Nintendo announces Nvidia-powered Switch hybrid game console

The long wait for details on Nintendo’s next console is finally over. The upcoming Switch (previously known as the Nintendo NX) was officially announced today with a three-minute gameplay video that focused on the system’s portability, upcoming game library, and its flexibility. From portable play to multiplayer matches in games like Splatoon, the Nintendo Switch is the hybrid system it was rumored to be.

First, the game quality looks pretty good — if nothing like the quantum leap some were hoping for. Nvidia has stated that the Switch “includes an Nvidia GPU based on the same architecture as the world’s top-performing GeForce cards.” It’s a little puzzling that they didn’t identify the GPU generation, but if the chip has significant custom work it may not map cleanly to any PC card. Nvidia also notes that it built a new API for the Switch (NVN) and that the OS has been custom-integrated with the GPU “to increase performance and efficiency.”

The video shows how a user can dock the tablet for gaming on the big screen, while picking it up and taking it with them on the go. The tablet is controlled by a pair of identical controllers on either side of the screen. Nintendo calls these “Joy-Con” (yes I’m serious). In some cases, two people can play head-to-head on the tablet with one controller for each person. Nintendo will also support wireless play with a more conventional controller (the Nintendo Switch Pro). Presumably some games will require the use of both Joy-Con controllers, while others can be played from a single controller.

The video shows gamers playing Breath of the Wild, Skyrim Enhanced Edition, Mario Kart, an unnamed Super Mario title, a basketball game, and Splatoon. It’s not clear if the Switch is fully compatible with the Wii U or if the company is porting certain titles to the new platform for re-release.

Nintendo Switch Console 2

The NX Switch and its controllers.

One surprising thing about the game library is that of the six titles advertised, three of them aren’t really new. Breath of the Wild looks roughly analogous to the Wii U version we’ve seen before, while Splatoon will be nearly two years old by the time the Switch launches. Either Nintendo is holding back and playing its launch lineup close to the chest, or it’s got a problem delivering a real games library with less than six months to go before launch.

The Switch looks to be roughly the size of an Nvidia Shield (not counting the controllers), which implies a screen size in the 7-8-inch range. Nvidia has a pretty good track record of delivering some solid gaming peripherals, but don’t expect the Switch to quantum leap past the Wii U. The reason why is neatly captured in this graph on game console power consumption. Check out the green line for the Wii U:

Console-Table

The Wii U is easily the most power-efficient of the modern consoles, and it still draws ~26W of power for gaming. Moving to a 28nm or 14nm process would help with that, but most tablets have power consumptions in the 10-15W range. That means Nvidia would need to double performance per watt just to offer the same level of graphics and game performance as the Wii U in a tablet form factor.

That’s probably not too difficult, given how old the Wii architecture actually was, but it also puts a ceiling on how much graphics performance we can expect the Switch to offer. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nintendo has implemented frame rate caps or other battery life improvements when the device is in tablet mode — Nvidia has long offered a “Battery Boost” option in its GeForce Experience software that improves battery life when gaming by allowing users to set a custom frame rate target.

There’s already been a great deal of speculation about how the Switch will impact devices like the 3DS and whether Nintendo intends to combine both markets going forward. The company hasn’t said anything about this issue yet. But with the Switch launching in March, we should see multiple updates over the next five months.

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