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Nintendo Wii woos casual gamers

Posted: 19 Dec 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Nintendo? Wii? Sony? PlayStation 3? Semiconductor Insights?

teardown analyses of Sony Corp.'s Playstation 3 and Nintendo Co.'s Wii lay bare the divergent battle plans for the latest phase of the videogame console wars. After conducting a teardown of the PS3, engineering consultancy Semiconductor Insights released the preliminary results of a Wii teardown that uncovered!predictably!a comparatively simple design with far fewer major components.

PS3 teardowns conducted in mid-November by Semiconductor Insights and market research firm iSuppli Corp. revealed a complex design!including several large, complicated subassemblies!optimized for both power and performance. By contrast, Semiconductor Insights' teardown of Wii found only half a dozen notable components and was concluded in minutes, according to engineers with the firm.

"There are a lot more, and a lot more-complex, chips on the PS3," said Don Scansen, lead process technology analyst at Semiconductor Insights. "Sony had to devote a lot to the power of those devices and to handling the heat created by those devices."

Intuitive system
Retailing in the United States for $250, Wii sells for roughly half the price of the low-end PS3 (with a 20Gbyte hard drive and a price tag of $499; the high-end, 60Gbyte model retails for $599). Whereas Sony is courting hard-core gamers willing to pay top dollar for sophisticated high-definition graphics, Nintendo has built what it hopes is a more intuitive system designed to attract new and casual gamers.

After Wii's predecessor!GameCube, released in 2001!was trounced by the Playstation 2, "Nintendo needed to do something that was differentiated from Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 and the PS3," said Colin Sebastian, a senior research analyst at Lazard Capital Markets LLC. "GameCube appeared to be a 'me too' console. With Wii, they've done something very different in an effort to broaden their market beyond the core, loyal Nintendo gamers."

Wii's most innovative feature is a novel controller, the Wii Remote, that uses motion-sensing technology to enable players to control the action of a game by waving it through the air!swinging it back and forth to control an on-screen tennis racket or baseball bat, for example. According to Gregory Quirk, technical marketing manager at Semiconductor Insights, the Wii Remote is "intuitive to use and surprisingly responsive." The firm's teardown of the controller revealed the source of that responsiveness: three-axis motion signal-processing technology, based on sensor components provided by Analog Devices Inc. and STMicroelectronics.

'Broadway' processor
As expected, the teardown revealed that the Wii console is powered by a 90nm IBM processor, code-named Broadway and based on IBM's Power architecture, which was designed exclusively for Nintendo. The processor taps silicon-on-insulator technology to improve the processing power while reducing energy consumption by 20 percent, according to Semiconductor Insights. The PS3, by contrast, famously uses the more powerful IBM Cell, also built on a 90nm process.

According to Scansen, Wii features both conventional embedded DRAM, supplied by NEC Electronics Corp., and a 1T-SRAM embedded-DRAM implementation, provided by MoSys Inc., to boost the processing power of its graphics processor (the so-called Hollywood processor, supplied by ATI Technologies Inc.). But, Scansen added, it remains to be seen whether the 90nm embedded-DRAM combination is up to the task of competing with the game play provided by PS3 or Xbox 360.

Nintendo Wii controllers

Wii Remote uses motion-sensing technology to enable players to control the action of a game by waving it through the air.
Click to view teardown analysis highlights of Wii as compared with Playstation 3

Unlike PS3, which features a Blu-ray Disc DVD drive, Wii does not play DVDs. It features an internally designed optical drive supporting a proprietary format for games. Microsoft is currently rolling out an HD DVD-format DVD drive add-on for the Xbox 360. According to Semiconductor Insights, there is some talk that Nintendo may eventually roll out a next-generation DVD add-on, most likely supporting HD DVD.

'Achilles' heel'
But PS3's Blu-ray drive may be, at least in the short term, its Achilles' heel. Because of lingering problems in the volume production of blue-laser diodes needed for next-generation optical drives, Sony was forced to slash initial PS3 shipments to Japan and the U.S., its first two target markets. Even after cutting the initial target number from more than 1 million, Sony reportedly failed to deliver the full 100,000 units it ultimately pledged to Japan and, according to Lazard Capital's Sebastian, delivered fewer than half of the 400,000 units it promised the U.S. market.

Meanwhile, Nintendo initially delivered roughly 500,000 Wiis and is in position to replenish them quickly, Sebastian said. Nintendo, which has been less open about projected shipments than Sony, has reportedly pledged to deliver at least 4 million Wii consoles worldwide!2 million of them to the U.S.!before 2006 ended.

Some analysts believe PS3's early production difficulties will widen the window of opportunity for Wii. But others believe hard-core gamers will hold out for PS3 or stick with Xbox 360, which has been available in the U.S. for a full year. There are more than 100 million PS2 owners, and many will remain loyal to the Playstation brand, Sebastian said. The next-generation-console war will not be in full swing until 2007, he said, when Sony has its production problems under control and the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on is widely available.

Expanding market
Billy Pidgeon, a gaming analyst at IDC Corp., believes Wii will expand the market for videogame consoles as new users gravitate to it and experienced gamers add it as a second console.

GameCube failed primarily because it garnered little support among third-party game developers, a consequence of Nintendo's focus on its own games, Pidgeon said. By contrast, both Wii and Nintendo's DS handheld gaming system have "great third-party support." Games are also less expensive to develop for Wii than for PS3 or Xbox 360, he said, because the production value is not as high.

Other notable Wii components identified during the Semiconductor Insights teardown include the Broadcom Corp. BCM2042 wireless sensor with Bluetooth functionality, the Broadcom BCM4318 Wi-Fi transceiver, the Qimonda AG HYB18HS1232 GDDR3, the K9F4G08U0A 65nm 4Gbit NAND flash from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd and the S1616AGTA 16Mbit SDRAM from Elpida Memory Inc.

- Dylan McGrath
EE Times




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