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Yesterday, on AMD’s conference call, CEO Lisa Su announced that the company had recently added a new embedded design win to its portfolio, though without a firm date on when the company might recognize revenue from the win. One potential candidate for a hypothetical new device is Nintendo, which announced earlier this year that it would launch a new hybrid mobile device in 2016, codenamed the NX.
Dean Takahashi has laid out the reasons why he thinks Nintendo has contracted with AMD to build its next-gen console chip. There are multiple reasons to think this is a plausible match. AMD provides designs for every current-generation console on the market, including the existing Wii U’s GPU. The difference between Nintendo and Sony/Microsoft, however, is that Nintendo appears to have licensed an AMD GPU design that’s built by a third-party, Renesas, and the GPU they licensed — by all accounts, a derivative of AMD’s HD 4000 family — was already quite dated even when the Wii U was new.
According to Nintendo, the NX will be a “hybrid” between mobile and traditional living room gaming. This is broad enough to mean almost anything — a tablet like Nvidia’s Shield could conceivably be classified as a “hybrid” if connected to a television, since the machine supports video-out and wireless controllers, while an ultra-portable living room system could conceivably be declared “mobile” as far as picking it up and walking away with it.
One thing we can predict, however, is that Nintendo’s next-generation console will probably focus more on affordability and unique features as opposed to raw performance. Satoru Iwata’s recent passing could change that, if the company’s new president and CEO has a different vision for the future, but Nintendo has a decade-long history of preferring alternative control schemes and innovative technology over raw horsepower. Sony and Microsoft have historically leapt for new process nodes and die shrinks as quickly as they were available, while Nintendo followed updates its consoles at a far more leisurely pace.
What the NX could offer will depend a great deal on what kind of console Nintendo wants to build. The current Wii U is built on 45nm technology, which means Nintendo could solve the backwards-compatibility issue simply by sticking a 14nm Wii U variant directly into the NX platform. Then again, a mobile-centric device might eschew backwards compatibility altogether, since such a move would eat up board space when internal volume is at an absolute premium. Upgrading the CPU’s performance would be no problem — the three-core Wii U is based on the ancient PPC 750, and while IBM did some customization work on the chip, including a novel 2MB / 512K split L2 cache arrangement, it’s not far removed from where it began. A modern x86 core on an advanced process node could easily surpass the performance of the original. Similarly, GPU technology has advanced a great deal since the HD 4000 series was new, and the performance leap would be significant.
Given that Sony and Microsoft both dropped backwards compatibility off the latest generation with minimal fuss, it’s also possible that Nintendo will simply kill the option. It can always use the Virtual Console to bring hit games back, or keep the Wii U on-hand to satisfy gamers who want last-gen compatibility.
The Android option
AMD may be the obvious choice for a console design, but it’s not the only option. If Nintendo decided to move to a customized version of Android, it could take advantage of the work done by other companies to create an Android gaming ecosystem. Nvidia has likely done more in that sphere than any other company, and it offers some of the most advanced GPU technology you can buy in mobile. Nintendo’s decision-making process may be informed as much by hardware as by software — if Nintendo wants to emphasize its mobile gaming division and its new-found efforts to branch into smartphones and tablets, it could theoretically partner or license Nvidia’s graphics technology, combine it with a core license from ARM, and fab the chips at Samsung, GF, or TSMC.
One final note: While winning a new Nintendo console would generate positive buzz for AMD, I wouldn’t expect the company’s revenue to take a dramatic kick upwards as a result. We don’t know the details of the contracts AMD signed for the original Wii or Wii U, but there was never any evidence that the Wii was a huge moneymaker for the company, despite the fact that Nintendo sold over 100 million of them. A new manufacturing contract combined with strong NX sales could change that, but after the Wii U’s tremendous disappointment, Nintendo needs to demonstrate it can build a compelling platform.
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