Technical

Nintendo’s Hardware DNA: A Switch Teardown

March 3rd marked the anticipated release of Nintendo’s newest console, the Switch. Capitalizing on advancements in mobile processor technology, Nintendo has catapulted forward into the next generation of hardware, with a device that combines the portability of a handheld with the experience of a traditional home console. 

Image source: Vooks.net

The Nintendo Switch’s signature move is a seamless transition between its handheld and TV modes by placing the portable console into the included accessory dock. The console itself is essentially a tablet with two detachable controllers that can operate as a single controller or as two separate controllers for impromptu multiplayer gaming.

The convergence of handheld and home console paradigms isn’t the only aspect of the Switch that breaks the mold. A cursory teardown of the main tablet unit strongly suggests that Nintendo is utilizing a Tegra X1 reference design from NVIDIA. This has enormous implications for the Switch’s development in the past, present, and future. 

Before the Switch, Nintendo developed the majority of their hardware architecture internally. Consequently, Nintendo’s consoles have suffered from a lack of third party support due to development differences with Sony and Microsoft. Designing their hardware around an industry standard like the Tegra X1 has already paid off, with third parties like Bethesda, EA and an onslaught of indie developers porting games to the Switch that would have typically flown right past a Nintendo console in the past. 

Leveraging NVIDIA’s tablet gaming technology means that Nintendo can focus on what they do best — innovating on tried and true game control design.

The Nintendo Switch benefits from a rich legacy of both portable and home consoles, inheriting hardware traits from more than 30 years of devices. To view the Switch as simply an on-the-go home console is to overlook the storied past of each design detail that makes it a uniquely Nintendo product. 

In order to gain a better understanding of what makes the Switch a true innovation for Nintendo, we must look at the aspects of the design that are already familiar to us. 

We’ll dive into Nintendo’s history and their journey of mastering the art of game control, and how it has led them to the product that we will be tearing down today. 

If you want to skip the historical overview of Nintendo’s gaming innovation, you can scroll down further to the physical teardown, below. 

A Legacy of Hardware Innovation (A “Historical Teardown”)

Although the core interaction of quickly transitioning between portable and home console modes is a new idea, the user-facing hardware features of the Switch have been a part of Nintendo’s history for the past three decades. In fact, the very idea that Nintendo creates new ways to play games is not a recent development. 

Clockwise, from top left: The Super Nintendo (1991), Game & Watch Donkey Kong (1979), Nintendo 64 (1996), Wii Remote (2006), and NES (1985). Nintendo’s iconic cross-style directional pad finds its way into almost every hardware iteration in some form.

 

In early generations, Nintendo set the gold standard for video game controllers. We see this in multiple aspects: with the first cross-style directional pad (Game & Watch Donkey Kong, 1979), the iconic ABXY face buttons, left and right trigger buttons (Super Nintendo, 1991), and one of the first analog thumbsticks in a home console (Nintendo 64, 1996).

The Rumble Pak (literally) shook up the idea of immersive gameplay on the Nintendo 64 by providing the first home console with haptic feedback. The Zapper brought virtual duck massacres and arcade-like shooter tech to the living room with the NES. 1995’s Virtual Boy, despite unrivaled critical and commercial failure, was an honest attempt at an affordable virtual reality headset that arrived a quarter century early. 

Novel gameplay elements have defined Nintendo’s handheld devices and home consoles since 70’s, but the past decade and a half has brought forth a hardware innovation renaissance —  thanks to the vision of the late president Satoru Iwata.

The Nintendo DS family of systems pioneered touch-based gaming in 2004 with their bizarre two-screened system and a cost-effective resistive touch screen. In 2006, the Wii brought motion-controlled gaming to the living room by way of inertial measurement units (IMUs) and infrared (IR) cameras in the Wii Remote.

Nintendo introduced both of these input methods to the mainstream consumer before the dawn of mobile gaming on the iPhone — when motion-controlled and touch-based gaming would reach critical mass. Nintendo also debuted the first mass-market handheld device to have a glasses-free stereoscopic 3-D display with the Nintendo 3DS in 2011 (which also included augmented reality capabilities and two cameras for capturing 3-D content).

The Switch’s hardware DNA is composed of the most distinctive elements from their products over the past 30 years. Nintendo hasn’t incorporated much of anything into the Switch that we haven’t seen before; they’ve simply refined their design formula. And thanks to NVIDIA, Nintendo was able to focus their efforts on creating the heir to their game control dynasty in the form of the Joy-Cons. 

