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The Nintendo Switch game console coming in March won’t be more powerful than Sony’s three-year-old PlayStation 4, according to sources familiar with the system.
Two sources (who asked to keep their names out of this story) confirmed to GamesBeat that the Switch uses Nvidia’s last-generation Maxwell graphics-processing architecture. Nvidia introduced its new Pascal architecture earlier this year, but that technology is not ready for the Tegra chip going into the Switch. The custom Maxwell Tegra (which uses a 20nm process as opposed to the more efficient 16nm process of the Pascal) in the machine is still powerful enough to play Nintendo-style games that rely on quality art over horsepower, but don’t expect Switch software to match the graphical fidelity of the highest-end PS4 games.
Switch’s visual capabilities could still satisfy most gamers. Nintendo has implied it can handle realistic-looking games like Skyrim and NBA 2K in the trailer for the system. Considering the context that the Switch is both a portable gaming device as well as a home console, it may even surprise people with its older Maxwell hardware. We’ll get a better look at what the system can pull off in January when Nintendo hosts a full media presentation for the Switch in Japan.
In the meantime, however, some fans might find it disappointing that Nintendo is using the Maxwell chip in the Switch instead of Pascal. But the timing just didn’t work out for Nintendo. Sources told GamesBeat that the Kyoto-based Japanese company is in such a rush that it can’t wait for the Pascal version of the Tegra. That’s both because the publisher wants to replace the failing Wii U and because it wants to strike quickly with its hybrid concept before a competitor can introduce a better product. That happened with the Wii U when — after years of development — Nintendo introduced its tablet-like Gamepad to consumers who had been using Apple’s iPads for the previous 24 months. If Nintendo decided to use Pascal in the Switch, it would have no choice but to delay the system and risk a similar situation.
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But while the Switch doesn’t have as much horsepower as the PS4, it could still handle many modern games. Nvidia will likely build the Tegra chip to run at a higher clock speed when receiving a constant source of power in its dock, and that could make a big difference. In portable mode, games will run at a lower resolution due to the Switch’s rumored 720p 6.2-inch screen. On a display of that size, developers could get their games to run even smoother if they dropped the resolution to 540p (the resolution of Sony’s PS Vita handheld) and upscaled them to 720p instead.
Even without the highest-end graphics, the Switch will still have a lot of Nintendo games, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which Nintendo demonstrated running on the Switch for the first time during a segment on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. That game and others like it will surely help sell the system, as will the promise of portability, which is a feature that no other game console has ever had.
“If Nintendo gets traction with this, we forecast they will ship 5 million Switches by the end of 2017,” said Jon Peddie, analyst at market researcher Jon Peddie Research and a long-time graphics expert.
Another reason Nintendo is going with the older architecture is that it takes a while to design and launch a console. Nvidia’s Pascal-based chips came out first for desktops earlier this spring and then for laptops in late summer. These chips are both more powerful and more power-efficient than the previous Maxwell generation that debuted in 2014. But the desktop and laptop Pascal chips are big and rely on lots of extra cooling systems, like motorized fans, that make them power-hungry compared to the ARM-based Tegra Maxwell chip. Right now, Pascal is great for a desktop with lots of spare room and power for cooling and even a laptop, but the Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics chip in an x86-processor machine would probably overheat and melt down the portable tablet portion of the Switch.
Nintendo plans to share more information on January 12. Both Nvidia and Nintendo declined to comment for this story.
The choice of Maxwell means that the Nintendo box will likely be a lot cheaper than other brand-new consoles (which typically debut at $400 to $600) at the outset. The Maxwell graphics will be embedded in the ARM-based Tegra processor, which is an all-in-one chip, with both processor and graphics on the same piece of silicon. Like the Advanced Micro Devices chips in the PS4 and Xbox One (those consoles have accelerated processing units, or APUs), the single chip consumes less space, uses less power, and costs less than having two chips in the system.
Hardcore gamers and tech fans will likely be upset that Nintendo won’t be using Pascal graphics. That gives Microsoft and Sony room to proceed with their tech arms race. Sony has already launched the PlayStation 4 Pro machine with 4K-like graphics and virtual reality with its PlayStation VR headset. And Microsoft promises true 4K graphics and VR with its upcoming Project Scorpio, debuting for the holidays in 2017. But others may find that the Nintendo Switch is more than adequate for what they need. To give you a sense, we expect the Nintendo Switch to be more than 1 teraflop in performance, but far less than the 6 teraflops that Microsoft is promising for Scorpio. The PS4 is around 1.8 teraflops, and it has much better memory bandwidth performance as well compared to the Switch.
“I don’t see Nintendo’s strategy as a risk,” said Peddie. “Too many pundits and fan boys and investors make a serious mistake when they try to compare and contrast Nintendo with Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo has a niche in the affordable, accessible product, and performance is never a leading criteria for them. It is gameplay and immersion. They are never a technology pioneer. Trying to compare Nintendo to Sony is like comparing a Volkswagen to a Corvette. It’s a facetious and fallacious analogy and a discredit to fans who love Nintendo.”
Nintendo knew that for this console, it needed to have a long lead time on the development kits so that it could avoid another pitfall of the Wii U: not enough games. So key developers really needed to have the tools for making the games in 2016 in order to have a chance at getting games done for the March 2017 launch of the Switch. Those dev kits use a Tegra X1-based system. We understand that the final chip will be a custom version of the X1.
Plenty of evidence shows that Nintendo is trying to throw a wider net to recruit game developers such as Bethesda, the studio behind The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, to make games for the Switch. Developers will have more time to make launch games, and this should result in more third-party games than what we’ve seen with the Wii U. Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima has acknowledged the need to continuously publish new titles after the launch.
