September 23, 2020

Claims of an Upcoming 4K Switch Should Be Treated With a Grain of Salt

New claims suggest Nintendo wants to build a 4K Switch and that such a system...

New claims suggest Nintendo wants to build a 4K Switch and that such a system could appear in 2021 alongside a lineup of new games. The new system is ostensibly a response to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Nintendo’s way of staying relevant in a competitive console market.

The chances of a true, native 4K Switch, however, seem pretty small — and pretty unnecessary. The current Switch features a 6.2-inch screen and a resolution of 1280×720 when undocked and 1920×1080 when docked. The relatively small screen already has a 237 PPI display and hurling more pixels at the panel isn’t necessarily the best way to improve the experience of using the device, at least, not to that degree. There’s also the problem that power consumption per frame tends to rise linearly with respect to resolution at the same clock and voltage.

What I’m guessing (Bloomberg has details) is that Nintendo would offer something like checkerboard rendering or DLSS to scale up to a higher resolution target, possibly deploying the technology on both mobile and docked configurations. This is an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while now: How are GPUs going to continue to hit higher resolutions, given the reality of shrinking process node improvements? The answer, I suspect, is that they won’t — at least, not natively. Native resolution gains will lag behind effective ones, but gamers are unlikely to care so long as overall image quality continues to improve.

Admit it. He’s kind of adorable-looking.

According to Bloomberg, specs on the machine have yet to be finalized, but Nintendo wants to release the machine alongside a slew of new games and titles. This supposedly explains the company’s relatively quiet 2020 — it’s preparing its ammunition for 2021.

One reason I think Nintendo is far more likely to field a “4K*” Switch than an actual 4K machine is that such an effort runs counter to the company’s hardware design philosophy these past decades. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo does not try to push the hardware envelope. The company excels at building excellent machines on commodity hardware with games that often emphasize creative use of graphics resources over sheer horsepower. The Switch exemplifies this. The unofficially updated Switch with nearly double the battery life is another example of the same philosophy. Whatever battery life improvements Nvidia can deliver with an improved architecture (Turing or Ampere, one assumes, as compared to Maxwell) and better-tuned process node would be wiped out by the display’s power consumption.

What seems more likely is that Nintendo will debut a meaningfully more-powerful system with some improved visual capabilities and higher resolution targets, but not a fundamentally new machine with the kind of graphics horsepower you’d need to step from 1280×720 (0.922MP) to 3840×2160 (8.294MP). Something like an upscaled 1440p seems much more likely than a native 4K. If you want some concrete figures to put on this, we can probably expect a performance-per-watt improvement of 1.5x – 2x when shifting from 16FF to 7nm, with additional gains coming from any architectural changes (if any are included). That’s enough to build a much-improved Switch 2, but probably not enough to leap from 720p/1080p to 4K in a single bound.

On the other hand, hey guys — feel free to surprise me. I don’t think anyone would argue if 2021 delivered a Switch with 8x the graphics horsepower and the same battery life as the 2019 model.

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