Wii U blitzes PS3 and 360 as the "greenest" console

Digital Foundry assesses the power consumption of Nintendo's new home console

After a few weeks of hands-on time with Wii U, it's now pretty much confirmed that there is no revelatory increase in overall processing power compared to the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, but there is one technological element where Nintendo's design is leaps and bounds ahead of its vintage 2005/2006 competitors: efficiency. In terms of performance per watt, Wii U is the clear winner, providing an equivalent graphical and gameplay experience using less than half the power consumed by the other consoles.

"Wii U draws so little power in comparison to its rivals that its tiny casing still feels cool to the touch during intense gaming."

When the Wii U's casing and overall form factor was first revealed, we had genuine concerns that Nintendo could be heading for its own RROD challenge. Microsoft and Sony's woes with excessive heat are a matter of record: the process of heating up the main processors during gameplay and then cooling them down when the console was turned off caused the lead-free solder connections to eventually break over time, disabling the hardware. Since then the platform holders have shrunk the main processors, making them cooler, more efficient and less likely to fail, but the form factor of the units is still fairly large.

Initial Wii U tech demos showed that the hardware offered similar performance to the current-gen consoles, but the form factor of the machine was even smaller than the "slim" versions of its competitors. Indeed, Wii U is even smaller than the recently released PlayStation 3 "Super Slim". Wii U has a lot more ventilation than its predecessor, but the space available for a heatsink and fan is much smaller than that of both Microsoft and Sony's offerings.

Nintendo's own tear-down of the Wii U provided some answers: CPU and GPU were bonded together into a single assembly, meaning that the concentration of heat was more localised and thus space could be saved on the cooling set-up. But despite this, overall heat would surely remain an issue - to the point where Microsoft actually went one step further with its 360S, integrating CPU and GPU into one piece of silicon.

"Nintendo had the luxury of building its entire architecture from scratch rather than down-sizing older designs, resulting in a more efficient system"

IBM has previously confirmed that its Wii U CPU is fabricated on a similar 45nm process to the processors in the Xbox 360 and PS3, while we're pretty confident that the Wii U's Radeon graphics core is using the same 40nm process as the RSX chip in Sony's console. 28nm is the next step in reducing the physical size of the main chips, but the volume simply wasn't there to sustain a mainstream console launch accommodating millions of units when Wii U first began production. It's one of the principal reasons we need to wait until next year for the next generation Xbox and PlayStation.

The power draw figures in the tablet below demonstrate that we needn't have worried. Wii U is remarkably efficient to the point where you can barely feel the heat when you rest your hand against the casing - something we can't say about the 360S or even the new PlayStation 3 "Super Slim". Its overall power draw is actually lower than many laptops (in fact we wouldn't be surprised to see Wii U console battery pack attachments launching at some point for mobile gameplay) - a remarkable state of affairs considering that its gaming performance easily beats those same notebooks.

Wii UXbox 360SPS3 Super Slim
FIFA 13 Demo32w76.5w70w
Netflix HD29w65w62.5w

We find that the Wii U is drawing around 32 watts of power during gameplay and despite running our entire library of software, we only ever saw an occasional spike just north of 33w. The new PS3 uses 118 per cent more juice under load, while our 2010 Xbox 360S was even less efficient, requiring 139 per cent more power for gameplay. We understand that Microsoft has revised the design of its console since it first launched, but the main CPU/GPU combo processor still uses the same 45nm process, so we don't expect to see any major game-changing efficiency gains. All consoles show a drop in power-draw when engaged in media playback (we tested an HD episode of Dexter streamed via Netflix), lower even than running the front-end menus of each device.

"Raw CPU processing power is an issue, but launch games like Mass Effect 3 show that Wii U is competitive against its current-gen competitors"

So how has Nintendo achieved such a comprehensive leap in performance per watt? Well, there's no such thing as a free lunch and there is some compromise. The Wii U's lack of CPU power compared to the Xbox 360 and PS3 is a topic that's been covered extensively before, but the main takeaway here is that a CPU running at just 1.24GHz and using far fewer transistors than the competition (the physical size of the chip is much smaller than both Xenon and Cell) is obviously going to consume far less power than its rivals. Gains in the efficiency of the design and the inclusion of features such as out-of-order execution will - to a certain degree - make up for the lack of dual hardware threads and the lower clock speed, but there is a dip in raw computational power that cross-platform devs are going to need to work around.

Regardless, we're still left with a significant difference in terms power consumption, which takes us into an area where we still know relatively little - the hardware make-up of the Wii U's Radeon GPU core. Integrating the fast work RAM - the eDRAM - directly onto the GPU core will have some benefits (it's a daughter die on Xbox 360, sitting next to the processor), but aside from that, details are light.

