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Digital Foundry

In Theory: Can Wii U Offer Next-Gen Power?

Tue 31 Jan 2012 8:00am GMT / 3:00am EST / 12:00am PST
Digital Foundry

Digital Foundry assesses what we know about the Wii U and what it tells us about the console's level of performance

It's been a week of measurements, comparisons and percentages. The next-generation Xbox will be six times more powerful than the 360, and 20 per cent more powerful than the Wii U. As for Nintendo's next-gen console, apparently that's packing twice the power of Microsoft's current offering. Meanwhile, as Digital Foundry recently revealed, Raspberry Pi's graphics core features 2x the performance of the SGX543 MP2 in the Apple iPhone 4S. Of all of the above, we strongly suspect that only one will actually be backed up by meaningful benchmarks (hint: it's the last one).

A Wii U that significantly outperforms current gen consoles would be wonderful, but the facts established to date suggest that 'power' isn't Nintendo's primary concern.

As for the Wii U and Nextbox figures, we're almost certainly as much in the dark as we ever were. One thing we really need to nail down straight away though is the concept of "power" and how it is measured - no actual metrics are attached to the rumours, essentially making the statements rather ambiguous but we'll assume they relate to processing and rendering performance. That being the case, the notion of Microsoft basing its next-gen machine around a 50 graphics core with low-end PC gaming performance only makes sense if it's planning to make the console exceptionally cheap from launch, with a Wii-style limited lifespan. Somehow, the idea of sustaining a console generation until 2020 and beyond with a Radeon HD 6670 seems somewhat improbable.

But what of the idea that Wii U is twice as powerful as the Xbox 360? It's the sort of story that we would really want to believe, but a look at everything we do know about Wii U suggests that it's not very likely.

So what are the facts at hand? Well, we know that IBM is providing the CPU, and we know that it's being fabricated at 45nm - the same process as that used for the combined CPU/GPU in the Xbox 360 Slim, and the core components of the PlayStation 3. We also know that AMD is providing the Wii U GPU, based on existing Radeon technology and featuring "high-definition graphics support; rich multimedia acceleration and playback; and multiple display support".

Crucially, we also know how big the Wii U is, and it's a hell of a lot smaller than either Slim rendition of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Why is this important? It's simple: typically, the more power you're packing, the bigger the case of the machine and the meatier its cooling assembly. Let's look at the respective volumes of the HD consoles in comparison with the Wii U, with the original Wii thrown in for good measure.

The PS3 is the biggest of the lot according to the graph - but it has a curved casing so actual volume will be lower, and of course, it's also packing an internal power supply. The really interesting comparison is the Xbox 360s up against the Wii U, both of which have external power bricks: we're seeing that Xbox 360s casing has around 2.6 times the volume of the new Nintendo console. The only real differences are that the 360 additionally houses a 2.5-inch hard drive and Wii U is almost certainly using a smaller, slimmer slot-loading drive compared to the more standard-sized unit in the Microsoft console.

Now, the latest Xbox revision is a good, reliable design - but it can still get very warm to the touch. So the question is simple: how can Wii U be twice as powerful as the Xbox 360 when it's got to cram in more advanced silicon with millions more transistors into an area that's tiny by comparison? Won't it overheat horribly? Where's the room for the substantial cooling assembly it would require?

In theory, we could look at laptops here as an example of getting powerful chips working in smaller areas. The problem here is that high-power mobile GPUs are highly 'binned' - they're the pick of the production crop of processors destined for a broad range of different graphics cards. Mobile parts are typically the very best chips, the cream of the crop, capable of great performance at low voltages. Nintendo would not have this luxury on a mass-production item with a single design, where high efficiency is the key to keeping costs down as much as possible.

Realistically, short of a major architectural shift to components based on smartphone tech - and lots of it - the idea of Wii U possessing next-gen rendering capabilities doesn't make a lot of sense. We know that there's no transition to mobile tech because the IBM CPU is an off-shoot of an existing line and the firm doesn't make mobile CPUs. Similarly, while AMD has produced smartphone GPUs, none of them get close to the performance of the Xbox 360's Xenos GPU. That being the case, the chances are that it's a customised variant of an existing PC Radeon part: Japanese sources have previously hinted at a connection to the Radeon HD 4000 series - and a lower-end chip from that range would be a good fit.

