Missing The Mark: Nintendo Wii U Review

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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.

Over on YouTube, you're able to scroll through the video description and see how many views, likes, and dislikes a clip has as it plays along on the television. The cool factor is obvious, but it's pretty clear that more can (and should) be done. With the entire GamePad display at your disposal, why can't YouTube viewers see and add comments? Why is there no scrub bar on the GamePad's display? Why can't you like or dislike a video from the screen that's sitting right there in your lap? Why can't you scroll through related videos on the GamePad while a video plays on the connected HDTV? Why can't you add favorites or subscribe to playlists? Here's the issue: the GamePad has so much potential, but it's so very underutilized. With just the suggestions above added, the YouTube-on-a-console experience would be so far superior on the Wii U that it would make rival consoles pale in comparison. Sure, these features may arrive with future updates -- but they aren't here today, and the launch period is absolutely the most vital period for a console's growth.

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.

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