|Introduction and Specifications|
|History has a funny way of repeating itself, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Nearly six years ago to the day, Nintendo completely changed the way the world viewed console gaming. The Wii remote (affectionately dubbed Wiimote by most) was a brand new paradigm in gaming control, and it ushered in a wave of motion-based gaming that forced Sony to follow suit with the Move, and Microsoft to do likewise with Kinect.
Pundits seemed certain that Nintendo's risk taking would be its undoing. They seemed certain that motion-based gaming could never be a success in a world long dominated by joystick or push-button controllers. But Nintendo pulled it off. For nearly a year after its release, the Wii was practically impossible to find in stock. Sure, those fixated on first-person shooters continued to lean on the Xbox 360 and PS3, but an entire segment of "casual gamers" flocked to the Wii and made motion gaming a living room staple.
A lot can change in six years, though. Between the release of the Wii and the new Wii U, the entire smartphone universe was reinvented. iOS and Android were born, and gaming moved into an entirely new platform on the mobile front. In terms of input, the Kinect and more recently Windows 8 ushered in very real use cases for touch-based control, urging users to rely less on the conventional mouse / keyboard / gamepad and more on touch panels, gestures and waves.
Before we venture any further down the rabbit hole, let's take a look at the hardware we're working with.
The Wii U has arrived at a time when there's a notable shift going on in the way consumers view and use technology. We're undergoing a transition away from the input devices of yesteryear, and we're teaching an entire generation that interacting with technology can be done in a multitude of ways. Just as the Wii ushered in the Wiimote, the Wii U is ushering in yet another new control mechanism. It's the first major console to ship with a primary controller that not only has an LCD in the middle of it, but a touch panel that acts as the centerpiece of control.
Calling the Wii U a "gaming console" may be doing it a disservice, or at the very least, understating reality. The Wii U is not only capable of being more than a gaming machine, it's built with entertainment as a pillar of its functionality. Is Nintendo's next-gen Wii deserving of a slot in your home entertainment center? Join us in the pages ahead as we seek to answer precisely that.
|Design and Hardware|
|Nintendo's choice of CPU for the Wii U is somewhat puzzling. The company's published technical specifications don't reveal many specific details on the silicon that makes the Wii U hum, but a certain hacker cracked things open and discovered a lowly 1.24GHz IBM Power PC-based processor within. Plus, the 550MHz GPU isn't any faster than the GPU housed in the (now aging) Xbox 360.
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.
|Gaming & Wii U Controller Experience|
|At its core, the Wii U is a gaming console. We'll touch on its extra functionality in a bit, but you can't adequately size up the Wii U's power without first understanding what it's capable of on the gaming front. Going "first" is always an interesting move. In a way, the Wii U is competing with the PS3 and Xbox 360 -- two rival consoles that have been out for years. But, the reality is that both Microsoft and Sony will be introducing new home consoles within the next 12 to 24 months, and the Wii U will be -- rightly or wrongly -- expected to also compete with those offerings.
The Wii U's launch lineup includes a few Nintendo titles, but mostly ports from elsewhere. The latest Madden and Call of Duty are here, each of which offer slightly unique twists courtesy of the second screen interaction on the GamePad. Nintendo Land is the Wii Sports of the Wii U, giving you what essentially amounts to a Mario Party-like title. This game ships with the Deluxe kit, but is marked at around $60 separately. It's chock full of mini-games, and most of them let the GamePad holder see something different than other players do on the HDTV. It's a unique way to engage multiplayer events, and in practice, it's just as addictive as you might expect.
Graphics on the Wii U are buttery smooth, for the most part. A lot of the styling and shading reminds us of the Wii, but only now it's in 1080p. Gaming with the GamePad is a really enjoyable experience, but you'll need to keep a close eye on battery life -- it'll only last around four hours on a full charge, and then it'll take around 2.5 hours to juice it back up.
It's titles like Nintendo Land that keep fans coming back. For all of the knocks on the Wii U, you can't deny that the software is lovable. People who would generally never touch a gaming console can easily find themselves enthralled with by a mini-game in Nintendo Land. It appeals to everyone, from kids to the geriatric, from hardcore to casual gamers. That level of charm is only magnified with 1080p output, as the visuals finally match the excellent quality of play.
