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Nvidia, not AMD, will power the Nintendo NX

Every now and then, the rumor mill gets a big one really, really wrong. For over a year, conventional wisdom has predicted that AMD would win the Nintendo NX contract and cement its hold on the console industry. Rumors that Nvidia had sniped the win began surfacing several months ago, and now Eurogamer has seemingly confirmed them with input from multiple sources. Nintendo’s NX will be powered by Tegra — and if Eurogamer’s resources are accurate, we now know more about both the console hardware and the underlying SoC.

Let’s start with the console itself. We now know that the NX will ship with a tablet that has two controller modules attached. One or both modules can be easily detached from the tablet, and the tablet itself can plug into a base station that connects to your television. Presumably the handheld controllers then connect wirelessly to the base station to allow for television gaming. One odd aspect to Eurogamer’s write-up, however, is that it describes the brains of the NX as being within the controller rather than within the television.

This could explain some of what we read about the NX months ago, when Nintendo’s patent filings suggested a console whose performance could be improved by adding additional controllers or base station devices, but it doesn’t explain why the company would put the brains of the device in a controller instead of in the tablet. This point is still unclear. As rumored, the NX will use game cartridges in lieu of disks, with a 32GB recommended cartridge size. That’s small compared with modern games on the PS4 and Xbox One and it’s not clear if Nintendo intends to use some form of compression technology or if Nintendo NX games will simply target smaller capacities. The dev kits already shipping also reportedly use fans, though that could be indicative of early revisions not final hardware.

As of now, backwards compatibility with previous Wii and Wii U titles is completely off the table and the new console won’t just run Android — it’ll be a custom Nintendo operating system. Emulation of previous consoles is hypothetically possible, but the NX may not pack enough horsepower to do the job efficiently. While Microsoft has managed to emulate the Xbox 360 on the Xbox One, it’s working with eight CPU cores clocked at 1.73GHz and a far more powerful GPU than anything that ever shipped in the Xbox 360. By making the NX a mobile console, Nintendo will have inevitably sacrificed top-end performance — and Nvidia’s Tegra X1, with four Cortex-A57 cores at 1.9GHz, may not be powerful enough to emulate the Wii U’s triple-core PowerPC architecture clocked at 1.249GHz. Generally speaking, you need either significantly more cores, more clock speed, or both to pull off successful console emulation.

As for the Nintendo NX’s SoC, it’s going to be based on a Tegra derivative, though exactly which chip is still unclear. Most of Nvidia’s Tegra designs have used stock ARM cores, though it’s possible that Nintendo might tap Nvidia’s own Project Denver. Nvidia’s Drive PX2 combines a quad-core Cortex-A57 cluster with a next-generation version of Project Denver, Nvidia’s own CPU core, but which CPUs Nintendo might use (and which GPU core they’ll pair them with) is still unknown.

Here’s my own bet: While I don’t claim to know which CPU core Nintendo will utilize, I’d bet they’ll go for a unified design — either a standard big.Little configuration from ARM (probably tapping the Cortex-A72 over the A57) or a Project Denver option. Given that the NX isn’t expected until 2017, it makes sense for Nintendo to wait for a 14/16nm process node (by then yields on 14/16 should be well on their way to mature). We expect Nvidia will have used a Pascal derivative for the GPU side of the equation as well.

This would be in contrast to Nintendo’s earlier consoles, which tapped older process nodes even when they were new (the Wii U launched in 2012 on 40nm when 28nm was already well in-market). The distinction, in this case, is that battery life is going to be key to the new platform’s attractiveness, and the benefits of 14/16nm are well-established over 28nm chips.

What’s less clear is how much of its own DNA Nintendo will bring to the table. The Wii U was based on established technology from both IBM and AMD, but there were Nintendo-specific customizations to the final silicon. The PowerPC-derived CPU had an unusual, asymmetric cache configuration and the SoC sported a significant amount of on-die EDRAM. There were also some fixed function blocks associated with the Wii U’s GamePad and its wireless capabilities. Presumably we’ll see a similar situation here, where Nintendo pays for some degree of additional capability or specific performance, but layers that on top of a custom Nvidia solution.

As for the intrinsic capabilities of the NX, it should be well in line with what Nintendo said it was targeting — fast play at 900p and 60+ FPS. Nvidia’s existing Tegra hardware can already deliver on that promise, so a next-generation 14/16nm chip should have no problems. It’s not clear if games will run at one resolution on the tablet and a different one when hooked up to the TV, or what kind of additional horsepower, if any, might be available once the device is plugged into the base station. In theory, Nvidia could ship a base station with one GPU in it, include another in the tablet, and combine them in an SLI-style interface to use multiple graphics solutions to render games. With close-to-the-metal operating system access and Nvidia’s overall reputation for smooth gameplay on multi-GPU configurations, this isn’t out of the question — though no information that’s leaked yet has supported this configuration, and we want to stress that it’s nothing but our own hypothesis.

Much will depend on the Nintendo NX’s price. With the Xbox One Scorpio shipping in Christmas 2017 with a 4K target and the uprated capabilities of the PlayStation Neo, Nintendo may have difficulty matching the current-generation consoles in a mobile form factor. Packing Xbox One or PS4 performance into a handheld isn’t going to be possible — both those platforms consume well over 100W, while the typical device power for a tablet is in the 5W – 8W range. Nintendo might burst up to 10-15W, but only for short periods, not sustained gaming. The gains from 28nm to 14/16nm aren’t going to be large enough to offset the power consumption, which means Nintendo is once again going to march to the beat of its own drum rather than tackling Sony and Microsoft in head-to-head battle.

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