With the IBM chip confirmed at a 45nm process - the same as the current Xbox 360 - the question then moves on to how the graphics chip is made. TSMC, the most probable candidate for actually producing the chip, has just moved onto a 28nm process, and will be ramping up production throughout the year. But any new node typically starts with low production yields, so Nintendo would need to either swallow the cost (Microsoft did this at the launch of the 360 with the then state-of-the-art 90nm Xenos GPU) or downclock the chip. It's far more likely that sticking to the existing, established 40nm process for AMD GPUs would actually be cheaper for them in the short term - and would provide cost-savings in the future when the chip could be shrunk economically.

RAM and flash storage prices have plummeted in recent years - it's in these areas that we expect the Wii U to offer an advantage over the PS3 and Xbox 360.

But let's assume that Nintendo does push the boat out here. Even a 45nm CPU and a 28nm GPU in a box that small is still likely to cause cooling issues for an actual "next-gen" 360 beater. The more probable 45nm CPU/40nm GPU combo combined with the size of the machine suggests a far more likely scenario: that Wii U has a ballpark performance level with current PS3 and Xbox 360 titles, perhaps actually lower. Across the years, chip designs may have become more refined and efficient but it's worthwhile to point out that almost all major increases in processing power have mostly come from shrinks in the fabrication process meaning that more transistors can be packed into the same amount of silicon.

The final nail in the coffin about a notional 2x increase in power over the Xbox 360 comes from Nintendo itself. At no point has the platform holder ever suggested that Wii U offers that kind of leap in processing power, an extraordinary omission considering the amount of money Nintendo would need to invest in this architecture. The focus of the platform holder's message is of course on where the money has been spent: the tablet controller, with its zero latency link to the console - technology that must have been fairly expensive.

But is there anything in the package that could give the Wii U an advantage over the PS3 and Xbox 360, aside from the tablet controller? We should look at the commodities that have collapsed in price over the past few years, and could prove genuinely useful for a games machine. RAM is the obvious choice: a 1GB minimum wouldn't break the bank and would help developers significantly. The pre-E3 rumour of 8GB of flash RAM also makes sense, especially when we bear in mind that there is no internal hard drive. The Wii U optical drive - almost certainly based on Blu-ray technology - could also be faster than its PS3 equivalent too. This may be useful bearing in mind that the lack of HDD would preclude mandatory installs.

So the opportunity is there for Nintendo to capitalise on cheaper components and die-shrunk silicon, and those savings can account for the cost of the tablet controller and some nice bonus additions over the PS3 and Xbox 360 - but to actually double the processing power of the current gen platforms just doesn't seem to ring true with everything that's been revealed about the console thus far. There is talk of Nintendo "re-introducing" Wii U at E3 this year, and doubtless we'll be seeing some actual games from the launch line-up - but it's difficult to believe we'll be witnessing the arrival of a machine capable of the kind of next-gen rendering that outstrips the current consoles. A key lesson Nintendo learned with Wii is that the price-point of the machine at launch is crucial, and it's hard to imagine that it could bring in a massive performance boost and the innovative controller at a price attractive to the audience.

Nintendo's focus in recent years has been about concepts, not specs, and nothing about Wii U seen to date suggests any kind of change in strategy.

32 Comments

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,246 2,234 1.0
Richard, IBM said the CPU will be based on their the CPU they used in their Watson supercomputer. That CPU is the POWER7 CPU which handily has more processing power than the X360's Xenon with lower wattage. We also know the CPU is supposed to have a large volume of on die EDRAM which again puts it closer to being a POWER7 chip or even a PowerPC A2 chip rather than Xenon. Both the A2 and POWER7 are 45 nm chips.

It is also known that some developers reported heat dissipation problems with the original dev kits and cases which have led to reports of a new dev kit that has addressed the problem. Nintendo has also stated the case is not even final.