For titles like CoD: Black Ops II, the Wii U Pro control pad works fine, but you'll still get more enjoyment out of the Xbox 360 or PS3 versions. More players will be picking up there, as the first-person contingent rarely looks first to Nintendo. So, if you're into major multiplayer bashes, the masses aren't going to be playing on the Wii U.
Overall, gaming is very strong on the Wii U. The control paradigm is well implemented, the graphics are gorgeous, and the available games should please just about every fanbase. But the Wii U is about more than gaming, and that's where we're headed next.
|TVii & Entertainment Experience|
|While gaming is at the heart of the Wii U, you could easily argue that it's not nearly as dominant as it once was. Just look at how consoles have changed recently -- even the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 double as multimedia machines. Gamers routinely use their consoles to stream movies from Netflix and Amazon, while also tuning into YouTube on the big screen. At this point, it's an understood expectation for modern consoles to double as entertainment centers.
Given the Wii's inability to do much more than handle Netflix, Nintendo had a big challenge ahead with the Wii U. And on the surface, it completely blew the doors off of everything else out there. While Nintendo consoles have long since appealed to casual and younger gamers, those very people are great targets to hit with multimedia innovations. The Wii U has added support for Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video, while retaining Netflix streaming. But it's important to note that these features aren't just regular ports. Due to the GamePad being a part of the equation, the experience is a notch above other consoles. As an example, any movie you stream through Amazon Instant Video shows an IMDb listing right on the GamePad, enabling users to sift through the actor profiles, check out the full cast, and even enjoy X-Ray on supported titles. It's the ultimate "second screen" experience, because the relevant information flows directly to the GamePad rather than asking you to search for it manually on something else.
On the flip side, it's as simple as tapping a single logo while viewing an Amazon video in order to move the entire experience to the controller. So, imagine this: you're watching an Amazon Instant Video on your HDTV via the Wii U, but then a sibling comes in and wants to watch a cable channel. With two taps, your video moves onto the GamePad's 6.2" display and continues playing, while your sibling can now use the HDTV for whatever they wish. It's an extremely useful feature, and it'll work so long as your GamePad is within 25 to 30 feet from the Wii U console.
While we're on a positive streak, we can't help but praise Nintendo and its partners for putting together absolutely gorgeous user interfaces for the streaming services. Amazon and YouTube both look absolutely astounding through the Wii U, and sifting through playlists and saved watch lists is sufficiently snappy. HD playback occurs with nary a stutter, which is a big relief given the weaker GPU / CPU combo within. If you've been holding off on buying a Roku box, and you're on the fence about buying a Wii U, we have great news for you. You can put your Roku funds towards a Wii U and rest assured that you'll not only have a fantastic movie streaming box, but one that has an unrivaled remote control that doubles as an information-packed second screen to enhance the viewing experience. Oh, and a gaming console too. Right.
As lovely as these services are, it's TVii that everyone was waiting for. Out of nowhere, Nintendo seemed poised to completely overhaul our notions of what a remote control could be. By leaning heavily on information and technological trickery from i.TV, the TVii function is one of the most groundbreaking functions to ever come to a home console. It takes something that sounds like it would never, ever work, and makes it work seamlessly. Put simply, the GamePad can be used as an (almost) complete remote for your pay-TV service. And here's the kicker: it doesn't matter who your pay-TV provider is.
Usually, these kinds of innovations have a catch. For example, the WatchESPN app requires you to use one of only a handful of pay-TV providers. But with TVii, everyone is welcome. It took us under five minutes to fully program our GamePad to control our TV, control our set-top box, and find upcoming programs from the local cable company. You just punch in your ZIP code, select your provider, select your channel package, and then follow the wizard to find your TV and set-top box manufacturer. We honestly never expected this to work all that well -- it sounds impossible given the near-limitless amount of combinations that consumers will have -- but it worked like a charm. It was without a doubt the most stunning success of our entire Wii U experience.
From there, the TVii portal let us change channels, swap TV inputs, adjust the volume, tune to various networks, see what times our favorite shows were coming on, etc. It's impressive to be sure. Finally, a good second screen solution for pay-TV customers. If we had two gripes, it would be the following: DVR support has yet to arrive, first off. TiVo is on the list of partners to be added at some point in the future, but it's annoying to not be able to access your stored programs or to use your GamePad to record one. In the end, if you can't use your GamePad exclusively to control your TV, you probably won't use it at all. That's a major issue that Nintendo has to address as soon as possible.
