Nintendo Wii U Hardware: First Impressions

Nintendo Wii U

Nintendo logoThe Nintendo Wii U marks the company’s first foray into HD gaming, an oft-overlooked aspect that has many ramifications. One of them is the overall form factor of the console itself and Wii U GamePad, which Nintendo paid close attention to at E3 2012. Form factor and industrial design doesn’t normally get the most coverage at a new console’s launch, because the software gets all the attention. We have many Wii U game reviews slated for the days and weeks ahead, but it seemed only appropriate to open our extended Wii U coverage with the one element that’s going to be consistent throughout the console’s lifecycle: the hardware itself.

Wii U is The Wii’s Big Brother — Literally

Behind the Wii U’s HD capabilities is a graphics processor that’s rumored by some in the industry to be more powerful than the GPUs in the PS3 and Xbox 360. Counteracting that beefy bit of hardware is a slightly slower CPU (again, according to select industry sources), which means all those pretty graphics may end up drawing or animating a bit more slowly than even the now-aging systems from Sony and Microsoft. However, there’s no denying the graphical upgrade from the Wii, and in some cases even the visual appeal of some games compared to its current=gen competitors.

To accommodate all that oomph, the Wii U has a larger form factor than the Wii. The height and width of the Wii U is approximately the same as the Wii, making it the smallest HD console on the entertainment center. However, the Wii U is about 20% deeper than the Wii, making it note quite as deep as the Xbox 360 is wide. Several people have noted that it seems unusually long, but that’s simply because it’s so short and narrow, making the depth seem disproportionate. In reality, the Wii U console is just about the perfect form factor for an HD system, one that doesn’t get in the way of the receiver, DVR and other components that reside in the game room.

The GamePad is Big, But Not Unruly

First things first: don’t call it a tablet, and don’t call it a controller. The Wii U GamePad is somewhere in between, with a form factor similar to an elongated Kindle and a touchscreen that’s roughly the size of a Samsung Galaxy Note. I was skeptical at first that playing with the GamePad for extended periods would cause cramping or sore fingers, but so far the size isn’t much of an issue. Depending on the game, reaching with your thumbs from the thumbsticks to the touchscreen can be awkward, but that’s generally not something you do very often — or at least not with any quicktime “do-it-fast-or-lose” urgency. Hopefully that will hold true in future Wii U games as well.

Truth be told, the biggest issue I have with the GamePad is size related, but not from a comfort standpoint. The Wii U Deluxe console bundle comes with a stand for the GamePad, with Nintendo clearly implying that you’ll want to have the GamePad on display for all to see. Well, I’m a minimalist when it comes to the entertainment center, and the only thing overtly on display is the 56″ 3D TV. All other A/V components and controllers are hidden in a cabinet. Yet because the GamePad is so large compared to the Pro controller, the Wii Remotes and the controllers from competing consoles, it’s hard to store it easily in the cabinet. That’s not to say I can’t store it there, but scratching the touchscreen and/or the GamePad plastic does pose a risk, so the charging stand is the best route to take — and it doesn’t fit well anywhere other than next to the TV.

Nintendo Wii U

Silence is Golden

I have a launch Xbox 360, which is to say it sounds like a jet engine when it’s running a game, and is only mildly quieter when streaming XBLA or dumped-from-disk games. The PS3, by comparison, is much quieter and delivers a much better movie-watching experience because of that. But what Nintendo has achieved with the Wii U’s decibel levels is nothing short of astounding. Firing it up, playing a game and just using the system as you wish is whisper quiet. Considering the beefier GPU and newness of the technology, I pessimistically expected more environmental noise. Imagine my pleasant surprise at realizing there’s no need to artificially crank the volume simply to hear the game over the fan or drive. Major kudos to Nintendo for that. I hope the next console generation takes note as they ramp toward a presumed 2013 release.

When Glossy is a Bad Thing….

I haven’t tested the white version of the GamePad and Wii U console, but the black version has a glossy finish that shows fingerprints and evidence of use more than I’d prefer. When it comes to smartphones and tablets, I’ve grown accustomed to wiping them off daily to keep them looking shiny and new. When it comes to gaming consoles and controllers, that’s not something you normally need to do, either because of the material used or the finish applied to it. With the Wii U, though, that wiping or “polishing” is absolutely required if you want your system and GamePad to consistently look nice. Per my comments above, Nintendo seems to want gamers to display the GamePad next to their TV, hence the gorgeous form factor (yes, it looks really nice) and high-gloss finish. However, that same finish makes it prone to fingerprints and smudges, so if you’re going to keep the Wii U GamePad on display, you’d better get used to cleaning it.

Final Thoughts

Two years ago, when Nintendo first showed the Wii U, the company focused strictly on the GamePad, which caused confusion in the marketplace about whether the tablet-like controller actually was the console, or whether there was more to it. Indeed there was, as Nintendo insisted at E3 2012 that images show the GamePad and console together. Although the GamePad button placements have changed during the past two years, the form factor has remained elegant, and those industrial design sensibilities have extended to the console hardware. The Wii was never a gaudy system, and the Wii U follows in those footsteps, making it easy to integrate into a display or “hide” in a cabinet. The GamePad doesn’t exhibit those same qualities, though, so while it’s not uncomfortable to play with, it does present some storage challenges. I’m not a fan of the super-gloss finish, primarily for its proneness to fingerprints, but taken as a whole, the Wii U hardware is a nice kit, and should be a powerful yet understated “adapter” for all those games slated to release in the foreseeable future.

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