Nintendo's Next Console Will Enter the HD Era, but Not the Hard Drive EraS

The successor to the Wii will not include a traditional hard-drive but will bear some of the traits of competing high-definition game consoles, according to sources familiar with Nintendo's planned 2012 gaming machine.

The console, codenamed Project Café, will include 8 gigabytes of on-board flash-based memory, presumably for game storage. That quantity, while nearly 16 times the storage capacity of the Wii, is smaller than the 20GB of room available in the original, optional hard drives offered in 2005 for the Xbox 360. The amount of memory in the new Nintendo console would also be dwarfed by the 250 GB drives offered in current, high-end versions of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

While my sources have not specified how Nintendo plans to allow owners of its console to use the machine's memory, 8GB would seem to provide ample room for downloadble retro games, a service Nintendo has already supported on the Wii. The increased capacity, compared to the Wii, would also allow games on the new Nintendo platform to be patched and updated, though downloadable expansions, such as 650 MB Call of Duty map packs would quickly stuff the machine. The system will also support saving to SD cards.

By offering 8GB of storage, Nintendo would not be able to offer full-sized new games for download, a practice that has been promoted on the Xbox 360 and, to a lesser extent, the PlayStation 3, in recent years. It would also be unlikely to store downloaded feature films without additional, user-supplied storage.

Nintendo is not commenting on specs for its Wii successor, promising to reveal more at E3 in June. If I hear back from them about these new revelations, I'll update this story.

The new 2012-scheduled Nintendo system will fall more in line with the 360 and PlayStation 3 by matching those consoles' abilities to render and output graphics in high-definition. I've heard mixed things about whether Nintendo will cap their machine's graphical resolution at 1080i or 1080p, but either figure would significantly exceed the Wii's 480p and achieve the resolutions used for most high-end console games on the Microsoft and Sony consoles.

Nintendo's disc format for the new console will hold 25GB of data, I've heard. That capacity is triple the size of the biggest DVD-style discs for Wii and Xbox 360 and comparable to the capacity of single-layer Blu-Ray discs on the PlayStation 3.

All of these new specs about Nintendo's device give us, at best, an incomplete a sense of what Nintendo's new console will be like. They help, but do little better to fully explain the device than the measurements of a femur and talon tell us the color and scent of a dinosaur. Nevertheless, the numbers do hint at some of the system's capabilities. The disc size and the broad impression of graphical prowess is consistent with my and others' reports that the new console will at least equal the PS3 and Xbox 360 in horsepower, increasing the likelihood that games made for the current Sony and Microsoft consoles could also be made for Nintendo's next machine. The size of the new console's on-board storage signals that Nintendo isn't planning on turning its Wii successor into a device for downloading retail games and movies, though it could continue to support the act of streaming linear content, like Netflix movies, through its console. Nintendo currently allows users to stream standard-definition content through the Wii and will soon offer Netflix streaming on its portable 3DS.

Nintendo has ample time to tweak the specs of its new machine and could increase or decrease the new system's storage capacity—or other parameters—prior to the machine's launch.

Nintendo executives have said that they would not create a new gaming console until they had an idea for it that would distinguish the device from the competition, just as the Wii Remote set the Wii apart from the 360 and PS3. The new machine's Nintendo difference seems to center on the console's unusual screen-based controller—an amalgam of traditional twin-stick controller and touchscreen tablet (à la Apple's iPad)—that will complement the console's support for Wii-style motion controllers.

Nintendo is planning to enable the screen-controller to function in multiple ways, I've heard. It can serve simply as a standard game controller that imitates the posture of playing a game on a 360 or PS3. Its screen allows it to also present a supplemental, touch-sensitive viewing screen (for maps and inventory) that extends the game running on one's TV, an option that renders the controller as a plus-sized equivalent to the lower screen of a Nintendo DS, with the TV serving as the top screen, so to speak. A third option we've been hearing from several sources involves the new console streaming the same game that can be output onto a TV onto the controller screen, allowing high-end games to be played portably while within an unspecified range of the console. (Imagine, though it's crude, being able to take the game you were playing on your TV to the bathroom, via your screen-based controller.)

Despite the volume of leaks about Nintendo's Project Café in recent weeks, the company behind Mario and Miis has long possessed a knack for surprising its consumers and the gaming industry. As much as we're learning in advance, expect plenty of twists when Nintendo presents its new machine early next month. And with any luck, you'll be able to buy and play it a year after that.