Secondly, particularly with movies, it routinely finds flicks upcoming on premium channels that you may not have. It would be ideal to have a "blacklist" to go along with the Favorites list in order to filter out certain channels forever, in order to keep your guide from being cluttered with material that you can't access.
If you're a sports fan, there's even more reason to love the Wii U. If you find a live event on ESPN for example, and it's a major college or professional team playing, you'll be able to use the TVii application to bring up a gamecast-type functionality on your GamePad. You'll get near-real time updates of plays, statistics and scores, as well as having real-time access to the Miiverse Community that is commenting on the game as it unfolds. It's a completely new interactive experience for sports, and it's one of the aspects of the Wii U that truly helps it stand out. You'll never want to watch a live sporting event without, this once you've experienced it. You can even link your Facebook and Twitter account so that your interactive experience reaches beyond the internal Wii U community.
Overall, TVii is an excellent addition to the Wii U arsenal, and could be the single most important factor in convincing a holdout to purchase one. It adds a secondary viewing experience that no other present console can offer, and while there's obviously a lot more that can be done, the foundation here is tremendously useful.
In terms of other non-gaming programs besides the streaming and TVii options mentioned already, your options are pretty limited. There's a Miiverse section where you can hang out and doodle / play with friends, but the friend adding and finding process is far from simplified. Moreover, the Community boards are locked to Nintendo's Wii U universe, making it impossible to truly have a social experience outside of the walled garden established here. In other words, we'd be more likely to engage in a Wii U community if we could access it via our laptop's web browser where we'd have a real keyboard, but alas, that's just not possible right now.
Furthermore, the Wii U Chat application is more or less a joke. Sure, there's a front-facing camera on the GamePad that's perfect for video chatting, but who is really going to use it if you can only call other Wii U boxes? There's no Skype, no FaceTime, no WhatsApp -- no access to any other popular video chatting program. And, if you're in the middle of a game, you can't just pause the game state while chatting. You have to exit completely and enter Wii U Chat; if you were hoping for a backgrounding-type scenario, it's not here.
We will say, however, that the Wii U's web browser is a surprisingly great addition. Most console web browsers are useless in practice, and while we would honestly probably not use a Wii U to browse the Internet, those who would will enjoy a delightful, brisk experience. The browser loads and renders complex pages with poise, and it even supports tabbed browsing. By default, the browser shows only on the GamePad, but a single press of the X button allows that page to be mirrored on your HDTV.
Overall, the user interfaces implemented throughout the entertainment applications is very familiar for those who used a Wii. The design elements are largely the same, and it's fairly easy to understand where you're navigating. That said, we have to say that the speed at which the UI responds is dreadful. But honestly, that impacts far more than just entertainment -- it impacts the entire usability of the console -- so we're saving our more pointed remarks on that for the next page.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|The Wii U is somewhat difficult to summarize. Whereas prior consoles could be judged almost entirely on their graphical prowess, controller design and list of launch titles, we're at a point now where home consoles are only partially targeted for gaming. The rest of the time, they're also expected to be entertainment devices, serving up films and TV shows from pay-TV providers as well as Internet streaming services.
Nintendo has been the slowest of the main console makers to adopt new technologies, in terms of social and video content, and the fact that the Wii U is an Internet-connected console at all is a step forward for the platform in general. The included GamePad is an impressive control device (resistive touch panel notwithstanding), and when used properly as a second screen, it enables a viewing and gaming experience that's presently unmatched in the console world.
But the hardware has its limits. The system's 1.24GHz processor is comparably slow, and if you use two GamePads at once, you'll see an immediate performance hit. While it's potent enough to stream Amazon, Netflix and YouTube in HD without stuttering, the operating system feels somewhat bloated and sluggish. Simply entering into the TVii or Miiverse applications from the Home screen takes around 15 seconds, and it takes equally as long to exit those programs and return to the Home screen. Simple confirmation menus also take a few seconds to load, and after a few minutes of use, it becomes rather annoying. This is a subjective area of course; these response times may not seem appalling to you, but in daily use, the Wii U just feels slow.
