It’s nearly 4:30 in the morning where I’m at, but I couldn’t wait until I got up to write this so I’ll try and keep it short, but informative. Just so we’re clear, this is not a rumor. Rather, someone pointed me to a Reddit post that worked out all the technical information in response to the recent rumor that the Nintendo Switch was actually using a custom Tegra X1 Maxwell chip due to rushing the system to market.
As said, the Tegra X1 used in the NVIDIA Shield last year ran on the Maxwell architecture which precceeded NVIDIA’s current Pascal architecture. Maxwell by its very nature is weaker than Pascal, and when shrunk down to a mobile processing unit isn’t as powerful as its PC counterparts or AMD console cousins. The same can be said of Pascal, but Pascal is newer and thus stronger than Maxwell. So why did the recent rumor suggest that Nintendo was using Maxwell? Supposedly it was because the Wii U was dying and Nintendo wanted to replace it as soon as possible, prompting them to rush the Switch to market using a custom Tegra X1 chip. It also argued that the Switch would be far more expensive with a newer chip inside it, and thus Nintendo would opt for the cheaper Maxwell chip and since they’ve never been ones to compete in the graphics arms race it was an acceptable trade-off.
But this, apparently, couldn’t be further from the truth. Here is the Reddit post that I was directed to, it’s lengthy so read it on your own time. I’ll try to summarize it in my own way so that you can understand.
- NVIDIA’s Maxwell architecture runs hotter than their newer Pascal architecture.
- Maxwell also consumes more power than Pascal.
- Pascal is produced on a 16nm chip, while Maxwell is 20nm making it bigger.
- The Tegra X1 and variants of it do not require fans for cooling, the Nintendo Switch has vents indicating that it has a fan inside of it, again, something the X1 does not need.
- NVIDIA put 500 man years of research & development into this particular chip. A custom Tegra X1 would not require so much time and resources.
- Lastly, NVIDIA has moved on from the 20nm manufacturing process in favor of the more efficient 16nm process and had for some time. Someone who works in this particular industry can confirm that it’s likely NVIDIA has been developing this chip since even before the Tegra X1 hit the market and was preparing for manufacturing earlier this year prior to the official unveiling of the first Pascal chip, Parker, in September.
In short, the newer Pascal chip would make for a better handheld SoC(System on Chip) than the older Maxwell chips. It would improve battery life, keep operating temperatures lower, be more compact and thus allow Nintendo to fit more inside of the Switch itself, and by the very nature of being a smaller chip, actually be cheaper if not at most the same cost as an X1 to produce. Not to mention that NVIDIA and various other manufacturers are likely no longer capable of producing 20nm chips with the move to 16nm. The Tegra X1's used in the dev kits were likely made using chips that NVIDIA just had lying around and were used to demonstrate their chips capabilities in lieu of their not yet ready Pascal chip in order to win the contract with the promise of the real Pascal chip being ready to manufacture by the fall. Parker, the first Pascal chip, was unveiled in September as I mentioned earlier, but it is merely one variant of the chip that was specifically designed for use in cars. It proves, however, that NVIDIA has mobile Pascal chips ready for manufacturing and it is safe to assume that the chip they’ve spent a long time developing for Nintendo was also nearing completion and getting ready for a manufacturing run. This past October, Nintendo officially unveiled the Nintendo Switch with a March 2017 release date, and it is far more likely that NVIDIA didn’t lie. The Nintendo Switch WILL use their latest architecture, which was likely completed just in time to be manufactured with the Switch and hit the market in March 2017.
And that’s all I got. Obviously you can read more into it, but the techies have spoken. It’s highly unlikely that Maxwell was even an option on the table. Plus, it wouldn’t look good for NVIDIA to hand Nintendo older tech in this situation. AMD has been their only rival in the GPU space and up until now AMD has dominated the console market, snatching up console contract after contract. A down-sized PC GPU from NVIDIA would be more expensive as they’re known for their premium prices(My GTX 980ti was $680. AMD GPU’s are typically cheaper.), and a SoC for a handheld would be far cheaper and that is where NVIDIA has AMD beat: The handheld space. Their chips are powerful for handheld chips, and Pascal could give the chips in the Xbox One and PS4 a run for their money which is quite impressive. NVIDIA will want to bring their full power to bare in a space that AMD has little to no presence in and show that even their mobile GPU’s are powerful. And Nintendo stands to gain everything in this partnership because as I laid out earlier, Pascal ticks all of the essential handheld checkboxes. Power efficiency? Check. Cool to the touch? Check. Compact? Check. Cheap to produce and thus have a lower cost on store shelves? Check. One of the main arguments against Nintendo using powerful hardware was that Nintendo sells more at lower price points than the higher prices that Microsoft and Sony sell at. People claim doom and gloom should Nintendo price the system at anything higher than $250. Well here you have it, even NVIDIA’s latest Pascal chips would keep the cost of the system down while potentially matching at least the base systems of the competition. Obviously that won’t mean much against the PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio, but third parties won’t abandon a system that can support all their latest games, and they’ll be supporting Xbox One and PS4 for quite some time yet, the install bases will likely be larger for quite some time. The only other deciding factor on whether or not third parties stay will be how many units the Nintendo Switch sells. From Software is currently holding their Switch version of Dark Souls III until they see sales numbers, so only time will tell how it will perform in the market. But what is certain is that the scales have tipped in favor of Pascal once again. But this is still just speculation, though based on cold hard facts. January 12th is when we’ll learn everything, so keep this all in mind as we draw ever closer to the Nintendo Switch.