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Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime on Wii U ‘stumbles’ and balancing nostalgia with reinvention – TechCrunch

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Nintendo is nearing its 130th birthday, and the company is once again in the midst of major changes as it embraces mobile platforms and online services. But Nintendo of America’s president Reggie Fils-Aime says that should come as no surprise: “We reinvent ourselves every five or 10 years. We have to. It’s in our DNA.”

In an interview at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle, Fils-Aime talked, in his immaculately Nintendo-promotional manner, about the company’s ups and downs over the last decade and what it took to get the Switch out the door.

“We focus on giving consumers experiences that they haven’t even thought of,” he explained. Anyone who has followed Nintendo for a few years certainly wouldn’t disagree — remember the vitality sensor? “By going down this path you create doubters. And we’ll be the first to admit that there will always be stumbles along the way.”

“The Wii had sold a hundred million units globally; the Wii U did not have that same level of success,” he admitted. That’s something of an understatement; the Wii U is widely considered something of a boondoggle, interesting but confusing and hugely outgunned by the competition when it came to what was valued by the rapidly growing mainstream gaming world.

“But in the words of one of our presidents — this is [Hiroshi] Yamauchi — when you’re doing well, don’t be excited by that high-flying performance, and when you’re doing poorly, don’t be sad. Always have an even keel,” he said. Not exactly catchy, but it is good business advice. The focus should be on the horizon.

And that’s where it was, despite the painfully low sales numbers and lack of third-party support. As he tells it, they just plowed ahead with new lessons under their belt.

“If we had not had the Wii U, we would not have the Switch,” he said seriously. “What we heard from customers was that the proposition of a tablet on which they could experience gameplay, coupled with the ability to play games on the TV, is really compelling. Users were telling us, ‘I want to play with this tablet, but when I get 30 feet away from the TV, it disconnects.’ The one point gamers all hate is the point where they have to put the controller down. So it was an important step for us to be able to deliver on this proposition.”

“When I first saw the embodiment of that system,” he recalled, “the hairs on the back of my neck raised up.” It was the same feeling, he said, that he had with the Wii Remote and the DS — both featuring technologies that people were highly skeptical of at first but proved versatile and compelling.

Touchscreens weren’t common when the DS came out, and motion controls weren’t common when the Wii came out, he noted. Both have since become mainstream — not entirely due to Nintendo’s success with them, of course, but it would be disingenuous to say that had nothing to do with it.

But while the company can rightly be said to be taking risks in some ways, in other ways it is uniquely stuck in the past. Its most successful franchises are well past a quarter of a century old.

As Fils-Aime sees it, however, this is exactly how it should be. Mario and Link are characters the way Mickey Mouse or even someone like Robin Hood are characters. New franchises like Splatoon can be established and cared for, but the traditional ones (though no one mentioned Metroid, predictably and unfortunately) should be recycled and brought to new platforms and generations.

Nowadays that includes mobile games, where Nintendo has been taking tentative steps in recent years.

Nintendo’s latest has been criticized for its unvarnished quest for players’ money.

“We see our mobile initiatives as a way to bring our intellectual properties and our gameplay experiences to a larger population than the tens or hundred million consumers that own a dedicated gaming system,” he said. “With Super Mario Run, we literally have hundreds of millions of consumers experiencing Mario, consumers in places where we don’t even distribute our gaming systems. Then maybe they buy that Super Mario t-shirt, they may eat that Super Mario cereal, they may buy a Nintendo Switch.” (Presumably imported.)

Here Fils-Aime’s comments rang a bit hollow, however. Nintendo’s mobile strategy has leaned hard on the “gacha” style game that massively incentivizes in-app purchases of virtual currencies and grinding levels to unlock new characters randomly in loot box style. This seems so far from Nintendo’s core mission of entertainment and so close to the current industry method of cash extraction that it’s hard to believe it’s what the company really wanted to create.

It does, as Fils-Aime said was the goal, allow them to be “effective” on platforms and marketplaces they don’t themselves own, and it does drive their “overall business agenda.” But it seems as though the company is still trying to figure out how to truly bring its games to mobile. Perhaps the upcoming Mario Kart game will be a better option, but it could very easily go the other way, as well.

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Minisforum U850—solid hardware and easy upgrades in a little box

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Earlier this month, we teased the announcement of a new model of mini-PC from specialty vendor Minisforum. Today, we’re taking a look at the results of some hands-on testing of the Minisforum U850, configured with a Comet Lake i5 CPU, 16GiB RAM, and a 256GB Kingston NVMe SSD.

The U850 is an aggressively generalist mini-PC, and it can tackle most roles—its dual network interfaces make it a good candidate for a high-performance router, and its combination of tons of USB ports, HDMI and DisplayPort video out, and surprisingly fast storage make it an excellent little desktop PC.

