The Ouya bandwagon was overloaded when it exploded onto Kickstarter. A $99 game console running Android with a wireless controller? It sounded too good to be true. People threw cash at the company, begging to have a developer unit bestowed upon them. Even then, as Ouya was rocketing toward its eventual $8.6 million haul, there were murmurs of concern. Could this really work? Would developers embrace this odd little device and free us from the hegemony of traditional consoles?
Early reviews were not very favorable, but now the device has arrived. Is it any better now that you can buy it?
- CPU/GPU: Nvidia Tegra 3 Quad-core 1.7GHz, 520MHz Nvidia GeForce ULP
- RAM: 1 GB DDR3
- USB: 1 USB 2.0, 1 microUSB
- Video output: HDMI 1.4, 1080p or 720p resolution
- Audio output: HDMI (ARC), 5.1 or 2.0 channel
- Internal storage: 8 GB flash memory
- Networking and Wireless: 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth LE 4.0
- Size: 75×75×82 mm (3.0×3.0×3.2 in)
- Weight: 300 g (11 oz)
- Codecs: Hardware 1080p MPEG-4 AVC/h.264 40 Mbit/s High-Profile, VC1-AP, and DivX 5/6 video decode
- OS: Android 4.1 (Jellybean) with custom Ouya UI
- Controller trackpad is awful
- Android skin wastes a lot of space
- Some common operations require diving into advanced settings
- Game selection is still very poor
- No Play Store
- Many games have noticeable lag
- Some Play Store ports are more expensive on Ouya
- Sideloaded games often don't perform well, or work at all
- 8GB of storage before USB expansion becomes necessary
The Ouya, as you’re probably aware, is a small cube about 3 inches on a side. The bottom third is rounded off slightly and tapers down to a round, rubberized base. On the top is a large clicky power button. The entire device is plastic, but it actually looks and feels fairly nice, not that you’ll spend a lot of time fondling the console itself.
I have noticed that the Ouya gets extremely hot while in use. It’s so toasty that it becomes uncomfortable to touch just idling. The upshot, it’s completely silent. Most real consoles sound like a small aircraft taking off next to your TV. I have some concerns that this does not bode well for long-term durability, though.
Around back are the ports where you’ll connect everything. There is the power adapter, a full USB port, microUSB, ethernet, and HDMI. Thankfully, the Ouya comes with an HDMI cable. I don’t know why that’s still a rarity, but it is. Everything seems to click into place very well and stays put. No complaints about that.
I think the Ouya folks did a killer job making this device look understated and kind of neat. I wouldn’t feel at all weird having it sit on my component stand.
The internal specs aren’t worth going into great detail on. You can check out the full spec list above for the point-by-point. I will say the Tegra 3 chip was an understandable decision when Ouya was conceived, but I suspect it’s going to hold the device back.
Tegra 3 came with a lot of promises for near-console quality graphics. Some of the THD games do look good, but Tegra’s performance has never been all that competitive with other top chips. There are times the Ouya lags to an unacceptable degree in many games (more on that in the software section below). Some of the blame there has to fall on NVIDIA’s shoulders.
On the subject of RAM – 1GB should be enough for the Ouya. It doesn’t really multitask. Once you leave a game it closes. However, the 8GB of storage only leaves you with about 6GB of accessible space.
I’ll start by saying I am fully cognizant that I’m talking about a $99 console. At $99 you can’t expect an amazing wireless controller. With my expectations tempered, I don’t hate the Ouya’s controller.
This is a fairly standard Bluetooth device with dual analog sticks. You can pair up to four controllers to the Ouya for multiplayer. It looks a little closer to an Xbox 360 controller than a PS3 unit. It smartly uses the staggered thumbsticks design, for example. However, the thumbsticks are a little troublesome for me. They are incredibly stiff and a bit jerky once you do get them moving. It feels off when compared to a DualShock 3 or 360 pad.
Again, I know those aren't expensive controllers. I’m not trying to tell you the Ouya is supposed to be as good. These issues will affect how well you play games on the console, though, so it’s a relevant comparison.
The Ouya controller has four buttons on the right face, and they aren’t bad. The tactile feedback is reasonably good, but they’re slightly loose. I have nothing redeeming to say about the d-pad on the opposite side. This should be the easiest part of the design, but it’s mushy and has poor feedback.
On the top edge are two shoulder buttons and two triggers. The buttons are clicky and actually quite solid. The triggers feel tight, but there’s too much travel. They work well enough, but triggers are hard. Even the DualShock 3 has famously questionable triggers.
