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Nintendo’s Switch is small, but it can slug it out with PS4 and Xbox One

After months of leaks, it’s finally official. Nintendo’s next console, codenamed “NX,” is called the Nintendo Switch, and it’s coming out in March 2017.

The trailer shown by Nintendo was only a teaser, and it doesn’t include many specifics about the hardware. Yet we did receive some clear information from the company about what’s inside and how it works. What Nintendo showed suggests that the Switch has very little in common with the Wii U.

To see inside Switch, look behind the Shield

Speculation and leaks ahead of the Nintendo Switch’s official announcement leaned heavily towards the inclusion of a Tegra-based system-on-a-chip design. That was confirmed today, by a simultaneous press release from Nvidia.

The Nintendo Switch will be in league with the Xbox One, and it’s a big step up over the Wii U.

As you might expect, Nvidia didn’t say exactly what’s in the Switch, aside from Tegra. There are many versions of Tegra. The big question is whether the hardware is similar to the Tegra X1 found in the Nvidia Shield set-top box, or perhaps based on Nvidia’s more advanced “Parker” design, which the company officially discussed at the Hot Chips conference in August of this year.

To get a sense of what the Tegra chipset can do, we can look at Nvidia’s own gaming device, the Shield console. The Tegra X1 found in that device is essentially a tablet design on steroids. It combines eight ARM cores with 256 of Nvidia’s CUDA graphics cores, and the graphics component is based off the Maxwell GPU architecture. In other words, the processor is like a modern high-end smartphone or tablet, and the graphics component is a scaled-back GTX 900 series. Nvidia quoted its raw compute power at 1 TFLOP.

Parker is a bit different. It’s a six-core processor, and two of those cores feature Nvidia’s own “Denver 2” architecture. Denver 2 is based on ARM, but built from the ground up by Nvidia. It’s paired with four more conventional ARM cores. The GPU component again has 256 CUDA cores, but it’s based on the new Pascal architecture found in Nvidia’s GTX 1000 series. The quoted compute power is 1.5TFLOPs.

nintendo switch design

Nvidia said the Switch will feature a custom Tegra processor, but we have every reason to believe it’s capabilities will be very similar to either the X1 or Parker chips.

Whatever the case, though, it seems the raw power will be somewhere between 1TFLOP and 1.5TFLOPs. That figure puts it in range of the Xbox One, which quoted 1.31TFLOPs, and behind the PlayStation 4, which quoted 1.84TFLOPs. Nintendo never produced such a measurement for the Wii U, but even the most charitable guesstimates peg its performance well below the 1TFLOP mark.

Put simply, the Nintendo Switch will be in league with the Xbox One, and it’s a big step up over the Wii U. It’s unlikely to catch up to the PlayStation 4, though, nevermind the PlayStation 4 Pro.

How well will games play?

Gamers always want to know how well a console will play the latest titles. Unfortunately, that’s a tough question. A lot of it comes down to the games, and how they’re designed for the hardware.

Mario Kart 8 is a gorgeous game, arguably among the most attractive on any console currently available. It runs at 60 frames per second, but only at 1,280 x 720 resolution. There’s no reason it should look outstanding, but it does. Credit for that goes to the art and development teams at Nintendo.

Other Wii U games weren’t as impressive. That console included some ports of third-party games at launch, such as Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Mass Effect 3. They… didn’t fare so well, and often struggled to maintain performance parity with even the Xbox 360.

In truth, the Nintendo Switch isn’t going to solve the company’s performance problem. Sony will debut a much quicker console months ahead of the Switch, and Microsoft plans to launch a far faster console in late 2017. The Switch can’t hope to keep up.

To compensate, developers will be forced to make the usual graphical downgrades. I doubt most third-party games will render at 1080p, and I doubt many will shoot for more than 30 frames per second. As the Switch’s life goes on, developers porting to Nintendo’s new console will make compromises in texture quality, lighting detail, and other areas.

Strangely, though, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 may provide some relief. They aren’t being abandoned – which means developers will already be focused on building games that scale down to less powerful hardware. It’s not unreasonable to imagine the Switch will offer visual quality on par, or very nearly on par, with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 throughout its lifespan.

Will developers port to the Switch?

The performance gap between Nintendo hardware and its competition is partly responsible for the lack of third-party support for the Wii U, but it’s not the entire problem. Fundamental differences between the Wii U and its peers are an issue, too. The internals of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are as close to identical as you’d ever expect to see from two competing companies. The Wii U, with CPU cores based on IBM’s Power architecture, was the odd man out.

The Switch will enjoy better third-party support.

Nintendo hasn’t completely solved that problem. Since it’s based on Tegra, the Switch has ARM-compatible hardware, rather than the x86 hardware that’s found in PCs, the Xbox One, and the PlayStation 4. That’s a complication.

It’s not as bad as the Wii U, though. Many developers have experience porting games over to ARM hardware, since it powers almost every Android device on the market. The Nvidia Shield can run games like Portal, Super Meat Boy, Borderlands 2, and Resident Evil 5, all of which are on the Google Play store.