However, what we do know is that AMD crafted the Wii U graphics core by basing it on existing designs hailing from the 4xxx era, the so-called RV770 architecture. Looking into the genesis of this GPU line from its original PC release throws up some interesting tidbits: stream processors were more efficient than their predecessors, but most interesting of all, we discover that AMD was able to increase performance by 40 per cent per square millimetre of silicon - another big leap in efficiency.

One thing that did stand out from our Wii U power consumption testing - the uniformity of the results. No matter which retail games we tried, we still saw the same 32w result and only some occasional jumps higher to 33w. Those hoping for developers to "unlock" more Wii U processing power resulting in a bump higher are most likely going to be disappointed, as there's only a certain amount of variance in a console's "under load" power consumption. Also interesting were standby results from each console - 0.5w was consumed by all of them, but Xbox 360 and PS3 did spike a little higher periodically, presumably owing to background tasks that run even when the console is not operating.

Also interesting are the overall efficiency gains of the PS3 across its six-year lifespan - a good indication of how far we have come in shrinking the same core architecture across several generations of fabrication nodes. Based on our previous tests, the launch PlayStation 3 (90nm CPU and GPU) guzzled a phenomenal 195-209w during gameplay, while the initial Slim revision (45nm CPU and 65nm GPU) brought that down to 95-101w. The Super Slim features a 45nm CPU/40nm GPU combo and takes power usage under load to the 75-77w range. While we don't expect to see PS3 and Xbox 360 ever seriously challenging the Wii U's remarkably low power draw, a 22nm Cell is on the cards and it makes sense that the RSX will shrink further down to the same 28nm currently used by NVIDIA's more recent graphics processors. For its part, Xbox 360 should see notable efficiency gains in the future with a 32nm shrink for its integrated CPU/GPU chip...

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Latest comments (23)

It's too bad that the noisy disc drive (which keeps spinning even if you're playing a downloaded game) ruins the quiet operation achieved through this efficiency.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
Yet they'll get the worst grade possible when those green reports come out.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 9 years ago
So unless I missed something in the translation my take-away from this is that the Wii U is extremely unlikely to have a system failure due to overheating.
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Show all comments (23)
Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
ARM processors are a lot more efficient still because they can turn cores on and off and even dynamically change the clock speeds of different sections within each core.
So the amount of processing per watt of electricity is going up firstly because of Moore's law and secondly because of architectural advancements.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago
ARM processors are also tiny any have significantly less performance compared to most modern desktop/console CPUs, so its hard to directly compare. The battery and heat considerations are enough to dash comparisons when clearly performance has to be traded off for those factors.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 9 years ago
I'm a bit confused by the comparison here. It's like saying my Raspberry Pi is more energy efficient than my XBox 360. Well Duh! My Raspberry Pi is 4 years younger than my 360 and benefits from major innovations in energy efficiency.

It would pretty much have been impossible for the Wii U to be less energy efficient without Nintendo deliberately making it so just to stick two fingers up at the people who like to save the planet!
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
@Adam Campbell

You are somewhat behind the times. ARM processors are now used in servers. They are rolling out 64 bit architecture and are battling to take swathes of the desktop market from Intel. Even Apple are looking to move that way for their Macs.

Read this for more insight:
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Fran Mulhern , Recruit3D9 years ago
What Peter said. Given how quickly technology advances, it's a bit like comparing a footballer at the end of his career with someone young and hungry. A better comparison would be the Wii U and the new consoles coming out next year.
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Can I say - so what?

What i really want to know is , is Wii U fun, and fun enough for core games - or if thats what I like, wait out for the next gen xbox /PS
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I could have sworn Nintendo were talking about 75W power draw as "maximum", and 32W as "idle" power usage. I'll have to go back and read/watch again...
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Tim Browne Game Studio Design Director, King.com9 years ago
I completely agree with Peter Dwyer. It seems an odd comparison.

More to the point unlike things such as cars or refrigerators consumers have no alternative to the console they want so I can't see someone deliberately buying a Wii U because of it's greener footprint / energy consumption.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Browne on 11th December 2012 10:49am

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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago
@Bruce Everiss

Not really, I'm fully aware that ARM chips are being used in servers.

Comparing silicon for silicon, I don't see what the comparison is for a small console with a few large chips compared to a server with many chips or a mobile with 1 small chip. Also, architectural capabilities vary across the board - ARM v8, Intel Core, AMD Phenom, PowerPC buldozer etc.

Just about any CPU can be down clocked or disable cores, but the reason why ARM chips in their application tend to consume less power isn't just that side of the architecture its also about the performance and other considerations within the chip design.

