Wii U Hardware Review: Nintendo's Latest Endeavor Hits the Scene with a Ton of Potential and Some Cool Features

by David Sanchez December 6, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

The Wii U launched just about three weeks ago, and in that time it’s received its share of praise and skepticism. The fact of the matter is that Nintendo made a lot of promises as its latest console approached release. After playing around with some games as well as the system’s internal apps, it’s easy to see how the company may be trying to offer a unique home console experience. Ultimately, there’s definitely a lot to like about the console, but it’s not without a few glaring flaws. Thankfully, there’s potential here, and the Wii U could very well be an incredible multimedia machine.

The Hardware: Deluxe and Basic Editions

The Wii U comes in two different flavors: the Deluxe Edition for $349.99 and the Basic Edition for $299.99. The differences between the two are miniscule, and depending on your needs versus your wants, you could potentially save 50 bucks. The Deluxe Edition features a black Wii U with 32GB of internal flash storage, the GamePad controller, console stands (because vertical systems look cool), a GamePad stand, a GamePad charging cradle, and a copy of Nintendo Land (which is priced at $59.99 as a standalone retail title). The Basic Edition includes a white 8GB Wii U and GamePad. Aside from that, both SKUs include AC adapters for the console and the controller, a sensor bar for Wii Remote use, and an HDMI cable. That’s right, none of that composite tomfoolery — the future is here (or whatever)!

Again, which version you go with relies largely on whether or not you want all of those stands, a copy of Nintendo Land, and a black Wii U. Whether you go with the 8GB or the 32GB model, you’ll have more than enough storage space for the first system update (more on that in a bit) and a number of game saves. Thankfully, the Wii U has a total of four USB ports so you can plug in an external hard drive if you decide to purchase a lot of digital content. For some Deluxe owners, this may be ideal considering the Digital Deluxe program which offers 10 percent credit on eShop purchases. Aside from the USB ports, the Wii U also features an SD card slot, so there’s that.

The GamePad Is Comfortable and Light … Oh, and It Works!

The major selling point for a lot of Wii U owners is that snazzy new controller, the GamePad. The device features all of the standard face and shoulder buttons as well as a D-pad and two clickable analog sticks. The GamePad is fairly light, and it’s super comfortable. It’s probably not ideal to hold it up with one hand given its width, but the ergonomic grips on the rear make it totally easy to hold.

Of course, we can’t talk about the GamePad without taking a look at the touchscreen’s specs. Measuring up at 6.2 inches, the touchscreen is totally responsive and pleasantly bright. It’s a great option for browsing the internet and playing games, and it’s just a really cool little device. It comes with a stylus, but there doesn’t seem to be too much use for that just yet as using the onscreen keyboard with your fingertips is precise and practical.

Sadly, where the GamePad takes a hit is in its battery life. Though you can adjust the screen brightness, you’ll ultimately only get about three hours of playtime before you need to charge the darn thing. Unfortunately, you can’t hook the GamePad up to the Wii U’s USB ports. Instead, you’ll need to have the packed-in AC adapter at the ready. Another gripe I had with the GamePad was with its signal which worked perfectly as long as I was within the same room as the Wii U. The moment I walked behind a wall just a few feet away, though, the GamePad let me know that the connection to the console was lost. This isn’t too big of a deal because Nintendo said right out of the gate that the Wii U wasn’t a portable gaming device, but it would be cool if you could go to another (nearby) room and keep playing.

Internet Features: Best Console Browser Ever?

Seriously, enough can’t be said about just how great browsing the internet is on the Wii U. Nintendo may not have been the first to do it, but the console’s internet functionality stands tall among the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Checking out different sites is a total breeze, and everything loads up rapidly. You can even open up multiple tabs and contribute to this nation’s ADD mentality if you so choose to.

Oddly enough, the Wii U includes a YouTube app, but honestly, it’s pretty useless. That’s not to say it doesn’t work — it does, and it works well. It’s just hard to relegate YouTube to an isolated app when you can simply watch your favorite videos using the Wii U’s browser instead. Videos load as fast as they would on your computer, so it goes without saying that they rely entirely on your internet connection. That said, it’s awesome being able to watch episodes of Angry Video Game Nerd on an HD TV while reading random Wikipedia articles on the GamePad. That’s right, you can do that, and it’s awesome. This functionality essentially turns the Wii U controller into a tablet device of sorts, and if someone takes up the TV, you can simply keep watching videos or surfing the web right on the GamePad. It’s functional, it’s fast, and it’s intuitive.

Miiverse: Nintendo’s Social Network

In an attempt to show that it can get with the times, Nintendo has created a video gaming social network called Miiverse. Is it a bit gimmicky? Yeah, sure it is. Here’s the crazy part, though: It’s actually a lot of fun. Basically, “communities” are split up between games and apps, so you’ve got separate threads for New Super Mario Bros. U, ZombiU, YouTube, and so on. Using the GamePad, you can post messages, leave comments for others to read, draw images using the stylus, or give others’ posts a “Yeah!” It’s a neat feature, and while it may not exactly be mind-blowing, it’s a welcome addition to the Wii U.

