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Wii U: Hardware Facts

Developer: Nintendo | Publisher: Nintendo
Players: N/A | Genre: Hardware

Release Date: 2012

We came, we saw, and we played Nintendo's follow up to the Wii. It was not surprising. I'm not saying that because I think the system is boring; in fact, I walked away impressed by the potential. I'm saying that because as I predicted, the rumors we've been hearing for months were fairly accurate. You likely already know the gist of new console, called Wii U, so let's get the facts out of the way first. That's mainly what we'll deal with here in this preview. Be sure to check out two separate articles for my impressions of the controller and the game demos.

The Wii U's distinguishing feature is its new controller. Nintendo itself has not given the controller a proper name. The controller's most obvious feature is its 6.2 inch, 16:9 backlit touch screen. The screen does not support multi-touch. It is a resistive touch screen, like the Nintendo DS touch screen, and unlike the glass capacitive touch screen of an iPhone. Nintendo has not specified the resolution of the screen, but it seems fairly crisp and showed nice, detailed images. In comparing the controller's screen to the display on the 1080p TV's being used at the show, I could not immediately discern a difference in detail of the image or smoothness of the framerate. In other words, the touch screen's performance was excellent. A slot at the top of the controller holds a stylus.

The controller has a full complement of traditional inputs as well. There are two directional analog pads symmetrically placed on either side of the screen. Nintendo calls these Circle Pads. They are very similar to the Circle Pad on the Nintendo 3DS, though they are a bit thicker. A D-Pad sits below the left Circle Pad, and four face buttons sit below the right Circle Pad. There are also two shoulder buttons and two triggers. The triggers are just digital buttons, not analog. In other words, they are not like the triggers on the GameCube, Xbox 360, or PS3 controllers. Plus, Minus, and Home buttons fill out the traditional portion of the control set up.

We're not done yet though. The controller also features an accelerometer and gyroscope for motion control, a user-facing camera, and a microphone. Nintendo's spec sheet also lists a "sensor bar" which I assume is that black strip at the top of the controller which holds the camera. We asked several Nintendo reps about it and none of them could explain what it was.

For output, the controller has the screen, of course. It also features stereo speakers and rumble. You can also plug headphones into a jack on the top of the controller. A small volume slider is also on the top side of the controller, opposite the headphone jack. A power button, similar to the one on the Wii Remote, sits next to a battery status LED in the lower-right area of the controller. A small red Sync button on the back is used to pair the controller with the console.

The controller features a rechargeable battery. No specs have been given for the battery. The AC Adapter port is hidden by a flap on the top of the controller. It seems to be the exact same shape and size as the AC Adapter port on the 3DS and DSi. There is also a larger port on the bottom of the controller. Nintendo has not given any indication what this might be used for. It may not even be part of the final retail product. The demo stations were connected to the controller by this port. There are two metal plates on either side of the port. The 3DS has similar metal plates next to its AC Adapter, and this is where its charging dock makes contact. Nintendo, however, has not announced such a peripheral for the Wii U. Finally, there is an IR port on the top of the controller. Nintendo did not indicate what this might be used for. Can this controller be used as a pointing device, like the Wii Remote? Or is it just for data communication? It is worth noting that the 3DS has a similar IR port. There are also various cavities on the back of the controller which could be used to attach wrist straps or mount attachments.

A ridge protrudes downwards from the bottom of the controller, which serve as a way to allow you to support the controller against your palm and three lower fingers, leaving your index fingers free to use the triggers and shoulder buttons.

Content is streamed to the controller from the console. The controller must be tethered to the console; it is not a fully portable machine. However, Nintendo demonstrated scenarios in which you may play games using the controller's display without using the TV at all. So far all of Nintendo's videos and demos feature only one of these new controllers connected to the console. Nintendo has not commented on whether or not more than one of these new controller can be connected to the console at a time.

The console is, however, fully compatible with all existing Wii games and controllers, including the Wii Remote, Nunchuk, Classic Controller, and Balance Board. Up to four Wii remotes can be connected to the Wii U. Games may use a combination of the new controller and the older Wii controllers. However, the Wii U is not compatible with GameCube games and does not have ports for GameCube controllers or memory cards.

The console itself looks a little like a bloated Wii. It's shape and style draw from the original Wii, but with more rounded features. Even the buttons are round. On the front of the console you'll find the Power, Eject, and Sync buttons. A flap opens up to reveal two USB ports and an SD cart slot. The disc slot is self loading, just like the original Wii. Those little tabs sticking out on the right side of the Wii are not feet to support standing the Wii U up vertically (that's not possible). Rather, they are there to prevent the user from placing the console too close to a wall, which would block the vents that are on the side and prevent air circulation. There are also vents on the back.

The back of the console sports two more USB ports. There is obviously a port for power. Since the console works with Wii Remotes, it of course has a port for the Sensor Bar. For audio/video output, it has both Nintendo's proprietary AV port and an HDMI port. The HDMI port will allow you to take advantage of digital audio and 1080p video, among other formats. The proprietary connector is just like the one on the Wii, and will allow you to use component, S-video, and composite cables. The console does not have an optical audio port, so HDMI is your only option for high definition audio. Nintendo has not specified what audio protocols the Wii U supports.

Wii games will arrive on proprietary high-density optical discs, similar to Blu-rays. The console has internal flash memory for storage (not a hard drive), but Nintendo has not specified the capacity. It probably hasn't decided what the capacity will be for the final retail hardware, though it is rumored to be several gigabytes. The memory can be expanded using USB flash drives. Nintendo has not mentioned any other uses for the USB drives. However, if you'll remember, peripherals such as Rock Band instruments or the Ethernet adapter were connected to the original Wii via USB. The console does not have an Ethernet port, but I think we can assume it will have a built in WiFi adapter. Nintendo has not confirmed this, however.

For the most part, I am pleased to see that the Wii U's features should enable a wide range of existing and new gameplay mechanics. The original Wii seemed like a compromise to enable motion controlled gaming by sacrificing some forms of traditional control. The Wii U looks like it is set up to do anything.

I should point out that the hardware details may change by the time the console is ready for retail. With the past few consoles, Nintendo has been pretty consistent regarding what features a console had when it was first unveiled and what it looked like at retail. However, the GameCube's button design went through a couple iterations between the first public showing and retail release. Nintendo could make changes to the Wii U due to cost or gameplay/functional considerations. The lack of specifications for the screen resolution, battery, and internal storage might indicate that Nintendo is not yet ready to make promises in these areas. The hardware that we saw at E3 may not be exactly the same as what we will have in our homes. This of course, is something that we're used to though, when covering hardware reveals at events such as E3.

Be sure to read our other previews for impressions on what it's like to play with the new controller, and what the demos say about the future of gameplay on Wii U.

By Andrew Thivyanathan - 06/09/11

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