The Switch is, in that respect, no different. By packing the entire console into a medium-sized tablet, it further blurs the line that demarcates home and portable gaming. Even though it is portable, this console still offers everything that people associate with home gaming. Games are not stripped down, even when they are being used away from the dock. The dual controllers are full featured as well. They can each be detached from the main tablet, and incorporate both wireless connectivity and motion sensing functionality, just like the original Wii controllers.
Figure 1. The Nintendo Switch with dock. Image courtesy iFixit.
Beyond being a popular gaming machine, what's actually underneath the hood of Nintendo's latest console?
The Switch Console
The Switch console is the main body of the Nintendo Switch offering. It houses the guts of the device, a 720p touch-enabled display, and is also what the Joycon controllers attach to. The unit’s dimensions mean that it is just a bit smaller, though slightly thicker than the average 7" tablet on the market.
One of the main features of the Nintendo Switch is its ability to smoothly transition from being a full-powered console to a handheld gaming device. It does this seemingly without compromising the gaming experience. The hardware in the Switch console gives us some clues as to how Nintendo pulled off this trick.
Figure 2. The Switch Display has a separate digitizer. Image courtesy of iFixit.
The Switch has a 6.25" LCD display with a separate touch panel layer. Unlike smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy and Apple iPhone, the touch panel and LCD are not optically bonded together. This makes manufacturing, as well as repair, considerably easier.
By being 720p instead of the full 1080p resolution when the Switch is plugged into the dock, the Switch console's display lowers the burden on the GPU. While there are higher resolution tablets on the market the 720p resolution is quite clear when used in a 6.25" display. This allows for a relatively seamless gaming experience when transitioning from dock to handheld device.
Next, let’s look at the motherboard. This houses the brains of the Nintendo Switch and reveals the other half of the puzzle. It features a Tegra X1-based SoC from NVIDIA known for strong gaming performance and energy efficiency. This highly scalable Tegra SoC module contains 4 ARM Cortex-A57 and 4 ARM Cortex-A53 cores. Although 8 cores are on the chip, only 4 cores are presented at one time, scaling to the needs of the application to minimize power consumption. The Tegra features a Maxwell™ based 256 core GPU as well as 4GB of LPDDR4 DRAM.
Figure 3. The Nintendo Switch comprises a Tegra X1-based SoC from NVIDIA (red), a Samsung LPDDR4 DRAM (orange), two Maxim MAX77621AEWI+T buck regulators (green), a Cypress BCM4356 wireless SoC (yellow) and an M92T36 630380 chip (blue). Image courtesy of iFixit.
Besides the Tegra chip, the motherboard boasts a Cypress BCM4356 wireless chip which offers 2 x 2 MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi, as well as Bluetooth 4.1. Interestingly, this wireless SoC also supports A4WP wireless charging, but this functionality is not enabled on the Nintendo Switch. The main console is also capable of motion sensing thanks to an STMicrolectronics LSM6DS3 3D accelerometer and gyroscope.
If the main console houses the brains of the Switch, the JoyCon controllers could be said to be its heart. These wireless controllers share many similarities with the controllers used on the Nintendo Wii. They are separable from the main console and can be used either as a traditional gamepad in a horizontal configuration or as a Wii-style inertial controller when held vertically.
Figure 4. The Switch's Joy-Con controllers allow a variety of input methods including gamepad, inertial, and even IR input. Image courtesy iFixit.
Inside each Joy-Con controller lies a 1.9Wh lithium-ion battery allowing for up to 20 hours of battery life. For motion sensing, there is another STMicrolectronics 3D accelerometer and gyroscope, this time in the form of an LSM6DS3 module.
Wireless connectivity to the main console is provided by a Cypress CYW20734 Bluetooth Transceiver. Compared to the WiFi/Bluetooth module in the main console, this is a much more stripped down and compact wireless chip focused purely on Bluetooth connectivity. Besides the Bluetooth chip, the Red Joy-Con also has an NFC module from STMicrolectronics. This is used for NFC-based "Toys to Life" interactions with Nintendo's Amiibo figurines.
Figure 5. Each Joy-Con controller houses its own wireless module, accelerometer, and haptic motor. Image courtesy iFixit.
Besides the gamepad buttons and inertial sensors, the Red Joy-Con controller has an IR camera as well as 4 IR LEDs. This camera can detect shapes and distances of objects such as hands, allowing for new modes of interaction.
To provide its "Rumble HD" haptic feedback, each Joy-Con features a custom LRA haptic module. Compared to the eccentric rotating mass (ERM) style haptic modules found in many smartphones, LRA haptic modules provide much more control. Using programmable waveforms, they can deliver nuanced feedback, such as taps, clicks, or bumps, instead of just simple vibrations like first generation haptics.
The Nintendo Switch has won strong reviews from a variety of tech and gaming magazines for its innovative design. Its transition from a home-based console is one of the main reasons for the acclaim. By using a 720p display and Tegra X1 SoC, it is able to scale its performance and power usage up and down based on whether it is docked or in portable mode.
The other half of the Switch's appeal is its evolution of the Wii's innovative control scheme. The Joy-Con controllers transition easily from being normal controllers attached to the side of the console to being independent, wireless controllers, each with its own inertial sensors, allowing for two-person play with just one console.
Though the Switch makes plenty of use of off-the-shelf commodity hardware, it unleashes the potential of every component and ends up providing a complete experience. It shows that ground-breaking products are much more than just the sum of their parts.
All pictures sourced, with permission, from iFixit.com's Nintendo Switch TearDown.
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