The Nintendo Wii U landed on UK shelves just before Christmas, bringing with it a shiny new controller complete with a touchscreen.
While it might not be the next-gen killer that’ll stand up to the Xbox 720 and PS4 (or whatever they’ll be called) we’re more interested in how it competes as a smart TV/living room entertainment hub.
The original Nintendo Wii had access to things like BBC iPlayer, YouTube and eventually it got Lovefilm Instant. But its lack of support for HD video streams meant that it wasn’t as viable as the True King of the Living Room. This has all changed with the Wii U which supports Full HD 1080p streams, surround sound and other neat features.
Let’s take a look at how the Wii U shapes up, if the lure of Zombi U wasn’t enough for you to snap one up from launch. Watch the video below for a quick round-up and click through each section below to read more.
- Nintendo Wii U review: Introduction
- Design and Specs: Nintendo Wii U
- Controls: Wii U GamePad
- TV Smarts: Set up, Downloading Apps and Menus
- Wii U Apps: YouTube
- Wii U Apps: Netflix
- Wii U Apps: Lovefilm Instant
- Wii U Apps: Other Services
- Value & Conclusion: Nintendo Wii U Verdict
Design and specifications:Nintendo Wii U
The Nintendo Wii U is a compact little unit that’s not much bigger than the original Nintendo Wii. Whereas its predecessor was all rigid angles, this is all sexy curves. The Wii U also lays flat rather than standing upright and is available in black and white.
In terms of actual dimensions it’s 4.58 x 26.67 x 17.27 cm – it’s not going to hog much shelf space.
We tested a black Premium (32GB) version, retailing at £300. There’s also an 8GB Basic version, costing £240.
Video support: 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i.
Audio support: The Nintendo Wii U doesn’t support any licensed formats like Dolby Digital Plus or DTS-HD. However you can connect your Wii U via HDMI to an AV Receiver or HTiB (Home Theatre in a Box) that supports LPCM 5.1, and then connecting this to your TV via HDMI and enjoy surround sound.
Connectivity: HDMI, WiFi (802.11 B/G/N), USB 2.0 (x2), Wii Component Video, Wii S-Video Stereo, Wii AV and Wii Sensor Bar.
If you’re upgrading from the old Wii, this makes setting the Wii U up really easy as you can plug in all the old cables and the sensor bar from the old console. The only new things you’ll need to connect are the new AC adapter and the HDMI.
There’s no Ethernet port, with all connections to your home broadband router handled via WiFi.
For the purpose of this review we’re focussing on the Smart TV and VOD elements of the Wii U, but we feel we should point out that the Wii U plays all the old Wii games and works with the Wii peripherals too, including the Wii Fit Balance Board.
It won’t play old GameCube games and frustratingly, even though it’s capable of 1080p output, the Wii U won’t play Blu-ray discs like the PS3 can and (presumably) the PS4 will.
Upgradeability: Those two USB 2.0 ports hint at future expansion on the hardware side of things. In terms of software, since we received our Wii U review unit we’ve had no less than four system updates, so it looks like Nintendo is intent on regular refreshes.
Waiting in the pipeline is Nintendo TVii. This is live in the US now but not in the UK just yet. Nintendo TVii is a free service that’ll turn the Wii U GamePad into a second screen remote control, allowing you to change channels and set programme reminders, a bit like the Sky+ app does for mobiles. There’s no ETA beyond ‘2013’ yet, so stay tuned.
Controls: Wii U GamePad
The Wii U GamePad prominently features a touchscreen front and centre. The GamePad’s display is a 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen with a resolution of 854×480 pixels and 16:9 aspect ratio. Compared to most tablets and even most phones these days, it’s not the highest res display going. This means that movies watched on the GamePad don’t look as good as they would on a phone.
The GamePad itself is lightweight (500g) and the screen responds well to fingers or the supplied stylus. It’s easy to hold in your left hand and tap away with your right, for example. Thanks to the design, it’s perfect for left-handers too.
When browsing the web or searching for a film on Netflix, the touchscreen really comes into its own. Typing is effortless, much easier than on other Smart TV platforms, where you’ll be hunting and pecking on a basic numeric keypad. While there are features present such as a microphone, front-facing camera and NFC, these aren’t utilised for smart TV, so there’s no Siri-style fun to be had. At least not yet.
The on-board battery isn’t up to much, giving you around 3-5 hours worth of use, depending on what you’re doing. It takes around 2.5 hours to fully recharge. Thankfully you can pick up a Nykos U Boost for £20 from Amazon, which gives you a meatier 10 hours.
TV smarts: set up, downloading apps and navigating menus
Getting your Wii U running once you’ve plugged everything in is a piece of cake. Following the on screen instructions will see you linking up the Wii U console and GamePad and connecting to your home broadband router.
You’ll be prompted to install any system updates that are required (we had to install four) before you can get cracking. Typically updates can take as long as five minutes each, but a major update could take up to an hour.
You’ll then need to create a Nintendo ID. This will allow you to download apps and services like Netflix and Lovefilm. Once done you’ll be emailed a confirmation code which you’ll be prompted to enter. Overall the set up process is smooth, but it takes a while.
Nintendo eShop is where you can download apps and games direct to your Wii U.
Using the search tool you can find YouTube, Lovefilm and Netflix and download them all for free.
Once you’ve downloaded an app, you’ll need to install it so that it’s accessible from the Wii U home screen. To do this, open up the download manager by pressing the Home button and selecting the right-most icon. Here you should see a list of downloaded content which you can then select and install on your Wii U.
We’d prefer it if apps were installed automatically as they finished downloading, as they do on most mobile OS’s. However once you’ve downloaded a few apps, you’ll be more familiar with the process and it’ll feel quicker.
