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Spec analysis: Switch OLED model - new display, old tech

A missed opportunity to improve docked play.

After months of pent-up expectation surrounding the 'Switch Pro' and hopes of a new, improved machine, Nintendo finally revealed its new OLED model yesterday and it is effectively a product refresh with a higher quality screen, more storage and a revised dock. No promises are being made about any actual enhancements to the performance of the machine because there are none. The same 16nm+ version of the Tegra X1 found in current Switches also beats at the heart of the OLED model, so the end result is a machine that improves the quality of the handheld experience but does not address what is arguably the Switch's biggest drawback - the quality of docked play.

All of which raises the question of how the Switch Pro hype train kicked off in the first place, since reputable outlets with good sources seemed to indicate that an upgraded model with a new Nvidia processor was a done deal. At Digital Foundry, we pegged the new unit as being a product refresh a few months back (see the very first DF Direct for commentary) especially as the Atmosphere custom firmware team had revealed the existence of a revised Switch with a new screen but the same core spec back in January. Apparently, the machine - internally codenamed 'Aula' - first appeared in the Switch firmware with update 10.0.0, which went public in April 2020. The only real explanation I can suggest is that development of the OLED and the actual next-gen Switch got confused at some point, birthing the Switch Pro rumour.

In terms of how the new Switch evolves, Nintendo's strategy is to add to the existing family of consoles. For now at least, the original model remains, as does the handheld-only 'non-Switchable' Lite. The OLED model gains a higher grade, physically larger 7-inch screen, improved audio and a multi-position kickstand, along with a light sensor on top - presumably to help with auto-brightness adjustment. Overall dimensions are much the same, but the unit is very, very slightly wider and a touch weightier. Switch OLED is confirmed to work with older docks but gets a more refined rendition with an onboard LAN port. This new dock is available for purchase separately and also works with older Switch models but there is a drawback to it - you lose the internal USB port, while the two external USB 2.0 sockets remain.

John Linneman and Rich Leadbetter share their initial reactions to the Switch OLED model reveal.Watch on YouTube

In essence then, Switch OLED doubles down on the handheld experience that was already the strongest part of the package. The OLED screen should provide a bigger, much higher quality picture. We can confirm that there is no HDR functionality but in its comms with developers, Nintendo says that "OLED screen colours are more vivid". We can't judge the quality of the improved audio until we hear it, but Nintendo talks about "an improved sound pressure level" for the new model. The new kickstand - reminiscent of Microsoft Surface - certainly addresses a key problem from the original model, which had a stand so flimsy, it couldn't really be relied upon for stability on anything other than a rock-steady surface.

However, nothing in Nintendo's marketing materials describes anything other than standard Switch performance. The size of the battery remains the same at 4310mAh, battery life is described in terms that are identical to the existing standard Switch - 4.5 hours to nine hours, depending on the application. The Verge has a statement from Nintendo clarifying that "Nintendo Switch (OLED model) does not have a new CPU, or more RAM, from previous Nintendo Switch models."

The new machine does have more storage - 64GB of NAND compared to the original's 32GB, but beyond that, we now have complete confirmation that the internals are essentially unchanged. The same 16nm+ rendition of the Tegra X1 - codenamed 'Mariko' - is retained for the new model. In the current environment of severe semiconductor shortages, sticking with the existing silicon on what is now a relatively old production process should ensure that Nintendo can provide adequate volumes of the new machines in a world where its competitors are struggling, and make a decent profit on them too.

In theory, the new Switch could be overclocked to improve the fluidity of performance-challenged games - something we can test with homebrew mods to older systems.Watch on YouTube

So, for Nintendo and indeed game developers, the Switch OLED model is very much business as usual, to the point where the platform holder is telling game makers that no new development kits are essential for making games and there are no new technical requirements that require changing standard Switch iconography in-game to accommodate the new model. On top of that, games running on Switch OLED have no idea they are running on anything other than a standard unit - Nintendo's developer documents reveal that there is no way for their games to query the system, to figure out whether they are running on Switch OLED or not. With that said, the firm does recognise the need for developers to test their games on the new screen. With that in mind, a new ADEV development model is being made available to co-exist alongside the existing SDEV and EDEV versions. For reasons undisclosed by the Nintendo, this machine ships with 8GB of onboard memory compared to the 6GB in the other development models and the 4GB of all retail units.