Don't forget that Nintendo didn't push the power capability of the GC prior to launch either and the form factor suggested a weak spec'd system though it was technically superior to the PS2 and nearly as powerful at rendering as the Xbox (depending on what you were rendering).

And haven't we already heard from developers saying it's more powerful than the X360 and PS3? EA and Sega both said this not long after E3. And most recently we have one dev says Wii U is twice the power of X360. Another dev says it is 5 time the power of the X360. Even if it's just twice as powerful, that still a lot more power than the current generation consoles. 5 times would be the usual generational leap. But I agree that it depends on how you define 'power'.

But I think you put it best when you said, "As for the Wii U and Nextbox figures, we're almost certainly as much in the dark as we ever were." The argument about the case and heat dissipation makes sense but only if you don't believe them when they say the case isn't final. We'll fine out in a few months.

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Ho hum.
Previous generation consoles have proven that sheer horsepower does not correlate to market performance.
Other important factors include the elegance of the architecture (where Sony score badly), the quality of the development environment and, of course, the user interface.
One big revolution that will impinge on the design of upcoming consoles is the widespread availability of 4 and even 8 core GPUs. As well as cheap memory.

But really the most important thing is the user experience. And here Nintendo traditionally come out on top.

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,246 2,234 1.0
Bruce, do you mean 4 and 8 core CPU's? GPU's have been manufactured with hundreds of cores for a while now.

Those 3 CPU's I listed above come in ranges from 4 to 18 cores.

I agree about memory. As cheap as it is right now, it's not a good idea to skimp on it. It can really give a huge boost in performance and background operations and just opens up many design opportunities that limited RAM just doesn't offer no matter how powerful the GPU.

Posted:2 years ago

#3

DeShaun Zollicoffer
Editorial Director

18 17 0.9
I feel like it's unfair to compare the Wii U's size to the PS3, and Xbox 360's. Making something twice as powerful as the Xbox 360 in a much smaller size shouldn't be hard since the console is a dinosaur in tech years.

But it probably will fall short of this rumor, since Nintendo did say they want no part in a next generation arms race (when it comes to raw graphical power).

Posted:2 years ago

#4

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,246 2,234 1.0
DeShaun, they made that claim for the Wii, not the Wii U. Unless I missed that one somehow.

Posted:2 years ago

#5
Just because one has. V12 engine, doesnt mean it automatically makea a good decent fast car with decent experience

Posted:2 years ago

#6

Fieaz Ismail

11 1 0.1
Nintendo have never really been focused on power as we all saw with the Wii. I feel that the Wii U will be able to keep up with the next offerings from MS/Sony and the power gap will be smaller than it is between the current crop of consoles.

I'm in the mindset that the power gap will be more like last gen (Xbox/PS2/GC).

I'm actually more excited about playing the Wii U and Nintendo's 1st party games in 'HD' than I am about the next-gen Xbox or Playstation.

Posted:2 years ago

#7

David Spender
Lead Programmer

129 54 0.4
Am I the only one who thinks the numbers don't add up:

A) XBOX 3 is 6x more powerful than 360
B) WiiU is 2x more powerful than 360
C) XBOX 3 is 20% more powerful than WiiU

HUH? Someone failed math class because all of these cannot be true.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Spender on 31st January 2012 3:32pm

Posted:2 years ago

#8

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

480 451 0.9
I think that's the point.

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Neil Young
Programmer

283 334 1.2
@david I think A and C were refering to GPU and B was CPU, or possibly vice versa. There's so many different ways to rate how "powerful" a console is that the simple answer is we don't know until some more concrete numbers on release hardware emerge from behind someone's NDA.

Posted:2 years ago

#10

Fieaz Ismail

11 1 0.1
@Neil

If Microsoft are going with the 6670 as a GPU then I honestly don't see it being all too powerful unless it's tweaked. If the Wii U does contain an RV770 GPU (ATI 4870 varient) or, as recently rumoured, a 5xxx series varient (5830/5850) then I seriously doubt the next Xbox would have a 20% leap in power over the Wii U as the rumoured GPU inside the Wii U is far stronger than the 6670 MS would be using.

