If you wanted to be thoroughly cynical about the Wikipad, you’d probably dismiss it as an Android tablet that relies on the gimmick of a pack-in controller accessory to stand out.
Does a device that looks like a grown up’s Wii U gamepad powered by a notoriously fragmented operating system sound like a viable prospect for the future of handheld gaming? Before I got to experience it for myself, I was thinking along these lines, but it’s clear that the Wikipad is a product uniquely poised to deliver a hardware and software solution that’s bound to appeal to a wide array of gamers.
If Wikipad CEO James Bower ever had fears that people would struggle to get on board, they were assuaged at January’s CES, where the tablet’s first outing went “better than expected.” His team’s plan is to deliver a “next generation mobile console” that leverages the benefits of tablet computers, but they believe that “physical controls are necessary for fully immersive gaming”.
Does a device that looks like a grown up’s Wii U gamepad powered by a notoriously fragmented operating system sound like a viable prospect for the future of handheld gaming?Considering this perspective, is it really necessary to build a whole new tablet for the sake of providing this experience, when a peripheral seems to be the core hook? As soon as I picked up the tablet, my suspicions began to melt away. The first thing I noticed is that it’s very light, weighing 550g versus my iPad 3’s comparatively hefty 650g. There’s a square ridge on the plastic back that aids one handed grip, raises the stereo speakers from whatever surface you’re using, facilitates heat disbursement, and ensures that the controller docks snugly. It’s the most relaxed I’ve ever felt holding a tablet computer in the palm of my hands, and it wasn’t even my own.
Despite its meagre footprint, the Wikipad boasts a 10.1”, 1280 x 800 screen behind Gorilla Glass, an nVidia Tegra 3 Quad-core 1.4GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal storage, with a Micro SD slot adding up to 32GB. As well as this, they’ve crammed in the standard-issue accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, 2MP front facing camera, and an 8MP rear-facing camera. It’s a package that Bower considers “one of the best recipes for thin and light technology”.
The controller accessory docks via the 30-pin connector at the bottom of tablet in landscape orientation (if you want portrait gaming with physical controls, tough luck). Even with the controller in, the tablet is light and well-balanced, and the grips are ergonomically designed to provide comfort while ensuring that the screen isn’t encroached by your clammy digits. The version I was using was a hand-carved prototype, but I found that the stick-resistance was appropriate, the button-layout was adequately spaced, and holding the tablet in one hand to touch the screen during gameplay was perfectly natural. I wasn’t concerned that the tablet was going to ever come loose; in fact while I played through the first level of Shadowgun (still the showpiece for Android graphics) I forgot that they were ever separated.
I was impressed that the controller-dock features a pass-through connector on the underside, so it can still be charged while in use. The controller doesn’t have its own vibration motors or speakers; instead the output from the speakers is funneled towards the player, and the rumble from the tablet is more than powerful enough to shake the controller, lending to that authentic console feeling.
The 30-pin connector isn’t just for controllers – it will support other accessories, including standard USB connections and HDMI dongles. When I asked if we can expect to see a Transformer Prime style keyboard dock, all I got was a knowing “no comment”, but it’s clearly a no-brainer.
It’s clear that Wikipad is absolutely nailing it on the hardware end – the tablet performs well, is comfortable when docked or naked, and boasts form as well as function. The hard part of this equation is the software. Wikipad will launch with the latest version of Android (4.1), and is Google Play certified, meaning it will have access to all of the apps and games on Android’s biggest store, but what’s more pertinent to hardcore gamers is the partner stores they’re affiliated with.
The Nvidia Tegra Zone app will help users find games that have been optimized for the processor and controller. The Wikipad will be the first non-Sony tablet to market that’s Playstation Mobile certified, and will come with the Playstation Mobile logo on the box, and the software preloaded on the tablet. Playstation Mobile is set to launch this fall with approximately 30 new titles from third party developers and Sony’s internal studios alike, which is bound to get the attention of a vast swathe of gamers. Gaikai support has also been confirmed, and I have to say, I’m a lot more excited about using Sony’s cloud gaming service on the Wikipad’s controller than the PS3’s.
What endears me to the system most is knowing that there’s no proprietary nonsense in effect. There’s no WikiPad API that game developers have to mess with – if they include USB controller support in their games, the Wikipad will work with them, upping the compatibility matrix considerably for games past and future.
There’s yet to be an Android tablet that’s been competitive at the iPad’s price point, but I’m going to remain optimistic about the Wikipad.The Wikipad will be available from October 31st from Gamestop for $499, as well as unannounced “retailers associated with premium products” across North America and Europe. The current two year road-map includes a 3G/4G equipped model shortly after launch. Bower wasn’t prepared to speak about any hardware enhancements down the line, but he expects that Tegra 3 and Playstation Mobile will have a ‘stabilizing’ effect on the specs that developers will target.
There’s yet to be an Android tablet that’s been competitive at the iPad’s price point, but I’m going to remain optimistic about the Wikipad. They’ve got impressive, well-designed hardware, some very promising software support, and a philosophy that looks set to leverage the strengths of Android, rather than lead them into the pitfalls that so many other vendors have plunged into.