With the Switch approaching four-and-a-half years in the market, it now seems almost certain that Nintendo will not deploy a mid-generation refresh in the mould of the DSi or the New 3DS and its offshoot models. With prior handhelds, the platform holder introduced new specs and the ability for developers to tap into extra horsepower, even if developer take-up for the extra power ended up being rather slight. That does not seem to be the case for its most modern machine. There has been disappointment that Switch OLED isn't Switch Pro - or features any performance advantages at all - and that is a shame because the longer this generation continues, the more obvious the machine's challenges as a docked home console become.

In one way, Nintendo's hybrid is a celebration of what's possible with a mobile chipset, one that is significantly under-clocked compared to its reference specs. We've seen feats on the 1.02GHz CPU that are extraordinary, while the GPU is relatively slow but is based on a relatively modern architecture, opening the door to many of the 'impossible ports' we've seen. Working in concert, games like Doom Eternal and The Witcher 3 have appeared running reasonably well on what is a six-year-old model chipset. However, while the machine holds up for handheld play, the docked situation looks fairly grim - with many games, sub-1080p, sub-720p and even lower resolutions just don't hold up on today's gigantic flat panels. There was much discussion of some kind of 4K upscaling for the new Switch, but it hasn't come to pass. Wired LAN port aside, there are no improvements for docked users whatsoever - and that is undoubtedly a missed opportunity.

What does RT Lego Builders Journey have to do with Switch? Well, we also cover the latest enhancements to DLSS too - which could be relevant to a future Switch.Watch on YouTube

With a new Nvidia chip ruled out, could the existing model have provided any form of improved performance for docked users? Absolutely, but not to a genuinely game-changing degree. Overclocking (or indeed underclocking) the Switch has been a component of the homebrew scene for years now, with system hacks able to boost CPU from its standard 1.02GHz to the full spec 1785MHz, while the docked clock of 768MHz can easily be boosted to 921MHz. On paper it's a 75 percent boost to CPU performance and a 20 percent uplift for the GPU. The 'Mariko' Tegra X1 graphics core can even run at 1.267GHz - a sizeable 65 percent improvement to the Switch spec. However, despite the presence of extra venting on the new dock, it seems unlikely that Nintendo will open up full performance to developers. In theory it is possible, but there's certainly nothing in the SDK to make it happen for game makers. And in truth, based on our overclocking tests, you gain extra stability and a cleaner picture on games that support dynamic resolution scaling, so while there is an improvement, it's not enough to comprehensively solve the docked play problem.

Of course, the truth is that only a fundamental redesign of the Switch itself can address this - something that does not really make business sense to Nintendo in the here and now, and would only cause headaches to developers in supporting a third performance profile. Any kind of smart upscaling solution capable of making truly low resolution images into something acceptable on a living room display requires new silicon, and while Nvidia DLSS has been mooted as a solution, this technology requires tensor cores baked into the hardware - and these are not present in Tegra X1. DLSS cannot work as a standalone 'add-in' chip in its current iteration, and neither can it be liberally applied to any game - it needs to be plumbed into the game engine.

And both factors, combined with Nvidia's recent improvements to DLSS, make the technology a better fit for an actual Switch successor based on more recent GeForce architecture. The potential is certainly mouth-watering. DLSS performance mode runs internally at a quarter of output resolution: 720p becomes 1440p, 1080p becomes 4K. The results aren't perfect, but would certainly work well on a TV viewed at range in living room conditions. DLSS ultra performance mode can actually scale 720p to 4K. Yes, there's a quality hit, but it works. DLSS or a technology similar to it is the missing piece of the puzzle for making docked play from a mobile chipset viable, but the reality is that this is next generation stuff. So, is this the actual Switch Pro that has been talked about for months now? Would it still be a Switch Pro - or should we start referring to it as Switch 2 or Super Switch instead?

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