Posted:2 years ago

#11

Gary Lucero
QA Analyst, Advanced

27 6 0.2
I personally think the Wii U is a non-starter. Yes, Nintendo fans will buy it and love their Mario, Zelda, etc., games on it. And third parties will attempt to cash-in on the console. But the momentum is with the Xbox 360 and the PS3 and you're not going to get people to start buying all of their third party titles for a third platform. Those people with multiple consoles now already have a hard enough time deciding which console to buy a particular game for.

The Wii U will sell, but not very well.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gary Lucero on 31st January 2012 5:30pm

Posted:2 years ago

#12

Nicholas Pantazis
Senior Editor

1,017 1,463 1.4
@ Gary Yeah, cause momentum has huge effects on a new generation. That's why the PS3 sold like the PS2 and the Xbox 360 and Wii bombed. Oh wait...

This isn't football. Momentum means nothing. The game is flipped every single generation. Sometimes it's flipped WITHIN a generation (like Kinect replacing the Wii). People often buy games on a new platform just because it's a new platform. Humans always want the shiny new toy. That's why even in its first year, when it wasn't selling well at all, some Xbox 360 games sold better than BETTER PERFORMING Xbox versions of the same game.

Am I saying the Wii U will be hugely successful? Absolutely not. I have no idea how well it'll do, and neither do you or anyone else. Everything is up in the air when a new console launches. How the market reacts to it may as well be a roll of the dice aside from the prediction offered by the pricing factor, and even that isn't always as good an indicator of performance as it used to be (look at the iPad selling well while extremely overpriced).

Posted:2 years ago

#13

Nicholas Pantazis
Senior Editor

1,017 1,463 1.4
@ Richard Almost every assertion and assumption in this article is pretty bad. Size does not equal power. The 360 slim could only be brought down in size so much due to the outdated components that it could not change. Furthermore, the rumors of the Wii U's power vary WILDLY from 2 times as powerful to the 360 to 4 or 5 times, and in fact recent rumors suggest that the final dev kits (which supposedly started rolling out earlier this month) ended up signiffcantly more powerful and signifficantly DIFFERENT from the original machine which was shown at E3 and CES.

The Wii U at E3 was barely more than a concept of an HD console combined with a traditional controller with a touchscreen, and to call this article premature is a pretty big understatement. Even the things Nintendo has said outright about the manufacturers and basis for the chips they're using were immediately followed with "everything is subject to change and nothing is final."

Posted:2 years ago

#14

Rodney Smith
Developer

80 40 0.5
I don't think that you are aware that the 45nm versions of the xbox hardware have all sort of hardware tricks slowing them down to behave like the 90nm originals.

So its not correct to directly compare 45nm xbox chips with what current 45nm technology can do.

Posted:2 years ago

#15

Ste Hickman
Writer

17 9 0.5
While i am yet to be convinced by the 50% claims that have done the rounds lately, (Well since June last year actually when Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia claimed a 50% increase over PS3 to Industry Gamers) I am aware that the likes of Brian Martel at Gearbox have confirmed Aliens Colonial Marines, for one, will have a visual fidelity unseen on a console to date.

Will it be next gen? Not sure, that depends on Sony, MS and whoever else wants to get involved.

I'm more than convinced it will be a decent step above what's available on consoles right now, However.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ste Hickman on 31st January 2012 7:54pm

Posted:2 years ago

#16

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,246 2,234 1.0
Exactly, Ste.

Most developers working on known projects have spoken out already stating the Wii U is already more powerful than the PS3/X360. And that was back with the original alpha dev kits.

Posted:2 years ago

#17

Craig Page
Programmer

382 218 0.6
I have a 360, PS3, and a wii. But the next generation looks pretty horrible so far, why would I give Nintendo $300 or Microsoft $400 for something with a slightly better graphics card than what's in my laptop?

Hopefully Sony doesn't skimp on the next generation too.

