With this week’s impromptu reveal of the Switch Lite, Nintendo’s strategy for refreshing its hybrid console hardware is finally coming into focus. Initially discussed back in a March 2019 story by The Wall Street Journal, the launch Switch model was allegedly set to be replaced by two new machines. The WSJ talked about a cheaper model – now realised in the form of Switch Lite – but what about the so-called Switch Pro, with “enhanced features targeted at avid video gamers”?
If a Switch Pro – or Power Switch as I prefer to call it – is en route, it’s likely a long way off. Improbably named Nintendo chief Doug Bowser has ruled out further hardware launches this year, but it may well be the case that a revised version of the original machine does appear – it just won’t be especially visible to the typical customer and certainly won’t have any specific marketing push behind it: a more simple refresh as opposed to an all-singing, all-dancing console launch.
What makes the concept of both Lite and Power models possible is a new revision of the Switch’s Tegra X1 processor, codenamed ‘Mariko’ – a smaller, cooler, more power-efficient rendition of the original ‘Logan’ chip. First launched way back in 2015, Tegra X1 was a 121mm2 chip using TSMC’s barely used, now obsolete 20nm fabrication process. Mariko is likely to be a 16nm FinFET ‘shrink’ of the older chip – the same kind of silicon revision that made Xbox One S and the PS4 Slim possible.
Thanks to the same chip’s inclusion in an upcoming revision of Nvidia’s Shield Android TV microconsole, we know all about Mariko, as Nvidia has published Linux and Android code compatible with the new chip. Yes, it uses lower voltages and sips power clock for clock, but its GPU core can also run around 25 per cent faster than the original Logan’s. And so, right there we have the basis for both Lite and Power Switch hardware – but Nintendo’s plans for the hardware may be quite different.
Phase one is now public. Switch Lite uses the lower power requirements of Mariko as part of a cost-cutting effort in bringing a cheaper, smaller console to market. The new chip is clearly a lot more power-efficient, meaning that the cooling assembly can be smaller – but it also means that Nintendo can scale back on the capacity of the battery. The original Switch shipped with a 4310mAh battery – reverse-engineering of the latest Nintendo firmware suggests that the Lite’s battery is more in the region of 3300mAh or thereabouts.
Regardless, battery life is better, according to Nintendo. The firm puts out conflicting messages here, however. The OG model lasted between two-and-a-half to six-and-a-half hours, while the Lite delivers three to seven hours of game time. This is in line with the ‘slight improvement’ in Nintendo’s marketing. But in addition to that, the firm also says that users can expect four hours of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from a single charge – 33.3 per cent more than a standard model at three hours.
Tangible advantages from Mariko here remain to be seen then, but it’s clear that form factor and cost cutting are the key focuses – and Nintendo’s measures in delivering a cheaper unit do see a lot of functionality removed. This is a Switch that does not switch, being entirely handheld in nature, so there’s no dock in the package, no support for HDMI TVs, and that means you’ll have a slightly pared back range of games to play. Being a smaller model, you also get a downsized 5.5-inch screen too, up against the original’s 6.2-inch display – though resolution is still 720p.
And then there’s the lack of Joy-Cons. The integrated controllers means that table-top play is literally off the table, while some of Switch’s more innovative experiments like 1-2 Switch also won’t work either – unless you buy separate Joy-Cons, which takes you perilously close to the price of a full-blooded Switch. There’s no IR sensor support and particularly upsetting is the lack of HD rumble, and I really hope that doesn’t mean an end for an already criminally overlooked Switch feature. That said, it is great to see a traditional Nintendo-style D-Pad – and if the Lite design follows the ethos of machines like the Nintendo 2DS, we should expect this to be a somewhat rugged device, something a bit more child friendly.
Further changes to the Lite beyond the superficial have been uncovered by hackers reverse-engineering the Switch’s OS, internally known as Horizon. This process is what revealed the Mariko processor to the world as far back as March 2018, when firmware 5.0 launched. Thanks to this insight, we also know that memory shifts from LPDDR4 to LPDDR4X, offering further battery saving enhancements and also allowing developer units to move up to 8GB of memory vs the current units’ 6GB (all retail units remain at 4GB, however).
All of which is to say that the Switch Lite comfortably fits into the defintion of the Wall Street Journal’s original story – we do indeed have a cheaper Switch coming, lopping off a third from the original price, along with a big bunch of features in the process. With that said though, I think the ethos behind the machine is fine: personally, I consider Switch to be a brilliant handheld that doesn’t quite cut it in many games when low power graphics are blown up to a living room display. And with that in mind, I’d welcome a Power Switch with “enhanced features targeted at avid video gamers”.
The question is, are we going to get it? Given how much Mariko can potentially deliver, a pared back machine with cost-cutting primarily in mind is a very Nintendo thing to do, but it’s hardly making the most of the new Tegra hardware – which we know can deliver higher performance. Switch Lite is not the end of the Mariko story, however. An FCC document came to light this week, with Nintendo discussing a second new Switch model. It’s not a Power Switch as such, but rather a refresh of the standard model. New NAND memory, a PCB revision and a new SoC (system on chip) are described as the only changes. So yes, further new hardware is coming, but it’s almost certainly a Mariko-based version of the machine we know and love. Any hope of a third processor can be dashed – for now, at least – as we know from the Switch firmware that only Mariko and Logan chips are supported.
There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that the Mariko GPU is capable of faster clock speeds even if they’re not used in the Lite model. The chip itself maxes GPU clocks at 1.27GHz, but Nintendo rarely runs at maximum frequencies. That said though, a leap from the current docked 768MHz to something closer to 1GHz is not totally out of the question. The bad news is that according to Switch hackers reverse engineering the current firmware, this new model – while capable of faster GPU performance – still runs on the standard Switch clocks and there’s no evidence of Mariko’s higher end clocks being supported by Nintendo. That’s not to say that things won’t change in future, but that’s the situation as of now.
On the one hand, yes, of course, we’d like to see more power available. On the other, realistically we’re looking at a 200-300MHz GPU boost based on what we know of the Mariko spec. In percentage terms that’s a big upgrade, but it’s probably not enough for Nintendo to go to the bother of adding new hardware profiles, or for game makers to add extra development time for an additional performance mode that can only be used by a minority of users. The function is there in the graphics hardware, and it’ll be interesting to see where Nintendo goes with it in the longer term.
The second Switch revision has all the marks of a ‘silent’ update, then – old stocks will be replenished with new units when the time is right, but short of looking at serial numbers, the new model will look exactly the same and perform the same too. Whether this updated unit retains the existing battery – meaning significantly longer mobile play time – or whether Nintendo opts for the smaller battery found in the mini remains to be seen. The FCC document suggests that the platform holder doesn’t really see this machine as much of a big deal, and it may well be the case that new versions will filter into the channel without any fanfare, similar to hardware revisions like the excellent PS4 Pro CUH-7200.
Will we see any kind of more powerful hardware? Nintendo is a very forward-looking company, to the point where the system firmware already seems to have support for a further die-shrink of the Tegra X1 processor – but right now at least, there is no evidence at all for any kind of new, more powerful model, certainly not in the short or medium term future. However, our own experiments with overclocking an exploited first-run Switch show a system that easily adapts to higher CPU, GPU and memory clocks with little in the way of compatibility issues. Boost mode functionality similar to PS4 Pro would be a nice bonus for enthusiasts – certainly in combination with a battery life boost for standard performance. It could go some way to fulfilling the Wall Street Journal prophecy, but is it really the kind of option Nintendo would implement?