Building the Nintendo Switch Pro
Exploring the possibilities of a next-generation Switch console
There has been a great deal of discussion in recent months about the possible announcement of a Nintendo Switch Pro (Pro being an entirely fan-invented moniker for a potential new machine). In fact, prior to the reveal of the Switch Lite console last year, the rumour mill hit fever pitch with speculation about what a “Pro” console could be (and when it might be released). Well, of course, Nintendo never unveiled a Pro. And in recent weeks, they have made clear that they have no intention of introducing a new Switch console in 2020.
So, where does this leave us? Well, let’s start with assumptions. The whole idea of a Nintendo Switch Pro seems to be largely based on the assumption that Nintendo are likely to introduce an enhanced/more powerful console in addition to the existing two SKUs (the regular Switch, and the Switch Lite). Although Nintendo are known to juggle multiple SKUs of a product at once (the Nintendo DS is a good example here), it seems unlikely to me that they would retain three separate models at three separate price points. I don’t know whether or not consumers are already confused about the difference between a regular Switch and a Lite, but at least those two consoles are functionally quite different. Given that the major advantage of a theoretical Switch Pro (again, according to fans and pundits) is more hardware power, it seems to me that Nintendo would find it even more difficult to differentiate this from the other two models.
There are some other reasons to be skeptical:
- Nintendo don’t tend to introduce more powerful mid-generation consoles (the only major exception perhaps being the New 3DS).
- The most recent rumours suggest that the Switch Pro will leverage the new Nvidia Volta architecture (via a custom GPU) — however, there are questions about the veracity of this rumour and, even if it proves true, these rumours suggest we wouldn’t see a major performance improvement anyway.
- The existing Nintendo Switch is wildly popular, and Nintendo are still struggling to fill demand in several markets (most recently reported in the UK). Although they are guaranteed to be in development on some form of new hardware, they’re clearly in no rush to replace the existing Switch (especially given the refreshed Tegra X1 “Mariko”-based model that was recently released, substantially improving battery life).
It may end up being the case that some of the existing rumours do bear out in the end. But at the moment, the only reliable guide is Nvidia’s own architectural roadmap (which provides some hints, but is still not entirely reliable given that Nvidia and Nintendo will still produce custom hardware for any new Switch console).
Although it makes sense to be skeptical about the many rumours surrounding the Switch Pro, it’s still fun — and worthwhile — to think about what kind of changes Nintendo should consider making. Given the huge success of the Switch, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Nintendo won’t make enormous changes to the core value proposition: that is, the idea of a hybrid machine that can connect to a TV and play portably. I also think it’s likely that the Joy-Con concept will continue, although perhaps Nintendo will refine their design in meaningful ways based on experience (more on that in a moment).
For what it’s worth, here are my five suggestions for a next-generation Switch. Bear in mind that as I write these suggestions, I’m making the assumption that this will be a replacement for the current model (setting aside the Lite, for now).
1: Improved form factor
I mention this first because it kind of includes two aspects: the physical shape of the unit itself and the screen. In my view, it’s not necessary for Nintendo to increase the resolution of the Switch’s screen — 720p is sufficient for handheld mode. I also don’t think it’s necessary to increase the size of the screen itself (it’s already bigger than the Switch Lite screen anyway). Instead, I think Nintendo could slightly shrink the unit around the screen — the screen itself would remain the same size and resolution, but there would be no bezel. The housing around the screen would be smaller (although not necessarily lighter, depending on the hardware inside).
I’m slightly cheating here, because I’m going to use this same point to mention the much-maligned kickstand, which everyone knows is in major need of improvement — make it larger, thicker, whatever…just make it robust, Nintendo. The Switch should be able to confidently stand on a surface without wobbling around on a toothpick-like kickstand.
2: Truly seamless play across devices
This isn’t so much a specific hardware feature, but it’s something I think Nintendo can dramatically improve. When the Switch Lite was unveiled, I was strongly considering it as a second Switch console. I like the idea of an even more portable Switch, and I especially like the built-in D-Pad. But Nintendo require me to designate one of my consoles as the “primary” one — any additional consoles are secondary, and must connect to the internet for validation prior to booting up any game.
The validation part itself isn’t too bad, although without onboard cellular data on the Switch Lite, it’s likely a bit of a pain to use as a secondary machine. I could make the Switch Lite my primary console and my original Switch could safely be relegated to secondary status because it’s usually docked and connected to Wi-Fi. However, the need to manually upload and/or download save states from the cloud between devices and play sessions is an enormous pain and not something I’m prepared to do.
