What a ride. The OUYA leapt onto the public stage thanks to one of the most successful crowd funding campaigns of all time, raising an extraordinary amount of money for an extraordinary device. Following months of development, several weeks of frenzied manufacturing and worldwide shipping, all backer units have now been dispatched, and our adorable little cube has finally arrived.
But now the dust has settled and we're able to get to grips with the shiny new hardware. We've exhaustively tested the OUYA to the point of disassembling it; keen to explore its interface, marketplace and potential as a disruptive game-changing platform. A thorn in the side of the big boys, perhaps.
Before we begin, we need to make one thing very clear. Not only are these backer units potentially different from the retail model in hardware terms, but the firmware and game selection will also be radically improving in the month before launch. As such, this is an in-depth look at the OUYA in its current state, features, hardware, interface, games and perhaps what to expect come the end of June. Not a value judgement or final verdict.
Which is a good thing too, because while the foundations are present and correct, Boxer8 have their work cut out over the next few weeks.
Build Quality & Specifications
In terms of initial impressions, OUYA plays an absolute blinder. It's a devastatingly elegant machine; a simple yet complex minimalist shape that leads the eye with subtle rounded curves thanks to veteran designer Yves Behar. Sure, the OUYA is essentially a cube, but somehow manages to look utterly gorgeous when you're able to appreciate it first-hand.
Once emancipated from the box, the stunning good looks are accompanied by solid, rattle-free build quality and a pleasing sense of weight and heft (admittedly due to some steel plates screwed to the interior of the case as ballast, which I discovered when I disassembled the unit - more on that later).
OUYA's exterior is minimalist and sleek with an emphasis on at-a-glance simplicity. The top surface plays host to a single circular power button lit by a sole LED, while the curved base is slatted to allow for air circulation. Otherwise, barring an etched logo, the only break in the smooth silver sheen is a set of I/O ports on the rear of the device. HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0, USB mini and power. Simple. Cables fit snugly into their housing, though the USB and HDMI ports are extremely close together, which could cause problems with larger drives or cables.
Inside the casing, OUYA packs a Tegra 3 processor (which includes a 1.7 GHz Quad-Core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and 1GB of RAM), along with ostensbily 8GB of flash memory. Naturally it also contains a Wi-Fi adaptor and Bluetooth functionality. Hardware-wise, this puts the console in line with the ASUS Transformer Prime, and substantially more powerful than its main rival GameStick.
The SD card slot is difficult to find, in that it doesn't exist (despite the useless option to 'mount' SD cards lurking in the Android Jelly Bean back end). We're stuck with the onboard 8GB storage, of which 5-6 GB is usable, that will probably suffice for most Android games but may fill up quickly if more graphically intensive titles start making their way to the marketplace. Thankfully, the rear USB port should allow us to expand our storage or at least keep unused games/APKs, and a Micro USB slot allows us to connect it to our PCs.
My only major hardware concern is that the console can become very hot to the touch after a couple of hours of play, which in turn switches on a surprisingly noisy fan that persists for several minutes afterwards. This foible aside, Yves Behar and the design team have much to be proud of, and a slick product that looks right at home in any AV cabinet.
Unfortunately, it seems that Behar nipped out for lunch while the peripheral was being finalised...
OUYA's controller is a hot mess, to put things mildly. Though one of the most egregious design flaws was quickly ironed out and factored into the second wave of backer controllers - the fact that the removable faceplates actually trapped face buttons beneath them - the redesigned peripheral still manages to be incredibly mediocre.
Its initially hideous aethetics and oversized bulk eventually grow on you (not helped by a swathe of featureless black plastic on the ventral side of the device), but comfort and ergonomics are questionable at best. The large grips only give you enough substance to wrap your fingers around if held lower down, and incredibly high bumper placement will often force you to stretch out while playing the handful of games that support the input. Unless you've got large hands, that is. Thumbstick placement is appropriate and comfortable enough, yet the D-Pad features surprisingly sharp edges and high action that can make extended use exquisitely painful. Considering that many games use the D-Pad as a primary input, this isn't exactly ideal.
The central touchpad manages to impress, though. Despite having few practical applications as yet, applying a little pressure brings up a cursor that can be used to browse the interface or interact with some the touch-enabled games. Tapping requires a little precision, but it works well enough and is comfortable to hold in one hand while doodling with an index finger. Firmware updates have been ironing out lag reported in the early Founder Edition units, which seems to be non-existent on the operating system and negligible during most games.
Two silver plastic faceplates allow you to install AAA batteries and potentially pimp out the controller to suit your mood, which is fine in theory, but rather awkward in the execution. They lend the controller a slightly flimsy and hollow feel, and worse, don't fit completely flush to the chassis. There's a rough edge around the entire peripheral, which can grate against your trigger fingers during hours of extended play and doesn't exactly give an impression of solid quality to match the £39.99 price tag. At least the face plates seem to be securely anchored to the chassis this time, though for how long we don't know (especially if you've got kids who are likely to play around with them, or you're a bit of a fidget).
