Why the Nintendo Switch uses Cartridges | Storage Media & Areal Density | Physics vs Film (& Games)
Nintendo’s new console, the Switch has lots of people excited about the company once again… but also battled in some areas. In particular it uses cartridges for its games, so why have they seemingly gone backwards in terms of technology? One of the major reasons for the change in games media over the years has been how much information you can actually pack on to a storage medium. This is given by a quantity called the areal density. The standard for areal density is measured in the rather weird units of bits per square inch. Don’t get me started on why everyone quotes it in square inches rather than in an SI unit like square meters, square millimeters, square nanometers, something sensible for scientists like me! But throughout this video I’m going to have to use bits per square inch. Sorry if that offends you. Now I don’t know how far back your gaming goes, but certainly I remember as a child on my BBC Microcomputer using both cassette tapes and by five and a quarter inch floppy disks.
In both these cases the games were encoded onto the tape or disk by changing the magnetic polarization of the material within very small patches. Both cassettes and floppy disks didn’t have incredibly high areal densities back in the day and I think that’s probably why the move went over to cartridges, particularly for consoles. The NES, SNES, Megadrive, event the N64 all used cartridges. If you were to open up the plastic casing you would see a circuit board in there with silicon chips.
It’s on those chips that all the information is encoded. But starting with the original playstation, all games consoles moved over to optical media using CDs followed by DVDs and now essentially Blu-Rays. The disks have grooves on the back of them and the data can be read using a laser. The limiting factor here is something called diffraction, just how waves spread out, and the key quantity is the wavelength of the light.
CDs and DVDs both used red light which has the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum, whereas Blu-Rays are able to contain way more data because they use blue lasers with a much shorter wavelength. That’s why a DVD has an areal density of gigabits per square inch whereas Blu-Rays have 12.5. The problem with things like CDs, DVDs and now Blu-Rays is that they are a standard. You cannot change them, you cannot increase the capacity, whereas other technologies are allowed to progress. Back in the eighties when CDs were invented, they were way better than any of the hard drives that existed.
But hard drive technology now is amazing. We can fit one point two terabytes of information onto just a square inch. But I still haven’t answered the question of why the Switch has gone back to using cartridges. Whilst I haven’t spoken to anyone at Nintendo, the answer does seem to be just how great the amount of information you can pack onto a silicon chip is these days. In fact it was only last year in 2016 that flash memory, memory contained within silicon chips, was able to out beat hard drive technology for the very first time, achieving areal density of terabits per square inch. But perhaps in the future we might be using something different, because there’s amazing research looking into different ways of packing information in as tightly as possible.
For a while the record of areal density that we’ve been able to achieve was using DNA, literally the same stuff that we are written in. Using a DNA synthesizer and DNA microchips, we’ve been able to achieve exabits per square inch. That’s over a million times better than our best hard drives.So perhaps the movie existenz was right and your games in the future will look a bit like that. But so far our best storage medium are holograms.
For a while, standard holograms were touted as being the next storage medium, but we didn’t seem to be getting the payoffs that we were perhaps promised. But researches in Stanford have shown the way forward isn’t using standard holograms, it’s using electronic quantum holography. By superimposing holograms with different wavelengths onto the same image, they’ve been able to achieve 35 bits for every electron. That’s three extra bits per square inch. But is there a limit? The Beckenstein Bound tells you the maximum amount of information that the universe will allow given a certain mass and scale.
Its derivation comes from thinking about black holes and entropy, something way beyond the scope of this video here. Now since we don’t know what happens to information in black holes, it’s an active area of theoretical debate, let’s just consider a storage medium that is on the cuff of becoming a black hole. While this would in no way be practical, it’d probably rip you to shreds, it tells us that the universe will allow up to times 10 to the power of 65 bit per square inch. But if you want an idea of just how big that number is, if you were to take the entirety of the internet (an estimated a hundred zetabits in size) could be contained within a billionth of the size of a proton.
(Mama-Mia) Yes Mario, that is just mind-blowing! Thank you so much for watching this video, I hope you enjoyed it. Please do like, share and subscribe and I will see soon.
As found on Youtube