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A detailed report from Digital Foundry has uncovered much of the hardware inside the Nintendo Switch, including the clock speeds for the CPU and GPU inside the Nvidia Tegra X1 SoC that the game console utilizes. Interestingly, the Switch will run significantly slower when undocked from its TV-tethered base station, at least according to Digital Foundry's multiple sources.
As a refresher, the Tegra X1 is an ARM-based SoC with four Cortex-A57 CPU cores and four Cortex-A53 CPU cores clocked up to 1.9 GHz and 1.3 GHz respectively. There's also a Maxwell GPU with 256 CUDA cores clocked up to 1000 MHz, along with an LPDDR4 memory controller. We've seen this chip before in last year's Google Pixel C utilizing its full capabilities.
In the Switch, Nintendo will be underclocking the Tegra X1 across the board. The CPU will only hit a maximum frequency of 1.02 GHz regardless of whether it's docked or undocked, which is close to half the rated maximum frequency of the A57 cores. It's not clear why Nintendo has decided to underclock the CPU in this way, particularly when it's docked and isn't power constrained.
The GPU is clocked at 768 MHz when docked, but this reduces to just 307.2 MHz when undocked. In other words, the Switch is 60 percent slower (from a GPU perspective) when undocked, which is a huge performance penalty.
There are a couple of reasons why Nintendo may have opted for this severe underclock while undocked. Firstly, the GPU will consume less power when underclocked, so it will be more friendly to the battery. And secondly, the Switch itself only has a 6.2-inch 720p display. If the Switch normally operates at 1080p when attached to a TV, it makes some sense to underclock the GPU by 60 percent when rendering to its 720p screen, as 720p features 56 percent fewer pixels than 1080p.
It's no surprise that the Switch will be significantly less powerful than today's main gaming consoles, but it's a bit surprising to see Nintendo not utilize the full power of Nvidia's Tegra X1 SoC. We'll hear more about the Switch when Nintendo releases further details in January.