jeudi 1 novembre 2012

Wikipad: Hands-on with the gaming tablet taking aim at consoles

The Nintendo Wii U is not the only tablet-based gaming hardware launching this fall. Wikipad is a new 10-inch Android tablet designed from the ground up to work with a proprietary game pad dock. Having had a chance to try out a preproduction unit, I found it an interesting hybrid of general-interest tablet and specialized handheld gaming console. But the $499 price may make it hard to compete with products such as Apple's iPad, the latest Amazon, Google, and Barnes & Noble tablets, or even Sony's handheld PlayStation Vita.

Wikipad is part of a growing trend of independently developed game consoles outside of the major Sony/Nintendo/Microsoft axis. Ouya, an Android-powered set-top box, recently made a big splash on Kickstarter, raising millions of dollars from individual gamers, while streaming-game service OnLive released a set-top box last year, and used a standalone Android app to bring its games to handheld devices.

Powered by an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, the Wikipad can download games from Nvidia's Tegra Zone store, Google Play, the PlayStation Mobile platform, and other app stores. Unlike other Android tablets that can also play a wide variety of games, the Wikipad's unique selling point is its custom handheld controller dock, which adds two analog sticks, shoulder triggers, a directional pad, and four buttons -- all of which makes it look a lot like a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 controller.

The tablet itself is very thin and light, weighing 1.2 pounds and only 0.3 inch thick. The back surface (which is matte black plastic) has a small inset ridge running around it, which acts as a finger grip, and also helps guide the tablet into the game pad dock.

From the front, it looks like a stock 10-inch Android tablet, with a thick bezel and glossy screen that is covered with Gorilla Glass, and supports 10-finger input. It's an IPS screen, which looks good from off-axis angles, but the screen resolution is 1,280x800 pixels, which is low compared with other current 9- or 10-inch tablets.

A custom dock connector plugs it into the game pad dock, and also connects to a power adapter. There's a standard Micro-USB port, but the company tells us it's not for charging. The Wikipad includes 16GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage, but a microSSD slot will allow you to expand that with up to a 32GB SSD card.

As of right now, there are no exclusive games for the Wikipad, and there may never be, as it bills itself as an "open" platform. A custom software browser, built into a spinning 3D carousel, shows off highlighted games from the Google Play store, Nvidia's Tegra Zone, and Sony's PlayStation Mobile platform, among others.

Slotting the two parts together resulted in a solid-feeling package, and I didn't worry, even on this preproduction unit, about the tablet sliding out. The game pad dock was also very lightweight (like the tablet, it's mostly plastic), and the analog sticks, buttons, and triggers felt very familiar. The company says the final version will have a better trigger response and coated buttons, but the version I tried worked just fine.

While playing the popular Android shooter Dead Trigger (as seen in the video above), I found using the two analog sticks to be vastly superior to onscreen controls that attempt to mimic a traditional game pad. I didn't feel any lag (it may help that this is a physical dock connection, not a wireless Bluetooth one), and the controls mapped easily -- as they should in any game that uses the standard Android game pad API.

With games that are available elsewhere, and tablet hardware that isn't as advanced as some competitors, the real selling point here is the symbiotic nature of the game pad and tablet, and how the two work so well together in tandem.

Price is probably the $499 Wikipad's biggest hurdle. Apple's current-gen iPad starts at $499, and both Amazon's 9-inch Kindle Fire HD and the new Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ start at less than $300 (each without a bundled dock, of course). Even the three major living-room consoles, as well as Sony's PlayStation Vita and Nintendo's 3DS, all cost less (as will Nintendo's Wii U).

The Wikipad's physical game controller add-on is something long overdue, and it works very well in hands-on testing, but the system has a big job in convincing gamers to spend that much. The Wikipad will be released on October 31, and we'll bring you a full review when we have the final hardware version.