"Smart platform" brings to mind Samsung, Sony, and LG, but would you believe that the makers of Mario have one as well? Nintendo's new Wii U game console has many features similar to the platforms found on smart TVs, including apps and a service called "TVii," which is Nintendo's answer to social television.
What makes this social integration possible is the Wii U's GamePad, the honking enormous controller that comes with every system. It's a controller that has a touchpad and a TV remote built-in, making it yet another all-in-one device to scatter around your cluttered living room. Luckily, using apps or TVii doesn't require ten-button combos or lightning reflexes–everything can be controlled comfortably with the touchpad.
Was cradling this big controller worth the social viewing experience TVii promised? The social integration served its purpose, and had a unique Nintendo-feel to it. However, the number of apps available pales in comparison to what you'd get from the other companies.
TVii–a clunky portmanteau of TV and Wii–serves as the Wii U's smart platform. The free service is a Nintendo-specific version of i.TV, which is already available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. i.TV is designed to work with a second screen, making it an assisted TV super guide. Instead of using a phone or tablet to control the guide, you use the Wii U's GamePad.
This is where the system gets interesting. By doing a quick one-time setup, you can turn your Wii U into a universal remote for both your TV and set-top box. The TVii app then asks for information on your cable provider, but doesn't require any accounts or passwords– it just knows.
From the main menu, you can access five sections: Favorites, TV, Movies, Sports, and TV Tag. Each section has several tabs of content, showing off featured programs, live content, and dedicated pages for specific shows and movies. Once a show's dedicated page, you can jump straight to the show (if it's live), check out the list of actors, rent it on Amazon Instant Video, or find it on Netflix or Hulu Plus. These shortcuts to other programs are nifty, but you'll have to quit TVii and load another separate program, which can take a while. The load times are on par with other platforms (once you've initially installed each program and the Wii U system update).
The final menu option is TV Tag, unique to the both i.TV and TVii. It is a play-by-play of primetime television, and you're the star! Random photos/highlights from the show are added in real time, allowing you to comment, give "yeahs" (equivalent to Facebook's likes), or reply to others' comments. Twitter and Facebook are integrated, along with the Wii U's own social media service, Miiverse. It's fun but simple, and some shows are empty wastelands. Big shows like WWE Monday Night Raw and America's Got Talent have several hundred comments, so there is a community out there. The biggest drawback? TV Tag is really only available during nights and primetime.
Things we like: The search function is actually useful! Instead of using a TV remote, the GamePad has a virtual keyboard that is quick and responsive. The system itself is also fast, because TVii is running on a full game console.
This is a smart platform that the whole family can use. Up to 12 people can have an account on the Wii U (complete with adorable Mii avatar), with their own personalized favorites and settings. Best of all, the Wii U has parental controls that can keep kids from viewing inappropriate content on TVii.
A unique feature we don't often see is the specialized "remote," which we'll call the "pinwheel remote." It's a circular TV remote that has channel specific buttons and DVR controls, though the DVR control feature hasn't been updated yet (come on, Nintendo).
Things we don't like: TVii and your cable never actually interact. This means you can't watch live TV directly on the pad! The Wii U uses its built-in WiFi to access program information, so your mileage will vary depending on your router strength and general internet capabilities. No internet, no TVii, regardless of how your cable is doing. The TV guide is also very slow to load. This should be the number one priority!
Another major set back is the controller itself. It's useful, but it is enormous–enough to take up most of your lap. The battery life is terrible, too: two to three hours a charge at most.
TVii is a cute feature, and is more functional than most smart platforms. That being said, the range of features available on a typical TV's smart platform (apps, apps, apps) just aren’t there. On the other end, if you just want a Netflix & Hulu box, it would be cheaper to pick up an Apple TV or Roku.
The Wii U does what it does well, which is having a handy companion screen to help you tweet along with shows and movies. For $350, it's cheaper to buy the system and a feature-free TV than to buy a decked out, 3D-enabled powerhouse. If you don’t mind cradling a remote the size of an infant, and you do want TVii, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant (and something to play Mario on), than TVii is quite useful.