Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

The Nintendo 3DS Appears Pretty Profitable, Judging by the Teardown

Nintendo’s latest handheld gaming device has hit the market in Europe and North America and as so often happens, before the weekend was over my in-box contained a detailed teardown report from the team at IHS iSuppli.

As usual, the idea behind the teardown is not only to figure out who Nintendo’s component suppliers are and what parts are being used, but to estimate how much all the components cost to help guess how much of a profit margin Nintendo is making on each unit. And it looks like a decent margin. ISuppli says the cost of all the parts in the device itself plus what’s in the box amount to $103.25 for a device that’s selling at retail for $249. The cost works out to an increase of about $25 over the Nintendo DSi, the most recent Nintendo handheld, released in 2009, which cost about $78, when iSuppli tore it apart that year.

While most of the components come from Japan, it’s not entirely clear if the supply of any of the parts used come from areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami, says Andrew Rassweiler, an iSuppli analyst who supervised the teardown. “Many of these component should have a greater risk exposure to supply chain problems, though we don’t know about any specific disruptions at this point,” he said.

The most expensive component, as is often the case with consumer electronics, is the displays. The 3DS uses two Sharp displays that cost a combined $33.80. The headliner is the top screen 3D. It’s a 3.5-inch 800-by-240 pixel display that uses an LCD-based parallax barrier panel sandwiched to the back of the color LCD which alternates between the left and right images at a high rate of speed to produce the 3D effect. “It looks like a conventional LCD from the outside, but when you open the display you see that on one side of the glass is essentially the conventional color element, and on the other side of the glass is a monochrome element,” Rassweiler told me. “It’s a clever bit of display engineering.”

The handheld’s main chip is an applications processor. It’s a custom ARM-based chip manufactured by Sharp, that at a cost of $10.02 is only slightly more expensive than the chip in the previous Nintendo DSi. However, Nintendo has quadrupled the amount of flash memory in the 3DS versus the DSi to 16 gigabytes, and Samsung, the world’s largest manufacturer of flash, supplied it. Fujitsu supplied another type of memory known as fast-cycle RAM. Rassweiler says for this particular type of memory, Nintendo has used a type of chip that’s only made by Fujitsu, which is odd because FCRAM is widely available, and its unusual for consumer electronics manufacturers to “single source”–that is, rely upon a single supplier for an important component. The combined cost of memory on the 3DS worked out to $8.36, more than twice the cost of the memory found on the DSi.

Three chips related to the user interface cost a combined $6.81: an accelerometer from STMicroelectroncis, a gyroscope from Invensense, and an audio chip from Texas Instruments. Atheros, the Wi-Fi chipmaker that’s being acquired by Qualcomm, supplied a $5 Wi-Fi chip. TI and NEC supplied power management chips that cost $3.63. The 3DS contains three cameras, and though it’s not clear who supplied them–camera suppliers have gone to great lengths to hide their identities in recent years–iSuppli reckons their combined cost at $4.70.

Since I often get asked this question, let me say that iSuppli’s analysis focuses strictly on the materials used and doesn’t account for the cost to develop software or to license any patents. Nor does it account for the cost of any shipping or distribution or marketing. It’s just the raw cost of the hardware.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik