Finally! I go hands on with the Ouya Android game console

At long last, my Ouya Android game console arrived just before the start of the 3-day weekend here in the US. I feel like I'm about the last blogger to get his hands on one of these things so I'm going to keep this fairly brief.

First, the hardware. The Ouya itself is a compact little cube, weighted just enough so that the wires that attach to the back (power, HDMI and in my case Ethernet, though WiFi is an option) don't drag it off your entertainment center. The controller has a typical game controller profile (about the size of an Xbox 360 controller), with the addition of a track pad between the two halves. There are 4 shoulder buttons, 4 face buttons, 2 analog sticks, a d-pad and a central Ouya button that, among other things, turns the controller on.

The earliest Ouya adopters had trouble with the face buttons on the controller sticking. I haven't experienced that and Ouya said they'd adjusted the holes to prevent it, so I assume I have an 'updated' Ouya. The face buttons are quite 'clicky' though; whether that's good or bad is very much a personal preference.

Overall though the controller feels pretty good. There's one battery in each 'handle' of the controller which means you have to remove two faceplates to change the batteries, which is very slightly annoying, but it keeps the controller feeling very balanced.

My one real complaint with the controller is the labeling of the face buttons. Starting at the bottom button (what I think of as the 6 o'clock position) and going clockwise, the buttons are O-U-Y-A. This is clever but if you own another console it can be a little confusing. So on the Ouya, the O button is at 6 o'clock, the A button is at 3 o'clock. The Playstation 3 controller has a circle button that looks like an O, but it's at the 3 o'clock position. The Xbox 360 controller has an A button that is at 6 o'clock.

Obviously this just takes a little time to get used to, but if you own a PS3 or an Xbox expect to be hitting the wrong buttons for your first Ouya session. One thing I didn't notice was the controller input lag that some early coverage of the Ouya mentioned.

Set-up is simple enough. Plug in your cables, turn on the Ouya and pair the controller and you're off (disclaimer: as a Kickstarter backer I already had an Ouya account). The first thing my Ouya did was download a software update but doing so just took a few moments. I'd give the Ouya 'out of the box' experience a thumbs up. I appreciated the fact that they included an HDMI cable. I've bought equipment quite a lot more expensive that didn't bother with a cable.

The Ouya UI is pretty simple, with 4 menu options: Play, Discover, Make and Manage. Make is for game developers and Manage is where your Settings are. After you download and install a game it'll appear under Play, and Discover is where the game store is.

Here's where we start to see the first cracks in the Ouya ecosystem. Your first stop will be Discover to find something to play. Games (and apps) are broken into categories like Staff Picks, Fresh (for new games) and so forth. Inside each category titles are laid out in tiles, but it can take a while for the Ouya to download and display the graphics for each tile. You'll spend a lot of time looking at empty boxes with a just a text title inside, at least the first time you visit. The system seems to cache these graphics so when you go back later they'll be ready.

When you find a game that sounds interesting, first you have to download it, then you have to install it. When you hit the install step, you'll be looking at an Android dialog box. It's not a big deal but it can feel a little jarring. You'll also have to accept permissions, same as with an Android device, and sometimes they make no sense, like Permissions concerning phone calls.

Once you're in a game you'll notice something else missing from the controller: the equivalent of the Start and Select (PS3) or Start and Back (Xbox 360) buttons. If you're used to going to these to find game options or to pause a game well...they're not there. Every game handles these staple features differently, it seems. This is the price of an open system I guess. Even the Ouya button seems to do different things at different times, and sometimes it can be a challenge to figure out how to quit a game!

As to the games themselves, right now, a month from retail launch, the Ouya games library is very uneven. There are a lot of games clearly put together by small teams with limited budgets, and that means a lot of 8-bit style graphics and public domain sounds. If you're into retro-gaming and pseudo-retro gaming you're going to have a lot of fun digging through what the Ouya offers.

On the other hand... I wasn't expecting PS3 or Xbox 360 quality graphics on a $99 console, but I was hoping to see titles like EA's Need For Speed series, or one of the decent first person shooters like Madfinger Game's Shadowgun, or even something like Gameloft's Dungeon Hunter games, but so far I haven't found anything like these titles.

For a pre-release library this is fine, but the Ouya needs to offer some AAA Android games if it's going to do well at retail.

A couple of titles that do look and play pretty well are Vector (a parkour-inspired runner), Puddle (a physics puzzler) and The Ball (an Unreal-powered game of exploration and puzzle solving).

The problem for now is that you have to do a lot of digging to find the gems, but hopefully as the audience expands user-ratings can help the good stuff float to the top of the library. (Not that graphics are everything, mind you. I had a lot of fun with Deep Dungeons of Doom even though it relies on retro-graphics and fairly static gameplay.)

My last bit of roughness you'll discover with the Ouya is turning it off! I assumed that the Ouya button on the controller would turn it off, but not so. You have to hit the switch on the Ouya console itself, and that doesn't turn the controller off. If you're stingy like me and don't want to waste batteries by leaving the controller on until it turns itself off, you have choose the "Turn off controller" option from the Ouya UI, then power down the Ouya itself.

Again, this is by no means a big deal but these are just little quirky issues that need to be polished a bit.

So should you buy an Ouya? I think that depends. If you're really into Indie games put together by small teams then I think you'll have a lot of fun digging around in Ouya's library of titles. Ouya requires that every game offer some kind of demo or free play so you can spend a lot of time exploring without spending a dime.

For most gamers, though, I think it's too early. Ouya needs to attract more high-profile, AAA Android games to offer the typical gamer. Whether or not they can pull that together in the next month, I don't know.

I'll post an update on Ouya when it becomes available at retail on June 25th.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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