The Nintendo Switch Sounds Woefully Underpowered – Forbes
Digital Foundry has a very thorough breakdown of the Nintendo Switch’s GPU and CPU clock-speed, information that’s been both leaked and confirmed by developers working with the new hardware.
The Eurogamer post piggybacks off this Venturebeat post, in which other unnamed sources confirm that the Switch will be running on a Maxwell-based 20nm chip, as opposed to Nvidia’s newer 16nm Pascal technology (that you’ll find in GTX 1080 cards and Tegra X2 chips.) Both the graphics processor and CPU are housed on the same chip.
Without going into too great of detail—both the above posts do an admirable job wading through the technical weeds—the long and short of it is this:
The Switch runs at different specs when docked and on the go, and games will need to be designed to run in either state, similar to how the PS4 Pro introduced enhanced modes for some PlayStation 4 games.
We don’t know the final specs since the Tegra chip in the Switch will be a custom-designed version, but Nintendo has lowered clock speeds from the base specifications to hit battery life and thermal targets.
In other words, the Switch is not only not as powerful as the PS4, it’s not running as fast as something like the Shield Android TV.
(Note: This is not confirmed by Nintendo, nor have I spoken personally with devs about this. This post is based on reports from the above publications. I have reached out to Nintendo and will update if they respond.)
The console is considerably less powerful on the go than it is when docked, and developers have the option to equalize performance between modes, making the docked version of games perform exactly the same as the portable version.
Here’s Digital Foundry on the GPU, which is clocked down both in the Switch’s “docked” status and on the go:
As things stand, CPU clocks are halved compared to the standard Tegra X1, but it’s the GPU aspect of the equation that will prove more controversial. Even while docked, Switch doesn’t run at Tegra X1’s full potential. Clock-speeds are locked here at 768MHz, considerably lower than the 1GHz found in Shield Android TV, but the big surprise from our perspective was the extent to which Nintendo has down-clocked the GPU to hit its thermal and battery life targets. That’s not a typo: it really is 307.2MHz – meaning that in portable mode, Switch runs at exactly40 per cent of the clock-speed of the fully docked device.
Obviously we don’t know everything yet, including how Nintendo and Nvidia have customized the Switch’s processor, and given that we’ve seen some games like Skyrim running on the machine, and a fairly impressive looking new Zelda game, I don’t think we need to worry that games will look bad on the new console.
It’s also true that Nintendo marches to the beat of its own drum, and with the right price-point and marketing, could have a hit on their hands with the Switch even though it isn’t as powerful as the PS4.
On the other hand, a weaker console that relies on a gimmick is exactly what the Wii U was, and look how it fared, barely keeping up with the Xbox One which itself has barely kept up with the PlayStation 4 despite launching before either Sony or Microsoft’s consoles.
And make no mistake, the Switch’s main feature—that it’s both a home console and a portable handheld console—is a gimmick, and one that will realistically only appeal to a small slice of the gaming population. It’s a cool concept and one that I’ve thought would be neat in the past, but I have to ask myself: How much will I really use this?
How much will the average gamer really use this feature? On paper or in an ad it sounds great. You play some Zelda but then you have to go somewhere so you just grab the Switch and take it with you. But in practice, how often are you playing a game and then need to go somewhere where you’ll still be able to play that game? If I’m playing a game and then need to leave, I probably need to leave to go do something else. Otherwise I would simply stay.
There are certainly times when it would come in handy, but will this really make up for the Switch being so under-powered? It’s not that Nintendo necessarily needs to compete in terms of horsepower with Sony and Microsoft, but we’ve been down this path before. Low power, gimmick-as-core-concept, and then…disaster.
I’m not saying that will happen. I’m saying that it worries me, because I want the Switch to be a big success, because Nintendo still makes some of the best games on the market and certainly many of the best family games money can buy.
I guess we’ll find out soon enough. I’m really not trying to be cynical here. I was always really upbeat about the Wii U’s games, which I thought were some of the best of the past few years. I just see Nintendo repeating its mistakes here, and I hope I’m wrong.