Nintendo's Wii U is finally available, but whether or not it's been able to deliver the sort of "next-gen" experience many are waiting for is another story. Without the proper suite of software, a console's hardware may not be used advantageously. Conversely, weak hardware can hamper any given software's potential in the end. The Wii U falls into both of these traps. It's not a system without merit, but there are too many missed opportunities, and unfortunately, the time to address these issues may have already passed.
Hard Drive Space vs. System Software
The Wii U's system software is a hog. After installing a hefty day-one update, owners of the 8GB Wii U are left with roughly 3GB of internal storage. This is problematic for a few reasons. While there may have been some assumption on the part of customers that a portion of their internal storage would go to the operating system, losing over half of their free space (in the case of the 8GB model) is a bit much. Nintendo may have given some warning ahead of time, but burying the details within a FAQ on its support site hardly constitutes fair notice.
The Wii U's operating system takes up over half of the Basic Set's available memory.
It's also curious that Nintendo would issue an update so large that it prevents some of its customers from purchasing digital copies of games such as Nintendo Land from the eShop.
Bloated, Sluggish Operating System
Outside of dissecting the entire file structure of the OS, or even Nintendo's compression methodology, you can superficially judge the "weight" of software by its load times. That said, opening or exiting the Wii U's Settings application takes 12 to 14 seconds, which is unacceptable by any measure. Why should system software take up so much hard drive space and require such lengthy load times if the only assets being loaded are simply images, text, and a few sound effects? Something doesn't add up.
External Storage Limitations
If you're feeling light on space after the update, you're likely considering the addition of a thumb drive or external hard drive. It's known that the Wii U supports such additions, but less apparent are the associated limitations.
It begins with the USB ports on the Wii U. At USB 2.0, they're severely outdated; the 3.0 standard has been in use for three years and is hardly cutting edge itself. Nintendo has never pushed the envelope tech-wise, but going with USB 2.0 is a gross misstep. Not only does it operate at a fraction of the speed provided by USB 3.0, but it only allows a device to draw a maximum of 500 mA of current per port. USB-powered hard disk drives built on the 3.0 specification require upward of 900 mA.
Promisingly, USB 3.0 is backward compatible, meaning that 3.0 based devices will function, but transfer data at slower speeds, when connected to a USB 2.0 port. Customers who want to add a modern USB 3.0 external drive to their Wii U need to buy one with a dedicated power source, or purchase a USB Y-splitter cable, which would allow a USB (3.0) powered drive to draw power from two ports at once. USB-powered external drives are an invaluable convenience, so it makes sense to go with the latter option despite the requirement of an additional purchase (a y-splitter). If Nintendo wanted to accommodate modern tastes and expectations, upgrading the USB ports, or at least including a y-splitter, would have been an easy win. As it stands, the internal storage of any Wii U is already laughable compared to other consoles, and it doesn't help that the solution to said issue only highlights the shortcomings of something as simple as a USB port.
The Innovative, Lackluster GamePad
There's no question that the GamePad redefines expectations of what a game controller can be. It's also true that, for the most part, Nintendo has done a good job with the software side of things, exemplified by the inclusion of the universal remote application. Sadly, none of these factors make up for the paltry components built into the GamePad, which will ultimately prevent Nintendo from taking full advantage of its potential.
The first culprit is the screen. For whatever reason, Nintendo is sticking by its preference for stylus-centric, resistive touch panels. Compared to the universally preferred capacitive panels used in modern mobile devices, resistive-based touch screens are built for deliberate strokes, not the gestures or multi-touch inputs that make devices like iPads and even Vitas so user-friendly. You can use a finger to interact with the GamePad's screen, but other flaws linger. Light touches don't always register properly, and the input resolution of the screen hampers games such as Darksiders II, which relies on small icons to represent individual items in your inventory.
One of these things is not like the other.
At least the Wii U is capable of streaming video to the GamePad, allowing you to play games like New Super Mario Bros. U without the use of a TV. The physical range afforded by the Bluetooth radio in the GamePad hovers around 30 feet at best, which may be enough for most people, but it would be an entirely different story if the signal were carried over Wi-Fi instead. The problem is that it will never happen with the current iteration of the GamePad, which lacks a built-in Wi-Fi radio. Outside of a Bluetooth signal extender, let's call it the Wiipeater, the only way we'll ever experience true remote gaming on the GamePad is with a new hardware revision.
Wi-Fi may have been omitted in the current version due to the associated parts and manufacturing costs, but it could also be related to the GamePad's puny battery life. Currently, you're lucky if you get four hours of use before having to recharge the GamePad. People are already complaining about the battery life, just a few days into the system's life span, so don't be surprised if you see a third-party manufacturer release a higher-capacity battery in the near future.
Transferring Wii Content
We're lucky that Nintendo allows customers to transfer content from their Wiis to begin with, but the process is ultimately cumbersome due to the Wii U's DRM requirements.
It's complicated: connect a Wii and a Wii U to the Internet, register an SD card online to your Wii U, copy your Wii data to the same SD card, and then copy the data from the SD card to the Wii U. This is facilitated by the Wii Transfer Tool, which must be installed on each system.
Are you having fun yet?
As it stands, the current process only accounts for items installed to your Wii's system memory, meaning that anything on the SD card in the Wii must be copied to the system, or redownloaded, before transferring. What's worse, the Wii menu on the Wii U only allows you to use the same amount of internal memory as the Wii, even though the Wii U has considerably more available. That means you'll still have to use the SD card to store WiiWare and Virtual Console games that don't fit within the 512MB allotted. Also, once you transfer any software from a Wii to a Wii U, your Wii will never again be able to use that license to play the software.
At the end of the day, it's rare that hardware manufacturers are able to include every feature under the sun at an affordable price. The Wii U does many things well, but so much of its promise is lost on the inferior tech in the GamePad and the console. It will be interesting to see how these are addressed down the road, but at the moment, it seems that the Wii U is anything but next-gen tech. Is it unrealistic to expect Nintendo to do more than simply innovate? Its intent came from a good place, but the result leaves a lot to be desired.