Nvidia is providing the core technology that powers Nintendo's next generation NX console. Multiple sources have confirmed that the new machine is based around Nvidia's mobile-orientated Tegra processor, with development kits currently using the Tegra X1 chip found in the Shield Android TV console and the Google Pixel C tablet.
The news is bound to come as some surprise to those - including ourselves - who suspected that AMD would provide the technology guts to the new Nintendo machine, but what's clear is that the firm is planning to go into a completely new, potentially revolutionary direction. Right now, it is simply not interested in providing hardware that directly competes with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It has its own ideas on where to take next-gen gaming.
NX is a mobile games machine, albeit one with a twist - principally that the unit can plug into a base station that transforms it into something more akin to a conventional console. However, the handheld's side-mounted control areas are apparently detachable, becoming individual pads for two-player gameplay - as revealed in today's big Nintendo NX news story on this site. At a really basic level, NX is effectively a reversal of the Wii U GamePad concept. It's a fully integrated mobile games machine you can plug into an HDTV, as opposed to a console with a semi-portable gaming component, bolstered with a unique 'go anywhere' take on local multiplayer.
And the compromise there is clear - a relatively lower level of performance compared to the existing current-gen machines. Nvidia's Tegra technology is built with a specific profile in mind: a delicate balance between performance and power efficiency in order to maintain battery life, the life force of mobile gaming. What this means is that prior, plausible rumours of an AMD-powered console with PS4-beating performance and utilising x86 architecture are erroneous. NX is smaller, leaner, portable - and yes, less powerful.
However, the fact is that Nintendo has a proven track record of handing in graphical quality that belies the relatively meagre hardware running it, whether we're talking about Super Smash Bros. on 3DS, Xenoblade Chronicles on New 3DS or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Wii U.
But just how powerful is the NX relatively? In terms of the capabilities of Tegra X1, consider this: Doom BFG Edition on Xbox 360 and PS3 runs at 720p60 with frame-rate drops. The same game running on the Shield Android TV micro-console, based on X1, hands in a near-flawless 1080p60 presentation. Trine 2 - another 720p30 game on Sony and Microsoft's last-gen consoles - operates at 1080p30 on Tegra X1. Typically speaking, OpenGL games port really well to Tegra X1, while DirectX ports, like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and the recently released Resident Evil 5, aren't so impressive.
But the real question is this - what if the Tegra X1 hardware is completely divorced from its current Android underpinnings and paired up with direct, low-level access? If you're looking for an example of the revelatory upgrade to perceived performance this can have, consider the glory days of PlayStation Vita - Uncharted: Golden Abyss, WipEout 2048, Gravity Rush, and yes, a range of impressive PS3 ports. These were all powered by a downclocked version of the same GPU found in the iPad 3 and judged by today's standards, it's positively ancient technology. However, even to this day, it's hard to find a mobile shooter with anything like the technical sophistication of Guerrilla Cambridge's impressive Killzone: Mercenary.
There's an additional wrinkle to the story too, albeit one we should treat with caution as it is single-source in nature with a lot of additional speculation on our part. This relates to the idea that the Tegra X1 in the NX development hardware is apparently actively cooled, with audible fan noise. With that in mind, we can't help but wonder whether X1 is the final hardware we'll see in the NX. Could it actually be a placeholder for Tegra X2? It's a new mobile processor Nvidia has in its arsenal and what's surprising about it is how little we actually know about it.
Information on X2 is very limited, to the point where all the technical info we have on it is condensed into one presentation you can read here - 'Embedded Supercomputing at Nvidia' by Alex Ramirez of Nvidia Research. What we do know is that it is a core component of Nvidia's new Drive PX2 system for the automotive industry, where two Tegra X2s are paired with a brace of the firm's discrete GPUs based on the cutting-edge Pascal architecture.
We also know it has an unusual CPU set-up - two next-gen versions of Nvidia's own Denver CPU cores, paired with an ARM quad-core ARM Cortex-A57 CPU cluster. But what we don't know is the form its GPU component will take because unusually, Nvidia has released no specs on this element whatsoever. Assuming that X2 offers a generational leap over X1 and uses the same Pascal architecture found in its new GPU line, we are potentially looking at power more in line with the current-gen consoles. And if Pascal is in play, it will also use 16nm FinFET production technology compared to X1's 20nm process, meaning it is much more power-efficient. Nintendo could also downclock the chip for further efficiency savings and longer battery life while retaining the lion's share of its processing power.
It is worth stressing with a firm emphasis that everything we have heard so far points to Tegra X1 as the SoC of choice for Nintendo NX, and Tegra X2 may simply be a derivative version of X1 with Denver CPU cores, designed for Nvidia's burgeoning automotive line - we literally know very little about it. However, perhaps another factor to consider is launch timing. NX launches in March 2017, almost two years after Shield Android TV with Tegra X1 launched in May 2015. The timing may suggest that Nintendo is waiting for mass production to become available on a more cutting edge part. If the older Tegra X1 is indeed the core component, availability there would not be a problem, suggesting a delay elsewhere in the pipeline. Alternatively, it may simply be the case that Nintendo is holding fire until a compelling array of launch software is ready.Shooters: How games fund arms manufacturers From marketing guns to young people to selling lucrative licenses.
One element worth pointing out is that the move to a completely new architecture will have backwards compatibility ramifications. Tegra technology would have no problem whatsoever coping with existing virtual console emulation (and indeed, the X1-powered Shield Android TV is one of the best emulator boxes on the market) but running Wii U titles may be a stretch too far.
And one final note - we're still chasing down details on the NX's screen resolution. While Tegra X1 has shown some potential at full 1080p, clearly a lower pixel count would free up GPU resources for more detailed imagery. On a mobile device, even a 720p screen could work beautifully - and few can complain about the quality of Vita's 540p panel. However, on the flip-side, NX is indeed a console/mobile hybrid. The games still have to look good on a conventional HDTV in a world where 1080p is effectively the standard.
We'll continue digging and bring you more information when we can. You can read everything we know about the NX so far, including confirmed games and proposed release plans, but otherwise, Nintendo itself is giving nothing away, telling Eurogamer that "Nintendo has not made any new official announcements regarding NX which is due to launch in March 2017. As such [we're] unable to comment on the various rumours and speculations circulating."