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E3 2011 was very exciting, and there were a lot of very good demos and announcements. However, it is fair to say that for a lot of people, including myself, Nintendo was the most innovative hardware company this year. Its upcoming Nintendo Wii U and the new controller have made headlines, but after coming back from E3, I found that a number of people were confused about some details, so I thought that gathering the information in one place, would help. This is the complete story of the Nintendo Wii U and its touch-display controller.

Wii U, what is it?

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The Wii U main "box" that hosts all the processing power

Wii-U (for Wii-you) is a completely new game console, running on new hardware. At E3, Nintendo was demonstrating a few internal games running on Wii-U, but the production process was not advanced enough to share it with all developers yet. This should come very soon. Nintendo itself has acknowledged that some of the demos shown at their E3 press event were not actually rendered on the Wii-U, and might even have been Xbox 360 or PS3 footage. The point of those demos was to convey a sense of how powerful Wii-U would be, and what type of games it could run.

From the demos that we were shown, it is fair to expect something *at least* as powerful as PS3 or Xbox 360. Depending on how much Nintendo chooses to invest, it could use technology that is well beyond today’s consoles and still stay within a manageable budget. That may give them a 2 years lead before the next-generation Sony and Microsoft consoles show up, but this remains to be seen.

Wii U Technical details

As we reported earlier, Nintendo has been relatively silent about the internal specifications of the Wii-U, it is known that IBM will provide the main multi-core processor. This CPU will contain on-chip memory, possibly all the memory (RAM). We don’t know yet how much but IBM says that it is “a lot”, whatever that means.

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The silicon technology is interesting, but the software is where the real value is

Watson-smart? Some media have been quick to report that IBM uses “Watson-like technology” in the Wii-U processor (Watson is a super computer that did beat humans playing Jeopardy). It’s true that the silicon technology used in the Wii U is the same one used in Watson, but the same technology is also used in a number of other totally non-sexy semi-conductor products as well. Also, what makes Watson truly smart is its software, not how its transistor are built. Don’t fall for this marketing stunt.

GPU: On the graphics side, Nintendo has selected an AMD graphics processor (GPU). If you remember, the Nintendo 64 had a GPU made by a talented team called ART X. This team was then bought by ATI and revived their GPU efforts until this day. Obviously, the GPU will be fast enough to handle 1080p in-game graphics. With today’s technology, a medium-range GPU can do that without sweating too much. Watch the graphics demo that Nintendo has used at E3:

Storage: Nintendo has said that its Wii U system would use 25GB discs. Although this would make anyone think “Blu-Ray” (BR), Nintendo has not disclosed that piece of information. It is technically possible that Nintendo would use a non Blu-Ray technology, although it would seem dumb at this point, as users could not watch BR movies.

And while all the attention has gone to the Wii U controller, the little white box that’s actually doing all the work as received little attention. The Wii-U box (as it is today) is very small, much smaller in fact than a PS3 or an Xbox 360. This means that there is little cooling (compared to XB360 and PS3), and this is always a good indicator that this machine has not been designed to be a “performance monster”.

Finally, the “specs” say that the Wii U can read both “high-density” 25GB dics, or current Wii discs. This would hint to a backwards compatibility with current Wii titles.

Wii-U Hardware Highlights
IBM multi-core processor (how many?), with embedded RAM (how much?)
AMD Radeon GPU
Internal storage: flash memory. Unknown quantity.
12cm, 25GB discs (Blu-Ray?). Can also read Wii discs
Size: Approximately 1.8 inches tall, 6.8 inches wide and 10.5 inches long.
4X USB ports and USB external storage support
SD Card support
Up to four Wii Remote Connected
Support for all Wii controllers and input devices
1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i video resolutions supported.
Box will contain HDMI, component, S-video and composite cables

The Wii-U controller

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Nintendo innovates again by introducing something truly new

It’s not a tablet!

The first thing that we need to be clear about is that the Wii-U controller is not a tablet. It looks like a tablet, it feels like a tablet, but all the smartness is in the Wii-U box, and that’s a huge difference when compared to the iPad, Galaxy Tabs, Playbook and others… It’s not a tablet as most people understand the term today.

All the images that we see are rendered in the box, then streamed over a local network connection to the Wii-U controller. The controller itself is just an array of sensors, and a display.

It’s not multitouch

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This is an important  factor: because the Wii-U controller has a stylus-friendly display, it looks like Nintendo chose a touch technology that is not compatible with multi-touch support. This is a big deal because it means that many forms of multi-finger gestures simply won’t be possible on the Wii-U.

First impression

In our Wii-U controller preview, we have noticed that the controller is incredibly light (maybe because the battery was missing? They were wired ). Note that the controller presented at E3 still has a “prototype” status and could change before the official launch. The controller is very comfortable and it does not slip from “sweaty” hands, even after a good gaming session. Read our preview if you want to know more.

Only one touch controller

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Because the Wii-U console has to render and stream real-time images to the controller, only ONE controller can be connected at any given time with the Wii-U. Again, this points to the fact that the Wii U may not be a “graphics monster” that is so fast that it could render many frames (main TV, controller 1, controller 2…).

Update: There appears to be a conflicting report within Nintendo on exactly how many Wii U controllers the Wii U will support. Shigeru Miyamoto originally said only one Wii U controller would be supported, but Nintendo president of America Reggie Fils-Aime has since said that two controllers might be possible.

Wii-U Controller Hardware Highlights

6.2-inch, 16:9 touch screen (rumored resolution = 854×480)
HDMI and Wii Remote access port
Traditional button controls + two analog Circle Pads
Control Pad, A/B/X/Y buttons, L/R buttons and ZL/ZR buttons
Accelerometer, gyroscope
Camera
Microphone, 3.5 mm audio jack
Speakers
Stylus
Sensor Strip, IR port

The Games

The overall plan is to continue providing casual games that are typically associated with the Wii, while at the same time adding games that have been too power-hungry to run on the original Wii system. Game developers will be able to port current games to the Wii-U relatively easily as its performance should match, or exceed, Xbox 360 and PS3. Will that save Nintendo? Possibly. Read my take in Nintendo Wii-U: a Savior?

Conclusion

Wii-U is set to either profit from, or disrupt the 10-year life cycle of the Xbox 360 and the Sony PS3. Executives from both Sony and Microsoft have pledged that their consoles would have such a life span, but beware, it does not mean that they won’t release a new console before then. After all, the PS2 is very much alive and selling.

That said, it seems unlikely that Sony and Microsoft would release a new console next year, so that would give Nintendo a lead of one, or possibly two years with a fresh platform. This doesn’t sound bad, and in the short term it’s quite exciting for Nintendo and its fans.

However, it remains to be seen how Nintendo will resist in the longer term. When the Wii controller came out, I expected Sony and Microsoft to copy-cat it quickly and I was wrong. I predicted that without high-powered graphics, Nintendo would get into trouble. I was right, but my timing was terrible. Nintendo legitimately had time to “milk” the Wii, as it was profitable from day 1. It looks like Wii-U has been designed to be just like that as well.

How long will it take for Microsoft and Sony to respond to the touch-screen controller challenge? If both companies have learned from the Wii lesson: pretty quickly. In the meantime, it looks like Nintendo has once again used agility to escape a direct “brute force” confrontation that would end up being costly.

The Wii-U will come in 2012.

Links

Official Nintendo Wii page, more stories about wii-U, more stories about Nintendo, E3 Coverage

Filed in Featured >Gaming. Read more about E3, e3 tradeshow, nintendo wii u and Wii U.

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