Monday, 6 May 2013

OUYA Awesome, Mediocre, Sucks and Everything in Between

OUYA is one of the all time Kickstarter succes stories. Their campaign got funded in matter of hours and ended up going all the way past $8.5 millions (from the initial goal of $950.000). That meant that the company was able to change focus from creating a production prototype to creating a production run.


Of course the folks at OUYA didn't rush to create a final product first but created few iterations of dev devices before sending out the backer devices. Even the backer devices might not be exactly the same as the first devices that are sold directly to consumers. This is the only way to go. Hardware projects will always have issues. That's also something that anyone backing a startup to create a new device will have to know and expect.

We've seen people writing reviews of the OUYA sent to backers and even giving them rating as if it was a final product. That is ridiculous. Any site giving a number score to a beta device is doing it wrong.

That said this article is not a review. This is just my thoughts of the device as well as my thoughts about backing hardware startups through Kickstarter.

Kickstarter experience

When I heard about OUYA it took me about 5 minutes to decide to back it. I did it without thought. I wanted this device to exist so I put my money down. That is what Kickstarter is for. It is not a pre-order system for things that are going to be created anyways.

There's always a risk in this kind of transaction. I was paying for something that didn't exist yet. I gave the company money for their promises.

As anyone know talk is cheap. What am I entitled to expect? If you've ever worked in a software project you know that the things that seem to be simple and plans that were set to stone at start of a project will change. With hardware I imagine that it happens even more.

I think that the general cynicism soon after the OUYA Kickstarter made big headlines reflected the fact that promises are difficult to follow. Some went even so far as saying that the OUYA Kickstarter was a scam and we'll never see the box. I'm happy that the most cynical people were wrong and the console is now getting shipped to backers.

Backing a US company from Europe

This is a topic I have to bring up even though this isn't necessary something you can hang on OUYA's neck. I live in Europe, Germany. This causes a lot of issues. If you're an Android users you know how often Europeans feel like second class citizens of the Google's Android ecosystem. But it's not only that. Ordering anything outside Europe is likely to cause issues. You need taxes, adapters and high postage.

What did the OUYA actually cost to me?

I paid $99 for the actual console. On top of that I had to add $20 for postage to Germany. When it arrived here I had to pay import tax of 19% which is slightly more than $20. I also had to go an pick it up form the customs office outside town costing me two hours of lost work and public transit costs but let's not count them here. Unfortunately, the expenses didn't end there. The US power plug that comes with the console is not usable here without an adapter. That is an extra $10. So my $99 console ended up costing $150 instead. 50% extra over what someone in the US would have paid to back OUYA. Is it worth it?

The answer is no. Because OUYA got backed anyways my backing didn't make any difference. I would have been much better off waiting and getting an European version once available. Spending extra 50% to back a startup does not make any sense.

I'm afraid that this was the last hardware Kickstarter that I'll be backing. This simply isn't worth it.

As I said this is hardly OUYA's fault. They could have, however, made it easier for us. They could have imported it in Europe (but probably too time consuming and expensive) but at least they could have included an European power plug (but maybe this would have had some legal implications).

[UPDATE - 11. May] I've been informed that even the backer edition ships with local adapters. Me getting a US one is an exception.

Hardware quality

OUYA is cheap. It is a $100 device. Comparing it to more expensive consoles doesn't make much sense. So let's just look at it as a $100 device and see how it feels.

The box

One thing that is immediately clear when you take the OUYA out of the box is the nice feel of the actual OUYA box. It feels durable, solid and looks nice. I have no problems putting it in my living room next to my TV. It feels so rugged that I'd expect it to be a good travel console that should easily survive a trip in a backbag or suitcase.

The controller

The box doesn't really matter to me. I don't hold it and if it were ugly I could hide it behind my stereo set. What matters is the controller.

A screen capture from the OUYA Kickstarter video.

It looks to me that the OUYA team already had a very complete idea when they introduced the project. The completed controller looks very much like the ones shown in the Kickstarter video.

It looks like a fairly standard console controller with the two analog sticks, bumper triggers, d-pad and few buttons. Unfortunately, the controller doesn't have the same quality feel as the box itself. This makes me wish that more time would have been spend with the controller and the box would have been left more simple. The controller is what I'm holding in my hand all the time. There's a feel that the parts don't quite fit together. But it is no disaster in any sense of the world. It is something that can be expected from a $100 device. As a backer I'm definitely fine with the feel of the hardware. It just feels like the controller was made by a different company than the box.


D-Pad

Unfortunately, there's an issue with the controller. The D-Pad is basically broken. It reacts to events very randomly and is nearly unusable. This nowhere more apparent as when trying to type with the onscreen keyboard. There is no difference in feel between successful and unsuccessful D-Pad press.

This is very unfortunate. In the first few minutes of use of the console you have to type in wifi password, account name and account password (or even worse register a new one). D-Pad is the primary control for the keyboard. The analog sticks aren't accurate enough. This raises the rage-meter of any user and gives the console an extremely bad first impression.