Developers are also familiar with Nvidia. The company’s press release calls out NVAPI, which is a “core software development kit” that allows direct access to NVIDA GPU hardware. There’s a clearly defined avenue that developers can pursue if they want to develop for, or port to, the Switch.

All of this means the Switch will enjoy better third-party support. On that, we don’t have to speculate. Nintendo showed off The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the Switch during its trailer, and announced a long list of third-party development partners that includes Activision, Bethesda, Square Enix, From Software, Sega, THQ, Ubisoft, and more.

It’s also worth mentioning that Nintendo showed support for Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon in its trailer. That’s notable because the Switch hardware diverges too much from the Wii U to make backward compatibly simple. Though the trailer showed details not found in the current versions, both games appear to be ports, rather than backwards compatible through emulation. Unfortunately, gamers might have to re-purchase titles they own, unless Nintendo devises some scheme that can validate user purchases of Wii U software.

Cartridges make their return

The trailer confirmed that the Nintendo Switch uses a cartridge. Nothing was shared regarding the size, or underlying technology, but it is, of course, some form of flash memory, and another sign that backwards compatibility is a no-go.

This confirmation, along with the portable nature of the Switch, means we’re looking at yet another Nintendo console that won’t rely much on file installation to internal storage.

In fact, We expect it will rely on it far less than the Wii U. The slow access speeds of its disc drive meant that installation to internal or external storage could be beneficial on the Wii U, even if not required. Xenoblade Chronicles X is the best example of that, as it performed far better when installed to internal storage.

Cartridges, though, are less of a bottleneck then a disc drive, so there shouldn’t ever be a need to install game files to internal storage from a cartridge. Instead, internal storage will probably be the domain of digital content and DLC. We may even find that save files end up stored on the game cartridge, as is common with Nintendo’s DS line.

Of course, the internal storage will be flash memory, as well. How much? That remains to be seen, but I’ll speculate – and hope for – a minimum of 32GB.

Show me the features

With performance and compatibility out of the way, let’s hit the last important point. What features can the Switch support?

4K and HDR may come to mind first for most gamers. While it’s fair to say there’s zero chance games will render in native 4K on the Switch, support for 4K and HDR seem likely. Excellent media support has always been a cornerstone of Tegra, and past incarnations have handled both with ease. It would be bizarre for Nintendo to cut these features. I’m not going to say it won’t happen, because Nintendo is known for strange decisions, but the hardware can technically support it.

Those familiar with Tegra and the Shield will know that game streaming is a key feature of the hardware. Technically, it could be possible to stream games wirelessly between devices. That includes playing PC games on the Switch, or games purchase through a cloud gaming service.

Don’t get your hopes up, though. These features would conflict with Nintendo’s platform, and the Switch reveal trailer shows no support of game streaming in any form. Skyrim is shown played on a plane, so that’s not coming from another device or cloud service.

Prepare to buy new controllers

This seems to imply that the Wii U’s remote play feature has been axed, too, and the display isn’t a touchscreen enabled controller (indeed, the display is never shown to have touch input of any form). I must say that is a slight disappointment, as I loved the unique control features the Wii U could enable. But it was another barrier to third-party support, and almost never essential.

There wasn’t any indication of ports compatible with old, wired controllers. It’s possible they’re lurking around the back of the dock, which wasn’t shown. More likely than not, though, this means controllers will not be backward compatibile. I’m sure Nintendo would love to make its existing Wii and Wii U hardware ecosystem compatible, but nothing about the Switch hardware suggests that’ll happen.

nintendo switch controller

The dock is shown with two USB ports on the side. While they might be used for external storage, that seems unlikely to be a key feature, since any external storage attached to the dock would not be accessible on the go – confusing, to say the least.

It’s a better bet that they’ll be used to connect and/or charge peripherals, such as the Switch Pro Controller, but even that is uncertain. While backwards compatibility with some Wii U controllers is a technical possibility, it would not be a shock to see Nintendo make a clean break. It’s a coin flip, really.

Taking bets on the cost of a Switch

If you’d like to know more about the Switch, well – I wouldn’t hold your breath. Nintendo doesn’t talk much about its hardware, and precise details of past consoles only became known after they were released, and reached the hands of tear-down experts.

Based on what we do know, though, I think this console will better align itself with what older gamers desire, without losing the unique charm that Nintendo hardware usually has. And, it should be mentioned, the Switch effectively unifies the company’s home and mobile consoles. That’s great.

Let’s wrap up with some raw speculation. How much will the Switch cost? Nintendo hasn’t said, but what’s been shown is enough to make a guess.

it’s clear the Switch hardware is designed to resolve many of the problems Nintendo has faced in recent years, while also retaining a unique feature that its competitors can’t claim. This approach isn’t likely to win over hardcore gamers, as they will still choose to play cross-platform titles on more powerful systems. But the Switch could finally make Nintendo’s hardware a good choice for families that only want to buy one console.