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In Theory: Can a Switch hardware revision extend its lifespan?

Nintendo wants Switch to last beyond 2021 - and improved tech is the natural solution.

Last week, news emerged of Nintendo's immediate and longer term plans for the Switch, reported on the Wall Street Journal, no less. The headline made it clear that there'd be no Switch hardware revision this year, with Nintendo's emphasis shifting to USB-C peripherals and its fascinating Labo initiative. However, tucked away at the foot of the report is coverage of a February investor briefing, where Nintendo CEO Tatsumi Kimishima talks about his plans of extending Switch's lifespan beyond the five to six year console average, taking the lifespan of the console hybrid up to 2021 at least. To make this work, hardware revisions may be inevitable.

The question of when the first of those updates is set to arrive will almost certainly be a matter of economics - specifically, the build cost of the Tegra X1 processor currently used by Nintendo. The chip is mass produced by Taiwainese semi-conductor giant TSMC, and it's based on their 20nm technology. A stepping stone between various 28nm variants and the more widely adopted 16nm FinFET, 20nm was something of a failure overall. Apple utilised it for its iPhone 6 range of phones, but dropped it for the 6S, while fellow mobile chip giant Qualcomm also used it only fleetingly. Switch has sold astonishingly well for a games console, but those numbers aren't large enough to sustain an entire manufacturing line. At some point, keeping 20nm online will cost Nintendo more than simply moving onto a cheaper, better technology.

The good news is that Switch technology partner Nvidia already has a perfectly capable replacement part - Tegra X2. It's a curious piece of tech that doesn't really suit the Nvidia's aims of cornering the automotive and AI markets. It's essentially a 16nmFinFET replacement for the X1, with strategic improvements: twice the memory bandwidth and a move to the Pascal GPU architecture (which in the case of the X2 is essentially a more efficient version of the X1's Maxwell graphics core). X2 retains the quad-core ARM Cortex A57 set-up of the X1, and adds an additional CPU cluster based on Nvidia's own Denver architecture - which may or may not be active in a Switch successor (X1 also has inactive areas on the chip). It's a weird part for Nvidia to produce at all, but makes perfect sense as a replacement processor for Switch further on down the line: it should have full compatibility with the X1 with the potential for performance improvements via higher clock speeds and more memory bandwidth, in addition to battery life improvements.

Can a Switch hardware revision extend its lifespan and what form might it take? Here's Rich's video report.

The existence of a more capable Switch - and possibly even the eventual emergence of an Xbox-style evolving platform - offers interesting options for Nintendo. Do we get a 'New 3DS' scenario where games are hard-locked to specific hardware 'rungs' on the ladder? Or do we get an Xbox scenario where newer kit simply runs older games more adeptly? Having analysed every major Switch release, we have two major takeaways - and in both cases, improved hardware could help to improve the experience significantly.

Firstly, key games are using dynamic scaling technology - meaning that the visual quality of games can scale with available processing power. Titles like Doom and Skyrim (and there are many more) scale resolution according to load, but it's a technique that's definitely not limited to third-party games. Major Nintendo releases like Super Mario Odyssey, Zelda: Breath of the Wild and most notably Splatoon 2 have all made the leap to DRS rendering. It maximises GPU resources, pushing out as many pixels as possible - and as we've seen with Xbox One X, it also opens the door to existing games simply looking better on more powerful, revised hardware released further on down the line.

And this leads us on to our second takeaway - what you might call the 'docked play situation'. Switch has established itself as the best gaming handheld we've ever had, but despite higher resolutions and often smoother frame-rates, as a living room system, the vast canvas of today's flat panels can make the system look dated. Games just hold up better on a six-inch screen compared to being writ large on 1080p and especially 4K monsters. Now, clearly, Switch has many advantages of its own against the Sony and Microsoft competition, producing very different experiences. However, at the same time, the docked play situation is only going to become more of an issue as the years progress, with more and more users migrating onto better living room displays. On top of that, long before Nintendo hits its 2021 lifecycle threshold, both Microsoft and Sony will have released their true next-gen hardware.

Nintendo's strategy with Switch development seems to have been to target mobile play first then scale up for the docked experience. And Super Mario Odyssey has some fascinating techniques in play to extract the most performance out of Switch's mobile mode.

