Posted on January 17 2017 by Nathanial Rumphol-Janc
This is an interesting one. Keep in mind going in that a lot of this is based upon a partially-proven rumor from Reddit, combined with some massive research and speculation on the part of Thraktor, a well known NeoGAF leaker with a solid reputation. As such, we can’t really validate or deny these claims, but merely bring them to the forefront of the discussion just due to the possibility of truth. As such, please approach what I am about to share with an air of skepticism.
Here is what Thraktor shared:
Given the accuracy of the battery capacity, among other things, it would certainly seem like the leaker did have some kind of access to Switch hardware. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything they said is right, but it’s certainly interesting to run through the reddit post to look as the implications if the entire post is accurate (or as accurate as the leaker could be, given what he knew).
- “10 x 10 core” – Assuming measurements in millimetres, this tracks pretty close to the TX1 (which is 11mm x 11mm). This would indicate that the SoC is either 20nm, 16nm or 14nm (all have similar density), as a 28nm SoC would be noticeably larger. It would also seem to rule out any additional SMs over the TX1 (the Switch SoC being smaller could be from a simplified video codec block, as Switch doesn’t need 4K h.265 encoding/decoding).
- CPU: 1785 MHz – As I previously mentioned, I don’t see any reason for Eurogamer’s clock speeds to be wrong for game, but it’s entirely possible that the CPU can clock up higher while running the OS or for emulation.
- GPU: 921 MHz – Again, I don’t see the in-game GPU clocks being wrong, so they could just be stress-testing at a higher clock to be extra-cautious.
- Speculated 2x RAM = 4GB – This is kind of interesting, as it implies that there are two memory modules. LPDDR4 modules are typically available at either 32 bit or 64 bit bus width per module, and although Shield TV uses two 32 bit modules for a total 64 bit bus, this almost never happens in a tablet, as space is much more limited, and a single 64 bit chip could be used instead. The only tablet I can think of which uses two LPDDR4 modules is the iPad Pro, which uses two 64 bit modules, as it’s the only way to get a 128-bit bus. This doesn’t really specify anything one way or the other, but it does leave the option open for a 128-bit memory bus.
The bit regarding the “dev kit” is perhaps the most interesting, though, if it’s true (which is again a big if). Nintendo’s dev kits are usually made by Intelligent Systems (it’s actually what the company was founded to do, Fire Emblem was just a side project originally), but I suppose it’s theoretically possible that they’ve outsourced that to Foxconn instead. If it is true, we’re looking at the following:
- Producing 2000x units for now – This sounds like the kind of numbers you’d expect for a dev-kit. I don’t know whether you’d expect a batch of 2000 units for an early dev kit or a late dev kit, though.
- The core is 1x times bigger than the one above,200m㎡, looking it looks like 12×18 – This is obviously quite a bit larger than above, and pretty much exactly the size of GP106 (the GPU die in the GTX1060). If it’s an SoC, then there also has to be space in there for the CPU, etc, but it would still be quite a bit more powerful than the regular Switch (perhaps 4x as powerful for 4K games?). If it’s not an SoC, but rather a separate GPU, then it should be a similar config to the GTX1060, but probably with a lower clock.
- Extra ram, this version is 8GB – Makes sense for a more powerful device.
- No dock for this version for now. Can be plugged into TV without docking, power is inside – Of course it doesn’t need the dock, if it is the dock 😉
- Speculated provided the core is only include GPU, it would be even more powerful than PS4 pro – If it actually was the GP106 (or similar), then yeah, it would potentially be more powerful than the PS4 Pro, although I’d imagine that they would clock it down a bit.
- Screen is the same size as the normal one
- It’s much more powerful, but also much heavier, not feeling great in hand, speculated for 4K gaming – This could be because it’s early hardware, or it’s just a dev kit, but it could also be because it’s not actually a portable device.
- Haven’t seen such a huge core, and it’s 16nm + 100mm2 main core – This is the bit to focus on right here. What he’s saying is that this “dev kit” has both the standard 100mm² SoC used in the regular Switch and a separate 200mm² chip. This means the 200mm² chip isn’t a replacement for the Switch’s SoC, it’s an addition to it. That is, it’s a GPU.
- There’s no battery inside this version – No need for one of these, if this is what I assume it is.
So, I’m about to use a phrase that I’ve tried to avoid using for the past year or so since it came into gaf’s vernacular, because I’ve consistently believed that, even though it’s technically feasible, I don’t see the business case for it. I still don’t see the business case for it, but frankly it fits the supposed leak above too well for me to ignore it, so here goes:
What he’s describing above matches pretty much exactly what we would expect from a “supplementary computing device”, or SCD, which Nintendo patented a few years ago. The SCD would be an add-on unit to Switch (let’s say a special version of the dock) which has extra computational hardware inside (i.e. a GPU).
In this particular case what we’d be looking at is a dev kit that is designed to provide the functionality of both devices combined (as it’s simpler to make than a dev kit with actual detachable parts). Hence why both the Switch SoC and the new GPU are in the same unit, and why there’s a screen (same size as Switch’s) and why it’s so heavy and doesn’t include a battery. For the actual SCD, though, it would likely be a dock with the GPU and RAM, but not the Switch’s SoC or the screen.