It's 2013, and when a next-gen console ships, users will expect menu transitions to be almost instantaneous. If a free-on-contract Android phone can transition between apps and menus in an instant, shouldn't a home console be able to as well? While certain apps, like Amazon Instant Video, show some promise in quickly sifting through watch lists, but anything Nintendo coded is just painfully sluggish. We hate to say it, but the system lag that's so pervasive may be too much to overlook, though it could possibly be remedied in future firmware revisions.
Nintendo's own president Satoru Iwata has promised a software patch that will supposedly address the slow menu issue, but there's no time table being given. And moreover, the issue just magnifies the truth of the matter: the Wii U wasn't really ready for launch just yet.
When initial units shipped on November 18th, TVii was nowhere to be found, despite promises from Nintendo that it would be. Even Amazon's Instant Video as well as Hulu Plus streaming had to be added via a software update post-launch. While it's nice to live in a world where software updates can improve products even after they ship, it sets a bad precedent to ship such an important product before it's ready for prime time. As it stands, those picking up a Wii U right now will be forced to download around 4GB of system updates right out of the box. Even on a 30Mbps cable connection, the update + installation took around 1.5 hours. On a slower connection, this day-one process could easily take multiple hours. That's simply not a very good "out-of-the-box" experience.
To make matters worse, you'll have to download additional updates the first time you run Amazon Instant Video and YouTube as well. it seems that the majority of your initial time with the Wii U will be spent downloading updates -- what fun is that? It may seem petty, but it'd be wise of Nintendo to push an advisory to the Wii U that apologizes for the sizable day-one update, and perhaps even offer a few points to use in the eShop for the trouble.
It's one thing to add free features to a console after launch. It's another thing to promise select features from the factory, and then ship a console with essentially none of them installed. That's what has happened with the Wii U, and it's undoubtedly one of the most half-baked console launches in recent history.
In the end, the Wii U's luster is tarnished not by one major flaw, but by many tiny blemishes that add up to something more significant. HD gaming on a Nintendo product is outstanding, and the company's use of the GamePad's second screen on titles like Nintendo Land and ZombieU, add an element to home gaming that simply hasn't existed before. TVii, once installed, shows tons of promise for second screen use while watching television and streaming media, but the inability to control your DVR, audio receiver, or other A/V components with it, prevents the GamePad from truly being the "Harmony" of game remotes. As it stands, it's a half-finished solution that'll probably go unused given that it can't stand on its own just yet.
The front-facing camera on the Wii U GamePad would be outstanding for TV-sized video chats, but given that there's no Skype to be found, you're stuck calling only other Wii U users. Plus, the GamePad's woeful battery life (under four hours on a full charge) means that you'll quickly have your fun extinguished unless you religiously remember to recharge it… using a proprietary charging cable, no less.
Beyond the areas that Nintendo has bungled right out of the gate, the lackluster hardware within makes us wonder if the Wii U has the horsepower to compete with whatever Microsoft and Sony cook up next. As it stands, the graphics here are about on par with an Xbox 360, but how bad is the Wii U going to look when placed alongside the rumored Xbox 720 or PlayStation 4? Unlike a custom gaming PC rig, you can't just swap a new GPU into a home console.
Gaming is a strong suit right now on the Wii U. If you're after that typical "Nintendo charm," you'll find oodles of it here. Nintendo Land is a highly addictive launch title that can bring families together as no other console can, and the unique use of the GamePad's second screen only serves to bring the gaming experience to a level that cannot be matched by other input systems available at present.
The reality is that the GamePad isn't just a gimmick. It's a great tool, and when software is written to take advantage of it, it should bring plenty of fun and entertainment. But for all of the things that the Wii U gets right, it leaves us wanting. For $299, you can get a Wii U base unit -- or, you can buy a PlayStation 3 with 320GB of onboard storage, a built-in Blu-ray drive, support for a myriad streaming services, support for viewing Facebook photos, and support for playing back your own photos and videos. And over on the Microsoft side, you can get arguably as much pizzazz for even less money and a whole lot more content in movies and gaming.
$299 can buy you a lot of home entertainment these days, and for our money, the Wii U falls a bit short to recommend.