On Sunday, November 18, the Wii U goes on sale in the United States. It's the first video game console launch since 2006, and like the Wii before it, the Wii U offers a totally new piece of technology: the GamePad. Part traditional controller, part touchscreen, the GamePad can serve as a replacement TV screen or allow developers to get creative with asymmetrical gameplay.
But there's a lot more to the Wii U than that: Nintendo promises a better online platform, its own take on social networking, and Nintendo TVii. With the Wii U, Nintendo is competing for control of the living room like the XBox 360 and PS3 before it. And with the GamePad, they've already got a convenient control method in place.
Even if you don't care about controlling Netflix through the Wii U, there's a lot to know about the new console. Here are some key details about the new console's functionality, hardware, games, and online.
The basic model of the Wii U costs $299 and includes the following: 8GB of internal flash storage, sensor bar, AC adapters for both the GamePad and Wii U console, and an HDMI cable. The $350 Deluxe set adds more flash for 32GB of internal storage, a copy of NintendoLand, a Wii U GamePad cradle for charging, a Wii U GamePad stand (for watching video content on the GamePad), and a Wii U console stand.
- The Wii U Console includes built-in Wi-Fi b/g/n (with no Ethernet port). The GamePad features a sensor package (accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer), speaker and microphone, NFC chip, headphone jack, front-facing camera and IR sensor.
- Pre-orders are sold out just about everywhere. If you're hoping to pick up a console from the likes of Gamestop, you're out of luck. And it's too late to order online--Best Buy, Walmart, Toys R Us and the rest are all sold out. If you want a Wii U on Sunday, find a local retailer like Walmart or Target that has non-reserved units, show up on Saturday night, and settle in for a wait.
- The Wii U reads Wii discs. It also supports Wii Remotes and other accessories including the Balance Board. It does not read GameCube discs. The GameCube Wavebird controller had a good run, but it's finally time for retirement.
- Wii U's new discs hold 25GB of data.
- Your existing Wii files can be transferred to the Wii U on an SD card. This includes save data, Virtual console games, DLC, Miis, and existing Wii Points.
- All Wii content will only be useable in "Wii Mode," similar to the old Wii's "GameCube mode." They won't be upscaled to 480p or use any of the console's new features, including the GamePad. But the games will be playable.
- At launch, the Wii U supports only one GamePad. No launch software makes use of a second GamePad, and Nintendo doesn't plan on selling the GamePads independently until 2013. However, it supports up to four Wii Remotes used in conjunction with the GamePad.
- The WIi U has an SD card slot and four USB 2.0 (yes, 2.0) ports. The system supports up to 3TB hard drives. While there has been some confusion over the use of the SD card slot, it appears that downloadable game content cannot be saved to, or run from, an SD card. Given the relatively small sizes and speeds of SD cards compared to USB hard drives, this isn't too surprising.
- The Wii U supports achievements, but not at the system level. This means that games can offer achievements but there's no system-wide tracking of those achievements like there is on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
- Miiverse, Nintendo's social network, will be moderated to control spoilers and inappropriate content. Miiverse is essentially a messaging platform (with a Nintendo presentation attached), but friends can easily be added through this system with no need for friend codes. Screenshots can be shared. Game developers have the option of integrating Miiverse into their titles. Nintendo plans to expand Miiverse beyond the Wii U to 3DS, Android and iOS.
- The bulk of Nintendo's online content goes live in a day-one update that should be available on Sunday the 18th. This will add Miiverse, Nintendo TVii, an instant messaging app called Wii U chat, and the eShop.
- Like a universal remote, the Wii U GamePad can be setup to control your TV. It uses an IR blaster, which may or may not live up to the usefulness of powerful remotes like the Logitech Harmony when it comes to controlling an entire entertainment center.
- Nintendo TVii includes streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Instant. Like Google TV, it does more than that: it pulls in multiple content sources to allow you to search and navigate through cable, recorded TV and streaming services. TiVo is a confirmed Nintendo TVii partner, but the depth of Nintendo TVii's integration will make or break the usefulness of this feature.
- After an initial setup, the Wii U can be used without a TV. Not all games can be played directly on the Wii U GamePad, but some games can be, and the entire console can be turned out and controlled from the GamePad screen without the need for a TV.
- The GamePad range is about 24 feet and can work rooms away from the console. The more walls between GamePad and console, the more likely games are to lag.
- The Wii U Gamepad lasts 3-5 hours on a charge. It runs on a rechargeable battery pack, but that battery is user-accessible, should you want to replace it for a fresh pack after a couple years of regular use.
- Nintendo is selling a Wii U Pro for $50. The layout is similar to an Xbox 350 controller, but the right analog stick is placed above, rather than below, the face buttons. The Pro controller does not have a headset port. To use a headset while playing games on the Pro controller, you'll have to plug the headset into the Wii U GamePad.