Disappointing build quality rounds off this horror show. The entire controller feels cheap and shonky, while the triggers lack resistance and appear to be made out of chocolate box inlays. You'll find better quality plastic in a packet of Cadbury Milk Tray. For £39.99, the retail version needs to be better.
Thankfully, the OUYA is compatible with any Bluetooth controller. So long as a title doesn't require touchscreen input, you can use a DualShock 3, third-party Bluetooth game pad or even a wired Xbox 360 controller connected via USB. As a fan of Microsoft's ergonomic peripheral, I tend to favour the latter.
The OUYA's initial setup procedure is simplicity itself. Once you've plugged in the HDMI and power cables (supplied), a short procedure prompts you to set up a Wi-Fi connection and install the latest firmware updates. I found that downloading the update took a surprisingly long time and often disconnected me from the network, but I'm reliably informed that this is down to my personal network setup rather than an inherent flaw.
You'll then need to log into or register an OUYA account, which have already been assigned to backers. Again, the process is painless, and quickly introduces you to the OS with a resounding shout of "Ooh-yah!"
Interface, Marketplace & Discovery
OUYA runs stock Android Jellybean behind the scenes, but boasts a custom front end. In keeping with the 'simple is better' design philosophy, the main menu presents you with a friendly choice of four options: Play, Discover, Make and Manage.
Play arranges your downloaded games and apps into a simple tile-based menu and allows you to automatically install APKs (though I feel that we'll need some way of sorting them into genres or custom categories to avoid unsightly clutter). It's basic, but gets the job done.
However, your first port of call will be the Discover menu, in which you can browse the all-important marketplace. It's worth noting that even though the OUYA runs on Android, it's absolutely not an 'Android console,' since apps have to be hosted on the exclusive ecosystem rather than bought from Google Play. Games are lumped into genre tabs or 'picks,' which take you into a product page with a description, screenshots, download shortcut and an option to give your favourite apps a virtual 'thumbs up.' Again, it's very basic and workmanlike, but I can't help but feel that games will quickly sink into obscurity once the release schedule starts hotting up. For the life of me, I also can't work out why the store isn't full screen rather than taking up a small strip on the right hand side.
One of the OUYA's key mission statements is to provide free to play options for every game. Effectively, every game on the store will be free to play and can be freely downloaded, and is then either locked after a short demo (requiring you to pay using a registered credit/debit card) or facilitates microtransactions for extra content. The system works well, but the Discover marketplace doesn't yet make it clear how much you'll need to spend, or what business model each particular game favours.
The whole user interface is a little rough around the edges, to be honest. The ugly and clunky virtual keyboard clearly isn't optimised for the touchpad and lacks a shift toggle, feeling like an ancient throwback compared to the likes of Steam Big Picture. You can't change screen margins, meaning that a good half inch of the interface was cut off on my upstairs television. Holding the OUYA home button abruptly jolts you back to the main menu, even if you're already in the main menu, and it doesn't appear to be possible to wirelessly turn the console off. A download manager is also sorely missed, meaning that you'll have to find the game on the 'discover' menu to check your progress. The user experience has a long way to go over this next month.
Back on track: the Make tab grants access to some dev kit tools (locked if you haven't registered a developer account) and an incredibly clunky web browser that's barely usable even with the touch pad. Of course, its primary purpose is to direct developers to the latest FAQ and firmware patch notes, not everyday use, so this was to be expected. Finally, Manage contains a few basic system tools, including a stock Android options menu that includes pointless phone and tablet functions alongside more useful settings.
The OUYA firmware and GUI will undergo several iterations before launch, so we'll revisit the operating system in our full review. We'll also go into more detail about the potential for side-loading applications and other intriguing possibilities in the near future.
Under The Hood
Pointless wrist clips at the ready, boys and girls, because the OUYA is designed to be easy to open. So long as you've got a small hex allen key, getting inside is a simple matter of removing four small screws on the top of the device, at which point you can slide out the motherboard, I/O ports and all as a single unit. The fan can be detached by unscrewing the four Phillips screws, but is otherwise the only modular component as far as I can see.
Realising this, I promptly reassembled the console and put my allen key back in the toolbox. See, while some tremendously clever people will doubtlessly be able to do some tremendously clever things with this open console, it has no practical application for the overwhelming majority of consumers. Without upgradeable components to worry about or any hint of a hidden SD card slot (shame), we'll have to rely on some brave hardware hackers to put their soldering irons to good use - or more likely root the OS with interesting results.
Casemodding should be easy as pie, mind. I wonder if the motherboard would fit into a Game Boy chassis...
(Where Are) The Games?
