The first trailer for Nintendo’s Switch console told us a lot about the console’s central gimmick, but almost nothing about the details. How big is it? How powerful is it? How long does his battery last? What does it cost? Which accessories are bundled and which are aftermarket add-ons?
We don’t have a definitive answer to all these questions, but if you use all the information available, you can make some fairly reliable guesses. So while Nintendo still has six months to give us additional information about the Switch, here’s everything we know (and can guess) about the stuff in the console/portable hybrid for now.
Nvidia’s Tegra chip and graphics performance
The new console uses a “custom Tegra processor” from Nvidia, confirming months of rumors. Nvidia has declined to give us the name of the chip or give us any specifications, but many rumors point to it being either a “Tegra X2” or a very close relative. (Also worth noting: Digital Foundry claims that devkits use a slightly older Tegra X1.)
When it comes to consumer phones and tablets, the Tegra series probably peaked in 2012 with the Tegra 3, which was included in the first Nexus 7 tablet and the HTC One X. Subsequent efforts, most notably the Tegra 4i, ran. mostly out of control, and the chips are now mostly focused on cars and on tablets that Nvidia designs and sells itself. Their performance isn’t bad overall, but they get relatively hot and the battery life isn’t on par with leading SoCs like Qualcomm’s Snapdragons and Apple’s A-series CPUs. Today, Nvidia is positioning the Tegra family primarily as gaming-centric tablet processors and as the foundation of its platforms for smart and self-driving cars.
The X2 is also known as ‘Parker’ and we know a few things about it. Anandtech reports that it uses a total of six ARM CPU cores, two Nvidia-designed “Denver” cores, and four off-the-shelf ARM Cortex A57 cores. All six cores use a 64-bit architecture, but the A57 is old news at this point: It appeared in 2015 in high-end phone CPUs, including Samsung’s Exynos 7 series and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810, and is since then replaced twice by Cortex A72 and A73. They’re still fairly capable performers, but the Denver cores will be responsible for most of the heavy lifting – previous generation Denver cores were about twice as fast as A57 cores at comparable clock speeds.
On the GPU side, Parker uses 256 CUDA cores based on Nvidia’s Pascal architecture. Pascal is the architecture used for Nvidia’s GeForce 1000 series cards, which we are generally very impressed with. But 256 cores is significantly less than we’ve seen in all Pascal GPUs so far. For reference, the high-end GeForce GTX 1080 contains 2560 cores (literally 10 times as many), while the more modest GeForce GTX 1050 contains 768 cores.
It’s hard to say how the Switch will perform based on these numbers, as performance doesn’t always scale perfectly and there are other factors: CPU speed, memory bandwidth, and the Switch’s proprietary Nvidia-developed “NVN” graphics API, for example – which we cannot take into account. But you shouldn’t expect the Switch to perform at the same level as the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One. Both systems have dedicated GPUs with fast RAM and much larger cooling systems, and while their architectures are older, they will still be much more capable than an SoC like Tegra.
The Pascal GPU should be able to push slightly more detailed graphics at 1080p than the Wii U, but by now gamers and developers are used to Nintendo consoles that don’t perform at the same level as Sony and Microsoft. Interestingly, Pascal GPUs are also capable of playing 4K HDR video, so hopefully Nintendo will decide to support that feature in the name of the Switch to make it a more attractive home entertainment device.
Cooling, battery life and docking
These three topics are all interrelated, so let’s take a look at them one by one.
The video shows a few shots of the top of the Switch, and on the top is something we’re not used to seeing in most general purpose tablets: a vent for hot air to exit the system. A fan and heatsink are perfectly normal for a home console, but portable systems like the 3DS usually haven’t used them.
Let’s be charitable to Nvidia for a moment and assume that the fan presence is because the Tegra in the Switch is more powerful than most mobile chips (and not just hotter). That’s good for gaming performance, but not good for battery life. Nintendo claims between three and five hours of battery life for both the Wii U gamepad and 3DS. We expect the Switch to fall somewhere in that general range as well, given what we know about Tegra tablet battery life, the tablet’s estimated size, and Nintendo’s design priorities for its current systems.
One of the problems with a home console that also has to work as a portable is that you have to power a large, high-resolution TV when it’s docked, but you don’t want to drain the battery when you’re not in the dock. You may also want to generate less heat when you go mobile so that the system doesn’t become uncomfortable to work with, and you may even want to slow down the fan or even stop it altogether to prevent the noise from being distracting.
A possible solution? Use different performance and power profiles when you’re in the dock than when you’re not in the dock. Specifications for dev kits floating around claiming that the system’s built-in screen is 720p, which would support this theory – the Switch could push 1080p graphics when docked, but drop back to 720p when portable to lessen the load on the processor. We’ll have to get our hands on real hardware before we know for sure, but it’s a pretty safe assumption.
Backwards compatibility and emulation
Whether the Switch has a touchscreen or not – something Nintendo didn’t want to clarify for us – backwards compatibility with Wii U is absolutely out of the question. The Switch’s ARM chip cannot run code written for the Wii U’s Power CPU, nor will it be powerful enough to emulate Wii U software.
That said, the hardware should easily be powerful enough for Virtual Console software up to the N64 era, and there’s a remote chance it will be powerful enough to run GameCube and/or original Wii software with the native 480p resolution of those consoles . Nothing is official until Nintendo announces it, but if you want to play your Wii U (or 3DS) software, smart money says to keep your old systems around.
The guts in the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were important not only because they were more powerful than their predecessors, but also because they used slightly modified off-the-shelf PC components rather than eccentric or niche CPU architectures. This has opened the door to ongoing hardware improvements that don’t necessarily break backwards compatibility with existing software, things like the PlayStation 4 Pro and Project Scorpio.
Nintendo’s Switch doesn’t use x86 PC processors, but by moving to an ARMv8 chip like the Tegra, Nintendo could in theory reap many of the same benefits. It shouldn’t be hard for Nintendo to keep the Switch up to date with new Tegra processors that improve performance, as long as they also continue to run ARMv8 code and support the NVN graphics API.
This fixes one of the traditional weaknesses of console hardware: consoles stand still for half a decade or more while CPU and GPU technology are constantly improving. The annual release cycle of devices like the iPhone and iPad really makes up for this; the iPhone 7 is ridiculously fast compared to the 2012 iPhone 5, but the Wii U has the same amount of power today as it did four years ago.
Nvidia seems committed to Tegra, despite the fact that the SoCs are a relatively niche in the smartphone and tablet markets. Hopefully, both companies will continue to work together to keep the Switch’s hardware fresh, just as Sony and Microsoft are doing with AMD.