Early reports on the Nintendo Switch Pro paint the picture of an exciting device.
Rumors about an impending revision of Nintendo’s extremely successful hybrid console, the Switch, have seemingly existed for almost as long as the Switch itself has at this point. While the Switch itself was fairly high tech for a mass-market priced mobile device in 2017, it obviously made several hardware concessions owing to its form factor.
Hindsight has proven that to be the correct move, judging by the relentless success of the console, which continues to break records at an unprecedented pace more than four years into its lifespan. However, especially with the onset of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, it is clear that the Switch finds itself outmatched on the hardware front to an exacerbated degree. As mentioned already, the Switch has always been outmatched by the other consoles on the market. This makes sense – it’s essentially a tablet, and portable devices powered by battery can never match the power of their high powered full scale cousins contemporaneously. Until recently, this hasn’t proven to be a lot of trouble.
Thanks to Nintendo’s early efforts, and their smart utilization of industry standard Nvidia hardware and development APIs, the Switch has seen a lot of third party support, including some games that were inconceivable on the platform, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and DOOM Eternal, having made their way over. Nevertheless, there were very clear limitations and concessions that had to be contended with by third parties for the Switch even when the other consoles on the market “only” outmatched it as much as the PS4 and Xbox One did.
Now that those consoles’ successors are out, the difference is even bigger, and the Switch could risk losing a lot of the third party support it has accrued. While third party support will never be as paramount to Nintendo’s success as it is to PlayStation or Xbox, it has still obviously been important for the Switch – from indie breakout hits such as Hollow Knight, Celeste, or Hades, to games published by the top publishers in the industry, including Octopath Traveler, Immortals: Fenyx Rising, and the just released Monster Hunter Rise.
And while the Switch’s third party situation for this year seems secure, the system could face a sudden contraction of output next year, leaving it high and dry – not unlike the drought of games that killed the Wii prematurely, and caused Nintendo so much trouble with their consoles for the better part of the next decade.
Suffice it to say, then, that the Switch would benefit greatly from updated hardware. Given that it’s only four years old, a full fledged successor right now seems early – especially given just how successful the console has been, and how many users would feel burned if a successor did come out right now. An upgraded mid-life revision, however, keeping in line not as much with PS4 Pro or Xbox One X as with previous Nintendo mid-life revisions for their handhelds, such as the Gameboy Color, the DSi, or the New 3DS, seems like the appropriate solution to the problem. And sure enough, we have started getting increasingly well sourced and concrete rumors on what this so called Switch Pro may entail when it launches, allegedly later this year.
These early indications are actually shocking – because they seem to imply a system that is putting some emphasis on raw hardware power and performance, something Nintendo hasn’t strictly speaking focused on in almost two decades, not since the GameCube. As I mentioned, the original Switch was actually fairly impressive mobile hardware for the time (there was no other similarly priced mobile device at the time that had better hardware – no, your $1,000 smartphone doing better than the Switch doesn’t count any more than a $1,600 PC doing better than the PS5 does).
However, it was very clearly, even then, making some concessions in terms of hardware. The upcoming Switch Pro (which is what we’ll call it here for now), though? While obviously still underpowered compared to the Xbox Series or PS5, owing to the limitations imposed by the form factor, it seems to be gunning for higher end hardware for its class than any Nintendo system has in 20 years.
While specifics are still thin – we know it has “a newer, improved CPU and more RAM” but we don’t know exact numbers, for example – there are other particulars that seem to back up this notion. For instance, it has been repeatedly established that the console will be capable of 4K output in docked mode. This, of course, means that Nintendo is unwilling to be late to the 4K party as it was to the HD party (where the company had a similar chance of outputting an HD enabled revision for the SD Wii, but chose to resist the demands, to its own ultimate detriment). The Switch, of course, lacks raw processing grunt to be able to render 4K graphics, and therefore, the new system’s SOC will enable 4K output via DLSS 2.0.
DLSS is a total game changer. This Nvidia-exclusive technology involves the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to automatically clean up an image and render it at much higher resolutions with very little in the way of performance cost. Put simply, it’s the kind of thing that allows even a 720p rendered image to look like it is rendering well above 1440p resolutions (and it can be even more effective, and work on even lower resolution output images). The difference in image quality can be startling, and even for a low resolution image, can end up with a result that looks on par with something that a lower-end next gen console, such as the Xbox Series S, would put out. In other words, it’s the kind of thing that can allow Nintendo to have their cake and eat it too – they can stick with the (by necessity) lower powered mobile chips, but get higher quality image output consistent with the expectations from current gen, and therefore continue to retain at least the same amount of third party support as they have been getting so far (if not actually expand on that).
However, other than the salivating “free lunch” style considerations, DLSS’ presence on this new system actually indicates Nintendo is using among the highest end chips available for this Switch. You see, DLSS requires the presence of specific hardware cores on the SoC, called Tensor Cores, which are present on only a select few high end Nvidia architectures by definition – which means that if the Switch has DLSS, it has to have an SOC based on those high end architectures.
This narrows down the list significantly, and indicates the Switch Pro may be going for, if not the very latest and absolute cutting edge Turing and Ampere architectures, then at the very least Volta – which by itself is a near generation leap over the Maxwell architecture used in the base Switch model, and, coupled with DLSS, could deliver a stark difference in graphics on the new model.
There are other indications the Switch is going for higher-end hardware too. It appears that rather than sticking with an LCD screen like the base model did, the Switch Pro is going for a bigger OLED screen (smartly sticking to the 720p resolution in what I can only imagine is a concession to battery life, which would otherwise suffer from the already fairly low battery longevity the current models deliver). Again, an OLED screen is an “unnecessarily” high end component, the kind that’s probably the first to go when costs are being cut.
It is certainly something you couldn’t imagine in a Nintendo product – remember, Nintendo didn’t even fully commit to IPS panels for the 3DS line (and right until discontinuation, 3DS buyers were subject to a lottery of their systems having either lower quality TN panels for the screens, or the IPS ones). Even Sony, who do typically deliver higher end hardware, did not stick with OLED for their handheld PS Vita after the first version, with the revision ditching it in favor of an LCD. So Nintendo going for that OLED here, in combination with the implication of much newer and cutting edge SOC tech, and the requisite CPU and RAM boosts that a mid-gen revision would otherwise have, definitely indicates that they are willing to deliver a more powerful for its class product than they have for 20 years now.
Obviously, all of this is rooted in speculation born out of (admittedly well sourced) reports of what the Switch Pro will be. If the Switch Pro ends up being a more modest bump, then all of this speculation is pointless, and we can conclude that Nintendo is still sticking with its strategy of getting the most out of older and proven tech rather than being willing to play the power game.
And I guess that’s fine for them, it’s a strategy that has worked for them, and it has definitely worked for the Switch, which will probably end its run as one of Nintendo’s best systems when all is said and done. However, the prospect of Nintendo finally being ready to dip its toes back into the hardware pool – even if on its own terms, in the hybrid console field – is tantalizing for many, we imagine, and I can only hope that the Switch Pro ends up living up to the expectations generated by these reports – assuming that it, obviously, exists in the first place.
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