So, what gives? Well, first off, Nintendo has never been one to push the envelope in terms of raw horsepower. If you're looking for next-gen, cutting edge hardware, a Nintendo console should never be on your shopping list. Secondly, many analysts are suggesting that since Nintendo's hardware choices appear to be evolutions of the original Wii, it should make it easier for developers to efficiently leverage what horsepower is available right away.
Regardless of all that, one thing is for certain: of the next-gen consoles, the Wii U will be the least powerful in terms of specifications. Still, one thing we can celebrate is the addition of high-def output. It's pretty sad that the original Wii didn't support 1080p, but at least the Wii U does. Better still, Nintendo included a standard HDMI socket on the rear, and even saw fit to throw an HDMI cable into the box. Kudos, Nintendo. For those who somehow don't have an HDTV with an HDMI port, there's a proprietary AV-out port that'll support composite and component output via optional adapters as well.
The Wii U ships in two versions: an 8GB Basic Kit for $299.99, and a 32GB Deluxe Kit for $349.99. Curiously, the former is only available in white, while the latter is only available in black. You'll notice a $50 price hike on the base unit compared to the base Wii, but you can attribute a lot of that cost to the included GamePad -- after all, including a 6.2" touch panel in a controller doesn't come without a fair amount of additional expense. Our test unit was the Deluxe bundle, which we'd highly recommend. Why you ask? because 8GB of onboard flash memory simply isn't enough. Once you download the ~4GB day-one update, you won't even have room to download Nintendo Land to the Wii U. Plus, the Deluxe Kit includes a disc copy of Nintendo Land -- think of it as the Wii U's version of Wii Sports -- as well as a GamePad charging dock, which is an extremely useful accessory that sells for $20 separately.
The Wii U itself is oddly long (nearly a foot!), but from the front, looks essentially like a more rounded Wii. While there's a slot-loading optical drive up front, it'll only handle Wii and Wii U discs. For some inexplicable reason, the Wii U will not double as a DVD or Blu-ray player. That's a real head scratcher given just how media-minded Nintendo has designed this unit to be.
You'll find Power and Sync buttons on the front, as well as a drop-down panel that conceals an SD card slot and two USB 2.0 ports. On the rear, there's an exhaust vent, an input for the sensor bar, an AV-out port, an HDMI socket, two more USB 2.0 ports, and a power jack. In more disappointing news, the USB ports here are only useful for connecting external hard drives, but for whatever reason, those drives can only be used to store downloaded games and save data.
Wish you could connect a drive full of movies and music to play through the Wii U? Keep dreaming. Thinking about streaming media to the Wii U via DLNA or a NAS? Dream some more. Nintendo has locked down the Wii U pretty tight, preventing users from enjoying other pieces of media. This methodology was forgivable in 2006, but considering just how friendly the PS3 and Xbox 360 are to external media, there's no excuse for the Wii U's restrictions in this regard.
There are no controller ports either, as the Wii U's GamePad is completely wireless. But here's something strange about that -- you can use up to two GamePads with a single Wii U console, but if you do, frame rates will drop to about 30 fps. One of the most alluring things about the Wii U is the GamePad, but you pay a performance penalty if using more than one controller at a time. For multiplayer games, you'll be able to use the same Wiimote controls or Wii Control Pro gamepads that were used on the last-gen console. So, that's a neat slice of backwards compatibility, but you'll really want one of the newer Wiimotes with Motion Plus to fully take advantage of most modern Wii U titles.
Just because it deserves a quick mention, you can also use the same Sensor Bar that shipped with the original Wii. We aren't quite sure why you would, but it is possible.
We can't talk about the hardware here without mentioning Nintendo's decision to add the thickest coat of mirrored gloss that we've ever seen on a consumer electronics product. Our black Wii U was coated in dust merely seconds after unboxing it. Calling this thing a "fingerprint magnet" is a massive understatement. It's actually impossible to keep the unit looking halfway clean. Even the glossy controller looks messy after a while out in the open. Yes, this might be a nitpick, but c'mon -- gamers generally take pride in how their setups look, and by choosing a mirrored, glossy finish, the Wii U will constantly be in need of maintenance.
Now, onto the GamePad. Without a doubt, this is the star of the show. It's big. It's weird. It's different. And there's a screen in the middle of it. It's absolutely the "wow factor" of the Wii U, and even the most jaded technology lover will have a hard time passing over this thing. It's just impossible to overlook, and it provides a unique feel when holding it. At 1.1 pounds, it's a little on the heavy side, but only when trying to hold it with one hand. When gripping it from both sides, the buttons are actually well-placed on both the front and rear. However, when popping out the included stylus and trying to touch the panel, the remote becomes a little unwieldy to hold with a single hand.
There are two analog sticks, a conventional D-pad, Nintendo's typical A-B-X-Y button layout, four rear triggers, a volume slider, 3.5mm headphone jack, a charging port on the top, and a front-facing camera that's useful for taking pictures of yourself and chatting with other Wii U owners via the Wii U Chat application. But here's the rub: the built-in battery isn't very good. In average use, you'll be hard-pressed to get over four hours on a full charge from the GamePad. On top of that, it takes a solid 2.5 hours to recharge it. And if you really want to rub salt in a wound, Nintendo has included a proprietary charging port. With the SIXAXIS controller on Sony's PS3, there's a simple, conventional micro-USB port; you simply grab any micro-USB cable and recharge it. Heck, you can recharge your PS3 controller with a laptop's spare USB port. With the Wii U GamePad, not only will you need Nintendo's proprietary charging cable, but it's a cable connected to a (relatively) huge power brick. Thankfully, there are already third-party USB charging cables on the market -- yes, they recharge slower than a direct wall outlet connection, but it's still a nice alternative.
While we're on the topic of limitations, it's worth noting that USB speakers won't work with the Wii U. And while we're on the topic of huge power bricks, wait until you see the one that powers the Wii U itself. It's an inline brick that is around half of the size of the original Wii. Nintendo boasts that the Wii U is all kinds of efficient, but the size of the power brick will make some think differently.
One more note on the GamePad hardware: the 6.2" touch screen has a resistive panel. That means it works with any old stylus, but we're still baffled that Nintendo would go with a resistive panel over a much more responsive capacitive touch panel, like the ones used on the vast majority of smartphone and tablets. Resistive panels are soft, mushy, and not always responsive to the swipes and gestures that we've all gotten used to.