A Switch Pro itself doesn’t necessarily solve this problem, but I’m mentioning it here because I see it as a major factor for Nintendo to consider as they continue evolving Switch hardware and software.
3: Redesigned Joy-Cons
I think the Joy-Cons are pretty remarkable. Not only do they allow for a wide range of play styles (and provide instant, easy-access multiplayer on the go), but they have really opened up the Switch as a platform — Nintendo Labo, for instance, is largely only possible because of these inventive controllers.
So, what would I improve? Well, there’s the obvious Joy-Con drift problem that requires attention. But in my mind, that’s just a necessary — and expected — fix. In terms of actual features, there are two that come to mind immediately. One is that I’d really like to see a D-Pad on the left Joy-Con. I don’t think this necessarily negates the idea of using that Joy-Con horizontally either (although perhaps the D-Pad could be an accessory that you clip over the top of the buttons; who knows). I’d also really like to see the ZL and ZR buttons turned into analogue triggers; this is one feature I’m really missing on the current version, especially for certain games (like racers), which really benefit from it.
Who knows what else Nintendo could do with next-generation Joy-Cons. I personally don’t think the design needs to radically change — an iterative improvement would suffice.
4: More intuitive social tools
This is a huge one for me. And although I think it’s largely a software problem, it may require improved hardware as well. There are a few things you could lump in this category, like the ability to easily pair with Bluetooth headphones (which is really a no-brainer in my view). But what I’m really angling for here is the ability to easily create parties and access voice chat at the OS level and without requiring use of the mobile app.
It’s not that the Nintendo Switch Online mobile app is necessarily a bad thing; there are numerous games that can access reasonably robust additional features through mobile (like Splatoon 2, for instance — not the voice chat, but all the inventory stuff, the stats, and even the ability to see which stages are in rotation). There’s definitely a lot of potential with the mobile app to expand game experiences. However, I want to be able to easily access voice chat and create a party or group right on my Nintendo Switch console, and I want this experience to be easy and seamless regardless of the game I’m playing. Both Sony and Microsoft have largely nailed this on their respective platforms — I think Nintendo could greatly improve the online multiplayer experience on Switch by following suit.
5: Backward compatibility
This one might sound pretty obvious, but I don’t think it should be taken for granted. Nintendo have been pretty good about maintaining a degree of backwards compatibility especially with their handheld platforms. It’s reasonable to assume that the Switch Pro — or Switch 2 — will be able to play existing Switch titles, at least if we assume that a) it’ll be based on the same basic form factor and b) that it’ll continue to utilise a similar Nvidia architecture (the latter is probably more certain than the former, at any rate).
But it’s not just about being backward compatible with games. I think the next Switch should also be backwards compatible with the existing hardware, especially the first-gen Joy-Cons. I don’t know about you, but I certainly invested in a few colour variations, and I’ve had play sessions where almost all of my Joy-Cons have been used. These things aren’t cheap, either. Even if Nintendo tweak the design in a next-gen iteration, I think they should aim to retain compatibility so that folks don’t have to throw out their valued controllers.
You’ll notice there are a few things I’ve left out of the list above. I’ve already touched on the screen question. But I also didn’t mention hardware specifications in terms of CPU/GPU in part because it’s always reasonable to assume that a new system will be more powerful than its predecessor. We can — and do — take that for granted. I suppose the question is how much more powerful; if there is going to be a Switch Pro and it’s still going to be a hybrid machine, then obviously, it’s never going to match up to other next-gen home consoles in terms of raw power. So I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect, for example, real-time 4K in docked mode or anything like that (although Digital Foundry produced a video recently that hinted at the vague possibility of DLSS AI upscaling, which would certainly be an interesting approach). I also didn’t mention anything about onboard storage; again, this is deliberate. If Nintendo can improve the cloud storage experience — especially across devices — then I think the onboard storage becomes less of an issue. But also, it’s increasingly possible to purchase cheaper SD cards with even more storage, rendering the need for a high onboard storage moot; that’ll just add to the immediate cost of the console itself. I’d prefer Nintendo to invest in other areas of the machine, rather than impact the retail price with something that just isn’t terribly valuable.
We still don’t know when Nintendo will formally unveil a new Switch (or a new console, full stop). I’m personally not in any huge rush, as I think the current Switch is still an amazing little machine and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Nevertheless, it’ll be fascinating to see what Nintendo do over the next 12–18 months not only to keep the Switch itself relevant, but also in response to Sony and Microsoft’s next-gen juggernauts.