Optical discs have ruled console game distribution for decades, but recent trademark filings from Nintendo and a memory supplier report from earlier this year suggest that the company may be shaking things up with NX console. Nintendo is rumored to be adopting cartridges instead of discs for its upcoming platform, which is currently expected to launch at the end of Nintendo’s first fiscal quarter in 2017.
The most recent rumor comes courtesy of Nintendo’s trademark applications for the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. As you can see from the filing below, video game cartridges are listed as one of the goods and services Nintendo wishes to trademark. As the Neogaf poster explains, however, applications for other titles don’t typically mention game cartridges unless the game is also a 3DS title.
Taken by itself, this is a weak thread to hang a conclusion from. Earlier this spring, however, memory manufacturer Macronix announced that it expected to provide chips for the upcoming NX console. Macronix seemed to also imply that it would see a boost in its NOR flash business from doing so, though it’s not clear if NOR memory is available in sufficient densities.
Here’s how Macronix’s product line shakes out, between NOR, ROM, and NAND flash memory.
Note that while parallel NOR flash is available in up to 256MB blocks, that pales in comparison to even SLC NAND, which can be bought in 8Gb/1GB densities. The company’s customized XtraROM is available in up to 32Gb densities (4GB per chip), but detailed performance data on these solutions isn’t available.
The chart above compares NAND and NOR flash on a variety of metrics. NAND flash is the flash most readers will be most familiar with; it’s what we use for SSDs and other common forms of storage these days. NOR flash is older and much slower when it comes to writing data, with lower storage capacities and higher active power consumption. On the other hand, it’s also slightly quicker for data reads, uses less standby power, and is faster for code execution.
Nintendo might bring cartridges back as a way of compensating for low optical drive performance. Twenty years ago, when the Nintendo 64 launched, Nintendo took heat for opting to use a cartridge-based format rather than a CD-ROM. While the N64’s load times were far better than anything the PlayStation could put on the board, game graphics often suffered as a result of the limited storage space available on N64 cartridges (games ranged from 4-64MB, while the PlayStation could store hundreds of MB of data on one disc).
Today, however, the story is quite different. Optical drive performance has largely hit a wall; the Blu-ray drives in the current Xbox One and PS4 top out at roughly 27MB/s of performance. Microsoft and Sony could theoretically boost that by adopting faster drives, but NOR flash can hit performance levels that leave even the fastest Blu-ray hardware in the dust.
Cost will be the major question here. If Macronix can deliver faster NOR flash at an equivalent price to Blu-ray, the reduced storage capability (32GB for the NX, supposedly, compared to ~50GB for modern Xbox One or PS4 titles) will be a minimal issue. If Nintendo can’t get the price it wants, however, it may still end up paying higher costs per bit and having to recommend game developers scale things back to compensate.