For instance, haptic feedback in the form of rumble has existed in almost every console since the Nintendo 64 days, but the Switch is the first console to have HD Rumble. Instead of using a typical eccentric rotating mass motor, Nintendo uses a linear resonant actuator not unlike that of Apple’s Taptic Engine. This iterative technology enables the user to feel the faintest pop of a bubble or the rolling of a marble in a box, and is more advanced than either the Xbox One or PS4’s rumble technologies, which are based on eccentric rotating mass motors. 

Low cost resistive touchscreens have also been a cornerstone of Nintendo’s handheld line and the Wii U since the DS launched in 2004. The Switch boasts the first capacitive multi-touch screen in a Nintendo product. 

Even the off-TV play, aspect ratio, and tablet form factor of the Switch are heavily influenced by the former Nintendo console.

 

The Switch makes a bold statement about Nintendo’s mastery of the art of game control by inheriting the traits of its hardware ancestry.

The Present Day Hardware Innovation (AKA The Physical Teardown)

The Switch is like any shiny new gadget: a treasure trove of tech, waiting to be unlocked, with all sorts of intricate mechanical and electrical engineering puzzles and Easter eggs tucked away behind its enclosure. 

As a product engineering firm, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the Switch and tear it down! Although the Switch teardown is already well documented (thanks iFixit and our friends at fictiv), we will provide additional insight from a hardware development perspective.

It always amazes us just how many parts go into a product like the Switch

 

When first opening the device, we are instantly drawn to the injection molding marks left on the plastic back piece of the Switch. A stamped-in date shows a production date of Nov 15, 2016 – showing they had the production line up and running for a while now. 

It takes time to manufacture millions of units! 

Some molding marks on the inside of the plastic back cover

 

The NVIDIA Tegra produces some serious heat, which is why it’s important to activate a cooling system — you wouldn’t want to burn the hands of millions of gamers. Many commentators might call the Switch a glorified tablet but, in reality, it’s around 10x more powerful than your average iPad, thanks to the Tegra. The cooling system uses an amazingly thin heat pipe (a squashed copper tube filled with coolant) with a small radiator and fan, including vibration damping rubber mount, at the end. 

A very high tech solution crammed into an impressively small package.

With the back removed you can see the main board and massive heatsink

The impressively thin copper heat-pipe is some very cool engineering

 

The heatsink does not directly contact the Tegra chip; instead, it goes through the metal shield over the processor and memory. You can even see a little copper square over the processor, as copper is known for its high thermal conductivity, and the gray thermal paste to aid heat transfer. Warning from the wise, that stuff gets everywhere!

One corner of the switch has one of the two speakers and a curled up flex cable

 

The main connector is often the primary cause of unit failures. In this case, the Switch uses a relatively new USB Type-C connector that enables all it’s power and data needs. The Nintendo team designed this connector to be incredibly tough – as multiple dockings and chargings will undoubtedly abuse it.

The connector is soldered down at multiple points on the PCB, a cover is spot-welded on, screwed down and the board it is assembled to butts up against the metal chassis of the Switch. 

This thing isn’t going anywhere!

That USB Type C connector isn’t going anywhere

 

One common mistake that happens during manufacturing is when chips are installed incorrectly on the circuit board. Nintendo has tried to circumvent this by including little pictograms of chip orientations (and even diode marks for the keen-eyed geek!) directly on the board. Hopefully this will minimize any mistakes.

The backside of the main board, featuring yet more chips

 

Mindtribe has spent months designing light-pipes for products. The art of funneling light from a LED to the right external location for the user to see can often be a dark art. Nintendo has gotten this spot on, with no ‘light-bleed’ (the light escaping into areas it shouldn’t normally be). A very impressive effort.

That little green dot takes a lot of engineering to get right

The Future of Hardware Innovation (AKA Nintendo’s Boundary Pushing)

With Nintendo’s impressive track record of designing and manufacturing boundary-pushing user-experiences, they are unlikely to slow down anytime soon. The Switch marks a huge success not only as a desirable product but also realizing they should focus on what they do best, marrying innovative gameplay interfaces with tried and true game control design. 

A central principle of the Mindtribe method is leveraging the experience and domain knowledge of industry experts, rather than reinvent the wheel. Leveraging NVIDIA’s technology in their newest console has already paid off in more ways than one, with third parties and indie developers flocking to the Switch. Consequently, Nintendo was able to redirect their resources towards integrating their hardware DNA into the Joy-Cons.

We eagerly await the next announcement from Nintendo, although it’s always difficult to predict where they’ll go next. Some commentators have already suggested the Switch as a potential VR component, paired with a headset. This might not be far off — both the Switch and the Joy-Cons have the necessary motion tracking sensors — but it would necessitate more power, as well as a more responsive screen to make that a reality. Still, the Switch positions Nintendo well, with the potential to become the first all-in-one console, from handheld, to TV, to VR.