The OUYA is still the best part of a month from release, and at the time of writing, the selection of games on the download service is anaemic enough to deter even the hungriest gnat. The vast majority of pre-launch titles tend to be quick and nasty ports of existing Android games that look rather ugly on a full-size telly and would feel more natural on a mobile device - while most of the exclusives are first attempts of dubious quality.
Final Fantasy III is currently the OUYA's flagship game, or more specifically the Final Fantasy III Android port that's already available on Google Play. Since it's based on the DS revamp rather than the aging original, you can expect some charming low-poly character models, but it's arguably a big ask for $15.
I'm all for getting my hands dirty, mind, and have found a fair few distractions worth your time and attention. A fantastic port of Syder Arcade brings sidescrolling space combat to the platform in style, with some extra content improving on the 7/10 PC release. It controls well and provides some gorgeous retro-tough action, though the lack of analogue stick controls means that you'll need to rely on that sharp and angular D-Pad. Wizorb has also made its way to the platform, and supports solid touchpad inputs. On the RPG side of things, Deep Dungeons Of Doom presents a hypnotically rhythmic take on dungeon crawling RPGs, and is freemium to boot (there's an option to purchase extra levels and revive tokens in-game).
Worst comes to the worst, there's always our old friend Canabalt (still superior to the feature-rich yet slightly glutted Vector in our opinion), which has received a gorgeous makeover that makes it crisp and clean even on a sizeable telly. Still as compelling and brilliant as ever, but chances are you already own it on at least two other devices already...
As we've already discussed, however, it's unfair to criticise the pre-release games lineup at this stage. Most of these titles are proof-of-concept or experimental first attempts by developers ready to get onto the platform proper, so let's look at some of the positives instead. It's clear that the OUYA ecosystem can support a wide variety of business models. We've already got meaty full games, monetised freemium games with microtransactions, fully F2P titles and even an attempt at a subscription MMO (though Vendetta Online isn't really up to much on the OUYA yet). Creating a free and open environment that lets developers set the pace and price is one of the OUYA's primary goals, and I reckon that this is a very positive first step.
Several developers have pledged to support the platorm, including Double Fine, Kim Swift, Mommy's Best Games, Minority Media and even XBMC. Naturally I'll endeavour to cover and review as many OUYA games as possible over the coming months.
A Bright Future?
It's all too easy to start prophesying doom for the OUYA's long-term future. Uhrman's cubic contender is releasing at a horrible time, when next-gen consoles are stealing the limelight and Tegra 4 processors snap at our heels. The lack of Google Play means that the device will have to attract a sizeable target audience to convince developers to make exclusives or port to the platform... but the audience will only come if the games are already available. Factor in timed obsolescence and the current proliferation of Android devices, and you'd be forgiven for feeling just a little depressed.
Yes, doomslinging may be easy and potentially great for hits, but it's also not my style. The OUYA will evolve over the coming weeks and months, both in terms of firmware and features, with foundations already in place. A marketplace that can already play host to multiple genres, business models, ports and exclusives. Space for apps, video content and media. Homebrew potential and hardware hacking made relatively easy, and all wrapped up inside a gorgeous silver box.
Going forward, OUYA faces two major challenges beyond improving that poxy controller. Securing games needs to be the key focus for Uhrman and co., which will in turn allow them to better market the device as more than a living room novelty. Exciting homebrew applications and easy development tools could well make this a flourishing second platform for open-sourced and bedroom development, but to succeed, they'll have to build on their foundations with quality content to shout about.
We've already had a wild ride getting this far, and it's only just beginning.
- Slick-looking console with solid build quality
- Ecosystem already supports various genres and pricing models
- Touchpad works well, but needs to be better supported by the GUI
- Simple setup, everything included (even AAs)
- Relatively easy to open and root (and presumably casemod)
- Potential for flourishing boutique, homebrew and garage development
- Mediocre controller built with cheap materials
- Anaemic pre-launch game library consists mainly of Android ports and tatty first attempts
- Can get surprisingly hot (and noisy) during normal operation
- Rough and ready interface, nasty virtual keyboard
- Potential onboard memory space concerns
The Verdict: The OUYA is absolutely not ready for prime time yet, so in many ways this is a false start for the Kickstarted console. Backers have received their gorgeous cube before the infrastructure is up to speed and the games have deployed, so coupled with a woefully mediocre controller and a few gripes regarding the interface, it's clear that the little cube that could needs to get a lot better - and fast.
Which is to be expected, of course, since the OUYA won't release for another month! This awkward pre-launch period at least demonstrates that various genres and business models can work well on the device, making us optimistic that Uhrman and crew can encourage a thriving ecosystem to flourish on the new platform. Not to mention a new home for homebrew coders and hacking aficionados, which could lead to all manner of exciting developments and a truly open device to call our own.
Time is of the essence, though, and the clock is ticking. We'll bring you a full review once the console launches and the latest firmware goes live.