The Nintendo Wii U (Est. $300) was the first of the next-generation consoles to be released, hitting stores just prior to the 2012 holiday shopping season. The initial reviews were generally optimistic, many of which suggested that the Wii U was a potential powerhouse, with an innovative GamePad touch screen and motion controller that could reshape video gaming and even users' relationships with their TVs.
The key word here, though, is potential. Some features weren't ready at launch (though a few of those were added via a firmware upgrade on the first day of public sale), and others have yet to be fully realized. For example, the highly anticipated TVii service -- which turns the controller into a super TV remote, with a custom guide that pulls together streaming content, live TV and video recorded to a TiVo DVR -- is out, but lacks some of the promised features, such as DVR support. Reviewers say that what's currently there is neat, but that TVii is clunky and needs refinement. The Wii U does support streaming, but has only a limited lineup of content partners.
Then there's the issue of the hardware itself. Some experts were disappointed that while the Wii U could give the state-of-the-art Sony PlayStation 3 (Est. $200 and up) and Microsoft Xbox 360 (Est. $200 and up) a run for their money, it was not forward-looking enough. Now, a year later and following the releases of the Sony PlayStation 4 (Est. $400) and the Microsoft Xbox One (Est. $500) , it's safe to say that the Wii U clearly trails the competition in terms of raw gaming power and the type of high-octane titles that most appeal to serious gamers.
The Wii U library is anything but massive, but there's a good selection of the type of kid- and family-friendly titles that made the original Wii so popular. Speaking of which, unlike the PS4 or Xbox One, the Wii U is backward-compatible with the Wii, and all Wii games and most Wii accessories work fine with it. For those nostalgic for the NES, Super NES and now the Game Boy Advance games of yesteryear, a selection can be downloaded and played via the Wii U Virtual Console.
The inclusion of the GamePad is the one of the most obvious differences between the Wii U and the original Nintendo Wii (Est. $130) . The Wii U GamePad allows multiple-screen gaming. Depending on the game, the 6.2-inch GamePad touch screen can mimic what's on the TV (and in some cases allow you to play without a TV), provide a different view of the game action, or provide auxiliary game information and menus. The GamePad is also chock full of the types of buttons, pads and joysticks that adorn most non-Wii (original) gaming controllers, and it offers Wiimote-like motion control.
This may make the GamePad seem like some type of ungainly Frankenstein's monster of a controller, especially compared to the original Wii's far more basic controllers. But most reviewers say that somehow Nintendo pulls it all together into a device that's surprisingly usable. Most is not all, however; a few reviewers say that using the GamePad is not as much fun as they had hoped, and that with at least some games it's safe to expect a learning curve.
The Wii U comes in two configurations -- a Basic version with 8 GB of memory and a Deluxe version with 32 GB of memory (note that you can increase the storage of either version via a USB flash drive or external hard drive). Though you can buy consoles on their own from some online retailers, at press time both configurations were officially only available as bundles with different packaged games and accessories -- all sold at the same price. While the Basic bundle available at the time this report was prepared includes some game-related collectibles, the Deluxe bundle includes some useful accessories, most notably a charging cradle for the GamePad -- an extra you might appreciate, since a consistent gripe of reviewers is the controller's short battery life between charges. That makes the Deluxe version an easy call as the better buy.
As noted, the original Wii remains available, as does a downsized and stripped-down version known as the Wii mini (Est. $100) . The biggest difference between the two is that the Wii mini lacks online features, so there's no entertainment streaming or downloads from the Nintendo eShop. Still, either is worth considering for those on a budget, or for those not moved by the additional features and game play that the GamePad makes possible.