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What the “OLED Model” means for the future of Nintendo Switch


Where is my 4K “Switch Pro” upgrade?

The most surprising thing about the Switch’s newly announced “OLED Model” might just be what it’s missing. Namely, it’s missing a new chipset that bumps up the processing power above what’s available on existing Switch hardware.

That lack of improved internals is surprising mainly because of a number of reports that promised the next Switch would support a bump to “4K graphics when paired with TVs,” as Bloomberg phrased it is as recently as March. Bloomberg’s reporters tend to be reliable when it comes to this kind of insider Nintendo reporting, including an early 2019 report that predicted a “lower-priced” Nintendo Switch Lite months ahead of its announcement. Bloomberg also got the other details right about the OLED Model, including the 7″ OLED screen that maintains the original Switch’s 720p resolution and the general timing of when manufacturing would begin.

Maybe Bloomberg’s reporters just got ahead of themselves on this one detail and assumed 4K support that was never really in the cards. More likely, though, is that Nintendo just changed its plans for a processing-power boost at some point after Bloomberg’s sources first leaked the information.

That theory would line up with the worldwide semiconductor shortage that has plagued the global supply chain in recent months. That’s the same shortage that Sony and Microsoft have already admitted could limit supplies of their next-generation consoles through the end of the year, suggesting that Nintendo probably isn’t immune to the same forces.

As the extent of those shortages became clear in recent months, Nintendo may have been faced with two options. The industry giant could delay its “Switch Pro” plans until the chips it needed for a more powerful system were available at an acceptable cost (likely meaning pushing back to a 2022 launch). Or it could scale back its plans, make use of readily available OLED screens, and launch a more limited redesign that kept the same basic internal hardware architecture in time for the 2021 holidays.

I don’t have access to Nintendo’s decision process here, so the actual considerations may have looked very different. But these kinds of changing circumstances would provide a plausible explanation for why expectations and early reporting on a “Switch Pro” didn’t match reality in this case.

Does the Switch really need a power boost?

Even when the Switch launched in 2017, it was underpowered compared to its console competition. Now that the console is quickly approaching its fifth anniversary, its raw hardware power is absolutely dwarfed by fully 4K systems like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s no real evidence that’s a problem for Nintendo.

Despite the lack of power, the Switch is still selling extremely well, pushing nearly 29 million systems worldwide in the last fiscal year. Bloomberg’s Takashi Mochizuki points out that it is currently on track to sell 100 million units faster than any other home console (though portable systems like the Nintendo DS sold even faster)

Those kinds of sales numbers don’t suggest an immediate need for a midgeneration power-boosting redesign. The system’s mix of first-party exclusives, a wide range of indie and third-party titles, and a hybrid portable/TV form factor is obviously still a hit with gaming audiences, even without the raw hardware power of the competition.

Sure, Switch owners miss out on some high-end blockbusters that require the latest-and-greatest processors to power their worlds. But some publishers are working around those limitations with visually downgraded ports or even streaming options that run high-end games on powerful remote servers.

Even with an upgraded system-on-a-chip, though, a 4K “Switch Pro” would still, in all likelihood, be full of visual compromises compared to the competition. These days, getting true 4K performance in a console requires a lot of space for components and heat dissipation, as we’ve seen with the relatively gargantuan PS5 and Xbox Series X. Even approaching that kind of performance on a system with the Switch’s portable form factor would have been difficult, if not impossible. That’s true even if the system leaned heavily on “smart” 4K upscaling from Nvidia’s DLSS, as reports suggested it might.

Maybe this kind of internal power upgrades (and maybe a resolution-bump for the Switch’s screen?) are still a possibility for a real “Switch Pro” update in coming years. But there’s nothing to suggest that any of these features are necessary to keep the Switch relevant in today’s gaming market.

Is the Switch a portable first or a console first?

The value proposition of the OLED Model Switch is very different depending on how you use the system. When compared to the standard $300 Switch model, players who use the OLED Model away from the TV get an improved screen, improved speakers, and a heavily upgraded kickstand for “tabletop” play. OLED Model players who use the Switch while connected to the TV, on the other hand, get… a better-looking dock with a wired Ethernet port (both sets of players also get more internal storage).

That contrast helps cement a general impression that we’ve had ever since the release of the Switch Lite in 2019; Nintendo seems to be putting more emphasis on the Switch as a portable system than as a TV-based console these days. That’s at least a little surprising considering that, as recently as 2018, Nintendo was saying that docked and undocked playtime for the Switch was “about even” across all players.

Maybe that split has changed in the intervening years. Or maybe Nintendo has simply decided to lean into the portable experience as the Switch’s key differentiator from its more powerful console competition. Either way, Nintendo apparently sees the Switch as a portable system that can optionally be plugged into a TV, rather than the other way around (and despite what Nintendo told Polygon in 2016, when the 3DS still provided Nintendo’s portable hardware focus).

Who is it for?

Even for portable users, the OLED Model’s small improvements over previous Switch hardware might make it hard for existing Switch owners to justify spending a full $350 on an upgrade. But if you’re one of the millions of people who will be in the market for their first Switch this holiday season, a $50 relative price difference for those same improvements might not seem so ridiculous.

Keep in mind that households purchasing their first Switch still accounted for 80 percent of the console’s worldwide sales in the fiscal year that just ended in March. That’s roughly 23 million of the roughly 29 million consoles Nintendo sold in the 12-month period—numbers that help explain who Nintendo probably sees as the core audience for this slightly improved top-end Switch model.

In any case, the old $300 Switch and the $200 Switch Lite aren’t going anywhere for the time being. And the new model plays the same games and uses the same controllers that already exist, meaning it won’t split the Switch hardware or accessories market in any meaningful way. That makes the OLED Model a relatively risk-free way for Nintendo to introduce a “high-end” Switch (with a bit of a high-end price point) without being too disruptive to what’s obviously working well so far.

Listing image by Nintendo





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