The Switch Pro miasma grows ever more complicated, as Nintendo has thrown a spanner in the works this week – by announcing a new model Nintendo Switch that isn’t the oft-rumored Pro variant!
Instead, Nintendo curved everyone by confirming some of the rumors that were swirling about the Pro model but not nearly all of them. Firstly, the basics for those not following the news – the new model Nintendo Switch with OLED display brings a larger 7-inch OLED display panel to a similar form-factor Switch body. It maintains the profile by using a much more modern screen-to-body ratio on the front of the unit, making more of it screen than the current, somewhat kid-electronics version. The hardware inside the unit is mostly unchanged – you get the same Joycons (drift and all), the same old Nvidia Tegra SOC, but the storage included is upgraded to 64 GB, the speakers are improved (allegedly), and the kickstand on the back is now a much better full-width version, which bears a striking resemblance to Microsoft’s Surface tablets. There’s a new dock for use with it that includes a wired Ethernet port for networking, instead of the WiFi-only insistence of the prior version.
The 7-inch part was in the rumors about the Pro model, but otherwise, this is a bog-standard Switch with a fresh display, new dock, and a less-immediate need to buy more storage for serious use. So what’s the deal here?
Nintendo Shouldn’t Try To Launch An Actual New Switch Now
When I say “actual” new Switch, I mean full new hardware, and this is easy to explain for a few reasons. Firstly, Nintendo is Nintendo. Their games use a timeless art style that can benefit from new and better technology, but it rarely needs it the same way that modern AAA titles do. One of the top-selling Switch titles of the last 12 months is a remaster collection of old 3D Mario games, with no new graphical fidelity short of widescreen support and some texture touch-up. Sure, there’s a difference between Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine in visual fidelity as a baseline, but even Mario 64 doesn’t look bad, just dated.
Nintendo systems are largely for Nintendo games at this point, which also detracts from the “need” for a new Switch. Sure, AAA developers probably want to port games to the Switch to sell more copies to that huge install base, but since the Wii, Nintendo hasn’t really had to care about that. They sell their hardware at a profit, make more than the scant few dollars of license fees on games they make (compared to AAA titles), and they get to dictate their own pace in the hardware market, which is why they’ve been pretty off-cadence of Sony and Microsoft since the Wii U nearly 10 years ago (also, the Wii U is almost 10, what). If you have no need to move to meet the market, then why bother?
Lastly though, Nintendo benefits from the very nature of the Switch’s internals, and by keeping them the same. Right now we’re in the middle of an unprecedented silicon manufacturing shortage, at least on the process technologies that are cutting edge, like TSMC 7nm (which the current Xbox, PS5, and full AMD PC hardware lineup use) and Samsung 8nm (which is used by Nintendo partner Nvidia’s current RTX 3000 PC GPUs). Nintendo uses Nvidia Tegra X1 SOCs, with two slightly different models used between the original Switch and the Lite. These are manufactured on TSMC’s old 20nm and 16nm nodes, respectively. These nodes are not suffering anywhere near the production demand that the newer 7nm and newest 5nm nodes are, and most silicon foundries keep a reasonable amount of old process production in play, as not everything that needs a microchip requires a cutting edge, high transistor count component. Because of this, Nintendo’s current system production is largely unphased by the larger market trend, although shortages of components like substrates and memory chips could still affect things. Nintendo has had SOCs in production for literal years and seems to have been mostly unaffected by major shortages, save for a demand run on Switch hardware at the start of lockdown orders in 2020 and the launch of Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
If the rumors of a new Tegra chip powering the Switch Pro are true, it would likely be made on Samsung 8nm, the same process that the Ampere GPUs are made using, logically because the Tegra model that was rumored would also use Ampere GPU cores. That process is currently booked by Nvidia quite heavily to keep up with demand of higher-priced PC GPUs, and thus Nvidia has little incentive to allocate precious wafers to making a low-cost, low-margin Switch Pro SOC.
