Nintendo Switch, the impossible trade-off

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Let’s say it again, Nintendo is going through a key period in its history. WiiU has died as the biggest failure of the company and 3DS is welcoming less and less games. 3rd parties abandon ship and those still aboard are slowly drowning in vast quantities of unsold 3DS games, the public being increasingly less dedicated. Eyes are thus now focused on Nintendo Switch, the Big N’s new and revolutionary concept. Having a home console and a handheld in the same piece of hardware indeed seems to be a major trump card. The whole world is holding its breath as January 13th approaches.

In this rather tense atmosphere, people jump even at the slightest piece of rumor. So when Eurogamer quotes the hardware specialists of Digital Foundry, internet forums begin to shake. Eurogamer’s article is not at the rumor level : figures are extremely precise and the analysis quite relevant, Digital Foundry’s video as guarantee. Those people are ultra-famous among hardware circles and they can’t afford to provide information out of thin air. The bad news for Nintendo loyalists is that the first tidbits aren’t exactly delightful.

Switch’s CPU lets people down. When the rumor of a Tegra chip surfaced some months ago, many were hoping that Tegra X2, well above the now mediocre X1, would be the objective given the 2017 launch. Nothing of the sort, Eurogamer confirming that the architecture is inspired by Tegra X1, the CPU being a ARM Cortex A57 running at 1GHz, whereas PS4 is around 1,6GHz and XboxOne 1,75GHz. A bit below then, but not a major flow.

It’s the GPU that will be the bottleneck factor, because of the hybrid stance of the machine. Switch’s GPU runs at 768MHz, quite lower than Nvidia Shield TV which runs PS3 games with mixed success, when docked. The GPU is thus a nerved version of the X1, which doesn’t make us optimistic about how the games will look like. And with only 256 shaders compared to 1152 in the case of PS4, overall graphical performance fails to reach 400 Gflops, while PS4 pulls out 1,8 Tflops. Definitely not in the same league as PS4, let alone PS4 Pro. But the big problem occurs when you leave home, Nintendo being driven to painful trade-off in order to keep decent battery life and prevent heating. The Switch undocked, GPU clock speed is halved to 307MHz, that is to say a mere 157 Gflops. The very concept of hybrid is risky and here’s the snag : how will developers deal with a GPU that runs at different speed depending on the situation? Will they embrace the full capabilities, even at the risk of seeing framerate collapse when the tablet leaves the dock, or will they just play it safe and lower their ambitions? This looks like to be a much more serious problem than the use of the Gamepad. Even assuming it can work like a PS4 Pro patch like Eurogamer seems to suggest, how can that work out? The game would have to un-patch itself every time the console leaves the dock…

Raw memory bandwith definitely won’t help : with 25GB/s to read 4GB of RAM, Nintendo Switch is light years behind PS4 which reads is 8GB of GDDR5 (the finest RAM available) at 176GB/s. Safe to say at this stage that you’re probably not going to see high-end games like Battlefield 1 on Switch. EA’s blockbuster wouldn’t even fit in any of the standard game cartridges for Switch… As for PS4 first party masterpieces like Uncharted 4 or The Last of Us Part Two, such level of quality is unthinkable on Switch as it is now. The open world of Zelda Breath of the Wild look dumb next to Final Fantasy XV, which doesn’t even have its PS4 Pro patch yet. When we talk about a home console experience to bring everywhere with you, it’s certainly not the quality and ambition we know on PS4, to which players around the world have become used to. On GAF and pretty much everywhere else, gamers are crestfallen.

Actually, it’s the philosophy behind the architecture of the Switch that should interrogate us. If Sony has made the PS4 Pro and if Microsoft is so keen on building an even more capable Scorpio, it’s because developers are eager for more power, not less. Developers want to push back the limits, to go even deeper in their art so as to leave a trace in the history of gaming. Do you imagine them wasting their time downscaling their formidable 3D engines for the small bunch of folks who will actually bother quiting his beloved Zelda or Mario?

People might be raising eyebrows at the tiny 32GB hard disk, disk space is heavy and costly. Larger space would hurt the handheld side of the device and its launch price. It’s probably not even important, since most of the data will be on cartridges with no need to install internally. Let’s not forget that you’ll likely be able to add cheap and hefty SD cards if you need more space. Nothing to fuss about, then.

Given the weak specs, many observers are now calling for a 199€ pricepoint. Let’s stop right here. New3DS XL currently retails for 179€, so there is absolutely zero chance that Switch, being a whole new concept and better tech, would cost only 20€ more! 299€ is definitely what you can expect on shelves next March, or maybe 249€ if you’re really lucky and if 3DS family gets a cut at the same time. Still, the problem remains that PS4 now trades for 259€.

Switch therefore takes the risk of being an awkward compromise meeting no sufficient demand : it’s not powerful enough for core gamers who might not find the AAA games they like (or not at the same quality level) and it might be too expensive for the mainstream public now fed by Super Mario Run and lured by much cheaper 3DS which still gets support. The only thing that could make the difference is handheld capability, because it’s surely gonna be a very good one. But here again, the potential market is unsure. PSVita failed to achieve market penetration in the West for a reason : people there don’t feel the need to play during travel, and there’s no reason that this would magically change when Switch hits stores.

Nintendo’s next system would then only have one kind of audience left : veteran gamers still seduced by handheld gaming, that is to say PSVita owners and Nintendo’s core audience. To few clients to drive Switch to success, all the more troublesome that it has to sell twice more since it’s one system for two types of offer. The alarm raised by Digital Foundry means serious worries for Switch’s future. We’ll see on 1/13 if the actual situation is better, or if it’s red alert status in Kyoto.

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