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Wii U graphics chip based on last-gen Radeons, will support DirectX 10.1

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For all the promise of the Wii U and its unique features, Nintendo‘s E3 press conference reveal was more confusing than anything else. Introduced by way of the WiiPad tablet controller thingy, the words “new console” never actually came up until late in the presentation, when Electronic Arts boss John Riccitiello took to the stage to talk about third-party support. The Wii U is indeed a new console, and a fairly powerful one if reports are accurate.

The full set of specs have yet to be released, but a few details have slipped out. IBM confirmed in a press release last week that the console will be powered by a multi-core processor built on the same technology that powered the Jeopardy-winning artificial intelligence Watson. Now, Engadget has learned that the console’s visuals will be powered by a custom Radeon GPU.

The chip is apparently built on Radeon’s last-gen technology, seen in the company’s Radeon 4xxx line of video adapters. While those cards have since been updated in the 5xxx line, note that this is still more powerful than the visual processing power of either the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 consoles. The Wii U chip will be capable of delivering DirectX 10.1-level eye candy.

This should be good for Nintendo through 2012 and probably 2013 as well, but sooner or later Microsoft and Sony are going to fire back with new console offerings. Sony may have a 10-year plan for the PS3, but that doesn’t mean something won’t come along to kick the console down to PS2-level pricing. As for Microsoft, a new console announcement is almost a foregone conclusion for sometime next year. The Xbox 360 is still a powerful device (just look at what it does with Skyrim) and the Xbox Live community is, without a doubt, the most active online gaming community out there, but the aging console, first released in 2005, isn’t going to be able to keep pace for too much longer.

The last thing Nintendo needs is to find itself in another situation where its own product lags behind the competition. The Wii was immediately popular with a much wider audience than most game publishers and console makers were used to at the time, but the years that followed have shown that the casual games aren’t enough on their own to sustain a home gaming platform. This is probably due at least in part to the rise in popularity of mobile devices as gaming destinations; why clear a space in front of your TV for Wii Play when you can just pull out your tablet and fling some Angry Birds?

With the Wii U announcement, Nintendo has officially launched the eighth console generation. Microsoft kicked off the seventh back in 2005, and is arguably the strongest player on the market right now. Will Nintendo be able to follow the lead and repeat that success? Only time will tell.

[image via Inside Games]