Ouya Part One: The Hardware

(Note: This part of our Ouya review covers the system’s hardware and general performance as an emulator. The second part, which focuses on the games it offers, can be found here.)

I’m still struggling to form a solid opinion on the Ouya. As a professional game reviewer – i.e. someone whose entire job is to have opinions about things – I understand this isn’t a good position to be in. It’s a pretty machine, sure, and its $99 price tag makes it as inexpensive a game console as we’re likely to see. It also packs a heck of a feel-good story: Were it not for a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $1 million in eight hours, there’s a good chance it might not be around at all, for better or worse.

But even with all that… I don’t know. Part of me very much wants to like the Android-powered wunderbox sitting under my television. The other part wants to package it up and get it back to the electronics store I purchased it from before the return period expires. It’s kind of like having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, except neither of them really have any moral guidance to offer and they’re both super nerdy. Let’s look at the facts and see if you kind readers can make heads or tails of the thing.

Opening The Box

The gig of RAM and Nvidia Tegra 3 powering the Ouya aren’t going to burn the world down – a lot of tablets and smartphones boast gaudier hardware already – but it’s a solid start, and most consumers aren’t going to expect Xbox 360- or PS3-level visuals and gameplay from a hundred-dollar console. The smart ones won’t, anyway. Having worked as an electronics-retail wage slave for several years, I’m sure more than a few people will come away from their Ouya experience disappointed based on a skewed comparison like that, and it makes me glad my current employment situation keeps me out from behind the cash register. (On a side note, if you do hawk electronics for a living, make sure to share your Ouya return stories in the comments. I love reading about dumb customers.)

Middling internal components or not I’m very impressed with the sheer number of connections available on the back of the box. The full-sized HDMI out means no searching for a mini cable, while two USB ports (full and micro) make connecting the console with flash drives and other devices as easy as, well, plugging in a USB cable. If you have Internet connectivity at home but no Wi-Fi, fret not: With the standard Ethernet port, you’ll be gaming through your wired connection in no time flat. That said, if you have a hundred bucks to spare on electronics and you don’t have a wireless router yet, get that first. It’s so much better.

A Surprisingly Solid Controller

At $50, the Ouya’s controller makes for a pricey extra purchase if you want multiplayer capability. As a pack-in, on the other hand, the single unit you get when you purchase the console is downright impressive. It feels every bit as solid and (for lack of a better term) right in the hand as hardware from a higher-end system, and its analog sticks, D-pad, and buttons offer just the right amount of resistance and general tactile feel. My biggest gripe revolves around putting batteries in the damn thing. My wife and I struggled to figure out where they went for a solid half hour before one of us had the brilliant idea of looking up instructions online. For the record, you have to snap the faceplate off each side of the controller. You can thank me later.

More Than a Game Box

Though I struggle to consider the Ouya an Android device – the software’s so heavily modified you can’t really tell you’re looking at one until a system prompt appears on screen or you start digging through menus — the OS’s influence is still very much present. The above-mentioned USB ports, for instance, make sideloading apps a breeze, which is huge considering the thousands of standard Android applications that’ll work on the console. You’re also able to tweak various graphics settings with ease through the built-in menu systems.

An Emulator Fan’s Dream

Even those perks pale in comparison to what I consider the system’s biggest pull: emulation. Tons of old-school systems, from the SNES, N64, and OG PlayStation to lesser-known (but still awesome) alternatives like the Neo-Geo and Turbografix 16 work out of the box, while software for others, like Sega’s tragically ill-fated Dreamcast, can be found with a little online sleuthing. Popular game-streaming app Kainy will even work on the device, making it possible to access your PC game library straight from your system if you’re so inclined.

Emulation is an imperfect science on even the best hardware, however… and the Ouya’s hardware is far from perfect. My console consistently struggles with certain games, like Mario Kart 64, and feels pretty hit-or-miss with a lot of others. N64 games in particular seem to disagree with the system; every title I’ve tried on the built-in emulator throws a new framerate issue or graphical bug at me. Conker’s Bad Fur Day, for instance, plays sound but won’t display a single visual asset. I’ve found that 16-bit and 32-bit systems tend to work better overall – not surprising, perhaps, but disappointing all the same. Especially when you love Conker’s BFD as much as I do. I’m not too proud to admit one of my favorite games involves a wisecracking squirrel and a monster made of human waste.

More to Come

From a sheer novelty perspective the Ouya has a lot to offer, and the $100 price point is about as pocketbook-friendly as gaming hardware gets. As compared to, say, an Apple TV, which costs the same but comes with a media-heavy focus, it’s a great value… especially considering all the video apps (including Netflix) you can put on the thing with a bit of technical know-how. Why am I still on the fence about my own purchase, then? The games, which we’ll discuss at length in a future review. If you’re on the fence about buying one, here’s the best advice I can offer: Buy it somewhere with a good return policy, keep your receipt, and check it out yourself. It’s certainly not for everyone – I still can’t tell you for sure that it’s for me, and I’m the guy reviewing the darn thing – but there’s some definite promise on display here. If you want to look at some games before making your decision, on the other hand, stay tuned. We’ll have a look at several top-end titles in a few days. Thanks for reading… and for not mocking my love of anthropomorphic, foul-mouthed squirrels.

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