You also missed the part about the large scale GPU architecture that AMD have managed to make great efficiencies on whilst providing performance (that you wouldn't get in any ARM based GPU). That is another contributing factor to the overall power efficiency.

"ARM processors are still more efficient" is a pretty ambiguous statement. In what context? For what application? For what hardware? What about the GPU?

Are you suggesting consoles would be better off in terms of power AND performance with ARM chips? I actually think the Wii-U could have been better off on both those fronts with a different architecture altogether (as opposed to either of those) and on a smaller manufacturing process. But Nintendo made their choice for their own reasons.

Then again, there is only so much one is looking to scale back power draw on a plug in console and you do have to consider the other things that are important too.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 11th December 2012 10:51am

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
Michael, 75 watts is what the power supply is rated for.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 9 years ago
Comparing silicon for silicon, I don't see what the comparison is for a small console with a few large chips compared to a server with many chips or a mobile with 1 small chip.
There are some:
A real world comparison

But i dont think Bruce will like it, as the 1.7ghz ARM A15 based exynos dual cant match a dual core i3 330m 2.13ghz - the performance difference varies between 1:2 and 1:4. In terms of power usage, its a different story. The i330 has a 35W TDP and is quite old design, a more current one would be the Core i7-3667U (17W TDP) . Yeah, its still consumes about 10 times more then an Exynos dual, but Intel is bringing down the power requirements faster than ARM bringing up the performance (and increasing the power usage as well).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tom Keresztes on 11th December 2012 2:18pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development9 years ago
What the hell is this about, lmao.

I have nothing against Nintendo, but this is just stupid. "Our console is the least powerful so doesn't use much coal". If that was the criterion of choice, I'll go for playing uno on my dining table as that uses no power at all.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
Paul, I don't Nintendo had a hand in this. You can thank Digital Foundry for the obvious.
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@Jim - thanks for that, must be it. I still wonder if the console can draw more power, just not in the games we have seen. May have nothing to do with processing either, some additional features (USB devices or something).

I'd be surprised if the console was a 100% stable 32W, and they built the adapter to handle double for no reason. A 40W power supply would have been sufficient.
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Andy Samson QA Supervisor, Digital Media Exchange9 years ago
Could it be that the low power consumption being shown now means that the Wii U is just utilizing 50% (sub-nominal) of what it can do? It's doing these things that current gen systems are doing without breaking a sweat. Could it be that the system is still under-clocked awaiting future updates for developers to unlock its above nominal potential on a later date just like the PSP?
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
@Tom Keresztes
Firstly looking at heritage ARM processors, brilliant though they are, does not give due attention to the quantum jump that is currently underway with their 64 bit architecture.
The way to measure processor efficiency is teraflops per watt. There are several Wikis about it:
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago

I feel you may have missed the point entirely. The word "efficiency" isn't just based on a simple metric. I wouldn't be surprised if the Cell Processor in the PS3 had more FLOPS per watt compared to quite a few other architectures of a similar size, it doesn't mean that it performs better or does its job more efficiently, or makes a game more 'fun'. I also think it ignores the other architectural triumphs the latest ARM processors possess.

The list of CPUs (and other chips) that could claim strong floating point figures but still end up being slower than competing chips of a similar size, cost or wattage for what they do is endless.

Again, "ARM processors are still more efficient" doesn't mean anything in this scenario, particularly given the fact that in many contexts you could find them more inefficient .

This is asides the obvious fact that generally speaking, the newer the technology the more you expect it to do for the wattage/size. On the CPU side at least, Nintendo are effectively using a dinosaur and we could say various Intel Cores and AMD A Series to begin with are more "efficient" too...
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 9 years ago
I'd be surprised if the console was a 100% stable 32W, and they built the adapter to handle double for no reason. A 40W power supply would have been sufficient.
Unless they use some expensive components, the PSU's efficiency could be as low as 50%, or as good as 92% (200+ PSUs have the efficiency rating above 90%). Plus the life expectancy of the coils would be really short if they are operating at a constant high-load.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
The PS3's original PSU was rated for 380 watts but the system used about 200 watts.

Tom, PSU efficiency refers to the ratio of power load to what it pulls from the wall. Not it's peak capability. Even if the PSU is rated for 75 watts but the system only draws 32 watts, we still can't get an efficiency rating for it. We'd need to know how much it pulls from the wall socket. BUT, it could be that the PSU it at its most efficient under a 40% load (or thereabouts) which is likely.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises9 years ago
My old Wii is even greener than that, it uses zero watts per hour because it's never turned on. It also purifies the air in my house by collecting dust.
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