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What the new Wii U specs tell us about Nintendo

Wii UEven though the Wii U is scheduled for release in roughly five weeks, we still know next to nothing about what Nintendo has put under the hood. Sure, we can make a few educated guesses based on what we’ve seen (and we can flood the world with plenty of uneducated guess as well), but we haven’t heard much in terms of technical specs. And by much, I mean anything at all. For all we know, the console could be so high-tech that it becomes self-aware. Then, not content to simply play Mario games with you, it will hack into NORAD and then ask if you want to play a game. When it then displays “Global Thermonuclear War,” feel free to sweat.

Then the other day Nintendo’s President, Satoru Iwata gathered four of the Wii U’s engineers together for a session of his semi-regular “Iwata Asks” series, which originally began back in 2006 as a way to talk about the Wii. Since then, Iwata has occasionally chosen several employees, many of which were likely terrified by the notion of suddenly being called in for an “informal chat” with the President of the global gaming company they work for, to discuss both hardware and games. This time around, the four lucky employees chatted about the development and construction of the Wii U, and gave us our first brief glimpse at what the Wii U is packing under the hood.

The details that emerged aren’t what you might consider “sexy,” and some of the most important specs that hungry gaming geeks like us would want to hear — details like the architecture that is being used and the clock speeds, which will give us a better understanding of how fast and powerful the system is — are notably absent. Of course, even when all the specs are revealed, there will still be a great deal of debate on it. If you need proof of that, just ask a knowledgeable PS3 fan and another 360 fan which system is graphically superior, then run for your life.

There is a very good chance that we won’t hear the exact specs until after launch when consumers get their hands on the system and tear it down on their own, but the news does give us a few hints.  

For a full breakdown on what exactly was said and shown, as well as and in-depth analysis from our own computer expert, Matt Smith, check out his dissection of the news here.

What Nintendo did offer among the technical details was a few ideas about what the average Wii U owner can expect, as well as revealing some of the philosophy behind the creation of the system. 

A combined GPU and CPU

Amongst the tech talk, the engineers discussed the decision to add the CPU (Central Processing Unit) and the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) on a single die, or a single silicon square with integrated circuits. Nintendo is calling this their multi-chip module, or MCM.

wii u GPU and CPUWe won’t know what this means for performance until we can fire the sucker up and run Mario in circles until he collapses, but it does give us a glimpse at the thought process behind the Wii U’s development, as well as one technical issue that it revels.

I’ll get to the philosophy in a minute, but from a technical standpoint adding both chips on the same die means that Nintendo can squeeze more power from the unit and get better performance out of the part at a relatively low cost to manufacture. It also means that the package will draw more power – and therefore increase the heat being generated.

Heat Sinks and a Big Fan

A heat sink is a component, commonly made of an aluminum alloy, that dissipates heat and redirects it. If you have a computer (and odds are good you do since you are reading this online – unless of course you printed this article off, in which case we thank you for your bewildering level of support) you are at least indirectly familiar with heat sinks.

In the case of the Wii U, the heat sink is bigger than that of the Wii. Thanks to some clever engineering with the MCM the heat generated is actually less than what it might otherwise have been, but it is still three times more than the output of the Wii. Those that have been subjected to the dreaded Red Ring of Death — a technical flaw so severe and widespread that it has earned the right to be capitalized when being discussed – should feel free to let the hackles on the back of your neck stand up at this point.

Wii U fan and heat sinkAlthough Microsoft has officially adopted a policy of “we know nothing” when it comes to the cause of the RRoD, more than a few third party groups have claimed that the fault is due to the use of a particular kind of solder that cracked when subjected to the heat generated by the Xbox 360. Much like a parent that is totally oblivious to the evil their criminal child repeatedly engaged in, Microsoft may never fully explain the cause of the RRoD (and there are likely a few reasons rather than just one), but it did eventually force the company back to the drawing board, which then lead to a chip being redesigned specifically so it would dissipate less heat. Whatever the exact cause of the cursed RRoD is, the consensus is that it was triggered by excessive heat. The bottom line is that more heat = bad.

So with increased heat and a larger heat sink, Nintendo needed to increase the size of the fan as well to redirect the air outside of the Wii U. This presents the obvious issues of noise pollution. In other words, the Wii U could be fairly loud. Nintendo claims that it was fully aware of this when designing it into account, so hopefully the fan won’t be so loud as to annoy people or powerful enough to fire cats  into walls that were curious enough to take a closer look at the back of the console.

The Curse of Vertical Hardware and the Look of the Console

The Nintendo engineers also explained a few things about the aesthetic design as well. Brace yourselves for this bombshell people: Apparently the Wii U was designed to work horizontally! But fear not, intrepid fan of the vertical hardware, it will work that way just fine and a vertical stand will be included with the Deluxe version.

Wii U frontThe two USB ports that used to be on the rear of the Wii have now been joined by two more orifices on the front of the Wii U. This may increase the slovenly appeal of the console as wires and devices suck off its USB teet, but it could also hint at even more peripherals in the future that need the USB ports. Regardless, you can never have too many USB ports.

The engineers did also reveal that the Wii U went through extensive testing. That might sound like a throwaway line – after all, what manufacturer is going to say that they are just kind of winging it with their new $350 hardware and best of luck to you, sucker – but with consoles it is more relevant than with most products. Just ask Microsoft.

The Philosophy

Reading between the lines, the engineers painted an interesting picture of the philosophy at work with the development of the Wii U, which is bolstered by the company’s actions over the last few years. 

Nintendo seems to be remarkably unaffected by its direct competition, at least in the way we think of competition. When you look at Sony and Microsoft, neither company can release something without the other offering a competitor. Both systems have online stores, both have gesture based controllers, both have redesigned models with larger hard drives and sleeker frames, and both systems are at least somewhat similar at their cores.

Nintendo on the other hand is, and has been operating in, something of a vacuum. The company is extremely competitive in some ways, of course, but it is not directly competing with Microsoft or Sony. It is competing with the market and simply responding to what fans have already shown that they want. 

If the Wii were still churning out money like back in the halcyon days of 2007, then Nintendo may not even be releasing a console at this time, despite the Wii’s lack of things most Xbox and PS3 gamers take for granted, like HD graphics and plenty of online features. By comparison, Microsoft is still selling the 360 fairly well (it just sold 270,000 units in September) and it continues to line up new titles and partners for the online space. But there is still a real sense of urgency to get out the next generation of consoles. The same is true of Sony. Neither may be talking about their next consoles yet, but the hardware is out there and developers are being tasked with making new games for it. Despite the lack of enthusiasm coming from most consumers, the next Xbox and the PS4 have both been in development for a few years now, and both are destined to be released within the next year or two. Even though the specs won’t be anywhere near its next gen cousins, the Wii U has certainly hastened that march toward the next consoles.

But Nintendo doesn’t seem to care about the details of that competition. The Wii U will have HD graphics and online support, just its competitors, but this is a response to the fans, not a way to outdo its opponents. It isn’t developing something to beat the PS4, it is developing a console that is relatively inexpensive to manufacture, that offers something new that the engineers hope will be fun, and that can make Nintendo another Scrooge McDuck vault-worth of money, just like the Wii did. 

Is it a case of Nintendo as the unconcerned tortoise and Microsoft and Sony as the aggravated hares? We’ll find out on November when the Wii U is released onto the world.