Don't panic, but the Wii U's triple-core CPU operates at a far lower clock speed than the central processing units of the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3. A Wii hacker fueled the inevitable system comparisons on Thursday when he reportedly found that the Wii U's new IBM PowerPC chip runs at 1.24GHz, far slower than the 3.2 GHz CPUs inside the Sony and Microsoft consoles. Nintendo fans everywhere are freaking out. Ars Technica is trying to be the voice of reason, explaining why you can't read too much into the Wii U's slow clock speed.
The basic explanation is obvious: Clock speed doesn't mean that much. The architecture of a CPU matters far more than the speed it runs at. Hacker Hector Martin even wrote that "It's worth noting that Espresso (the Wii U CPU) is *not* comparable clock per clock to a Xenon or a Cell. Think P4 vs. P3-derived Core series." Other important details Martin conveyed via his Twitter account: "The Espresso is an out of order design with a much shorter pipeline. It should win big on IPC on most code, but it has weak SIMD. No hardware threads. One per core. No new SIMD, just paired singles. But it's a saner core than the P4esque stuff in 360/PS3."
As Ars Technica tries to drive home, newer processors often run at slower speeds than their predecessors but deliver far better performance. The Core 2 Duo line dropped far below Pentium's 4's 3+ GHz speeds but were both faster and more power efficient. The Wii U PowerPC CPU's ability to perform out-of-order processing stands to make it far more powerful, per cycle, than the other consoles.
Of course, there are other factors to consider: the Wii U has more RAM than its predecessors, but the RAM is slower. The CPU isn't doing all the work. The Wii U has a dedicated ARM processor and a DSP for handling the OS and audio processing. Gamers have noticed that many of the third-party Wii U ports had performance issues, but that's likely due more to development time and hardware familiarity than a weak processor.
Games will look better over the course of the console's lifetime, just as they always do, and Nintendo has proven time and again that it can go far with weaker technology. It worked with the NES, Game Boy, DS, and Wii. For the Wii U, the real challenge comes next year, when Sony and Microsoft reveal their consoles. That's when the power of the CPU will actually become relevant.
If the PowerPC can't keep up with those new consoles, Nintendo will run into a problem they've struggled with since the Nintendo 64: Third-party ports. For now, CPU comparisons don't amount to much. Don't panic--at least until the end of 2013.