Specs at a glance: U820 / U850
CPU Intel i5-8249U (U820)
Intel i5-10210U (U850)
OS Windows 10 Pro (pre-installed) / Linux supported
RAM 16GiB DDR4 (2x 8GiB SODIMM)
GPU Intel Iris+ 655 (U820)
Intel UHD 630 (U850)
Wi-Fi M.2 Intel AX200 Wi-Fi 6, dual-band + BlueTooth 5.1
SSD M.2 2280 512GB NVMe SSD
Connectivity
  • two SATA ports
  • one full-size HDMI 2.0
  • one full-size DisplayPort
  • one USB-C (full featured)
  • one USB-C (charge only)
  • four USB3.1 Type-A
  • one 1Gbps Ethernet (Realtek 8111H)
  • one 2.5Gbps Ethernet (Intel)
  • one 3.5 mm audio
  • one Digital Mic
Price as specified $639 (U820) / $699 (U850)

The only role the U850 might play that we’d advise some caution with is home theater PC (HTPC)—although it’s powerful enough to do the job, its fan noise when under load is loud enough that it might annoy the sorts of people who tend to want a small, unobtrusive HTPC in the first place.

Specifications and overview

The review unit we received was a U850 with the Comet Lake i5-10210U CPU. It matches the specs above except for storage, which is a 256GB Kingston Design-In NVMe SSD. The smaller SSD isn’t “cheating” on Minisforum’s part, by the way—it’s a configurable option on the order page, which knocks $40 off the otherwise $699 (US) purchase price.

The easiest way to describe the U850 is “midgrade laptop in a cube form factor,” so—along with the similarly designed but much less powerful Seeed Odyssey—that’s just what we compared it to in our benchmark tests.

With the i5-10210U’s wimpy UHD 630 graphics, you shouldn’t expect to do any gaming on the U850—but it holds its own on video playback and general CPU related tasks. In terms of performance, it also wipes the floor all the way around with the Seeed Odyssey mini-PC.

The one area where the Seeed Odyssey takes the prize from the Minisforum U850 is noise. We wouldn’t call the U850 obnoxious, but it does make a significant amount of fan noise whenever the processor spins up. It’s a clean whoosh, but it’s a very noticeable one, even in an office packed with other PCs. This probably isn’t something that can be avoided with a Comet Lake CPU in a small form factor; laptops with this CPU are just as noisy.

Performance

Minisforum’s U850 performs just as you’d expect a laptop armed with a Comet Lake i5-10210U to perform—middling-well for a laptop, though considerably better than many competing VESA-mountable PCs, which tend toward lower-powered CPUs such as Celeron, Pentium Silver, and so forth.

The Passmark CPU benchmark doesn’t show a considerable difference between the U850’s Comet Lake and the Gateway’s Ice Lake CPU—which is a shame, given that the Gateway’s Ice Lake has an enormously better GPU. Cinebench R20 and Geekbench 5 both show a much more marked preference for the Comet Lake, though.

There’s always a lot less to look at in single-threaded performance than multithreaded. Passmark, Cinebench R20, and Geekbench 5 all largely agree—there’s a noticeably bigger difference between the Ryzen 4700u and the Intel i5 CPUs than there is between the Comet Lake and Ice Lake i5 CPUs themselves.

Cinebench and Geekbench both show a noticeably bigger advantage for the Ryzen than Passmark does. But the most important difference here is between the three at the top and the Celeron-powered Seeed Odyssey limping along in the background, with a bit less than half the score of its closest competitor in any single-threaded test here.

This shouldn’t really be taken as a knock against the Odyssey itself—after all, it also sells for a bit less than half the cost of anything else on these charts. It also comes closer to being silent—it does have a fan, but that fan doesn’t need to do as much work as the ones on the laptops, and the result is audible.

We should also point out that the Odyssey made, in our opinion, a perfectly usable budget desktop PC. This puts the performance of the U850—and the two laptops it’s competing more closely with—in perspective. At more than double the single- and multithreaded performance of the Odyssey, the U850 isn’t just a usable desktop PC—it’s a solid one.

AAA gaming on the U850 is a bad idea, and we don’t recommend it. The Acer Swift at the top of these charts is not very good at gaming. The Gateway i5 and Minisforum i5 machines are absolutely terrible at it. Casual games will probably work OK, as well as games 10 or more years old. But that’s about it.

In addition to Time Spy, we ran the much less demanding Night Raid benchmark. Night Raid is specifically targeted at PCs with integrated graphics, which didn’t keep the i5 Gateway and i5 Minisforum from tripping over their own feet running it as well. The numbers you see on those scores translate to a very painful 5-7 frames per second in Night Raid’s demo mode at 1080p. Yuck.

We don’t have any gaming benchmarks for the Celeron-powered Odyssey, and we didn’t want to generate any—so we subbed in a Ryzen 3200U-powered low-end Gateway laptop. The i5 machines did better than the low-end Gateway, but that’s a very low bar to clear.

