Nintendo Switch’s first portable dock offers freedom, but with new shackles
Nyko had clearly been watching my Nintendo Switch coverage. The accessory maker invited me to an E3 demo this summer with promises of all kinds of new, third-party Switch accessories, but this wasn't about carrying cases or screen protectors. The invite frontloaded one accessory above them all: the Nyko Portable Docking Kit.
Ever since I first played with a Switch, I've been wanting a reasonably priced, hyper-portable dock to toss into my laptop bag, to better enable an impromptu "let's hook Mario Kart up to a TV" party. Nintendo's official dock, as I found, is designed for nothing of the sort. Nyko demonstrated something that plain-and-simply got the job done. But that was during its flashy E3 demo—how would that translate into a final product?
The answer finally arrived in my mailbox this week, following a quiet rollout to retailers in the States. The result is modest and gets the job done, though its specific issues may very well be dealbreakers for people who want it all in a truly portable Switch dock.
The $50 Portable Docking Kit measures 4.5"x3.75"x0.69"—in Switch terms, it's basically the size of three Joy-Con controllers side-by-side. It comes with an HDMI cable and an AC adapter with a USB Type-C connection, and both cords measure roughly 6.6'/2m, which is decent for plugging into whatever TV you might want to access at a friend's house or a public venue.
Nyko's dock is remarkably smaller than Nintendo's official dock, and that's the primary selling point. If you want a dock that you can pack into a bag and you don't want that bag to be a full-sized briefcase, then Nyko has a roughly 75-percent reduction for you. 75 percent.
The reason for that shrinkage is that Nyko has removed all of the stabilization and home-use bulk that Nintendo built into its official product. Nintendo slapped a pretty tiny circuit board into its bloated dock, which does offer a stable "just drop it in" experience, not to mention a cord-hiding door and a cushy, spring-loaded mechanism to make inserting and removing the Switch oh-so-easy.
Nyko clearly isn't trying to compete with those bullet points. Its plastic case is almost identical in dimensions to the circuit board packed inside, which is quite different in design than Nintendo's circuit board, as shown in the below teardown gallery. Nyko has obviously come up with its own workaround solution to replicating the Nintendo Switch "dock and project to a TV" experience. (I'll get to that.)
To actually use this thing, you'll need to take an unusual step: finish the construction yourself. Sticking a Switch onto the Nyko dock is all kinds of unstable in its default appearance, so you have to turn the Nyko dock over and remove a small, firm piece of plastic by sliding and flicking it out of a gap at the bottom of the unit. Then, insert this backing flap into the top of the dock. When you're done using the dock, take the flap out and stick it back into the bottom. (Still, no matter how you slice it, the dock will always have a little USB Type-C nub sticking out, and, without any special plastic casing around that nub, you'll always face the anxiety that a careless toss into a laptop bag could dislodge or break it.)
Once you're done assembling, inserting the Switch is stable enough, though the Switch doesn't pop in and out nearly as smoothly as on the official dock. In fact, Nyko had to mail me a secondary piece of review hardware because, with the first unit I received, I had to consistently yank the Switch out with surprising force. The follow-up dock I received was still a little firm to insert and remove, but nothing nearly as alarming.
The dock's feet are small, rubber nubs, meant to keep the hardware in place while sitting on a stable surface. Once you have everything connected—Nyko dock, HDMI, AC adapter, and a Switch—you mostly get same the docked experience you'd expect from the official dock. I tested it on both of my TVs, including an LG OLED, and I scrutinized them both for visual artifacts, even doing some back-and-forth testing on both docks of various still images to check for obvious pixel crawls or discoloration. What I perceived was the identical "docked, 1080p-maximum" resolution video feed on both docks. If Nyko has cut any visual corners, they've done a damned good job of concealing them.
Sleep no more?
But there's a surprising and annoying catch to Nyko's offering, and it proves out the issues of trying to emulate Nintendo's signal-to-TV implementation. When a Switch is plugged into the Nyko dock and woken from sleep, Nyko's dock cannot properly tell your TV that the Switch is ready for TV mode. Something's wrong with the HDMI-wake implementation here. The only way to get the Nyko Portable Dock to send a Switch signal to your TV is to connect your Switch when its screen is on. I confirmed this on both Nyko docks that I received and on both of my TVs.
This may very well be due to the Nintendo Switch's new firmware, version 4.0, which only rolled out to system owners this week. I have sent questions to Nyko asking about the issue and will update my review with any response. For now, this limitation puts a giant asterisk on the Nyko dock and truly makes it a portable-only option. (In good news, at least, the 4.0 firmware's new "USB headphone" option totally works with the Nyko dock; I was able to connect a wireless USB hub to the Nyko dock and enjoy a pair of wireless headphones while Switching on the couch.)
Venting about vents
Should that issue be fixed or resolved, however, I would still argue against the kit being a useful second Switch dock for home use, mostly because of the less-than-secure connection. It works fine in a pinch and stays stable, and it even supports the original dock's default USB ports (two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 port)—but I would absolutely not plug a controller or other "might get moved around" cable into this thing, to avoid any possible wobbling of its relatively unstable port connection.
There's also the matter of the Switch's lower, backside vents being slightly blocked by Nyko's plastic flap. While docked, the Nintendo Switch goes into a higher-clocked processing mode, and the result is enough extra horsepower to jump from the system's portable 720p resolution to a TV-friendly 1080p resolution. (Some games don't jump quite to 1080p, but most games take advantage of docked mode's higher clocks in one way or another.)
Nintendo's official dock includes hard-to-see cutouts that let the Switch spew out as much heat from its lower vents as possible. The system runs a little warmer through its top vent, but those lower vents still produce significant heat. A Switch will feel warm to the touch after hours of non-stop play, even when running in the official dock. Nyko's plastic flap adds 1cm of blockage on each of its 4.2cm vents. I don't know about you, but I don't like any extra trapped heat in my portable electronics beyond what they're designed to withstand.
That being said, I let some non-stop Mario Kart 8 Deluxe replays run for an hour on the Nyko dock—which are rendered in real time and thus count as a decent hardware stress test. The system heat that I felt afterward seemed identical to a similar test on Nintendo's dock.
That being said: Goodness, Nyko. Please cut some slits into the backing plastic flap for any future runs of this product. Do not block the default cooling systems, even a tiny bit. Nintendo is in no way going to honor its warranty if a user reports an overheated Switch due to use of a Nyko dock.
Really, that's the thing about a product like this: you're putting a major system function into a third party's hands. The established device makers at Nyko are in a better position than hobbyists, Chinese knock-off sellers, and Kickstarter builders (all of whom have trotted out portable-dock concepts) to pledge dedication and support to such a product. But the tech industry really doesn't have a long line of "third-party TV-output devices" that have proven to be fine to pick up and slap onto your phone, laptop, or other device (beyond, you know, basic cables).
The kit ultimately feels like a first-gen version of a product that could be great. If Nyko offers a better way to fold the USB nub down (which might be possible, based on what I noticed in my teardown gallery above), a better guarantee of air ventilation, and a fix to the wake-from-sleep issue, then it'll be on to something that still doesn't have to be a perfect home dock. Certain concessions seem fine for a product like this. Nyko just makes too many on top of that. Give Nyko's Portable Docking Kit a shot if you're desperate (and have tools to cut out your own ventilation slits for now). Otherwise, wait for version 2.0.