Nintendo Switch Spec Analysis: CPU, GPU Power And The Cost Factor

An in-depth look behind at the Nintendo specs.

Posted By | On 22nd, Jan. 2017 Under Article, Graphics Analysis


The wraps are finally off on Nintendo’s Switch console-handheld hybrid, with an detailed presentation last week plugging in any gaps left as yet unfilled by leaks over the past several months. We can now look at the Switch as a product, and not an aggregate of rumoured featured. Unfortunately, this clarity doesn’t instill anywhere near as much confidence as we thought it might. The Switch is a deeply troubled product. It’s not just the fact that a mere 5 games will be available at launch in March. Pricing, accessories, hardware grunt, even storage capacity: Nintendo’s always had a penchant for doing things its own way, but if anything became clear at last week’s Switch event, it was that Nintendo has simply refused to learn lessons from the ill-fated Wii U.

We’re not out there to doomsay products, but it’s just not that hard to see the Switch being Nintendo’s last console, as it transitions over to a development and publishing model, a la Sega. That’s not to say there’s no hope. There are a lot of reasons to want to a buy: heck, we’re planning on getting one ourselves at the earliest. Let’s take a deep dive and analyse the Switch to find out why.

GPU and CPU Power

Although Nintendo themselves have remained mum about the Switch’s hardware internals, apart from highlighting that it utilizes a custom Nvidia SoC, verifiable leaks to Digital Foundry and Venturebeat sounded out the Switch’s hardware specs. Optimists predicted last year that Nintendo would utilize a Pascal-based chip for the Switch. At this point of time, Pascal is a relatively mature platform: From Pascal-based compute monsters like the P100, to in-car entertainment platforms, to high-performance, there are a lot of products based on the Pascal architecture out on the market. Mobile Pascal—first outed in Nvidia’s in-car platform—was actually the earliest showing. There was plenty of time for Nintendo to have incorporated a Pascal-based SoC in the Switch, if it had wanted to.

Instead, what we have in the Switch is a custom variant of the Tegra X1, under-clocked to 768 MHz. Packing 256 shader cores, the Tegra X1’s GPU is reasonably fast, considering its mobile heritage. Factoring in the bandwidth constraints imposed by LPDDR3 memory, we’re looking at a part that would perform reasonably close to a GT 920 MX, in a Windows environment. That’s the best-case scenario for the X1, as seen in Nvidia’s Shield Microconsole and the Google Pixel C. With the Switch, however, Digital Foundry’s sources indicate that Nintendo has downclocked the X1’s GPU component to 768 MHz, a 25 percent drop-off. This is presumably to stay within conservative thermal and power envelopes. This is for when the console is docked, mind you.

When the Switch is undocked, for on-the-go play, we see a further 40 percent drop-off in GPU clockspeed, to 387 MHz. Effectively, the Switch’s GPU spends most of its time operating at a fraction of what the X1 is capable of. What this means is Wii U levels of graphics performance when undocked, and a slight uptick when docked, which would help the Switch output higher resolutions when hooked up to a TV. This is evident in Breath of the Wild, which hands in a 900p output when docked, dropping down to 720p when undocked. At this point, we’re just going to skirt past the incredibly disturbing fact that Breath of the Wild, a port of last-gen title, is manifestly unable to hit 1080p on the Switch, even when docked. With 4K adoption rates on the rise (a market that the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio are catering to), it’s difficult to thin of people squinting at games that render at one eighth native resolution, two or three years down the line.

The handheld component draws a line as far as the Switch’s visuals are concerned: whatever runs on the Switch while docked, must run at 720p, when undocked. This makes it hard to see how AAA games will make their way over to the Switch. If Nintendo allowed developers to release “dock-only” games, we could see a handful of Xbox One and PS4 multiplats making their way over to the Switch, albeit at 720p and with severely compromised visuals. But that’d defeat the purpose of the Switch being…well, the Switch. This is likely what led to EA’s announcement of a “custom” FIFA for the Switch: there’s just no way that next year’s Frostbite-powered FIFA iteration will run in handheld mode.

The X1’s CPU also imposes a hard limit in terms of the kind of games we’ll see on the Switch. Per the spec leak, Nintendo has clocked the X1’s quad-core A57 closer at 1 GHz, a fifty percent step-down from X1 implementation in Nvidia’s Shield TV. While the X1 does have an additional quad-core A53 cluster, these low power processor cores are primarily meant to handle low profile tasks such as decoding MP3s and web browsing. The Xbox One and the PS4 don’t have particularly impressive processors. As a matter of fact, early Anandtech benchmarks peg the Jaguar platform roughly on par with Atom, which, in turn, is roughly on par with the Cortex A57 in terms of IPC. An unfettered X1 would be capable of serving up CPU performance that’s broadly comparable to the eighth-gen consoles.

