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Nintendo Switch GPU Runs Faster When Docked

Whenever a new system is revealed, one of the first questions out of the gate is how powerful it is. Once we knew that the NX (Nintendo Switch) would be a hybrid device, expectations had to be kept in check because the device would have to run in portable mode and home console mode. As we saw the system in the teaser trailer and then recently on The Tonight Show, it became even clearer that the Switch is a relatively thin device, leaving little room for super high-end powerful chips.

Knowing Nintendo’s history and the current competitive environment, we figured Nintendo would try to keep the system’s cost down as well, which of course would limit them to using a chipset that would serve their needs without breaking the bank. Adding all of these conditions up and pairing them with the more credible rumors meant that the Switch would come in under Xbox One in the performance department. That appears to be exactly the case with the latest Digital Foundry article, which details the clock speed of both the Switch’s CPU and GPU.



Before we get into the actual numbers, it’s very important to remember that we don’t know the full picture of what’s inside the Switch. It’s also difficult to compare raw numbers to other pieces of hardware because they use different technologies and architecture. In other words, an Nvidia chip with a certain clock speed can be different from an AMD chip. Until we know the exact configuration of some of the internals, it’s difficult to make fair comparisons. Digital Foundry reports:


Clock-speeds are a crucial piece of information required to get some idea of Switch’s capabilities beyond the physical make-up of the Tegra processor. As many have speculated, the new Nintendo hardware does indeed feature two performance configurations – and the console is categorically not as capable in mobile form, compared to its prowess when docked and attached to an HDTV. And we can confirm that there is no second GPU or additional hardware in the dock itself regardless of the intriguing patents that Nintendo has filed suggesting that there might be. With battery life and power throughput no longer an issue, the docked Switch simply allows the GPU to run much faster. And to put it simply, there is a night and day difference here.

Where Switch remains consistent is in CPU power – the cores run at 1020MHz regardless of whether the machine is docked or undocked. This ensures that running game logic won’t be compromised while gaming on the go: the game simulation itself will remain entirely consistent. The machine’s embedded memory controller runs at 1600MHz while docked (on par with a standard Tegra X1), but the default power mode undocked sees this drop to 1331MHz. However, developers can opt to retain full memory bandwidth in their titles should they choose to do so.

As things stand, CPU clocks are halved compared to the standard Tegra X1, but it’s the GPU aspect of the equation that will prove more controversial. Even while docked, Switch doesn’t run at Tegra X1’s full potential. Clock-speeds are locked here at 768MHz, considerably lower than the 1GHz found in Shield Android TV, but the big surprise from our perspective was the extent to which Nintendo has down-clocked the GPU to hit its thermal and battery life targets. That’s not a typo: it really is 307.2MHz – meaning that in portable mode, Switch runs at exactly 40 per cent of the clock-speed of the fully docked device.


Again, straight up comparing specs is rather pointless at this point until we know the full picture. However, assuming the portable mode can run Wii U games with no problem, as we’ve seen with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (and indeed maybe even slightly better), then that means when docked the games could see a 60% boost in performance. This will no doubt be utilized to push the resolution from 720p on the handheld to 1080p on the TV and perhaps add in even more graphical effects.



So, where does that leave us? Well, all rumors have been pointing to third parties being optimistic about porting games from Xbox One and PS4 to the Switch. The big question is what kind of graphical difference are we going to see? It’s impossible to know at this stage. We can estimate that when docked the Switch’s CPU is about 35% slower than the PS4 and the GPU is about 4% slower, but those numbers are almost meaningless without knowing more details.

The bottom line is that at worst we are getting a system that is capable of playing Wii U games on the go and then having them bumped up to 1080p on the TV when at home. If this ends up being the case, I can’t help but be disappointed with the home console side of things. I’m extremely happy that the portable side of Nintendo’s business is getting such a drastic jump in graphics, but if the console is severely hampered then I’m concerned not only with third party support, but also with Nintendo’s own efforts. As a day one Wii U owner I expect there to be some progress made in audiovisual presentation when a new system launches. If this is another GameCube to Wii bump in graphics capabilities then it’s very unfortunate.

Luckily we won’t have to wait very long to begin to see the power of the Switch. On January 12 is the Nintendo Preview Event and then on January 13 there will be hands-on press events taking place. Only then will we begin to see the whole story and whether or not the power gulf between the Switch and the PS4/Xbox One is extreme or not.



[Source: Digital Foundry]

Craig Majaski

Craig has been covering the video game industry since 1995. His work has been published across a wide spectrum of media sites. He's currently the Editor-In-Chief of Nintendo Times and contributes to Gaming Age.

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