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 will its battery last? What will it cost? What accessories come bundled, and which will be aftermarket add-ons?
We don’t have definitive answers to any of those questions, but if you take all the available information, you can make some reasonably confident guesses. So while Nintendo has six more months to give us additional information about the Switch, here’s everything we know (and can guess) about the stuff inside 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 chip’s name or provide any specs, but many rumors point to it being either a “Tegra X2” or a very close relative. (Also worth noting: Digital Foundry claims devkits are running a slightly older Tegra X1.)
When it comes to consumer phones and tablets, the Tegra series probably peaked in 2012-ish with the Tegra 3, which was included in the first Nexus 7 tablet and the HTC One X. Later efforts, particularly the Tegra 4i, mostly fizzled, and the chips are now aimed primarily at cars and at tablets that Nvidia itself designs and sells. Their performance generally isn’t bad, but they run relatively hot and battery life isn’t on the same level as industry-leading SoCs like Qualcomm’s Snapdragons and Apple’s A-series CPUs. Today, Nvidia positions 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 custom 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 showed up in high-end phone CPUs throughout 2015, including Samsung’s Exynos 7 series and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810, and it has since been superseded twice by Cortex A72 and A73. They’re still reasonably capable performers, but the Denver cores will be responsible for most of the heavy lifting—previous-generation Denver cores have been about twice as fast as A57 cores at similar 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’ve generally been very impressed by. But 256 cores is significantly fewer than we’ve seen in any Pascal GPUs so far. For reference, the high-end GeForce GTX 1080 includes 2560 cores (literally 10 times as many), while the more modest GeForce GTX 1050 includes 768 cores.
It’s hard to say just how the Switch will perform based on these numbers, since 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 instance—that we can’t account for. But you shouldn’t expect the Switch to perform on the same level as the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One. Both of those systems have dedicated-class GPUs with fast RAM and much larger cooling systems, and even though their architectures are older, they’re still going to 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 can, but by now, gamers and developers are used to Nintendo consoles that don’t perform on the same level as those from Sony and Microsoft. Interestingly, Pascal GPUs are also capable of 4K HDR video playback, so hopefully Nintendo will decide to support that feature in the name of making the Switch a more compelling home entertainment machine.
Cooling, battery life, and docking
These three topics are all sort of inter-related, so let’s examine them one at a time.
The video shows a few shots of the top of the Switch, and on its top is something that we’re not used to seeing in most general-use tablets: a vent for hot air to exit the system. A fan and heatsink are totally normal for a home console, but portable systems like the 3DS typically haven’t used them.
Let’s be charitable to Nvidia for a second and assume that the presence of a fan is because the Tegra inside the Switch is more powerful than most mobile chips (and not simply hotter). That’s good for game performance, but not great for battery life. Nintendo claims between three and five hours of battery life for both the Wii U gamepad and the 3DS. We’d expect the Switch to fall somewhere into that general range, too, given what we know about Tegra tablets’ battery life, the approximate size of the tablet, and Nintendo’s design priorities for its current systems.
One of the problems with a home console that also needs to work as a portable is that you need to drive a big, high-resolution TV when docked, but you don’t want to kill the battery when you’re not docked. You may also want to generate less heat when you go portable so the system doesn’t become uncomfortable to interact with, and you may even want to slow down or even stop the fan entirely to keep its noise from being distracting.
One possible solution? Use different performance and power profiles when you’re docked than you do when you’re undocked. Specs for dev kits that are floating around claim that the system’s built-in screen is 720p, which would support this theory—the Switch could push 1080p graphics when docked but drop down to 720p when portable to reduce the load on the processor. We’ll need to get actual hardware in our hands before we know any of this for sure, but it’s a pretty safe assumption.
Backward compatibility and emulation
Whether the Switch has a touchscreen or not—something Nintendo has refused to clarify for us—Wii U backward compatibility is absolutely out of the question. The Switch’s ARM chip won’t be able to 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 all the way up through the N64 era, and there’s an outside chance that it will be powerful enough to run GameCube and/or original Wii software at those consoles’ native 480p resolution. 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 inside the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were important not just because they were more powerful than their predecessors but because they used lightly customized standard PC components rather than oddball or niche CPU architectures. This has opened the door to continuous hardware improvements that don’t necessarily break backward compatibility with existing software, stuff like the PlayStation 4 Pro and Project Scorpio.
Nintendo’s Switch isn’t using x86 PC processors, but in moving to an ARMv8 chip like the Tegra, Nintendo could theoretically reap many of the same benefits. It shouldn’t be hard for Nintendo to keep the Switch updated with new Tegra processors that improve performance as long as they also continue to run ARMv8 code and support the NVN graphics API.
This solves one of the traditional weaknesses of console hardware—consoles sit still for half a decade or more while CPU and GPU technology continuously improves. The yearly release cycle of devices like the iPhone and iPad really drive this home; the iPhone 7 is ridiculously fast compared to 2012’s iPhone 5, but the Wii U has the same amount of power today that it did four years ago.
Nvidia seems committed to Tegra despite the fact that the SoCs are relatively niche in the smartphone and tablet markets. Hopefully, both companies continue to work together to keep the Switch’s hardware fresh—just as Sony and Microsoft are doing with AMD.