Clocked as low as it is, however, the Switch is not likely to be able to keep up. This would make it difficult to implement the advanced physics, AI, and systems-based mechanics that differentiate the newer generation of games. All in all, Nintendo’s hardware decisions put the Switch in a tight spot: the neutered Tegra X1 at its heart would be hard-pressed to deliver eighth-gen games. Fragmentation is the bane of developers, and after one or two “custom” Switch editions of their games, it’d be entirely unsurprising to see most third-party developers move on from the Switch, just as they had from the Wii U.

The Cost Factor

There seems to be something very wrong with Nintendo’s senior management of late: The Wii U’s branding and hardware makeup were early, faint symptoms. But Super Mario Run’s inappropriate pricing and now the controversy over Switch accessory pricing both point towards one issue: Nintendo’s higher-ups seem to have completely disconnected themselves from ground reality. In a world where even iPhone sales are plummeting because of high expectations and poor delivery, Nintendo somehow got around to the idea of selling what’s essentially a crippled version of Nvidia’s $99 dollar microconsole, for $300. Mobile chipsets like the Tegra X1 aren’t remotely expensive, coming in at substantially less than $100.

Even factoring in costs for the touchscreen, JoyCons, and sensors, it’s not hard to see that Nintendo’s making a hefty profit on each Switch unit sold. Higher margins on hardware sales might look appealing in the short term, but when customers see both the Xbox One and PS4 priced cheaper than the Switch, while offering substantially more powerful internals, the Switch becomes a tough sell. Low hardware sales translate into low adoption rates, which lead to developer apathy, which leads to a drought of games, which leads to…precisely wherever it is that the Wii U is floundering about right now. Switch’s value as a handheld is incredible, but that, again, is a price sensitive market: the 3DS only really started doing well after hefty price cuts brought it into sub-$200 territory.

Even if it’s technically the most powerful dedicated handheld in existence, at $300 it’s doing battle not with other handhelds, but with smartphones and tablets, products that are far more versatile than the Switch. The $200 price-point that many analysts had predicted, would have been an instant win for the Switch. It becomes more of an option: much of the excitement evaporates when people realise that the Xbox One and PS4, both with mature libraries, actually make more sense as a $300 purchase. Conversely, by jacking the price up so high, Nintendo might be hedging its bets against a Wii U-esque sales washout: even if the volume shipped is low, high per-unit margins could compensate and soften the blow.

Whatever you think about Nintendo’s console pricing strategy, there’s just no justification for its pricing call on Switch accessories. An extra pair of JoyCons costs a whopping $74: one fourth the price of the console itself for two diminutive pieces of plastic. To put that in perspective, Valve’s excellent Steam Controller (with a high-precision gyroscope and haptic feedback), currently costs $50. If Nintendo’s aim was to make the Switch a kind of social hub, why price controllers in such a way that people are put off from buying them? The non-charging JoyCon grips are just, well, petty.

If the Switch was a device with premium hardware specs—a Tegra X2 under the hood and a Full HD handheld screen, for starters—we could understand the need to shave off a couple dollars here and there. But $30 just for a grip that charges JoyCons comes off as downright disrespectful. Leave aside the fact that Wii U ports like Breath of the Wild cost significantly more on the Switch. At the very least, a pack-in game (something 1-2-Switch definitely should have been), would’ve made the $300 price-point more palatable. The way things stand now, the Switch leans very heavily on its console-handheld gimmick to justify its price-point, while competing with the PS4, the fastest-selling console ever made.

Conclusion

The Nintendo Switch is a fantastic device, in concept. But what we’ve seen in terms of pricing and hardware specs underlines the point that, in the end, it’s the implementation that counts. In a market that’s soon to be saturated with hardware focused bang-for-buck consoles like the PS4 Pro, the Switch does indeed offer something new: the ability to take your console games around with you. But pricing and hardware decisions undermine it from both sides: It’s hard to see how a neutered Tegra X1 will fare in a market where competitors have hardware that’s orders of magnitude more powerful. The Switch will have to make a strong case to retain  third-party support, but bizarre pricing strategies work against the Switch’s sales potential. Poor sales leads to poor support, which leads to poor motivation for sales. It’s a vicious cycle that the Wii U never exited. If Nintendo can resolve the pricing issue, however, truly setting Switch apart from the competition, it could just have a winner in its hands.


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  • EssentiaX

    I actually really hope Nintendo DOES go the way of Sega. That way, we can still play their games WITHOUT having to pay for their inferior hardware (and I don’t just mean specs).

    • Agent_Blade

      Dude that’s not cool man seriously.

    • EssentiaX

      Dude, it’s not cool to force gamers to buy a console for one, two games in the console’s entire lifetime. Seriously.

