Nintendo Switch: What’s inside it?

based on nerthos's original sketch

The new Nintendo Switch. Just announced. It’s all the rage. Everyone who knows what a video game console is, probably talking about it right now. Will it be an useless gimmick? Will it be a successful product? Will it be fun and practical to use? Will it die off in two months when the partnership contracts with game developers expire? No one knows, but we can’t help but wonder. So much, in fact, that I’m skipping on what I intended to be an introductory article to my participation on this site to talk about the shiny new toy that uncle Kimishima brings us from mysterious ancient Kyoto. Sorry, dissertation about weed, a plastic box with detachable controllers rides in on the rays of the rising eastern sun, blinding us all.

“Hey dude, there’s a basketball court back there, what do you want to do?”

“Oh, why don’t we sit on that table and whip out two consoles to play virtual basketball?”

First of all, I’m a technician. Looking at devices, taking them apart, inspecting the pieces and figuring out how they work and what they do has always been in my blood. I was 4 years old when my father bought our first computer, and him being a technician himself, it wasn’t long until we cracked it open and I’d look at all those green plaques with tiny black rectangular centipedes with amazement. Of course I didn’t have the slightest idea of what they did yet, but soon enough I knew how everything was assembled. So it comes as no surprise that what most piques my interest about this device is what’s inside it.

I’ve long been a PC gamer. From playing Titus’ Prehistorik and Blake Stone, to countless hours in Age of Empires 2, into RPGs with Diablo and Elder Scrolls, and into the latest releases that heat up my GPU, I’ve played mostly on a computer. The original Playstation fascinated me as a kid, especially with games like Legacy of Kain, and I spent many hours playing 8-bit games at my cousin’s house, but it wasn’t until I was a relatively old kid that I acquired a console of my own. With my brother we’ve had a knockoff Famicom, a Dreamcast, a Playstation 2, a Wii and a DS, but I’ve never played nearly as much in them as I did on the computer. So I look at consoles more for the technical aspect than their exclusive games, and I refuse to buy one just to play a few titles that haven’t showed up in PC.

With that being said, what many have been wondering about the Nintendo Switch is, after the underwhelming graphical capabilities of the last two generations, if the Switch will be up to par or just be a new gimmick attempting to sell on novelty alone and fooling early buyers into a piece of tech they can’t get games for.

Nintendo has long stayed off the competition for sheer power that Sony and Microsoft like to have, focusing in their franchises and releasing interesting and unorthodox hardware to have their own market. This is an arguable decision to some, but it has a certain merit. It’s hard to compete with the other big names in their own turf and it can be a hard and risky move: you get involved in a drag race about who can squish more frames per second on the same games the other competitors have, and it often comes down to which brand the consumer likes more or which their friends bought. Nintendo’s policy of sticking to their games and offering new concepts in comparison to the others has been effective, they’ve historically lost much less money than the other firms. Of course the others always end up copying the successful designs and perfecting on them, and discarding the bad ones, but for a year or two, the big N can say “Hey boy, do you want to spend money on that fast car that can just go forward and turn, or do you want to instead use our COOL car, that’s unlike theirs and is the only one now that can also jump?” And for some people, this works. I’m among them. I bought a Wii because I thought the idea of motion controls was cool, and consoles couldn’t compete in graphics with my PC anyway.

They'll love it!
They’ll love it!

Right now, Nintendo’s idea seems to be about making a hybrid between a home console and a portable one. This started back with the Wii U, and is probably inspired by the fact that Nintendo has ran over the portable market with a bulldozer for the last 27 years with little competition. The Wii U was probably the first time that Nintendo really lost money at a worldwide scale, and many users were dissatisfied with it. So why come back at a similar idea? How can they improve on it?

Well, it seems they think that by making the console fully portable, they can reverse the situation. Now, how powerful can it be? To answer that, before Nintendo gives us any hard data on the topic, we have to look at a few things. First, we have a few indicators on how much they can push into it: the size of the device, the fact that it’s portable, and the games that are showcased in the preview video.

