Following the reveal of an unpatchable exploit in the Nintendo Switch back in January of 2018, diligent hackers have finally gotten the portable console to boot and run Android. It opens up a long list of potentially excellent alternate uses for the tablet, but thanks to Nintendo’s hardline stance on hacking its hardware, I’m too nervous to try it out.
Although not as graphically powerful as the Xbox One or the PS4 which limits what A-list games can find their way onto the portable console, the Switch has still proven itself to be an excellent gaming platform thanks to unique features the competition can’t match. That includes a touchscreen interface and the ability to instantly dock and undock itself from a TV—features that could potentially make it an equally excellent alternative to mobile devices like the iPad too, but Nintendo refuses to take the Switch down that route.
As demonstrated in a video hands-on by xdadevelopers, while far from perfect, Android (LineageOS 15.1) running on the Switch is quite functional in its current, first-release form. You’ll need to jump through some additional hoops to install the apps you want, but video streaming services like Netflix finally work (mostly) on the portable, and even effectively take advantage of its ability to quickly connect to a TV using the dock. Want to finish a movie but need to start dinner? Just grab your Switch and keep watching in the kitchen, right where you left off.
The unofficial Android port also fully supports the Switch’s wireless controllers, and while emulator support is hit-or-miss across apps in this first iteration, it will undoubtedly improve, and the Switch could potentially become the de facto way to retro game on the go. Nintendo certainly realizes the potential the Switch has for retro gaming, but its offerings have been limited at best. Poke around the Google Play store and you’ll find an emulator for almost every pre-Switch console imaginable. The Nvidia Tegra X1 might be starting to show its age, but it’s still got more than enough horsepower to deliver an excellent retro gaming experience.
Although a little clunky by Apple’s standards, I would gladly trade my iPad Mini for a Switch as my primary ebook reader while traveling. It might not have the biggest screen for reading or other tasks (like browsing the web or checking email) but procrastinating over cleaning out my inbox by playing a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is far more appealing than another round of Candy Crush. And that’s the best part of the exploit being used to get Android on the Switch: it can supposedly run off a microSD card without affecting your console in any way. When you’re ready to return to Link and Mario, you can just swap back in your microSD containing all of your downloaded games and saves and just reboot it. The developers claim that running Android off a microSD card doesn’t affect your Switch in any way: but I’m not convinced yet.
Rollback the clock a few years and Nintendo didn’t seem particularly worried about locking down its consoles. To run custom apps on the Nintendo DS all you needed was a special cartridge and an SD card full of ROMs. I can remember dabbling with surprisingly capable but unofficial drawing apps people had created for the handheld, and even playing classic PC titles like Rise of the Triad on it. But it also meant that game piracy was rampant with the NDS, and Nintendo quickly learned from those mistakes. Subsequent consoles like the Wii and the 3DS came with added security measures, including the risk of the hardware being bricked remotely, or users being banned from using Nintendo’s online features if any kind of tampering was detected.
The Switch is the first Nintendo console for which I’ve deliberately avoided buying games on physical cartridges in order to enhance its portability, and the last thing I want to do is find myself locked out of the online store, updates, locked my account, or potentially even locked out of the console itself. Part of me is optimistic that running Android via a microSD card is a safe way to expand the Switch’s capabilities while tiptoeing around Nintendo’s security measures. But another part of me is worried that Nintendo has engineered a yet-to-be-discovered method of detecting and flagging the use of unofficial software like this, even one relying on an unfixable exploit. Instead, I’m going to let other people be the guinea pigs for this experiment and see how things go after a couple of Switch firmware updates. If the waters seem safe, I might dip my toe in.