In the middle of the Ouya controller we find the connection/home button and trackpad. The button can be pressed to pull up menus in some apps, and double-pressed to go back to the Ouya’s main menu. The trackpad brings up a mouse cursor, which is essential for operating some settings and apps.
I’m torn on the subject of the trackpad. On one hand I’m thankful to have it because it makes fooling around with software easier, but it’s awkward and the sensitivity is terrible. The trackpad is only occasionally responsive to taps, and cursor control is always very shaky.
The overall device feels solid, but cheap. If you’ve ever used one of those budget Mad Catz knockoff controllers before, that’s basically what this one is like. The buttons work, though, and the controller is totally usable.
Part of the inexpensive vibe it gives off comes from the battery compartments. The silver sections of the controller come up, and a AA battery goes into each side. A rechargeable li-ion cell would have been better, but this far from the biggest issue we have to contend with.
The Ouya Software
The Ouya runs on Android 4.1.2, but you’d never know just looking at it. The UI has a stripped down, almost Windows Phone vibe. There are large sans serif headers, blocks of text, and offset grids of tiles. The gradient backgrounds could do with some work, though. They exhibit some banding, even in screenshots.
We were told by Ouya that this is the final launch software. There might be a small firmware update right after launch, but this is pretty much it. You can’t get into the main interface until you create an Ouya account. Then you’re asked for billing information right up front (you can bypass this). All the games have free demos, but they really want you to be making impulse purchases from the start.
From the main menu you’ve got Play, Discover, Make, and Manage. The fact that Make gets its own top-level item should tell you this is still a developer-oriented time for Ouya.
The Play menu contains all the games you’ve gotten from the Ouya store. Discover is the actual Ouya store, but I’m not sure why Discover seemed more descriptive to the designers. Make is where you can get to the build information, all the software you’ve sideloaded, and the browser.
Manage is basically the portal to the Android bits. There are various network settings and notifications in the Ouya interface, but the Advanced sub-menu pulls up the stock Android settings. From here you can take a closer look at what’s going on with the console.
I feel like some of the information in the Advanced menu should be exposed in Ouya’s UI – it’s too barren as it is. Case in point, I had no idea I was almost out of storage until I ventured into the Advanced area and noticed my predicament. The Ouya also decided at one point to turn its audio all the way down, and the only way to fix it was to go into the Advanced menu and restore it in the Android system settings.
The software is responsive in most places, but I have noticed some hitches in loading the game list. This isn't a deal breaker, and it's vastly improved from older software builds. There is also no detectable controller lag, though I'm not sitting very far from the console.
Games, Or Lack Thereof
The Ouya runs Android, sure, but that says nothing about the gaming situation. There’s no Play Store on the Ouya. Instead, you get the Ouya store with a mix of indie games and Android ports. There are probably various ways to make this arrangement work, but Ouya hasn’t found one yet.
You might have a ton of game licenses on Google Play, but those are useless on Ouya. You'll have to re-buy games you may have already purchased on Google Play, unless you want to deal with sideloading them (more on that later). If you do resort to buying a game twice, be prepared to pay a little more – some of them are pricier on the Ouya. God of Blades is a great Android game, but it’s $4 on Ouya. Google Play sells it for $2.
Most of the Ouya indie efforts are poor quality, boring, or just plain broken. A few of them look passable in screenshots, but blown up to 1080p they are blocky and unattractive. I think maybe a third of the Ouya store still consists of retro platformers and side-scrolling shooters. That is not what I want to play on a 40-inch TV screen.
The few 3D games on the Ouya seem to range in performance from mostly good to outright sluggish. The frame rates might be fine one minute, but the next it’s noticeably lagging. This is probably part hardware and part app quality, but that’s no excuse. The Ouya people want to sell this device to regular human beings in Target and Best Buy, but the games just don’t run very well.
I have not seen any of the game finalists Ouya talked up earlier this year. There are, however, a handful of enjoyable titles in the store. Games like Ice Rage, Beast Boxing Turbo, and Chrono Blade are solid, but not even up to the standards of AAA Play Store titles, let alone any console in recent memory. The frame rate on Chrono Blade dips whenever there are too many enemies on the screen, for example. The 2006 version of Final Fantasy III is neat, but I'd prefer a new device not hang its hat on 7 year-old remakes of 20 year-old games.
Chrono Blade and Beast Boxing Turbo, probably the best-looking games
The Play Store ports sometimes show a glimmer of hope. The graphics and polish are better, but there simply aren’t very many of them. There’s no Dead Trigger, no Shadowgun, no Sonic, no Need for Speed, no Minecraft, and not even any Angry Birds games. I’m pretty sure there’s a toaster for sale in Japan that runs Angry Birds, so what gives with this?