The Switch could still be appealing. You can play a game at home, plugging it into the base (which has no extra processing power in it; it’s simply a power supply and a way to connect the console to the TV). When you hit the road, you can take the Switch with you and play the same on the tablet. You can pull out the handles from the sides of the Switch controller, the Joy-Con, and have two players play the same thing, such as a sports game, on the portable. That makes the Switch more appealing beyond the kids market, which Nintendo has lost to mobile devices. And it makes the Nintendo Switch more appealing to young adults and people who want to go to social gatherings with friends.
Nintendo has made some interesting choices. The first major change was a couple of years ago, when the company decided that, after a 10-year-plus relationship with AMD, it would abandon that hardware partnership and use Nvidia as its chip maker. This was a shocker in itself for the traditional console hardware team, and it means no backward compatibility with the Wii U. Nvidia offered a low price for its Tegra chips, which are in need of a high-volume chip customer in the wake of the chip maker’s exit from the mobile processor market.
Nvidia won the deal because it had made its own game tablet and game set-top box, the Nvidia Shield and the Shield set-top box. It created Tegra processors for those devices and figured out how to do cloud gaming with it. Nintendo decided to make what’s essentially a custom version of the Shield, with different features like the controllers and TV-portable hybrid that suits its own market focus. The decision significantly reduced the amount of hardware engineering that Nintendo would have otherwise had to do with a new console.
The Shield set-top box that debuted in 2015 has an Nvidia Tegra X1 processor with eight 64-bit ARM cores and a 256-core Maxwell GPU. That machine debuted for $200 with a Shield controller. That machine was capable of 4K 60-frames-per-second graphics, but it used Nvidia’s cloud gaming service to run high-end games such as Dying Light (a first-person zombie game that features a great deal of climbing and jumping around an urban setting). The set-top box could tolerate a higher heat profile, and the Nvidia Shield tablet that debuted in 2014 had a Tegra K1 processor with four CPUs and 192 Kepler graphics cores. Nintendo’s box is relatively small, and so it has to fit into the heat profile of a portable device, rather than a set-top box. That’s another reason that explains the older Maxwell technology, as opposed to the Pascal’s state-of-the-art tech.
Nvidia has a new Tegra in the market in the Nvidia Drive PX 2 platform, which it describes as a processor for self-driving cars. This system has two code-named Parker chips in it. One Parker chip has a combination of six CPU cores (2 from the Denver design, four ARM v8 A57 designs) and 256 graphics cores based on the Pascal architecture. A single Parker chip is a pretty powerful machine, capable of doing 4K video and high-end graphics. But our understanding is that Parker showed up too late for Nintendo’s purposes. Parker also would have to be redesigned for mobile, low-power constraints. But it gives you an idea of the challenges that both Nvidia and Nintendo had in hitting their targets for performance, size, and power consumption. This kind of chip could be available as a rev 2, much like Sony has done with the PlayStation Pro. But we don’t expect it to be there at the outset.
The Nintendo Switch does not run the full Android operating system. If it did, it would be able to run millions of Android games, including a raft of free-to-play apps. But Nintendo doesn’t want that. It wants a curated experience with games that you purchase, games that would sell the system. In doing so, it took a more traditional approach to launching a console. By contrast, Nvidia’s own Shield game console runs Android and has a wide array of games available on it. The Shield hasn’t been that successful, however, which could validate Nintendo’s strategy. Another reason not to go with Android is that it isn’t easy to give game developers low-level support to the hardware in a way that helps them optimize software.
It’s not clear if someone could hack the device to get Android games to run on it, as we just don’t know enough about the software. But Nintendo has also turned to a traditional cartridge option as an added measure of security. The cartridge is a memory card with Nintendo’s own proprietary specifications, enabling players to play games quickly without long loading or downloading times.
Nintendo has taken the extra step of courting the game engine designers and making sure that developers who create games on the Unity and Unreal will be able to easily port those releases on the Switch. Again, that makes the system more friendly to developers who avoided created special, one-off versions of their games for previous Nintendo consoles. It’s worth noting that this is the first Nintendo console that Unreal Engine maker Epic Games has chosen to support wholeheartedly, and at least one indie title using Unreal has already been announced for the Switch. The fact that Epic Games would support the Nintendo Switch says a lot about the potential wider developer base for the Nintendo platform.
The Shield also has an interesting cloud gaming option, where you can download a lot of triple-A blockbuster games and also play games that reside in cloud-connected data centers. But so far, I don’t know if Nintendo is going to add the same capabilities to the Switch. The cloud option is kind of a safety option, which would make it easy for Nintendo to get a lot of triple-A games on the Switch without having to enlist developer resources.
The Switch also has USB Type-C connectivity, as people observed in the debut of the Switch on the recent Jimmy Fallon show. That allows for faster data transfer as well as fast charging for the battery. Nintendo’s own video showed that esports will be a part of the content for the Switch, so you can expect it will have the ability for people to spectate esports events.
There are still a lot of questions. We don’t know the exact price, despite rumors from a lot of sources. It’s not clear how good the Wi-Fi connectivity will be, and we don’t know if the Switch has a touchscreen, like the Nvidia Shield does. Based on the video, it certainly looks like there is no touchscreen, as you attach the secondary controllers to the sides of the tablet. We’re also not sure if Nintendo plans to make use of the Shield’s cloud gaming features. We don’t know the exact number of subprocessors on the Maxwell-based chip, nor do we know at what speed the chip will run at.
But it’s fun to speculate about what will happen next — and the exact form that the console will take in the coming months.
Edited at 7:30 p.m. by Jeffrey Grubb. Added additional reporting and clarified some confusing language surrounding the difference between Maxwell and Pascal. The edits also added Nintendo’s concerns about getting beaten to market like it did with the Wii U. The edits also removed a reference to games not coming to the system due to its chip.
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