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The Super Nintendo Switch rumors are back thanks to a new report from Bloomberg. You can read what reviews editor Mike Minotti thinks the system needs right here. The Bloomberg story claims that Nintendo is sourcing new OLED 7-inch 720p screens from Samsung for the upgraded device. And then the system will target 4K in docked mode.
This joins a long lineage of rumors related to a Switch refresh that would beef up the capabilities of the hardware. But how is it possible for the Switch to render games in 4K — after all, the current hardware struggles to run at 1080p.
Let’s go over some of the options available to Nintendo. These include significantly upgrading the hardware, implementing Nvidia’s deep-learning supersampling (DLSS), and a variety of post-processing and video tricks. And then we’ll try to figure out which one is the most realistic.
A superpowered next-gen Switch processor
One possibility is that Nintendo will release a Switch with an ultra-powerful GPU from Nvidia. 2021 Switch models are still using the Tegra X1 design that first debuted in 2015. And since then, Nvidia has not just reduced the size of its chips but has also introduced multiple new generations of architectures.
That means that Nvidia and Nintendo could design a new system-on-a-chip (SOC) with significantly more power and efficiency than the X1. Maybe even enough to get some games — like Nintendo first-party releases — running at 4K60.
How realistic is this?
A next-gen Tegra is inevitable, but it’s not the kind of thing that makes a lot of sense for a Switch upgrade. Completely new SOCs are expensive, and Nintendo wants to improve the profitability of its hardware at this point in the generational cycle. Also, there’s still a lot Nintendo can do with the current architecture to get more power and efficiency.
So don’t expect the so-called Switch Pro to go this route.
DLSS on Switch
DLSS is Nvidia’s magical image-reconstruction tech. It’s capable of taking a 1080p image and upscaling it to a 4K image without losing details. In some cases, the deep-learning model is so effective that DLSS 4K includes more detail than native 4K.
How realistic is this?
This seems more likely than a next-gen Switch processor, but it’s not a slam dunk. DLSS relies on Nvidia’s specialized Tensor computing cores, and the Switch’s Tegra SOC does not have any Tensor cores. But I wouldn’t assume that means that Nvidia wouldn’t figure out how to add them.
It’s possible that Nintendo and Nvidia could opt to move the Tegra X1 from the current 16nm TSMC manufacturing process to either TSMC’s 7nm process or Samsung’s 8nm process. In either case, that would significantly shrink the size of the die and create room for dedicated Tensor cores. An added benefit of this is that it would also drastically improve efficiency of the Switch SOC, and Nintendo could use that to increase clocks while using less battery and generating less heat.
Nvidia AI upscaling
Nvidia has another AI upscaling technique cleverly called AI Upscaling. The company uses this to make 480p images look like crystal clear 1080p and even 4K on its Nvidia Shield set-top box. You can see it significantly sharpen detail in streaming content in the video below.
How realistic is this?
AI Upscaling seems like the right answer at first glance. It’s already working on the Nvidia Shield, which uses the same Tegra X1 processor as the Nintendo Switch. But it’s possible that this technique won’t work as well with games.
On Shield, Nvidia only uses it with content like YouTube video and Hulu movies/shows. My guess is that like a lot of image processing, AI upscaling introduces unacceptable lag. That would prevent it from working with Switch games.
Of course, it’s possible that Nvidia and Nintendo could tune a version of it to function for gaming. But we haven’t seen any evidence of that.
Another possible solution is something like a post-process add-on chip. Nintendo could build an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) into the Switch dock that specifically handles upscaling and improving the video signal for 4K. Something like this is already possible with devices from a company called Marseille. Its MClassic dongle can upscale a 720p or 1080p image to 1440p while also adding contextual anti-aliasing, color enhancements, and image sharpening.
I continue to use the MClassic with my Switch on a 4K TV to this day, and it makes a huge difference. The image is so much cleaner.
How realistic is this?
This idea works really well on paper. Put something like an MClassic inside the dock to get 4K, but it doesn’t really fit with what we know. Nintendo is telling developers to get their games ready for 4K, and an upscaler inside the dock wouldn’t really require them to change their games in that way. Also, a post-processing ASIC would only improve the game in docked mode. I think that Nintendo is going to want to improve the Switch’s performance in handheld as well.
Nintendo will do what is cheap and easy
It’s important to remember what the purpose of a hardware revision is. This isn’t a new generation of hardware. Nintendo wants to save money, keep demand high, and keep the average sales price high. And it wants to do that all while getting its biggest fans to subsidize the distribution of more Switch systems. So Nintendo only needs to do enough to get its most loyal customers to upgrade so we might sell our older Switch systems or give them away to friends or family.
As Nintendo was sketching out what a Super Nintendo Switch would look like, it only really needs to hit a list of features that look good on paper. That means bringing buzzwords like “4K” and “OLED” and maybe even “HDR.” And then it will look for the cheapest and easiest way to get to those buzzwords.
So what do I think that is? Surprisingly, I think that it’s some form of a more efficient SOC with Tensor cores for DLSS. Nvidia wants to keep pushing DLSS hard before AMD’s open competitor has a chance to launch on consoles and Radeon GPUs. And one way to expand support for DLSS as an industry standard is to get it up and running on one of the fastest-selling consoles of all time.
Nvidia’s motivations would align well with a Switch refresh, and Nintendo can get the benefits without having to force the issue itself.
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