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In Theory: Nintendo DS2 vs. Sony PSP2

Insider info and extrapolated specifications for the next round of the handheld war.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

While the combination of crippling losses, the general economic crisis and the advent of motion control are enough to stall the release of true next-generation consoles, there's strong evidence to suggest 2010 won't be the hardware drought we thought it might be. Both Sony and Nintendo are deep in development on a new wave of handheld devices that look set to deliver a substantial amount of gaming power in a pocket-sized form factor.

The development of new hardware is something that the major platform holders are finding difficult to keep secret in an internet age where unofficial screenshots of the new Halo game leak a full year before the game appears, and where company-sanctioned news generally yields few genuine surprises that haven't been "rumoured" beforehand months in advance.

A whole host of "rumours and speculation" have appeared recently providing tentative specs for the next generation of portable consoles. This Engadget post effectively sums up most of the rumours associating Nintendo with NVIDIA's low-power mobile Tegra 2 chipset, while Eurogamer itself has been privy to some startling information on the technological make-up of the successor to the Sony PSP and its Go sibling, now being developed by the platform holder in association with its chosen third-party partners.

Speaking under conditions of anonymity, further credible sources from within the mobile graphics industry have provided Digital Foundry with further background detail on the raw technical capabilities of the new hardware. These sources, intimately involved with the alliances and deal-making within their sector, effectively confirm the reported allegiances between Nintendo/NVIDIA and Sony/IMG, but also provide a fascinating insight into the kinds of devices the new handhelds will be, and the power levels we can expect.

In many ways, the next generation of handheld gaming technology will mirror the differences in philosophy seen in today's devices. Nintendo's new machine will offer a modest level of 3D power using established parts, while Sony will once again be aiming for the bleeding edge in mobile performance, which could well come with the same kind of price premium we saw with the launch of the original PSP.

Nintendo's alliance with NVIDIA is an interesting one in that the graphics specialist has already published a developmental roadmap for the evolution of its mobile Tegra technology. Assuming a late 2010 rollout for the new machine, it's fairly easy to peg which iteration of the chipset will find its way into the DS successor's make-up: Tegra 2 will be well into production, and looks like a very useful piece of mobile 3D technology.

The current-generation Tegra, as found in the Zune HD, features two pixel shader units, two vertex shader units and two texture mapping units (TMUs) while running at a real-life speed of 130MHz (the 600 and 650MHz speeds are mostly marketing-speak associated with fill-rate). NVIDIA demos have shown the technology as being capable of running Quake III Arena at 800x480 at 35 frames per second with both anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing fully engaged.

So, how does the Tegra 2 we expect to see in the new Nintendo handheld stack up? Let's just say that it is a significant improvement, and a colossal jump in performance compared to the current DS. While the amount of vertex shader units remains the same, TMUs and pixel shaders are doubled, and as the chip will be manufactured at a physically smaller size (40nm perhaps, versus the current Tegra's 65nm), we can expect a reasonable bump in clock speed too. Our sources can only speculate at this point, but suspect anything up to 300MHz is possible, depending on just how much the platform holders want to concentrate on battery power. The faster the chip, the more impact it has on battery life.

NVIDIA is on the record as saying that Tegra 2 offers four times the power of its predecessor. The specs might disagree with that, but it's worth pointing out that the chipset also includes an ARM 11 CPU - NVIDIA's claims are most likely based on a similar bump in the capabilities of this part of the chip, but there's nothing to stop Nintendo opting for its own choice of CPU component (though ARM is used in the current DS).

While stories have circulated that Tegra is based on GeForce 6 architecture, our sources dispute that, effectively saying that it is a grandchild of the earlier GeForce 5. Only the third-generation Tegra, set for release in 2011 - and unlikely to feature in the new Nintendo console - features GeForce 9-level functions such as the unified shader set-up that makes Xbox 360's Xenos chip such a useful GPU, and which is also found in the chipset mooted for PSP2.

Regardless, there's no doubt that the new Nintendo unit will have a useful graphical power boost over what's been seen in the currently available Tegra devices, and in terms of the tech demo discussed previously, we also need to factor in that handheld consoles are unlikely to require full WVGA 800x480: an iPhone utilises a 480x320 screen, for example. Fewer pixels means more effects or potentially higher frame-rates.

On the flipside, we still have no idea on just what kind of device Nintendo has planned overall: while a new dual-screen "DS2" would obviously carry on the momentum attained by the mega-popularity of the current handheld, it's difficult to underestimate the power of its dormant Game Boy sleeper brand, and so a single-screen unit is still a possibility. Two screens would obviously incur a higher load on the GPU up against a single-screen set-up, and would make the device more expensive to produce too.

What is also important to point out is that NVIDIA is effectively licensing its Tegra IP to Nintendo and the platform holder is free to adapt it in any way it sees fit. The Zune HD uses a vanilla Tegra, so it has onboard HD video decoding and an HDMI output. Tegra is structured in such a way that many of its functions occupy separate and distinct areas on the chip's die. It would be simplicity itself for Nintendo to remove the HD decoding features for example, if it doesn't feel the need to include advanced media playback facilities. Other "add-on" functions of the chipset include a USB controller and also an image processor (designed for working with photos and videos). In short, while Tegra 2 will most likely find its way into the new Nintendo handheld, how much of it and at what speed it will run is still up for grabs.