While the Nintendo Switch has proven to be a great system that’s loved by millions around the world, but it’s not without its issues. For one, there’s been a pattern among quite a number of titles that have come to the system so far or have been announced: dynamic resolutions that can go as low as sub-HD levels, as well as low framerates. Some gamers have considered these issues to be a result of nothing more than lazy porting, but is that really the case?
I think I may have found the real reason behind this conundrum. I’ve spent hours crunching over the numbers and pouring over sheets and sheets of schematics. I’ve dived into so many interviews, scrutinizing every single detail that seemed useful. Finally, I think I’ve come to the conclusion. Prepare yourself, for it might be rather alarming. The reason is…the Switch isn’t as powerful as the PS4 and Xbox One.
Okay, mystery solved. Thanks for reading; hope it was helpful!
Alright, alright, I’ll put the jokes aside. But, it is true that the Switch’s capabilities simply do not match up to that of the other modern systems. This fact is exacerbated even further by the new ‘supercharged’ variants, the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. While all of this is rather obvious to see, this seems to be a point that is constantly overlooked. I’ve read so many discussions about this, and some people just seem to miss this point. This is something I myself have talked about before, but allow me to say it once more: the Switch is a hybrid system.
Due to the Switch being a hybrid, it simply cannot and should not be directly compared to the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s like an apples to grapes comparison. All one has to do is to take a good look at the size and design of the Switch compared to either of those systems and think about the situation just for a moment. The Switch has a tablet-like body which puts it in a whole other set of circumstances than of the other systems.
The Switch’s hybrid design puts it in a whole other category separate from the PS4 and Xbox One.
The word “hybrid” is described as: ‘a thing made by combining two different elements.’ That description fits the Switch perfectly, as its entire design and concept is a combination of different elements from the worlds of handhelds and home consoles. It walks the line between these two sides, fundamentally blurring said line since it’s up to each individual player to choose exactly how they want to use the system. The Switch is meant to be a versatile, adaptable piece of machinery that can carry out its main task of playing games in any situation. That, in turn, creates an interesting challenge for developers.
You see, the Switch isn’t just a hybrid from a design perspective. There’s a reason Nintendo has differentiated the undocked (handheld) and docked (home console) modes that the system has. These aren’t just the two ways of playing the system; they’re also the two hardware configurations that the system ‘switches’ between. When docked, the Switch runs at full throttle; its fans kick-up, and the powerful Nvidia Tegra chipset that powers it can be used to its fullest extent. The moment the Switch is taken out of the dock, it instantly transforms into a handheld not just in terms of design, but also in terms of the way it behaves internally. A limit is put on all of its components, especially the Tegra which power now has to be capped out at a certain point. All of this has to do with the fact that the Switch is now running on battery power.
Despite there being billions of portable devices out there, our battery technology still isn’t ‘amazing.’ We have the means to build an insanely powerful rocket and send an expensive car into space to orbit Mars just for fun, yet we still have to deal with the majority of our portable devices needing to be charged every few hours if we use them too much. When it comes to the Switch, this quirk is even more pronounced since it’s a game system. It’s not an easy task to run console-quality games on a handheld; not just from a technical perspective, but also due to the amount of power that needs to be drawn. The Switch downgrades its performance just for the sake of providing as much play time as possible. After all, what good would it be to have a portable game system if you could only play for a short period of time?
A need to balance battery power is the main limiting factor of the Switch, hence the reason why a lot of these visual issues are present only in undocked/handheld mode.
When designing games for the Switch, developers have to carefully balance out their games to run on the Switch’s two different hardware configurations. A solid gameplay experience needs to be preserved no matter which mode is active. Keep in mind that this is all still in addition to the fact that even in docked mode, the Switch is still less powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One. So, games need to be configured properly to run not just on the weakest system, but also the weakest system that can get even weaker. I’m no game developer, but I think it’s safe to say that this is no easy task. The PS4 and Xbox One aren’t only more powerful, but they’re also designed to stay sitting on a table plugged into a wall outlet. Hence, the challenges faced with the Switch simply don’t apply to these other systems. It really is a whole different ballgame.
The Switch isn’t the only portable device that does this, though. Gaming laptops (and most other laptops in general) have been doing this for quite a number of years. When using these machines while plugged in, their components are free to run at their highest level of capability. But, when running on battery power, just like the Switch, the performance levels of every component is adjusted to maximize battery life. When playing a game while plugged, once you remove the charger you can see a transformation instantly on most machines that have power-saving features enabled; the framerate will drop just a mere second afterward. Plug it back in, and then boom, everything is back to normal.
This is a situation that developers will have to deal with for as long as the Switch remains an active platform. But, there is hope that things will improve. The Switch is only now about to turn a year old, so most developers are only now beginning to get their true bearings with the system. As time goes on, we should see even more optimizations made to ensure that both docked and undocked modes offer as close as the same experience as possible. But, there’s more to this specific detail. I’ll discuss that soon in another article.