    • Anyone who only bought one or two games for the Switch would have very limited tastes and might be better avoiding consoles altogether.

    • EssentiaX

      That’s a jerk comment. People have different tastes. Respect that.

    • Giro

      You accidentally said 2 games when you meant 90 confirmed for 2017 (so far) right?

    • EssentiaX

      No. Out of the 90 games, I would get only one or two of them. How many have I gotten for the WiiU’s life time so far? Let’s see… I can count two. A third coming. That’s it.

    • JJ

      No, I just hope the Leadership in both Japan and Nintendo get their A**ES Kicked so hard by the failure that surely will be the Switch that (many have to leave the company) and THEN Nintendo tries again with one final powerful console releasing near the start of the actual next console generation, and which can compete with XBOX and PSx. If there are extra “Nintendo” bells and whistles on top for that console it’s just bonus.

    • EssentiaX

      I would be happier if there was just ONE console on the market, but since that’s not going to happen, fewer is better. Nintendo has not done us any favours with their hardware lately and they continue insisting on the “Nintendo touch” when no one wants it. So unless they can make a console I am seriously impressed with, I’d rather it go the way of Sega.

    • Monopolies are awesome!

    • Hans Olo

      Nintendo hasnt used any lube on its customers since the WII…….
      …….Here Wii Go Again…..

    • TheBraveGallade

      Haha no. Wii U sold 3.6 mil in japan. Ps4 4mil. Ninty won’t die in japan. Not if the switch is part handheld. Considering vita 7 mil 3ds 21 mil…

    • JJ

      I don’t want them to die (I am or have been s core supporter-even preordered switch), I just want the current leadership replaced and for a news direction.

    • Hans Olo

      Then move to Japan cupcake!

    • Cory Booker

      Would be the best thing for gamers. Nintendo has shown they have no ability to provide value to their customers and are only interested in gouging them. My advice – do not buy the Switch and force them to give up system building.

    • Paulinelcastillo

      Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family! !uz22c:
      On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
      !uz229c:
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  • Sliquid

    Agreed, and spot on..

  • NOSQEY .

    Nintendo,don’t get gamers the switch is a mess.It’s over priced and underpowered,all those man hours that went into the switch and that’s the best they could do a hand held.I wouldn’t buy any gaming device without knowing the specs.

  • Cory Booker

    Graphics aren’t everything so that’s not my primary issue with the Switch. The issue is the price for what they are selling – essentially a $300 portable and $60 games with outdated graphics. The Switch could have been a hit if it was packed with a Tegra x2 chip – even if down-clocked when used as a portable – instead of the two year old Tegra x1.

  • michael

    “Jaguar platform roughly on par with Atom, which, in turn, is roughly on par with the Cortex A57 in terms of IPC.”
    A quad core jaguar, yes. The ps4 and xbox one have 8 core CPUs clocked over 50% higher than the switch’s so i wouldn’t call less than a third of the performance of an 8th gen console “broadly comparable to the eighth-gen consoles”
    iirc, GDC slides on cloth simulation performance from earlier in this gen pegged the ps4 CPU at around 3 times the performance of the xbox 360’s so going by just that limited information, it’s probably only barely as fast as last gen.

  • Jacky Zhou

    They are obviously NOT competing with PlayStation/Xbox (since Wii generation?). Why should they start and make a similar console like Sony and Microsoft? You wanna play triple-A games on your TV/PC monitor, sitting on your comfy sofa? Buy a PS4 Pro/XboxOne Scorpion/High-powered PC then. PS4+NS would be the best combination for me. Farewell, 3DS.
    I wonder how much would a portable XboxOne Scorpion cost though. Xbox Switch, perhaps, lol.

  • rip Nintendon’t

  • Riggybro

    Not so worried about the specs. It’s just the price. I was expecting a kind of “boutique 3DS” kinda price smack bang in the middle of a PS4 and a new 3DS XL. So you know you can have your gaming triangle of your PC, your PS then you get your nice little Ninty handheld on the side (covers all bases).
    It’s just way too expensive though which is a real shame.

  • Meli

    There is only one thing i’m not getting. Why do companies not get the fact that there are better internal cooling solutions. Even if you don’t agree with my idea, wouldn’t it be nice if Nintendo could make an attachment in the back that adds a quiet cooling fan and a big external battery that both runs the fan and charges the Nintendo Switch ( if they can place a cold spot where the Tegra X1 is placed, it would cool it even if it’s touching the plastic and not the inside.

    • EssentiaX

      External cooling is not good enough for cooling hot components such as CPUs and GPUs. There is a reason why they have a dedicated fan. The fans would have to be inside and that makes it heavier and bulkier. Plus fan noise when on the go? That’s not usually very desirable.