Tegra X2 offers an evolutionary step for Nintendo, a 'New Switch' option with a similar performance bump to the New 3DS, but beyond that, hardware options based on the Nvidia roadmap start to look a little more limited. Nvidia has produced a successor to the Tegra X2 - codenamed Xavier - but it's a piece of hardware very definitely targeted at the automotive market. It runs on TSMC's 12nmFFN process (a 16nmFinFET revision designed especially for Nvidia) but it's packed with AI, machine-learning and video processing technologies that have no real business in a games machine. There's also the rather large footprint of the processor to consider: at 350mm2, it occupies 97 per cent of the silicon area used by Microsoft's Scorpio Engine. Suffice to say that it's not a good fit for a mobile/console hybrid or even a standalone home console - its 512 CUDA cores are unlikely to worry either PS4 Pro or Xbox One X. A more bespoke Nvidia solution may be required.

Further on down the line, Nintendo has the option of designing its own chips with Nvidia - Switch has proven its worth financially and won't need to piggyback onto existing designs (a situation that benefited both Nintendo and Nvidia, reducing costs significantly) but there are other options available too, and this brings us back to one of the great enigmas of the pre-launch period - the Foxconn leak. Details posted on a Chinese forum (translated on Reddit) give us what is almost certainly a fully authentic, pre-launch glimpse of the Switch production line. We got an early description of the console innards and the Joycon controllers that proved unerringly accurate and we also received specifics on the demos used to stress-test the silicon and the internal thermal solution. Some of the leaker's observations were off-beam (the leak kept alive many fans' hopes of an Nvidia Pascal chip even after Digital Foundry and others had effectively ruled it out) but the source is sound overall: the facts checked out and the conjecture in the original post is clearly stated as such.

And this leads us onto the leaker's description of a development kit which sounds quite unlike the hardware we've seen in the wild. The leak describes a unit with twice the amount of memory as the standard model (8GB vs 4GB) and what sounds like the integration of both the Tegra X1 and another core, which the leaker measures at 200mm2 - coincidentally the same size as Nvidia's GP106 chip found in the GTX 1060. And since then - perhaps related - rumours have persisted of a 'power dock' adding much more GPU muscle to the Switch, a comprehensive solution that would certainly address the docked play scenario, albeit at the cost of introducing a third performance profile for developers to implement.

Could Switch adapt into an Xbox-style evolving platform? Many games are built around dynamic resolution scaling, and more powerful hardware would give automatic image quality and performance boosts out of the box. The Doom 2016 port would benefit tremendously - just as it does on Xbox One X.

Whether that over-complicates the basic Switch concept is debatable, as is the question of whether the shortcomings in docked play really matter. Nintendo's games are simply brilliant wherever you play them, and aren't reliant on state-of-the-art technology - but for whatever reason, we've found that Switch gaming justs hold up better on the mobile screen. And this is not surprising - Nintendo's titles do appear to be targeted at the smaller display, with less of an emphasis on a tailored experience when docked, and it shows. Indeed, Super Mario Odyssey is actually running at 640x720 - half resolution - using reconstruction to scale up to the portable display's native 720p. It works well owing to the small screen and relatively tiny pixel pitch - but the same strategy wouldn't pass muster when docked.

But as good as the games are, that's not to say that Nintendo's library wouldn't benefit significantly from running on better hardware. Numerous prior-gen Nintendo emulation exercises have conclusively proven that the platform holder's beautiful art design is timeless, and scales wonderfully to higher pixel counts, whether that's 1080p or full-fat 4K. It's part of the reason why those Switch ports are so enticing - the games are great, and we just want to see how well they can run on better hardware.

In the here and now, Nintendo has the luxury of time. There's nothing like Switch on the market, and while there are often prolonged waiting periods for new titles, there's clearly a rich seam of prior-gen ports to tap into, along with the prospect of Wii and GameCube emulation on the inevitable Switch Virtual Console. Just the ability to play a truly classic library on a great portable is an immensely compelling proposition that we've really come to value in the machine. But it's a short term stopgap - and if Nintendo is indeed planning to push the Switch generation significantly beyond the arrival of PlayStation 5 and the next-gen Xbox, further innovation in hardware as well as a continued supply of great games is the natural route forward.

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About the Author
Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.