Even in those instances I came across games that I legitimately enjoy on Android, there seems no point to even playing it on Ouya. For example, the only Tegra-optimized game I’ve spotted is Puddle. It’s a great experience on mobile with elaborate fluid physics and accelerometer controls, and it actually runs fairly well on the Ouya. You control Puddle by pressing the left and right shoulder buttons to tilt the game. That’s it. That’s the entire control scheme. It’s awkward and completely unnecessary to play Puddle on this device.
This is a pattern I fear is going to be repeated with most of the ports from Google Play. These experiences are designed for touchscreens, and not all of them work on a console. Even the games that could make sense – those that use dual-stick aiming – are conspicuously absent.
The most fun I had with the Ouya was playing Sonic II THD, which I sideloaded. It understood the controller, but the frame rates were noticeably lower than on other devices.
Sideloaded Sonic II THD
The free demo system is one of the things Ouya is getting right. You can download anything in the store and try it out for free. This is usually a level or two, but some games simply have countdown timers. If you want the full game, it is obtained via an in-app purchase. It's a very clean system.
The games you download are dumped into the Play menu in alphabetical order, but recently played titles appear to then float to the top. Updates require manual action on your part, but this can happen in the background while you do other things. That’s much appreciated.
For the Ouya to be anywhere close to a viable product, the game library needs a serious overhaul. No one is going to be happy with a wasteland of retro indie platformers. It’s probably too much to hope for exclusive games to save the day, but at least porting the right Android games should be a priority.
Be serious, does this look like something you want to play on a TV?
I'm not saying there are no good titles on the Ouya, but there are very few. With nearly 200 titles, there should be more. It comes down to this: I cannot think of a single gaming device that has launched with a poorer selection of games than the Ouya. Well, maybe the Virtual Boy, and we all know how that went.
Hackery And Sideloading
Perhaps the saving grace of the Ouya is the openness of the platform. I have no doubt Android tinkerers are going to snap this thing up. You can install your own apps, mess with settings, and even crack the thing open if you want.
However, if you plan on digging in with Ouya hackery, you have to be prepared for some hassles. It runs Android, but it doesn’t always behave like an Android device. Just getting the Ouya recognized by ADB on a computer is a challenge that requires modifying drivers files manually.
Because of the relative lack of games in the Ouya store, I sideloaded a number of games to see how the Ouya handled them. Several titles worked (like Sonic II, seen up above), but just as many didn’t. Of those that started properly, many didn’t work with the Ouya controller, or crashed too frequently to be playable. Larger games that download resource data also need to be manually installed by copying asset backups to the right folder.
This all falls squarely into “at your own risk” territory. Ouya can’t really be blamed when a non-supported game doesn’t load properly. I’m only telling you this so you’re not suffering from the misapprehension this device is your gateway to playing all your games on a TV with a controller. It’s not.
The Ouya is cheap enough that I can see it becoming an active platform for modders. There will probably be ways to get Google Play onto the Ouya, maybe as part of a replacement ROM. That would make the device much more attractive, but don’t assume it’s going to happen quickly, or that the process will be painless.
The Ouya is neat on paper. Stuff an Android device into a little cube, add a controller, and attach it to a TV. Sounds cool. However, the practical reality is that the device isn’t very good. The biggest issue is the game catalog – it’s bad in a variety of ways.
The Ouya is just different enough that many games can’t simply be added to the store as they exist on Google Play, but it shouldn’t be that much work. The fact that virtually none of the top Android games have migrated from Google Play in time for launch should be cause for concern.
Even playing the high-end (sideloaded) Android games on Ouya isn’t the best experience. They look fine, but they’re still mobile games. The level of detail a Tegra 3 is capable of rendering is not sufficient to make anything work on a TV. Blowing it up to 40 or 50 inches doesn’t make it a console game. Everything I’ve seen on the Ouya still looks and feels like a phone game at best, and that’s the real problem.
I don’t know who the Ouya is for. Casual gamers will find it easier to just use a phone or tablet, and more serious ones will be put off by the poor selection and quality. People that really want to play good games on a larger screen will simply buy a current or next-gen game console. To turn this around, Ouya has to deliver everything it promised, and fast. The OnLive support obviously didn't work out, so maybe it's time to dig in and start prodding developers.
The Ouya is light years away from being any kind of viable game console, even though it has improved in some places like UI lag and the controller. I really wanted it to be better, but it's not competitive even at $99. Do not buy this unless you are primarily interested in modding it.