The main Wii U main screen is populated with little app icons, arranged on 3×5 grids. A press of the Home button at the bottom of the GamePad brings up the Home Menu overlay.
When you’re using services like YouTube, you can use the Home Menu to stop what you’re doing and return to the main screen, or launch apps like the web browser, Nintendo eShop and your friend list. From here you can also access settings for things such as the GamePad’s screen brightness as well as access an instruction manual.
The menus seem pretty labyrinthine at first but in typical Nintendo style, everything’s laid out in nice white tiled menus with ambient music burbling away. Though initially daunting, Nintendo has gone to the trouble of making everything feel as relaxing as possible, though some might find this approach overly friendly and a little too Fisher Price for their liking.
Loading times between some menus can feel really slow. We’re used to pressing something and it happening right away. Opening System Settings from the main menu is a good example of this. Why should it take ten seconds to open a menu when all we want to do is adjust the screen brightness?
Wii U Apps: YouTube
YouTube on the Wii U is pretty good. We’d go so far as to say it’s one of the better examples of YouTube on TV, but it’s not perfect.
The layout is sensible and easy to navigate, thanks in part to clever shortcuts being mapped to the GamePad’s controls.
A shortcut to ‘search’ is permanently fixed to Y button, so you’ve always got the most useful feature at your fingertip.
When playing a video, tapping A will bring up the pause/play and skip controls plus a progress bar showing how much of the video has loaded. You can also use the shoulder buttons to skip forwards and back ten seconds.
Thanks to the Wii U’s touchscreen controller, actually searching for videos is easy. No more tippy tappy typing like you do on your Xbox 360 as you get access to a full Qwerty pad.
Signing in with your own YouTube account is a bit of a faff – it uses YouTube Leanback to sign you in, instead of letting you log in like normal. Once you’re logged in it can sometimes take a while for recommended videos to load.
Based on what we’ve read elsewhere on the web, YouTube on the Wii U was really bad for this – in our experience it’s not terribly slow (even on 3-5Mbps speeds) but it’s not exactly zippy either.
It’s also a shame that there’s no option to watch YouTube videos on the GamePad’s screen, which would’ve been nice.
Wii U Apps: Netflix
As with Netflix on the web, Wii U Netflix gives you the option of signing in to the fully-fledged service, or Netflix Just For Kids, making this a good family-friendly choice.
When you log in with your Netflix account details, you get your full list of recommendations and films based on what you last watched along with other new releases and the ability to search for films easily.
Full 1080p HD streams are supported (if your connection can handle them) on selected titles. When you’re watching films on the big screen, all of the controls are migrated away to the GamePad’s screen.
This lets you easily skip to certain parts of a film or show by dragging the red progress bar at the bottom, pause/play and also load up extra features like subtitles for foreign language films. Best of all, the controls don’t obscure the action on the TV screen.
When watching a TV series, there’s an option to instantly play the next episode. This makes Netflix on the Wii U ideal for powering through an entire box set either in the living room, from the couch or if you’re planning on sneaking in a bit of bedtime viewing.
Wii U Apps: Lovefilm Instant
One of the neat features of LoveFilm Instant on the Wii U is the option to watch movies on the GamePad’s screen. The main point of this is you’ve got the ability to carry on watching a film if someone else wants to watch something else on the TV.
Flipping between the normal and GamePad-only display modes is seamless and sound coming through the twin speakers or your headphones is pretty decent.
Searching for stuff is simple – as with other console-based versions of LoveFilm Instant, you start getting search results after the first three characters. Entering ‘ORS’ when we we’re looking for an Orson Welles movie also called up Umberto Orsini, Leland Orser and Orso Maria, amongst others.
There’s also the option to watch a handful of titles in HD. LoveFilm Instant will adjust the quality of the stream accordingly, with 3Mbps being the minimum speed needed for 720p. We found that things varied greatly during the busier parts of the day, when people started coming home from work.
When watching films on the GamePad’s 854 x 480 resolution panel it doesn’t really matter, as films end up looking the same – good enough for a 6-inch screen but not brilliant compared to the video quality seen on most tablets, especially the new iPads with their retina-searing 2,048 x 1,536 panels.
It also doesn’t look great when you’re watching a movie on TV to have the pause/play and skip controls permanently on the big screen instead of carted off to the GamePad’s screen, where they should be.
Wii U Apps: Other Services
BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Sky Go aren’t available on the Nintendo Wii U. We’d anticipate that iPlayer would get a look in at some point, given that the old Wii was one of the first consoles of its generation to get the iPlayer, thanks to its built-in browser.
The BBC now has an HTML5-compatible standard iPlayer, so hopefully Nintendo willbe able to bring this onto the Wii U without too much difficulty.
We’ve not heard any confirmation from ITV, Channel 4 or Sky about developing ITV Player, 4oD, Sky Go or Now TV for the Wii U, but we’ll update once we know more.
Verdict: Nintendo Wii U smart TV
It’s hard to fully weigh up the smart TV merits of the Wii U so soon after it’s release.
Right now we’ve just got three bona fide smart TV services under the belt. Nintendo TVii, which looks like it could be amazing, isn’t available in the UK for a while.
Much like Free Time from Freesat, which launched without a full set of on-demand services, it’s too early in the day to call time on something so fresh out of the oven; it’s not ready to eat yet.
The dual-screen nature of the Wii U – the ability to take the controller away with you and watch movies elsewhere – works really well.
However, it’s let down by the fact that the GamePad’s screen resolution is very low. We’re not sure if watching films on the GamePad will ever compete with the likes of watching one on your tablet or even your phone. Hopefully Nintendo will release an HD version of the GamePad in the future.
At £240 or £300 a throw right now, we’d advise some initial caution when sizing up the Wii U as a smart TV entertainment device.