Posted:2 years ago

#18

Kevin Patterson
musician

185 99 0.5
All I can say is that I hope MS doesn't release a "good enough" xbox next. I know they are just in love with Kinect, and will include Kinect 2 in the box, so I hope they don't skimp on other parts to make that happen.
4GB please!!! The 6670 would be a disappointment if true, so I hope it is not. When the 360 was released, the GPU was ahead of it's time, the R520 card it was based on (but modified to use unified shaders like the 2006 R600 series) was released in 2005, the same year as the 360, and R600 didn't release till the following year.
I would hate for them to use a card that was released in 2010 (The card is really just a 5670 slightly enhanced performance wise) for a 2013 or 2014 console.
I understand the 6670 is more powerful than the R520/R600 hybrid, but if they would use at least a chip in the 7000 series, or upcoming 8000 series, that would be nice.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Kevin Patterson on 31st January 2012 8:50pm

Posted:2 years ago

#19
Is "next-gen" power defined by whoever the strongest in the market is for raw power? Nintendo, being a pure-games company, definitely doesn't have the resources to beast-up the Wii U to the point that Sony probably can.

The other question is, how much does Nintendo's target audience care? I honestly think when this comes to market, people will start calling the Wii U a "cross between an iPad and a Wii" and no one will think of it in terms of raw power. People already think of PS3 vs. 360 as the rivalry. Nintendo has either leaped or jumped ship from this battle through extensive marketing and software releases.

Posted:2 years ago

#20

Ste Hickman
Writer

17 9 0.5
Deshaun: "But it probably will fall short of this rumor, since Nintendo did say they want no part in a next generation arms race"

Iwata did say that last week at the Investors meeting and it has been blown out of all proportion not by you, Per se, Just the rest of the Net.

Iwata said that power wasn't Nintendo's only weapon next time out and that certain Nintendo titles, quite simply, don't need the juice. At the same time he was stressing that certain titles leave Nintendo little choice but to play the same game as everyone else and go OTT.

If members will grant me a little latitude, I won't be spamming articles but a quote is needed for context and some balance. An edited version of the transcript : "As we will showcase the Wii U at E3 in June this year, the detailed announcements must wait until then, but we are aiming to make a system which shall not be forced into competing with the others where the contenders can fight only with massive developer resources and long development times as their weapons,"

"Looking at the software for home console systems, there are certainly the software titles for which very rich graphics must be reproduced on HD displays and which demand a large number of developers to spend a very long time to develop.

"It is one of the truths that a certain number of such software titles must be prepared, or the consumers will not be satisfied. But we do not think that all the software must be created in that fashion.

"When you look at Nintendo's software, extraordinary rich graphics, massive gameplay volume and astonishing rendition effects are not necessarily the appealing point. It is, in fact, important for us that our games are appealing in other ways as well."

"What's important here is not to narrow down what we can do,Rather, we have to create the dynamic range of appeals that the consumers can appreciate."

"As I mentioned, it is true that, in some software areas, we need to be engaged in the power games,"

"Take The Legend of Zelda franchise, for example, the fans must be looking for the graphic representations that they do not see as cheap at all when the title is released for the Wii U. When it is necessary, we do not hesitate to role out our resources."

Satoru Iwata

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Ste Hickman on 31st January 2012 9:37pm

Posted:2 years ago

#21

Jason Sartor
Copy editor/Videographer

104 33 0.3
Here is Nintendo's Corporate Management Policy Briefing/Third Quarter Financial Results Briefing
for Fiscal Year Ending March 2012:

[link url=http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/library/events/120127qa/index.html
]http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/library/...[/link]

In this Q&A Satoru Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto and other Nintendo execs talk about the Wii U. Iwata talks about how graphics are not the only thing but are important for some games and the Wii U will have good graphics. Iwata also talks about online play, micro transactions, third-party game developers third-party developers will be allowed to offer micro transactions.

It's five pages, but covers a lot of ground.

Posted:2 years ago

#22

Gareth Jones
Senior Software Engineer

48 104 2.2
Ok, so...

1) The next-generation Xbox will be six times more powerful than the 360.
2) The Wii U is packing twice the power of [the 360].
3) The next-generation Xbox will be 20 per cent more powerful than the Wii U.