  • Meli

    Why didn’t they put a snapdragon 821 or wait for the 835 then… it really makes no sense

    • Cory Booker

      Should’ve waited for the Snapdragon 835 – more powerful, longer battery life.

    • Meli

      But either way, the SnapDragon 821 has as faster processor and a GPU that’s nearly on par with the Tegra X1 maxwell GPU. Then there is the fact that the cooling would he so good on a big body like the Switch that they could probably overlock it even more.

  • Giorgos Pavlou

    Fantastic article mate!

    • Arjun Krishna Lal

      Thanks! 🙂

  • Sandman83

    What’s up whit gamingbolt posting old rumors like they are facts. Basically this was the old 2016 July rumor from some blogger girl.
    Now after release the foxcon rumor seems to be a lot more likely as battery, form factor, what the doc is pretty spot on.
    This would put performance between 1Tflop and 1,5 Tflop.
    http://www.gamespot.com/forums/system-wars-314159282/rumor-chinese-factory-worker-leaks-nintendo-switch-33369556/
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZVpHM7UYNQ

  • Dannybohy

    Just sounds like a typical Nintendo under powered bag of spanners?!

  • OC Guy

    I’m not even looking at the switch as a home console. I will use it 9 times out of 10 as a portable…A very powerful portable at that…at least compared to what is out now.

  • HAppY_KrAToS

    ok guys, sorry but i don’t have too much time to post.

    i need to go out to an arcade, and play street fighter and daytona games with a friend. then, i will go home and watch a new episode of mcGyver. And because i just bought my first cd player, i will listen to the new song from CORONA “rhythm of the night”. amazing.
    tomorrow, some friends will come home, we will watch a few episodes of “The fresh prince of bel-air” and “beverly hills”.
    i’m happy i just received the confirmation that my dvd player will be released in just 4 months. It’s the perfect moment, as all my vhs movies start having some color and tracking issues. Gotta love that 560p resolution. i hope my 32″ crc tv will display a nice picture and nice colors.
    ps. i hope my friend won’t forget my birthday, and will offer me the latest album from Tupac. That guy is the best.
    ps.s. next week-end, i will show my friend who is the boss, on virtua fighter 2, on megadrive. that console is amazing.

    it’s soo good, to live in the 90’s. Isn’t it, Nintendo ?

  • Andrew Johnson

    First, the controllers are not overpriced. Comparing it to a steam controller is fallacious from the start. The steam controller has no camera, and it’s gyroscope is… okay at best? The haptic feedback is fair enough for the purposes of simulating a trackball, but not much else, and it requires a dongle to be used on any machine.

    The Joy Con, on the other hand, or both hands, require no dongle, have an IR Camera with seemingly the same amount of power and functionality of a Leap Motion device — Priced at $50 all by itself — without the requirement of a USB 3.0 connection, and is much smaller than the steam controller. It can also be separated to be used as two controllers, bringing the price for a single Joy Con controller to just under $37.00. This is important because the console comes with one Joy Con pair, which is really the only Joy Con that should be considered to be a SINGLE controller, because any additional Joy Con purchases will either be a replacement or used for games played by more than 2 people, at which point that single $74.00 purchase will DOUBLE the number of people that can play from 2 to 4.

    While this may be a breakdown of pricing, it doesn’t take into account the experience, and that is infinitely more important than any specs could be.

  • Phil Scott

    Lol,this article.Journalistic integrity straight out of the window.You know nothing of the specs,no-one does.
    Fake News isn’t a good look for you,GamingDolt.
    Please check switch reddit/other sources,this “journalist” knows not of the word research and/or fact checking.

  • Justin Barrett

    whoever wrote this article is an idiot 🙂 the switch for one thing requires NO STORAGE CAPACITY…carts allow for all data plus save games on them….
    no one knows the precise number of launch games but more than 100 are close to final development so…5 launch games.??? possible, with many following each month…in the end …whatever, this is clearly just a slam on the console…it will still steal a large part of the market back, oh…and consider this is the king of handheld gaming….imagine how large a step this is in handheld gaming…jesus!

  • Tim Griffith

    This whole article reads, blah blah blah tiger dolphin morphin time tegra frostbite ultra morphin time wah wah wah. Yes new and shiny things that are most powerful thing ever don’t stay that way long look at PC’s congrats you upgraded your graphics card to the latest one for 800-1000 bucks, 5 months later oh sorry that graphics card is no long top dog shell out more if you want the BEST. I had my doubts on this console but am very happy that I sold my Xbox1 dust collector and Wii U dust collector to cover the system cost as I want to play the better version of Zelda. The Wii U was the worsr console of last gen but I got more use out of it and enjoyment than my xbox. I always have Grim Dawn and Path of Exile running on my gtx 560ti to fall back on…….gasp that graphics card is blah blah blah monkey, zebra upper cut.


 

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