Analog sticks and buttons

The analog sticks on the other hand work nicely. They reach to movement as you'd expect. I do suspect that these aren't real analog sticks though. All games I tries only have few directions instead of infinite like on other platforms. I'm not sure if this is due to the hardware or if the games don't have yet implemented proper controls. 

The buttons on the controller, including the bumpers, feel very nice and have a good feedback.

Software

OK, let's dive into the software then. As established the hardware is something that can definitely make this device a decent experience. But how does the software stack up?

But before we go into details please keep in mind that the console I have is still running pre-release software. The OUYA team is still working on making final tweaks and killing bugs in the system. That's why in this post I'll ignore some random crashes and issues I had as I have faith in the OUYA team for these issues to be gone once the consumer version launches.

OUYA home and OUYA Android skin


OUYA has replaced the Android home screens with their own custom launcher as well as lightly skinned some of the components to match the OUYA theme. Skins are usually bad (think of Sense and Touchwiz) but not so in this case. Android has not been designed to be used on TVs and with D-Pad being the primary navigation. Running stock Android would be a bad idea.





The OUYA UI design is definitely influenced by other consoles and that's good. There's only so many ways you can build a UI for D-Pad. The OUYA UI is good. In fact, it is very good! It responds to your commands very well and you'll never get lost in the layouts. It is visually pleasing with a very graphics heavy style that works perfectly on an entertainment device.

There are some small issues though. Firstly, I had no idea what these categories were. Is "Check it" like featured? What about "Favs"? I only know what the "Sandbox" is because I watched an OUYA interview few months ago where it was mentioned. Maybe they're trying to be a bit too creative here.

Another issue I have is exiting games. The controller has an OUYA button and it takes you out of any game if you long press it. Unfortunately, it only works after you release the button. This leads you pressing and holding it and thinking if it might have been long enough and releasing to check and repeating until it works. This should definitely react immediately one the button is held down long enough.

Almost a full skin

You still endup in unskinned Android screens now and then and especially see some stock Android popups. But I have a feeling that these will be disappearing one-by-one as soon as the OUYA team gets around to implement them.

I thought I'd never say this but I much prefer the OUYA skin and wish it would cover everything on this device.

Apps

The console is not limited to only games. You can find apps from the OUYA store as well (at the time of writing this there are 3).

I was exited to see Twitch.tv in the OUYA store. It was also mentioned in the Kickstarter video. It's not good though. Twitch.tv has decided to give OUYA their phone app. It is very near unusable with D-Pad. I know because I've side loaded this app to my Google TV. There's a good reason why twitch has not made this available for other TV platforms. The app simply sucks on TV. I really hope that Twitch is working on a proper app and this is only a placeholder until the real app is out.


The other apps aren't much better. tune in has a radio app. This is, in fact, the only music player available for OUYA at the time of writing this. The tune in app is a tablet app. Not designed for D-Pad either. This is pretty much unusable as well. I know that you can use the OUYA's touch pad feature as a mouse but you shouldn't have to. It's a very bad experience that should only be a backup.



So the OUYA apps are bad. They should be designed for TVs. Google has been trying to crack this issue for years now. OUYA should point their app devs to the Google TV design guidelines.

Games

But what about games then? They are the core of OUYA. OUYA will either live or fall with its games.  At the time of writing this I've only tested about 10-15 games so I will not be making any statements about the general state of the OUYA game offering. I'll do that in a separate post once I've had time to really dive in and find games I like.

I'd like to explain some observations though.

Analog sticks or arrow keys?

I already mentioned this when I talked about the analog sticks. Physically they feel nice but in-game there's something wrong in all the games I've tried. They don't actually seem to be analog sticks but 8 direction arrow keys instead. Playing a game with the analog sticks feels close to PC gaming with arrow keys.

This becomes very apparent when playing games where you control a space ship, tank or whatever from a top-down perspective. While on other consoles you've got used to a nearly infinite directions you can choose. 

I really hope that this isn't a hardware issue and the games simply have not implemented this correctly.

The Secret of Universe Alpha

DubWars

Slow response bumpers

Another worrying thing was a laggy response in this pinball game. I didn't notice any lag in other games so this might just be a special case. There's minute but noticeable delay between me pressing the bumpers on my controller and the pinball game reacting. This could also be that the button travel on the bumpers is pretty long. It could be just that you need to get used to it or maybe the game just isn't well built. The game felt fast everywhere else which lead me thinking that there might be something wrong with the bumper buttons.

Pinball Arcade

Need for guidelines

The games are in a dire need of guidelines. This is a general issue of Android platform where all games are very unregulated and every developer seems to build their own menu structure and reinvent the way game is exited.

I wonder if OUYA could try to create some standards to the game UI. I'd love to have consistency in the menu navigation, settings, pausing a game and exiting it. This is much easier said than done though.

