Since the last time I wrote about Nintendo's eighth-generation console development efforts, some major strides have been made that specifically address the top-five complains of the currently-shipping seventh-gen Nintendo console, the much-beloved Wii. (Those top-five complaints, for those who don't know, are: graphics, graphics, graphics, lack of a DVD player, and graphics.)
The Wii2 will have a much more muscular set-up than its predecessor. Much like the original Wii's competition, the Wii2 will have a core processor for running the operating system, game AI, and system IO but most of the game will be rendered by a combination graphics/number-crunching engine. But while this strategy resembles the beefy 7G powerhouses, the hardware will a touch of finesse that the competition doesn't seem interested in.
“Lightning,” the Wii2's main processor, will look a lot like Broadway on steroids and by the time of its release in it will only clock in around 2.2 GHz. While the PlayStation and Xbox follow-ons might hit something near 3.5 GHz or higher, Lightning will do just fine since it's essentially the Wii2's traffic cop. And you don't send the SWAT team for traffic duty.
Sources further flesh out Lightning with a larger 128k L1 cache (split 64k for instructions and data each), a 1 MB on-chip L2 cache, and 550 MHz bus. These numbers seem a little too even to be accurate, but probably give a good idea of where the Wii will be.
(In trying to eek out as much performance as possible, IBM and Nintendo have released their systems with non-mainstream clocks and multipliers in the past: a 486 MHz CPU on a 162 MHz bus in the GameCube and a 729 MHz CPU on a 243 MHz bus in the Wii.)
|GameCube||Wii||Wii2 Mk 1||Wii2 Mk 2|
|Release||Fall ’01||Fall ’06||n/a||Fall ’12|
|CPU||485 MHz||729 MHz||1.4 GHz||2.2 GHz|
|GPU||162 MHz||243 MHz||365 MHz||594 MHz|
|Memory||43 MB||88 MB||180 MB||1 GB|
|Storage||∅||½ GB||2 GB||8 GB|
Whatever the numbers happen to be, they'll include new gaming extensions. Like the Gekko and Broadway, Lightning will use a VMX-like instruction set extension by means of its floating-point unit to augment its ability to crunch numbers. The new instruction set will be called “WMX”, likely for “Wii Multimedia Extensions” or some such. In any case, these will only be the icing on the cake.
Lightning's companion hardware in the Wii will be dubbed “Thunder,” and calling it formidable would be saying the least. Thunder will be connected directly to Lightning and system memory and is actually not a single unit or processor but a small farm of vector, graphics, and physics units. In my last update, I had noted that Wii2 would use a Tesla-derived GPU. The latest information contradicts this.
Instead of a discrete graphics unit, Thunder will house four 128-bit WMX vector units, called “Rumble Units,” that will do physics calculations alongside a Fermi-derived NVIDIA graphics processor codenamed “Tornado.” Tornado will support OpenGL 4, so it's possible that Nintendo might subscribe to this open graphics standard for its next-generation console.
Tornado's Fermi family can also do general-purpose tasks (“GPGPU”) but it's unlikely that Nintendo will tap the processor for anything like this, instead allowing it to focus on an area that met with constant criticism throughout the lifetime of the original Wii: graphics. While Nintendo emphasized “immersive gameplay” and “social gaming,” the fact was that Wii's graphics were anemic compared to its competition.
To that end, Tornado—or at least, its current testing units—sports 2 GB of GDDR5 DRAM and 144 shader units, 24 texture units, and 24 render output units. This positively blows away anything in the current, seventh generation of gaming consoles, but it remains to be seen if this will be the final unit or not. Since the Wii2 GPU has already been upgraded once, it's possible that something faster might be in place by shipping.
Another perk of such graphics power will be 1080p video. Long-decried by gaming fans for its 480p output, the Wii never looked quite right on EDTV and HDTV units. By 2012, however, Nintendo will have no excuse to not support those television sets. Since the other seventh-gen consoles have had this since the middle of the last decade, there's no excuse not to have it for the eighth-generation Nintendo console.
There's also news about system memory and storage. There seems to be standard 8 GB of system storage in test units produced in 2010, which is a nice bump for the time but might be a little lacking by 2013. Since SSD (solid-state drive) technology has been mainstreamed and prices are falling, Nintendo has investigated including such a drive in the Wii2, and could in theory offer 128 GB storage in the final release version for quite cheap.
Interestingly, the Wii2 moniker is likely to become permanent; rumored names like “Wii HD” and “Wii Plus” don't fit the mold that Nintendo wants to take. When they decided to rename the Wii from its codename, “Revolution,” they did so because “Wii” is quick, simple, and pronounceable in practically any language—or at least in the languages of the markets Nintendo hoped to woo.
Wii2's trick is similar and works in two ways. First, the English pronunciation of “Wii2” [wiːtuː] is just as universal a pronunciation as “Wii,” able to be said in almost any language. Second, any speaker of any other language could choose to tack on their own word for the number two. So a Spanish speaker would say “Wii-dos,” a Chinese speaker “Wii-er,” a Finnish speaker “Wii-kaksi,” and a Japanese speaker “Wii-ni.” It's a no-lose proposition for Nintendo either way.
And last but not least, the Wii2 is expected to read DVD discs. Nintendo sees this as a simple way to court the television set-top market, which is now heating up with Microsoft and Sony on one end and Apple and Google on the other. DVD support is virtually costless by now, and will certainly be so by the time of the Wii2's volume production, so Nintendo is sure not to cast this consideration aside.
This does bring up the point of copy protection; current Wii discs are not easily copyable, requiring special drives that can read the backward-burnt RVL-006 format. In supporting DVDs, Nintendo might go with a standard DVD drive and opt for heavy encryption and copy-protection or go for a more expensive drive that can read standard DVDs but, like the RVL-006, read special Nintendo discs as well.
There are other options, however. One is flash. By 2012, the cost of 16 GB flash drives will be extremely cheap and would almost double the capacity of current dual-layer options that come in around 8.5 GB. One could also see, near the end of the Wii's run, larger games coming on 32 or 64 GB drives. Nintendo has only to place these flash drives in either a USB or proprietary format to distribute them to gamers.
Internet distribution is another possibility, though currently most people don't have the bandwidth to download 8.5 GB of data in what retail would consider quick-enough time. In another couple of years that might not be a problem, but storage would be. Consider a Wii owner who has 20 games of around 8 GB size each. That's 160 GB. As above, SSD prices will be cheaper in the future, but storing even a modest assortment of Wii2 games would require something far beyond the cost limitations Nintendo is willing to tolerate. Thus why flash is much more attractive.
Overall, the second generation of Wii2 test units seems to robustly continue the capabilities of the GameCube and Wii while beefing things up to a level more in-line with the competition's. This is due in no small part to plummeting technology costs but also to Nintendo's desire to quell criticism of its system.
Imagine a Wii with the graphics of the PS3 or Xbox 360 and you have an idea where Nintendo is going with this. Large, expansive worlds with quick load-times, jaw-dropping graphics, television set-top functionality, and some new, as-yet seen input methods. If it's anything like the current-generation consoles war, Nintendo will only further solidify its current position as the go-to console for anyone and everyone.
With at least two more years to go, the Wii2 has plenty of time to bake but is looking good already. More details soon as they become available for this promising, beefier eight-generation console arrive.