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How will the Nintendo Switch measure up to the PS4 and Xbox One? (update)

You should take expectations of a Nintendo newly-named Switch console with the power of Sony’s current PlayStation 4 or even Microsoft’s Xbox One and let them go now, in all likelihood.

Back in July, Eurogamer published a report citing multiple sources that stated the new Nintendo console — previously codenamed NX and due to launch next March — would be a hybrid solution bridging the gap between mobile game platforms and dedicated home gaming consoles. Nintendo confirmed this information in a Nintendo Direct today. The bulk of the device is a tablet-like system that bears a passing resemblance to the Wii U Gamepad controller, with a screen flanked on either side by conventional controller inputs. However, these inputs can detach and be used independently by up to two users for multiplayer-oriented games.

The Nintendo Switch's portable element is joined by a docking station which connects to HDTVs.

According to a companion piece published by Eurogamer’s gaming technology-oriented Digital Foundry blog, the Nintendo Switch development hardware is using a version of GPU manufacturer Nvidia’s Tegra X1 chip, which also powers Nvidia’s Shield set-top box.

This is where things get murkier.

The Tegra X1 chip also powers Nvidia's Shield set top box

The Nvidia Shield box is a small set top box using a "passively cooled" X1 chipset, which means that stable, generally non-moving bits of hardware direct heat generated from the processor away from it. Digital Foundry’s article stresses that the X1 chipset in the Switch development box is actively-cooled, however, which suggests that the hardware in the dev kit is running at a faster configuration than existing products using that hardware.

Active cooling isn’t particularly feasible in a mobile device, however, so it seems likely that the Tegra hardware inside of the Switch is more advanced and more powerful than the existing X1. Conversely, perhaps the dock element of the Switch provides cooling for the tablet’s Tegra system-on-a-chip, which, along with a move from battery power to a dedicated power supply, could allow for higher performance in "console" mode.

Unfortunately, for fans looking for a new Nintendo console that’s "competitive" with the presentation capabilities of the PS4 or Xbox One, there’s not much to be excited for here. The Tegra X1 debuted in March 2015 with promises of PS3/Xbox 360 equivalent graphics, systems which were ten and nine years old at that time, respectively, and even then, this promise proved somewhat unsubstantiated. As Digital Foundry notes, Doom 3 BFG was natively ported to the Shield platform, and ran at 1080p and 60 frames per second in comparison to the 720p30 presentation on last-generation consoles. However, close comparisons suggested a significantly lower level of model complexity, normal and shadow maps, and texture resolution on the Nvidia hardware by comparison.

Put more simply, Doom 3 BFG ran faster and in higher resolution on Tegra, but it looks a lot worse in every other regard. Call it a wash, I suppose.

As Digital Foundry also points out, Nintendo’s new console doesn’t appear to be running Android, meaning developers on Nintendo's Switch will likely be able to secure performance increases and better looking games than Tegra has previously provided. And if the Switch is using the next generation of Tegra mobile chipsets, we could see even more performance improvements. The previous Tegra chip used a GPU derived from the same family as Nvidia’s 900 series of video cards, whereas the new generation moved to the hardware driving Nvidia’s recent 1080, 1070 and 1060 GPUs. These graphics cards are much more power efficient than their predecessors and more powerful to boot, suggesting the evolution in architecture might also help Nintendo get more out of Tegra.

While Tegra’s specifications are competitive with more modern hardware, its roots as a mobile chipset — designed for small form factor devices powered by batteries, rather than the power supplies in consoles and PCs — makes direct comparisons difficult, and not encouraging. The laws of physics make it hard for devices designed to run on batteries that will fit in a small form factor device — like a tablet, for example — output performance on par with devices that don’t have that constraint. A "faster" processor in a mobile device will have difficulty competing with a "slower" box plugged into your wall. Even if the Nintendo Switch's dock provides a power boost for the system’s SoC, it’s unlikely to boost it to anything remotely resembling the PS4 or the Xbox One. So it’s time to come to terms with that — and, potentially, to get excited for another new, different thing from Nintendo.

Update (Oct 20): This article has been updated to reflect the official unveiling of the Nintendo Switch.

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