Wii U Hardware Is Dreadful, Broken
The Wii U launch has been a rolling disaster from a hardware point of view, and it should also be a marketing and public relations nightmare, though one harbours significant doubts that Nintendo will be made to wear their mistakes. In the broadest sense the Wii U console is not up to snuff, with a number of consoles arriving dead out of the box. Many an over-eager Nintendo fan got an early start to secure for themselves a launch unit, only to take it home, plug it in, and be met with a horrid flashing blue light indicating critical hardware failure! From this point there is nothing to be done but to ship it to Nintendo for repairs, or return it to the store for a refund.
It is not simply the build quality of the console that is garbage however, there are also several significant ways in which it underperforms the current generation of consoles, and fails to meet the needs of core users. For months now the Wii U CPU has been lambasted for being slower and more feeble than the computing power incumbent to the PS3 and XBox 360, and now 4A Games is just the latest developer to add their voice to the growing ranks of dissent. 4A’s chief technical officer, Oles Shishkovtsov, did not mince words in stating: “Wii U has a horrible, slow CPU”, in justification for the developer’s decision to drop plans for a Wii U port of their forthcoming title Metro: Last Light. His colleague, Huw Beynon, then clarified: “We had an early look at it, we thought we could probably do it but in terms of the impact we would make on the overall quality of the game – potentially to its detriment – we just figured it wasn’t worth pursuing at this time. It’s something we might return to. I really couldn’t make any promises, though.”
Following the criticism that the 4A staffers heaped upon the Wii U CPU, they received ample denouncements by uncritical Wii U evangelists, but also the vocal backing of the Battlefield 3: Armored Kill lead designer, Gustav Halling. Halling linked to a Kotaku article quoting the 4A guys, citing their experience with the Wii U CPU as a reson for regret at Nintendo’s short-sightedness: “This is also what I been hearing within the industry. Too bad since it will shorten its life a lot when new gen starts. GPU and RAM is nice to have shaders/textures loaded. Physics and gameplay run on CPU mostly so player count is affected etc. I don’t actually know what makes it slow, but enough ‘tech’ people I trust in world are saying the same things.”
These developer accounts are borne out by initial observations of the system’s hardware. It has been confirmed that the Wii U CPU is currently being produced with the same fabrication process as the Xbox 360’s Xenon chip, yet Wii U console teardowns have shown that the surface area of the Wii U CPU is much smaller than Xenon [being roughly the size of one of Xenon’s three cores], which means that it is able to accommodate far fewer transistors. Transistor numbers do not share a linear relationship with CPU performance, but fewer transistors will incur an exponential decrease in performance with respect to the chip’s architecture.
It is not just the Wii U’s underpowered CPU that is proving to be a bottleneck though, as the console has also been found to contain two gigabytes of extremely aged DDR3 RAM [just one gigabyte of which is available to developers]. Nintendo and their insufferable evangelists have long been touting this higher numeric figure of RAM as an advantage for the Wii U over the seventh generation mainstays, yet the Wii U’s memory bandwidth allows for just 12.8GB/s data transfer, whereas the Xbox 360’s 512MB of GDDDR3 RAM coupled with ten megabytes of embedded eDRAM has a bandwidth of 22.4GB/s, and the PS3’s 256MB of XDR system RAM has a bandwidth of 25.6GB/s, while its 256MB of GDDR3 graphics RAM has a bandwidth of 22.4GB/s. The Wii U’s memory performance practically makes its CPU appear speedy by comparison, and goes to show that Microsoft and Sony’s six year old hardware is still more up to date in several respects. Not currently known is the effect that the Wii U’s thirty megabytes of embedded eDRAM will have on memory performance.
Finally, the cause of the Wii U’s abominable 2.5-3.5 hour battery life has been uncovered, literally, by removing the back cover of Nintendo’s Wii U Gamepad. The battery that ships with the Gamepad is rated as being 1500mAh, which is slightly bigger than the original 3DS battery, but is 250mAh smaller than the battery that ships with the 3DS XL. More interesting than this is the fact that the battery housing compartment is roughly twice the size of the battery that ships with the Gamepad, possibly hinting at a time when Nintendo were not quite so intent on shooting themselves in the foot by attempting to gouge every last penny from consumers.
Wii U System Software Is Awful, Unfinished
Nintendo consoles launching with an incomplete feature-set is nothing new. The 3DS launched without an online shop, while even Nintendo’s much cherished 3DS ambassadors had to wait for an inordinate period of time before they were granted their boon of NES ROMS. More recently Nintendo all but confirmed that this would be the case for the Wii U when they announced that a wide-ranging laundry-list of their much touted features would not be available until mid-December, but then missing features does not automatically equate to incomplete software.
By almost any measure the Wii U is Nintendo’s most slipshod hardware release yet [forgetting for the moment about curios like the Virtual Boy]. Barebones does not begin to describe the Wii U system software out of the box, and thus in order for one to do aught but play physical game discs a one gigabyte software update must be performed, which has been estimated to take roughly one and a half hours to run its course. If that were not bad enough, it has been discovered to the [arguable] misfortune of early Wii U owners that if for any reason the system should lose power during the updating process the console will be bricked. The other platform holders have designed their firmware so that if power supply is disrupted then the console will still resume the update when it is powered back on; Nintendo on the other hand fancy themselves to be an industry trendsetter, and so new console suicide is just their latest innovation.
While the Wii U’s update woes probably constitute the most glaring software deficiency at launch, it was by no means the only such oversight in the running. One of the first big stories to come out of the Wii U’s launch day was the fact that a NeoGAF denizen by the name of Trike accidentally found his way into one of Nintendo’s Miiverse debug menus, from which he had the ability to grant himself certain administrator privileges, and gain access to a mock-up of [possibly] forthcoming Miiverse game message boards. Nintendo were quickly able to rectify this situation, so there was no harm done, yet it reeks of a software infrastructure which is not quite finished. Much the same conclusion can be drawn from one of the lesser stories of the week involving the fact that the Wii U appears to have a large overscan area, and yet no option to resize the system display from within the OS options menu in order to fit the television. This does not seem to be a huge problem, as it sounds like most of the Wii U’s launch titles have the option to resize the display from within the game software, yet it nevertheless speaks to system software that is as yet unfinished, but was allowed to ship anyway.