supposed to be cool with its sleek lines and shapes, contrasting shiny bits with stark black plastic. The PlayStation was supposed to sit among other grey AV station equipment, something all the subsequent PlayStations followed. Things like that, but never anything truly set in stone. What if you have some clear-cut necessities and rules determined by use? The Switch has its official docking station that is designed around the necessities to house the console and offer HDMI stance. It’s also far from being the only dock, or stand, the system has, as third parties and DIY groups have put out numerous iterations. I’ll be covering three in this review, covering the best and worst parts of each of them.

Let’s start with the Nintendo official dock.

Your normal waste of space and plastic

I have to say that from the start this has been a disappointing hunk of plastic. It has weight behind it, but that’s because it is just a huge hunk of plastic. The way the Switch sits inside of it, and how the front covers it, means that whenever you move the console up or down the front will have hard plastic pushing against the screen, scratching it at worst. Only at the very base there are itty bitty rubber pads to keep the console in place, which is laughable. You’d imagine there had been some more effort to prevent scratching. At least it guides the console in just the right way, as the USB-C port at the bottom is rigid and does not move.

That’s all the soft bits you have to hold the console itself down. Not the best solution

At the back we have this this cover flap for whatever reason, perhaps to make it look more uniform. It’s really another useless piece of plastic that should be thrown away. You can see the air vent slots there, which don’t really do much. The other vent actually goes through the PCB housing on the right, meaning the heat that it puts out goes directly inside the dock’s most important bits. A single USB and HDMI ports, with USB-C for power. Nothing much to see here. You don’t see any of them here, because I’ve already taken the stuff out and put them into another dock.

You can throw the lid away and replace it with a fan from a third-party

The stock Nintendo dock is pretty terrible. It doesn’t look attractive and is mostly just waste of resources. You could cut its size down by half and not lose in stability or usability. It’s like a last minute idea that just had to be pushed through, a necessary evil. That doesn’t excuse it from being excessive.

The PCB from this went into a DIY kit that’s sold all around the net, from Amazon to eBay and some random Chinese auction sites. I picked this one from eBay for about seven euros.

This being DIY, I’ve added those soft pads to keep the console from shifting around to any extent

In terms of size, it is one of the smallest docks for the Switch, and it of course brings some stability issues. The dock itself sits down just fine, but due to the design necessitating taking the main connecting parts from the stock dock itself means that the Switch will rock back and fort just slightly enough to make you worried. While the idea to make this DIY dock portable, it should have a base that extents whole of the main body of the console. This would have made it a very clear choice for all situations. The extensions could have been optional or foldable for added portability, but either option would have raised the price. Then again, perhaps not a bad idea.

It is very bland overall, but you can always paint it or add stickers. The HDMI and other USB ports are on the other of the dock

You really get what you pay for. You are required to do some work because it is DIY, but taking the Switch dock apart and installing the PCB into this one takes about five to ten minutes. The airflow is better in every respect and the ports are easily accessible. It’s a very straightforward dock, which can be made even better with some additional work. It is DIY after all, no reason to just leave as-is if there are additional ideas how to make it better. The only major problem is that the Switch, as mentioned, does wobble a bit while sitting on it, and this can cause some stress to the USB-C connector, as it is rigid as ever. Well, those added softpads help a lot.

Everything’s black. It’s then again, everything is black

Sure, it has more mass and size than the DIY dock before it, but considering it has a folding design means it is carries easy. It’s air vents on the back do not obstruct airflow at all either. The Switch sits on the console without any real wobble despite having no locking mechanism present. This is because of the two rubber pads put on the dock that keep the console in place just fine. There is no moving accepting level like with the stock dock. The USB-C connectors moves back and forth instead, meaning it takes more stress to break it accidentally. This is a grand design choice and shows how HORI understands some of the more important details that the Big Three often miss.

When folded, it also covers the USB-C connector, adding protection

The dock sports four standard USB ports, meaning each of the four players can plug in their own USB controller, though none of them are USB 3. Sadly, HORI’ s PS3 controller’s don’t work with it. USB-C port means you can charge the console on this dock as well, or just use it to play any game in portable mode. The dock has multiple angles that will do the job more than fine. This would be an excellent dock to the point of replacing the Nintendo’s official one, except it has not HDMI port. While this is a dedicated portable mode stand, the addition of HDMI capability would have made this probably the best dock the Switch has. Now, that goes to many of the other variants that recycle Nintendo’s official PCB in their housings. Well, it does advertise itself as Portable Table Mode on the cover, so perhaps it is a bit unfair to harp on the lack of HDMI. Despite having a folding design, it just bulky enough not to fit with any of them smaller Switch carry cases. Still, far more portable than the base dock.

Another losing point is that it has no support for vertical mode whatsoever. You can put it sideways and have the whole contraption sitting rather awkwardly and somewhat unstable on the table, but it’s far car what it should be. HORI missed this altogether, which drops the dock’s overall score a bit. Sure, none of the other docks to either, but this is supposed to be dedicated tabletop mode dock.

This isn’t recommended. I’m pretty sure adding some sort of additional leg to the bottom that can be folded out or something would be easy to implement, but haven’t got around seeing how to mod it in yet

Out of all these three, there really is no one better over the other. They all lack something, while beating others in some aspect. It all depends which mode you enjoy your Switch the most. If you’re all about portable mode, Hori’s tabletop dock is your best choice. For TV play, you could do worse than the small DIY dock. Ranking it higher than Nintendo’s own product may seem cheap, but the sheer bulk is its downfall. I have to say that it is disappointing that none of the docks I’ve seen thus far have not taken vertical mode into account to any significant extent, meaning playing games in that mode is still difficult.

I’m really starting to get tired of all of my electronics being black, grey or white. Where’s the use of colours? All we get nowadays are LED highlights and such. I miss the 90’s colourful devices