Nintendo Could Still Easily Launch a Switch Pro Based On This New Design
One of the more interesting things I found myself thinking about this news is that Nintendo is playing it quite cool, and could be milking the margins on the current hardware in the Switch (selling through their current stockpile of Tegra chips) by packaging them in a newer, more expensive design that has higher margin but would then also be compatible with a new SOC and system design if they wanted to get there.
The current Switch is pretty dense inside, but it isn’t completely crammed full. It has an interesting cooling design and tiny, loud fan that takes up space, and the older LCD display technology in use in the original Switch needs room for a protective front layer, the display layer, and a backlight layer. OLED displays trim that down by combining both the display element and the backlight, as an OLED panel is made up of pixels that each emit their own light to output an image, instead of an LCD design where the crystals shift but must then be lit from behind to be visible. This is why nearly all smartphones today use OLED panel technology – it enables slimmer designs with less space taken by the display.
My thought is this – the motherboard in the Switch OLED could be designed to handle not just the current Tegra X1 model Switch hardware, but also a future Ampere-powered Tegra SOC. It would require pin-compatibility with the current Tegra X1 chips, but that is not an unreasonable ask. Likewise, the memory could be set in the same location and with the same pinout. Or, alternatively, a new motherboard for these components shaped identically could be used to make the process of moving to a Pro version Switch very, very simple in manufacturing. You might need to make some changes depending on the software philosophy – if a Switch Pro has games that are not playable on a regular Switch, you’d likely need to make a new cartridge slot that can accept current Switch titles but also new Pro titles that would be keyed to only fit the Pro, but that could even be the same physical size on the hardware with the use of notches or other elements on the game card itself to prevent use with a regular Switch.
My suspicion is this – Nintendo may very well have wanted to release a new Switch as the Pro, but current conditions dictated otherwise – so they put the design work into a refresh that they can sell at a markup while the silicon shortage stabilizes and they are able to then stockpile new SOCs and hardware to put into an eventual Pro.
And yes, I know this makes me sound like Charlie from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia as he unraveled the mystery of “Pepe Silvia.” Just, like, let me have this one, okay? It’s been a hard few weeks.
The Merits of the New Hardware
I actually like the Switch OLED idea. It modernizes the Switch concept from 2017 and presents a more-sleek, interesting design, while still maintaining broad compatibility with the Switch peripheral ecosystem. I’m sure there will be one-offs (the game with cardboard VR goggles that you drop the Switch into might be weird or non-functional with the OLED model), but it seems like a cool play. If Sony and Microsoft are still having trouble getting supply of their current generation systems into gamer’s hands by October when the Switch OLED launches, Nintendo may peel off less-informed consumers with an appealing offer that has some strengths in comparison to the Xbox and Playstation, on top of selling truckloads of them to the millions of Nintendo fans around the world.
I do think a Switch Pro would be roughly due around the time this OLED model is launching, given that the lifecycle of the Wii was around 6 years, and the Wii U only 4. Currently, the Switch is 4 years old, and for Nintendo, who profits off of hardware sales up-front unlike their contemporaries, a new hardware launch is a boon to business. It is also a sort-of wild west for Nintendo, though, as the Switch represented a huge change in their business model – the end of separate home and portable systems. Comparisons about the Wii and Wii U make sense in a vacuum, but in that same cycle, there was the 3DS, the 3DS XL, the 2DS, and the revamped new 3DS model, all of which were big deals for Nintendo. Now, it’s just the one lineup – all Switch, with the base model being the “home” console, the Lite being the “portable” and the OLED fitting in right alongside the base model. It is also unique, however, because the biggest changes to the OLED model shift the system in opposite directions – the ethernet port on the dock being distinctly about home usage while the OLED screen only really is a boon if you play it on the go.
But, that’s all a part of the fascinating contradiction in the gaming market that Nintendo occupies with the Switch, and whether or not you like Nintendo, it is a very interesting, unique piece of hardware that pulls off so many things better than you would expect.