Wii U Hardware Review

After months of excited waiting, nights spent dreaming about Nintendo’s hardcore focused Project Cafe and time spent watching the realities come into focus, today’s finally the day. Today, the Wii U launches in the UK. As someone who banked all their hopes at the start of the last generation on the Wii and was ultimately left with a device that, while wonderful, lacked many of the games and features my friends had access too, I was unsure how to feel about the Wii U. Yes the Gamepad was exciting, but would this be a system I could truly fall in love with once it was in my home? The short answer is while the console is not perfect, it’s already proven itself to me. It’s got some things that need ironing out in future firmware updates, but I’m happy to declare that the Wii U is my new gaming console of choice and that may not be for the reasons you expect.

Let’s get onto the Gamepad itself. The Gamepad feels great, it’s light, responsive and feels comfortable to hold. While the width my hands were fixed apart took a little getting used to, within a couple of hours of playing a retail unit with friends I’d completely adjusted to the size. The screen has zero lag (in tests it appears to be a few frames quicker to process the image than my main HD TV), manages to keep a high level of visual fidelity on the screen and is just a generally responsive and beautiful piece of hardware. The Gamepad has a couple of small issues that I wish were different, the triggers are digital as opposed to analogue which could be an issue for racing games and the battery life is far from ideal at about four hours (the battery is easily accessed and is much smaller than it’s compartment, suggesting that larger batteries may be made available). I feel much the same way about the Gamepad as I did when I bought my Vita, it’s a wonderful piece of technology as long as there are games supporting it.

The audio quality, something I’d worried about at preview events, is surprisingly good. Leaps and bounds ahead of the low fidelity speaker in the Wii Remote. The volume is pretty decent and it’s no problem playing on just the Gamepad. The Gamepad range is not bad, in my own home I can have the Gamepad plugged into the HD TV downstairs, and still play the Wii U in my bedroom upstairs (I lose connection during that trip but return into an area with signal in the end). I can use the Gamepad for off TV play in most of the rooms in my house I’d want to use it in and it performs pretty well.

Now, there is a system update that’s required in order to use a good chunk of the console’s online features like Miiverse, the eShop and many of the video playing applications. The update took me about an hour to download (this was at 1am on launch day) and about half an hour extra to install. While less than ideal, it can be skipped. If you wanted to I would suggest declining the update at first. Just jump into whatever games you want to play instead and then set the update going when you have to do something else for a while rather than waiting for it to download.

On the topic of updates, my first day with the system has involved a large amount of updating and setting up. I first had to set up the system settings, then there was an update, then there was another update and setup process for every app or game I tried to use too. They didn’t take too long, but I couldn’t jump in as instantly as I could with the Wii.

Nintendo’s new eShop is wonderful. It’s crisp, well laid out and has pretty much every retail release available as a download. As of writing this review the only demo available was for Fifa 13, but it was easy enough to find – just go to the demo section at the bottom of the page it’ there. Hopefully we’ll start seeing more demos appear and a dedicated section for DLC, but that will hopefully come with future updates.

Miiverse is absolutely amazing. It’s a sort of hybrid of Twitter and Facebook in that you can post publicly to a Twitter style huge wall of public opinion, but you can also have system friends, communicate with them privately and “yeah” posts that you like to make them rise up through the other posts to the top. You can mark posts as containing spoilers, attach screenshots at any time and Miiverse will tag your post to tell people if you’ve actually played the game before posting about it or not. It’s wonderfully Nintendo in its execution and I really appreciate games like New Super Mario Bros. U which integrate peoples posts into your game experience and encourage you to post from within the game when you fulfill certain conditions.

I love the Wii U’s main menu. When you power on the system the Gamepad screen will show up a 3DS style menu of tiles, each of which is a different program, game or application. The TV will show a large number of Mii’s huddling around the various game tiles talking about the software. Once you’ve got Miiverse up and running and the system update installed your friends will pop up on that TV screen and stand near the game they are currently playing and messages from your friends (and Miiverse in general) will pop up next to the relevant games. It is a great way to make the system feel a lot less solitary than the Wii did and allows you to instantly see what your friends are up to and what they think of games.

One of the downsides of the console at the moment is the long waiting times, both for downloads to install and for system level menus to load. Installs take longer than they seem to on the PS3 and Xbox 360, leaving you unable to use the Wii U while it takes place. The system menu’s all have a noticeable five to ten second load time which, unlike the super quick process of swapping the TV and Gamepad screen on the home menu, feels slow and cumbersome.

The ZombiU bundle also comes with a Wii U Pro Controller. It looks much like an Xbox 360 controller in terms of its shape, but it places both analogue sticks at the top and the buttons at the bottom. 360 owners may also be thrown at first by the fact that the A and B/ X and Y buttons are in comparatively the opposite places. While this was a little disorienting at first, within an hour I’d adjusted and was back up to speed. The only real complaint I have about the controller is that the triggers are digital as opposed to analogue, which I see being an issue down the line for racing and shooting games in particular.

One of the other things I love about the system is the ability to multitask. You can start downloading a patch for a game, hop into that game and play it while the update downloads, open the browser mid game to check a walkthrough if you’re stuck then drop back to where you were in the game. If you see something awesome mid game you can hit the Home button, jump to Miiverse and post a screenshot of the moment you hit the Home button and write some text to go with it, answer your friend requests and drop straight back into the game at the point you were at. The browser allows you to put a YouTube video onto the TV and keep browsing on the Gamepad while the video plays on the TV. The system just seems to be built around never having to lose one activity in order to be able to jump to the next. More than anything else those are the features that made the system stand out to me; these are the things Nintendo are doing better than their competitors and that make the Wii U feel well thought out and “next generation”.

Setting up my Gamepad as a TV remote was surprisingly simple. I selected the brand of my TV and had a set of controls appear on the Gamepad. I was told to try turning the TV off with the power button and say if it worked or not. The third one I tried worked and I was set up, it took under a minute.

The system is absolutely whisper quiet. You get a quick whurr of the optical drive when you first turn on the power, and a little bit of disc drive noise when starting a game disc up but it’s more comparable noise wise to the PS3 Slim than the original Xbox 360 for example.

The console’s backwards compatibility is also a bit of a disappointment. In order to play your old Wii games you need to first download the system update, then completely reboot your system into “Wii Mode”, which will shut off Gamepad functionality and restart the machine as a Wii. The process is slow and feels very shut off from the rest of the Wii U’s features. If you want to continue playing your old Wii downloadable games you’ll need to use the system transfer tool. It works, but it takes quite a long time and dumps everything into the Wii Mode menu. I feel that if it had been better integrated into the Wii U’s main menu it could have been a much more interesting and useful feature.

All in all my time spent with the Wii U has been positive. The hardware feels really nice, it’s responsive and it feels decidedly Next Generation. Time will tell how the system does in terms of software support from third parties, particularly when Sony and Microsoft show their Next Gen hands, but for now the Wii U is my favourite piece of gaming hardware on the market, and I’m very pleased to have it as part of my gaming setup.

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