To see what the future holds for the Nintendo Switch game console, it might help to look at the iPad. Six years ago, Apple's then-novel tablet was weaker than the cheapest PC. It couldn't even handle two apps running side by side, and even some web pages would grind the device to a halt. Using one in place of a laptop was an extreme act of minimalism.
But over the last year, the iPad has reached a performance turning point. Phil Schiller, Apple's head of worldwide marketing, claimed last fall that the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was faster than 80% of all portable PCs. As performance improves and the software becomes more PC-like, it's not hard to imagine the iPad becoming good enough to replace a lot more laptops.
There are some parallels between the iPad and the Nintendo Switch, the portable game console set to be released in March 2017. Like the iPad, the Switch will use an ARM-based processor, the same energy-efficient architecture that powers the vast majority of smartphones. This allows Nintendo to cram the Switch's computing power inside a portable display, which attaches to a pair of controllers for handheld gaming. But that portability does come with a trade-off: The Switch probably won't be as powerful as Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4, whose x86-based processors share the same architecture as pretty much every laptop and desktop PC.
That doesn't mean Nintendo's bet on ARM won't prove smarter in the long run. Just as the iPad's performance is catching up to the needs of most PC users, Nintendo could narrow the performance gap with its rivals over time while reaping major advantages from its portability.
Nintendo won't be the first company to build an ARM-based game console. A few years ago, "microconsoles" such as Ouya attempted to bring Android games to the living room, and Roku, Amazon, and Apple have all dabbled in gaming on their own ARM-based streaming video boxes. Still, none of these efforts have managed to draw significant crowds away from traditional consoles.
The difference with Nintendo, aside from its brand power, is that it's not merely recycling smartphone or tablet components. Instead, the company has hired Nvidia to make a custom ARM chip that emphasizes gaming performance. (An Nvidia blog post about the collaboration boasts of the "500 man-years" that went into meeting Nintendo's precise needs.)
Custom chips are standard practice in the game console business, but they're an expensive endeavor, so it helps to have existing technology to build from, says Patrick Moorhead, an industry analyst and head of Moor Insights and Strategy. With Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4, for instance, both companies used custom chips from AMD that built upon the company's existing PC technology.
"There was a base to go off of," Moorhead says. "AMD already had a very high-performance CPU and a very high-performance GPU, and a lot of video IP."
ARM generally hasn't seen much investment in high-performance graphics, as chip makers have focused on mainstream smartphone and tablet use. Earlier this year, however, Nvidia started wooing the auto industry with its new Parker mobile processor, which emphasizes processing power and graphics performance. Although Parker is ostensibly built to handle complex self-driving algorithms and fancy dashboard displays, Moorhead suspects some shared lineage between it and the custom chip inside the Nintendo Switch.
"I doubt that Nvidia would have been motivated to [work with Nintendo] had it not shared similar technology in other places," he says.
Those investments matter because they likely give Nintendo a base to work with over multiple hardware generations. Microsoft and Sony are already moving toward PC-like ecosystems, where users keep their existing game libraries as the upgrade to new consoles; Nintendo could come up with a similar system based on ARM as Nvidia keeps investing in high-performance ARM chips.
"They would need the commitment from Nvidia to do that," Moorhead says. "But I believe Nvidia's going to be very successful in the automotive space—particularly given the recent announcement of Tesla—and I think they've been waiting for this moment."
Granted, the Nintendo Switch's performance will always be limited by the portable nature of the console. A battery-powered system must consume less power than a hardwired one, and the handheld display creates space constraints. (Moorhead floats the idea of a docking system that keeps the processor cool while running it at a faster speed, boosting the potential resolution while the user plays on a TV, but even this system would have its limits.)
That said, it may not be long before traditional consoles start to see diminishing returns on their performance investments. The difference between 1080p and 4K resolution, for instance, is already tough to discern, yet that resolution boost is a major selling point in upcoming console revisions from Sony and Microsoft. Over time, Nintendo's performance disadvantages could become less noticeable.
Meanwhile, the Switch's portable nature could prove advantageous for virtual reality, since it can operate untethered from a television. It's not hard to imagine the Switch docking into a VR headset, similar to Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Daydream. (Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima recently told Bloomberg that the company is "interested in VR.")
If virtual reality takes off, Nintendo's bet on ARM could look especially wise compared to its console rivals, who are now fully invested in PC-like architecture. Just as Microsoft's Windows was ill-prepared for the rise of ARM-based phones and tablets, both the Xbox and PlayStation could have trouble adapting as VR goes mobile.
Looking further into the future, Nintendo may even have a better chance at wooing new game developers who've cut their teeth on ARM-based phones and tablets. As Moorhead notes, writing a mobile game can be an art in terms of balancing performance and battery life, but it's becoming the norm as mobile gaming overtakes traditional consoles.
"It gives them a hell of a lot more people who understand how to program for mobile," Moorhead says. "The number of hardware and software engineers who would understand how to work on this and make it successful is a lot higher."
None of this is to say that Nintendo's strategy is foolproof. If we're drawing parallels to the iPad, it's worth noting that Apple's sales and the tablet market as a whole have collapsed over the last few years. That explains why Apple is now making a bigger push for the still-sizable PC market, but the iPad's ability to win those users over is still uncertain.
The reality may be that people still use PCs for work, and rely on their smartphones for practically everything else, with ARM-based tablets occupying a muddy middle ground. In the gaming world, the risk with the Nintendo Switch is precisely the same.