Regarding the specifics of the leak, when I said the dev kit’s chip was “pretty much exactly the size of GP106”, I wasn’t kidding. According to this (which is the best source I could find), the GP106 measures approximately 11.67mm x 17.13mm, which is extremely close both in size and shape to the leaker’s claim that it “looks like” 12mm x 18mm. It’s worth noting that the die size of GP106 would have been common knowledge when this was posted (so if the leaker is screwing with us they could have found this out), but if they’re not screwing with us then it would seem too close to be a co-incidence.
As I see it, if the leak is true, then the dev kit is one of the following:
- A dev kit for a Switch 2 portable/hybrid which has a GP106-class GPU (and presumably a 10-15 minute battery life)
- An early “SCD” dock dev kit which is using GP106 as a stand-in for a custom GPU being developed (which could be less or more powerful than GP106)
- A near-final “SCD” dock dev kit which is using a custom GPU which is very similar to GP106
- An “SCD” dock dev kit, where they’re just using the GP106 itself in the final product
I don’t think there’s even the remotest hope of Nintendo releasing a new portable Switch with a GTX1060 for a GPU in the next couple of years, so I think we can rule out the first option pretty safely.
Then it comes down to an SCD GPU add-on (most logically in the form of a dock) with a GP106 GPU or something similar. Even with an SM or two disabled and clocks pulled down a bit from GTX1060, that would still be an obscenely powerful GPU by Nintendo’s standards, putting them roughly competitive with the PS4 Pro. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Nintendo would do, but Nintendo is anything but predictable these days, and given their SCD patent and the fact that the leaker has got other things right, I couldn’t really rule it out, either.
It does seem puzzling that they would go with something so powerful, though. If they just wanted to play Switch games in 4K, then a ~1.6Tflop GPU would do the job, whereas this would potentially be twice that. A 1080p/60fps Switch game like MK8 would in theory be able to hit properly native 8K (at 30fps) on that kind of hardware, let alone 4K. It’s possible that it’s their play to give people an option that’s competitive with Sony and MS on power to get western third parties on board, but if the games have to run on the regular Switch as well then the potentially 20-fold power difference between portable Switch and docked super-GPU would be tough to manage without sub-sub-HD resolutions in portable mode. Alternatively, they could let AAA devs design games that only work with the SCD, but then you’re making things more complicated for consumers.
Back to my initial issues with SCDs, though, which are that they don’t make a whole lot of sense from a business perspective. Console add-ons have a notoriously bad track record, because by their very nature they’re only going to be able to sell to a limited audience. If you build a new console, you can potentially sell that to anyone who likes video games, a total audience in the hundreds of millions. If, however, you build an add-on, you can only sell that to people who already own your existing system, which is likely cutting your potential audience down by a factor of ten or more. This is why PS4 Pro and Scorpio are new, standalone devices rather than add-ons to the PS4 and XBO, because if you have the choice of selling to an audience of hundreds of millions rather than tens of millions that’s what you do.
The console add-on is also a route that is almost guaranteed to get pretty poor support from developers because, once again, the audience is smaller. If you can target your game to everyone who owns a Switch, or just to the people who own the SCD, the former group is guaranteed to be bigger. I suppose if most of Switch’s big games will be made by Nintendo themselves this isn’t as big of an issue, but it still means Nintendo devoting resources to accommodate a small subset of their total user base.
It would make more sense to me (although who knows what makes sense to Nintendo) for the SCD not to be a dock per se, but rather a standalone console which also operates as a dock. That is, the SCD includes both the Switch SoC and the new GPU, and comes bundled with a Pro Controller (or pair of joycons). When you turn on the SCD without a Switch docked, it boots up on its internal SoC and operates pretty much as a standard console. If you turn it on with a Switch docked, though, it boots up on the docked Switch’s SoC, allowing the Switch to be undocked and the game to continue on the Switch. This wouldn’t be that much more expensive than a dock, but would have a substantially larger audience. It would also make more sense, both to developers and to customers, for there to be games which are SCD-only than if it were just a Switch accessory.
There are a few other interesting things to think about if Nintendo went this route:
- Devs could use the Switch’s SoC GPU for compute or other tasks while docked with the SCD
- Alternatitvely, Nintendo could disable the Switch GPU while docked with the SCD to allow the CPU to clock up higher (say to 1.78GHz)
- Nintendo’s SCD patent talks about the SCD and the gaming hardware (i.e. Switch) communicating over wired or wireless networks, with the SCD performing computational work for Switch. In a simple case, this could be implemented like Wii U, i.e. if you’re using Switch as a portable the SCD could stream the game to you. Alternatively, there are potentially more sophisticated uses (even over longer range) where the SCD would perform background tasks while Switch still renders the final frame.
I should end by once again emphasising that this is purely speculation based on supposed leaks from a source which, although right about Switch, may be completely wrong about this device. That said, as they were right about Switch, it is worth discussing, if only for how damn crazy it would be.
Edit: TL:DR: If the leak is accurate (which is a big if), then it looks like Nintendo is making dev kits using Nvidia’s GTX 1060 GPU. It seems likely that the final product would be a special dock for Switch allowing it to play games with this more powerful GPU. Although it would be clocked lower than the GTX 1060, it would still be very powerful, potentially competitive with PS4 Pro.
This is a lot to digest, but if true, Nintendo is already prepared for a future where the Nintendo Switch could be an afterthought to western studios with an optional, yet powerful, upgrade.