Vector contains a ghost of Gingerbread


Some games I liked

Some tech sites in their early reviews kept telling that there's no good games on OUYA. It looks to me that they were looking for Call of Duties or Halos and left out everything less than AAA. I definitely found some casual games that were entertaining. None of them were perfect but to me these titles prove that OUYA is very much capable of running games with great gameplay!

Here are some of them.

BombSquad

Vector
Ice Rage
Natural Soccer


No Play Store

OK, now the elephant in the room. There's no play store.

Vendor lock is evil. But everyone is doing it. When I decided to start using Android phones I got locked in to the Google's Android ecosystem. Any software I buy from the Google Play will always be available only on my Android devices. But this vendor lockin isn't as bad as some others. I'm locked into a platform not to one manufacturer. I would never buy any apps from Samsung's or HTC's store to use on my phone. However, I've bought games and apps for probably few hundreds of euros so far from the Google Store. The reason I'm fine with Google Play Store is the promise of these apps working in the future on any Android device (with Google Play) I decide to buy.

Unfortunately, OUYA is different. Their store is OUYA only. If you buy something there that is the only platform you'll be playing the game on. Making matters even worse many of you reading this have probably already bought many or at least some of the games available from the OUYA store. And no, you can't play the games on your new Android console.

I do understand that it is up to Google to give devices certificate to run Play Store (and ship with the rest of the Google services). The current certificate program probably doesn't allow devices with OUYA's approach to get the certificate. So this is another issue that cannot be fully blamed on OUYA. Still, to me this is one of the issues that might limit my use of the device and most likely cut it very short. I won't be buying games from the OUYA store. At least unless they're done especially for the OUYA controller.

OUYA vs. Google TV

Comparing OUYA to XBox or PS would not be very beneficial. Not because OUYA is cheaper but because OUYA is clearly targeted more towards casual gaming. Comparison to Nintendo Wii is something that will probably make more sense. OUYA is in the same price class as Nintendo Wii (both about 150 euros). But then comparing OUYA games to Nintendo Wii games would not make much sense as games for one cost up to 60 euros and for the other only couple of euros.

That's why I'd rather draw a comparison to Google TV. The latest generation Sony Google TV box currently costs about 150 euros here in Germany. So the price comparison is fair. Google TV also has games, same games in fact, which means that the games are priced very similarly.








Google TV software vs. OUYA software

At the time of writing this Google TV still runs two year old Android version (3.2) while OUYA is on almost the latest (4.1). The same story continues throughout the UIs. Google TV is difficult to use, old UI paradigms (it still uses a menu button) and ugly visuals where OUYA's UI is simple, beautiful and easy to use.

OUYA home screen 

Google TV home screen

OUYA installed apps screen

Google TV installed apps screen
There's really no question about it. Google TV UI can't hold a candle to OUYA's.


Then there's the issue of controllers. One of the controllers in the picture below has been designed its users in mind and the other has been designed without knowing what it is for. OUYA has a lases focus to be an entertainment device. Google TV tries to be everything. I have always said that if your TV remote has a "Ctrl" key something is wrong. I recognise that there's a market for Google TV and that's probably exactly the same market that want to have a living room PC. Most people don't. I like devices that have focus. You usually endup with much better design that way.


Gaming on Google TV vs. OUYA 

This a no-contest really. There's still no decent Google TV hardware out there. Every single device is underpowered and struggle running heavier apps. Some games do run on Google TV but most of them don't. Many developers have not bothered to bing their games to Google TV because there's no point really.

Apps on Google TV vs. OUYA

There's not many apps on OUYA right now but it would be unfair to held it against it before the launch. The situation might get much better in the coming months. The apps OUYA has now is giving some cause for worry though. They are not TV apps. On Google TV you find apps that are designed for TV. There aren't many but there are few. OUYA should really be talking to those companies who have created a TV friendly UI and ask them to put it available to the OUYA store as well.

But one big is missing on OUYA and probably will be for a while. Google. I need to have YouTube and Google Music on my TV device. These are the apps I use in my living room and can't live without. If they were on OUYA there would be no question which is better Google TV of OUYA. But before that I think the question will remain unanswered.

Google TV YouTube app. OUYA needs a YouTube app as well!

Google TVs YouTube app allows seamless communication from phones and tablets. I'm not sure if I can live without this anymore.

Final thoughts

I have not used OUYA nearly enough to really review it or present any conclusions about it. Don't base any purchase decisions to this article. This is early thoughts and observations. I will be following up this article if I find time to write again with more in-depth review.

OUYA has definitely been a positive experience for the short time I've had it. It's far from perfect and there are some big problems but the start is promising as well as impressive. A startup creating something like with crowd funding is a feat. I'm happy that I have been a tiny part of it.

I find OUYA important and awesome in one more perspective. It proves that Android truly is Open Source even if Android ecosystem isn't. I'm pretty sure that one of the very first tasks the OUYA tech team did was to follow Andy Rubin's definition of open. I leave you with that. Good job OUYA team!