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Wii U not ready for prime time

| Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

As a game console, Nintendo's Wii U console has gotten mixed reviews. But as a living room digital media device, it's clearly not ready for prime time.

Nintendo has made digital entertainment a priority on the Wii U. At launch, the device was able to stream videos from Netflix, and Nintendo added an application for Hulu Plus days later. Earlier this month, Nintendo updated the console with an app called TVii, which is supposed to turn the Wii U into a portal for all your living room entertainment options.

With TVii, Nintendo promises to integrate both traditional and Internet content, allowing users to not only stream movies from Netflix or Hulu, but to control their TV and set-top box to tune in live or recorded programming.

With the app's “universal” search feature, Nintendo promises you'll quickly be able to find particular television shows or movies, no matter whether they're available on your pay TV service or on one of many different streaming providers. With its built-in social networking, you'll be able to comment on shows while watching them, via Facebook or Twitter. And thanks to the integration between the console and the controller, you'll be able to instantly switch between devices while viewing videos.

Unfortunately, many of these features are still works in progress, and TVii doesn't do half of what Nintendo promises it will do eventually.

Yes, you can use TVii to control your television and set-top box. But don't throw away your other remote controls just yet. TVii can only access basic functions on those devices, such as turning them on, changing their channels or adjusting the volume. If you want to do something more complicated, like adjusting your TV's brightness or calling up on-demand options on your set-top box, you'll have to go back to using those device's native remotes.

That's just one of the many limitations of the Wii U and TVii. Another is that you have only a small number of digital media providers you can access through the device. You won't find any digital music services such as Pandora or Spotify, nor video providers such as Crackle, Vudu or Crunchyroll. And unlike Sony's PlayStation 3 or Microsoft's Xbox 360, you can't supplement these offerings by using the Wii U to play DVD or Blu-ray movies or videos stored on a USB-attached drive.

Even the content you do have access to is limited in numerous ways.

For example, if you're using the TVii app, you can't search for or start movies from Netflix, because Netflix isn't yet incorporated into it. Instead, you have to fire up the Netflix application from the Wii U menu. Nintendo says that it will integrate Netflix into TVii sometime next year.

TVii does let users search for and access videos that are available from their pay TV provider, from Hulu and from But TVii doesn't list videos that are available through Amazon Prime, the company's Netflix-like subscription movie streaming service. As with Netflix, to access Prime movies, you have to launch the Amazon Instant Video app from the Wii U's main menu.

Similarly, while TVii can tap into your set-top box's TV guide and show you what's on live TV or what will be airing soon, it can't access programs you've recorded on your DVR and doesn't include shows or movies available on-demand from your pay TV provider. Nintendo says it plans to add access to TiVo's DVR next year and is working on providing access to other DVRs in the future.

But even with live programming, TVii comes up short. The app would occasionally list programs I couldn't access because I don't subscribe to the channels they were airing on. On other occasions, particularly with sports, it would tell me I didn't have access to shows that I actually could watch.

On top of all that, the app's interface is frustrating and confusing to use. There's no discernible organization to the shows the app displays in its movie or TV sections, which can lead to a lot of swiping trying to find particular ones. Meanwhile, I often found shows listed in TVii's “live” programming sections that wouldn't be aired until minutes, hours or days into the future.

To be sure, the Wii U just launched, and Nintendo plans to continue to update the TVii feature. So I'm sure it will improve in the future. But right now, if you're looking for a digital entertainment device for your living room, the Wii U isn't the ticket.

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