One of the cooler integrations of Miiverse is the ability to snap gameplay pictures. If you’re playing a game and something cool happens or you’re confused about what to do next, you can hit the Home button, select Miiverse from the menu, and post your screenshot (the last image that appeared before you hit Home) for others to see. I’ve already seen folks using this as a tool to brag about their best times in Mighty Switch Force and to ask for some hints in ZombiU. It’s a nice element that not only keeps the community engaged, but it also makes for some funny moments if something silly happens in-game — or, you know, if you encounter a stupid glitch or something.

Wait a Sec … What the Heck Happened to TVii?!

Nintendo promoted TVii as one of the launch features of the Wii U. This component would integrate Netflix, Hulu, TiVo, and other services so that you could have a seamless television source right on your Wii U and GamePad. Nintendo decided to push the service back, though there are plans of launching it later this month. Oh, and because the controller can also be used as a universal TV remote, you won’t need to worry about fumbling with different remote controls if you feel like raising the volume on the TV.

Other Apps Ensure You Can Still Watch Videos to Your Heart’s Content

If you’re looking for something other than YouTube and are bummed out about the current lack of TVii functionality, you’ll be glad to know that the Wii U has several other apps to ensure that your video viewing needs are met. Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime can all be accessed right from the Wii U, so you can watch your favorite movies and TV shows as much as you’d like. Obviously, the inclusion of premium video services on game consoles isn’t anything new. Still, it’s great to see Nintendo putting this much care and attention to the non-gaming features of the system.

Games, Graphics, and Glitches

There are a number of gaming options on the Wii U that are available both at retailers and digitally through the eShop. The consensus is that games like Assassin’s Creed 3 and Black Ops 2 look fairly on par with their Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 counterparts, but some noticeable performance issues cause unnecessary and unpleasant instability. Of course, there’s also Darksiders 2 which has a much better draw distance than the Xbox 360 version but also sacrifices a bit of foliage. New Super Mario Bros. U looks like what you would expect an HD Mario side-scroller to look like. As for ZombiU, the game isn’t so much technically impressive as it is stylistically appropriate.

In regards to the frame rate issues and glitches in certain ports, it seems that a lot of developers are still trying to figure out how to properly port games to the Wii U. Here’s hoping that gets sorted out soon so we don’t have to deal with more awesome titles like Batman: Arkham City receiving subpar port jobs. Nintendo has a strong lineup of first-party franchises, but it would definitely be nice to get other offerings outside of the MarioZeldaMetroid spectrum on the Wii U.

Other Things to Make a Note Of

There are several other factors to take into account if you’re going to purchase a Wii U. First, if you’ve got a backlog of older Wii games you want to play, you’ll be glad to know that the Wii U is fully backward compatible with its predecessor’s software. It kind of sucks that you can’t play your old GameCube favorites (I’m keeping my Wii hooked up so I can finally finish Killer7), but if you’ve yet to play stellar Wii exclusives like Skyward Sword, Mario Galaxy, or No More Heroes 2, you can do so on the Wii U. Best of all, the visuals will adapt to have a cleaner resolution similar to what the Wii component cables used to do.

If you’re looking to chat with your family and friends, you can do that as the Wii U sports a fully functional video chat app. This is pretty much what you’d expect from a component like this. You’ve got a mic on the GamePad as well as speakers, and if you want, you can even view the picture on your TV.

Probably the most obnoxious thing about the Wii U is the day one system update. The patch can take up to two hours to download, though some users have reported lengthier times. I, for example, had to deal with a four-hour wait. The good thing is that you can do a background download of all updates, so if you get a Wii U and want to play some games, be sure to cancel the update when the system prompts you to do so. This won’t actually cancel the downloading process. Instead, the patch will continue downloading without interrupting your experience, and you can check the status of the download on the Home menu. Oh, and before you ask, yes, this update is important. After all, it adds all of the online, Miiverse, eShop, and Wii features.

Also a bit tedious is the general loading, which is quite lengthy. It’s kind of a shame that the loading screen when you boot up a game (be it disc-based or digital) is so annoyingly long. Even worse is the fact that opening different apps such as Miiverse and the eShop takes a while, too. Hopefully Nintendo addresses that in the future with another 10-hour system update. (Jokes!)

The Verdict

As has been the case this console generation with both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, the Wii U is not without its shortcomings. Load times are annoying, that day one patch just plain sucks, and some third-party games are quite glitchy. That said, no one should be quick to write the Wii U off just yet. Nintendo has created a nice HD console here — one that does a lot of things aside from playing games. It’s great that the Wii U wears so many hats. The fact that it can play video games, features the best web browser on a video game console to date, and offers plenty of video viewing options almost turns the platform into an entertainment hub of sorts.

While it’s impossible to say what the future holds for the system, it definitely looks like said future will be bright if Nintendo and other developers can take advantage of the hardware. Browsing the internet, watching YouTube videos, and utilizing the GamePad for different functions are all a blast. Darksiders 2 proves that competent port jobs are possible on Nintendo’s system. Nintendo Land is a great casual experience for entire groups to enjoy. ZombiU is the first real original hardcore game on the Wii U. And the promise of games like Toki Tori indicates that indie devs are showing interest in the tech. Nintendo’s got a lot riding on this system, but thankfully, it has a ton of potential to go far and an interesting new controller to help it do so. Let’s hope that’s the case down the road, not just for Nintendo, but for people who love playing video games.

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