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Sony’s brighter A90J OLED TV makes its way to living rooms this month

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LG’s OLED TV lineup often gets the most press among its peers, but Sony’s high-end OLED TVs get positive reviews as well. Today, Sony announced pricing and release timing for its flagship 2021 OLED, the A90J.

Preorders have already started in Europe and the UK, and the US is expected to follow any time now. But regardless of the staggered preorders, the TVs will ship this month in both regions.

The A90J will be available in 55-, 65-, and 83-inch sizes. The 55-inch model will cost $3,000 in the US, while its 65-inch counterpart will cost a whopping $4,000. US and EU pricing haven’t been announced for the 83-inch model, but it costs £7,000 in the UK, so let that be your guide.

Announced around CES in January, Sony’s A90J has all the standard features for a premium TV: 4K, Dolby Vision HDR, a smart TV software suite (Google TV 10 in this case), and HDMI 2.1.

And like LG’s OLEDs that were revealed around the same time (Sony uses LG’s panels), the A90J will get brighter than its predecessor. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how much brighter. But that’s something reviewers will start to learn and report as these TVs ship.

Sony says it was able to get higher brightness than before not just because of new and improved panels, but with a new lamination approach that provides additional cooling, allowing the TV to push a little harder.

The claim here is that the TV can maximally use its red, blue, and green phosphors along with white simultaneously, in contrast to predecessors that couldn’t achieve that.

As has become standard for high-end TVs, part of the pitch for this new model is also about the chip inside. Sony calls the A90J’s chip “Cognitive Processor XR,” and like similar chips from LG, Samsung, or others, it uses AI and machine learning to optimize the picture in various ways.

Inputs include four HDMI (one on the side, three on the bottom), three USB (two on the side, one on the bottom), one Ethernet, one RF, and one RS-232C. There’s also a digital audio out and a headphone jack, as you’d expect. The TV supports both Chromecast and AirPlay, and those HDMI 2.1 ports of course facilitate 4K at 120 Hz as well as eARC, VRR, and ALLM.

For a while, LG and Sony were the only significant players in the OLED TV game in most regions, but that has begun to change. Panasonic has upped its game, and Philips, Vizio, and TCL have entered the fray, so OLED seems poised to hit the mainstream in a market still dominated by mostly cheaper LCD sets—or at least, that’s what these manufacturers would like to see happen.

Listing image by Sony

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YouTube’s TikTok clone, “YouTube Shorts,” is live in the US

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YouTube’s clone of TikTok, “YouTube Shorts,” is rolling out to the US as we speak. The feature launched in India this September and was first spotted on US devices by XDA Developers. Just like TikTok, Shorts lets users make and share bite-sized, one-minute videos, and users can swipe between them on the mobile app.

The YouTube Shorts section shows up on the mobile apps section of the YouTube home screen and for now has a “beta” label. It works exactly like TikTok, launching a full-screen vertical video interface, and users can swipe vertically between videos. As you’d expect, you can like, dislike, comment on, and share a short. You can also tap on a user name from the Shorts interface to see all the shorts from that user. The YouTube twist is that shorts are also regular YouTube videos and show up on traditional channel pages and in subscription feeds, where they are indistinguishable from normal videos. They have the normal YouTube interface instead of the swipey TikTok interface. This appears to be the only way to view these videos on desktop.

A big part of TikTok is the video editor, which allows users to make videos with tons of effects, music, filters, and variable playback speeds that contribute to the signature TikTok video style. The YouTube Shorts editor seems nearly featureless in comparison, offering only speed options and some music.

TikTok only has ~40 million users in the US, but worldwide, it’s expected to hit 1 billion users in 2021, according to App Annie. The majority of those users are from TikTok’s native country of China, where there are 400 million daily active users.

YouTube is the world’s biggest video platform, and the site’s go-to plan for swatting down upstart competitors with a new video format is almost always to clone them. YouTube most famously did this in 2015 when it launched YouTube Gaming, a livestream gaming platform in the vein of Amazon’s Twitch.tv. The standalone YouTube Gaming interface was shut down after four years, but the livestreaming and chat features caught on with several different communities, and there is still a small live-gaming community on YouTube. In 2017, YouTube set its photocopiers loose on Snapchat and created YouTube Stories (originally launched as “YouTube Reels”), which let channels create short update videos that disappear after seven days. Now it’s targeting TikTok with these one-minute videos. Facebook has also gone after TikTok with Instagram Reels.

YouTube Shorts first launched in India in September—a smart move, since TikTok has been banned in India since June. With no competition from the incumbent in India, YouTube Shorts has taken off in the country, with YouTube recently announcing Shorts was getting “more than 3.5 billion daily views.” TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, and that earned it (and 100+ other Chinese services) a ban in India. TikTok was under attack from the Trump administration, too, and for a time we were expecting it to be purchased by Oracle. After losing the election, the Trump administration lost interest in TikTok, and now it seems that the company will be able to continue operating in the US.

Listing image by Getty Images / NurPhoto

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