  1. Games. Specifically one that most people who play games even casually will have played by now, Skyrim.
  2. Size. The body of the console is probably around 7-10 inches corner to corner, and 4-6cm thick.
  3. Portability. It’s showcased as being capable of being carried on trips or planes, so it should be able to run for 2-3 hours.

With this we can assume a few things: the console must have at least the processing and graphic power to run Skyrim, apparently the Special Edition upgrade. A modern netbook can achieve that, and stripping all the unnecessary hardware like keyboard, track-pad casing and all, it could fit into such a space. Modern laptop batteries usually last for 6 or so hours when playing games, and if Nintendo is willing to spend a bit more, they can use a custom flat battery to save up some space. Furthermore, if using a compact motherboard design and an APU, it can all fit into that limited space. A design like that should be able to run at it’s peak for 2 or 3 hours.

Now, the interesting thing is that this can be plugged into a stand and turned into a home console. What does that achieve? Well, in recent years, that has mostly been used for cooling and a steady power supply, but not much more. If we look at older hardware however, another use for it comes to mind: in the early days of consoles, certain peripherals were made that would plug into a console’s expansion ports and offer improvements such as a CD drive, or increased processing and graphic power. This concept has been sitting unused for quite a while, but it could very well be the key to this.

Another CPU seems far-fetched nowadays, specially as processors aren’t nearly as big as they used to be. But a secondary GPU and extra memory could fit into the stand, as well as cooling and a PSU. Secondary GPUs are a popular concept in high-end gaming computers, with setups with 2 or 3 video cards being common. Why couldn’t Nintendo use a similar idea? The major downsides to multiple video cards are space, heating and power consumption, so it can’t be fitted into anything that has to run on a battery, but if there’s a direct power line and a cooling unit available, this stops being a problem. Under these terms, the idea of a portable console that turns into a home console becomes much more plausible. A power saving mode where processing power is capped when unplugged, sending games to minimum settings, and an uncapped mode when plugged in, unlocking the full capacity of the processor and adding extra video memory and power, as well as proper cooling.

As for the interest in Skyrim, it seems to be featured in the video as the most graphically detailed game to be shown. It is a 5 year old game that has had improvements and a recent engine update. From it we can assume a minimum threshold that the console needs to pass in terms of power. A mid-tier gaming computer from 2011 can run Skyrim well, a budget one can run it on minimum, and a high end one can run it on max. However, this being a console presents one advantage: Optimization is much easier as there’s no hardware variation. This can, if done properly, significantly reduce the power needed to run a game in comparison to a PC. Since Nintendo has never aimed for power in years, we can assume this is their tactic. So the performance of the console is at least that of a 2011-2012 mid to high end gaming computer when plugged in, and that of a 2011 budget computer when in portable mode. Of course, all of this is guessing and futurology, but hey, now’s the time! Let that imagination and that analytic mind run wild.

As for the controllers, I won’t be talking much about them since they don’t seem revolutionary. They detach, which means each have a battery and wireless capabilities on it’s own, and can be used together, on their own, or connected to a central piece that likely has a better wireless connection and a stronger battery as well as rumble functions. They don’t seem focused on motion sensors either, though it’s unlikely that they’ll ditch all the progress they made with the Wii.

In conclusion, what we’re looking at will likely be a tablet-like portable console that can play current games on minimal settings, and turns into a home console when plugged in, boosting them to max settings and a higher resolution. While not as powerful as the other consoles in the market, it should be more than enough to hold its own for a year or two. There’s a lot of guessing and extrapolation here, but hopefully I shed some light into this new release.

This is the first time I’m contributing to this site, but not the last. I won’t be always talking of the same topics, nor maintain a regular schedule, but you’ll see something written by me now and then higher powers willing.

See you next time,



1 comment

  1. Wow congratulations you spent 10 minutes guessing what most people got back during the Wii U

    You also can’t name basic components or guess the chips the Wii U used so I’d take your technician degree back because you’re already out matched by casual pc builders and everyone who looked through the manuals in the 90s.

    Also you misspelt the one component you mentioned you ditz.

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