I don't know if anyone else has already pointed this out, but the maths really don't work there. If the Wii U is twice as powerful as the 360 and the next Xbox is 6 times as powerful, that would make the next Xbox 3x as powerful as the Wii U - not 1.2 times.

Posted:2 years ago

#23

Bryce Hunter
Producer

10 2 0.2
If it is next gen I'll be very interested to see what the effects of first to market will be for them.

Posted:2 years ago

#24

Drew Dewsall
Editor

11 0 0.0
I am just keen to see how many ducks the PS4 can render!!

Posted:2 years ago

#25
What if they actually pack the power and take everyone by surprise? If they introduce a 2x360 powered platform at e3 this year, developers will leap at the chance, this would mean that top quality titles will already exist when the nextbox and ps4 are announced.

Maybe Nintendo was playing the long con with Wii.

Edit: Just saw your comment Mr.Hunter ... I think this is what I mean.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Darkopolis CS on 1st February 2012 12:02pm

Posted:2 years ago

#26

Jamie Read
Junior 3D Artist

126 64 0.5
I don't think the Wii U will look anything like the picture currently being shown when it's released. All the attention has been focused on the controller, due to Nintendo not being 100% sure with the tech or design of the Wii U.

Posted:2 years ago

#27

J S
Artist

7 2 0.3
I'm not sure that power is relevant anymore.

I mean, I've watching my roommates play Skyrim, watching their sword glide effortlessly across an enemy which didn't react at all. No matter how detailed and next-gen-y the graphics are, it doesn't matter if the interactivity of the game-play isn't up to match.

Compare that with Skyward Sword, where the visuals are simpler, but the combat feels much more vital because, not only do the visuals meet up with the level of interaction possible with the motion controls, but the interactivity is emphasized above and beyond the graphics.

And when I compare these two games, I can't help but notice that the world of SKyrim is extremely bland, brown, and grey. Despite the next-gen rendering, the visual design itself doesn't compare with the care and effort exhibited in Skyward Sword.

With the Wii, with Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, and with Skyward Sword, Nintendo has proven that hardware power isn't that important any more. The Wii outsold all the other consoles handily, and it's only the developers who haven't been up to the task of capitalizing on the potential of motion controls.

Are we still going to wallow in the paradigm of the Playstation 2 era? Or are we going to evolve?

Posted:2 years ago

#28

Tony Johns

520 12 0.0
@ J S

I do agree that we need to evolve in the games industry,

Not every game should be taking the DNA of the play mechanic of the PS2.

And with Nintendo further innovating I would suspect that even the people who brought the Wii for the Wii motes capabilities as well as the Kinect for the hands free control, they would also buy the Wii U for the Tablet with buttons if they feel like trying to download apps for the iPad is too complicated for them.

Also with the WiiU having games that would be touch friendly on the tablet, and games being button friendly with the Wii U's button controls on the tablet, it can make people enjoy the best of both worlds.

Also with the Wii motes being supported by Wii motion plus this time at lunch, I would like to see developers try to take that sort of power and make some use of it for the games on the Wii U.

Posted:2 years ago

#29
I think the average person doesn't know how to define what power is.

Sure Microsoft and Sony have the advantage in hardware but that is not power, which the general population thinks. This includes graphics, graphics do not equal power.

What are we really looking for in Next- Gen? Better graphics or innovation?

I think innovation because that is why the PlayStation move and Microsoft Kinnect exist. The Wii with the Wiimote was innovation redefining how you play and enjoy a game.

Think about it and define what is Next-Gen to you.

Posted:2 years ago

#30

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,246 2,234 1.0
Students like you give me hope for the future of our industry.

Posted:2 years ago

#31

jim ellis

27 1 0.0
I'm amused at the comments coming from the opposite side of the room from a Wii-U programmer right now... I think its fair to say that the Wii-U may not quite 2 times as powerful - but it certainly has 2 screens to render - and its innovation and interaction at the end of the day which makes for fun. Who honestly cares - if it can display graphics to at least 360 standards - then it'll be fine. And it might be a way for studios to actually have consoles they know they can develop for as opposed to slowly kill themselves on the new level of difficulty of Next gen...

Posted:2 years ago

#32

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