Ouya is the story of an ambitious idea which came to fruition. After a successful Kickstarter to raise funds, this Android-based game system has finally seen release beyond development and backer-only versions. This little box is just £99.99 (from Game) and comes with everything you need to play games on your HDTV. Sadly, right now it's also an ungainly mess of a consumer product that requires more work than it's worth to get the most out of it.
Before I go into the Ouya itself, an important note: Ouya plans regular software updates that could alleviate most of the complaints about the system. If those updates successfully fix the problems, we will re-evaluate the Ouya to reflect that. This review is based on the Ouya as it was released to the public at launch, with firmware from 24 June 2013.
The Ouya is a tiny 3in cube with corners that round inward near the base. It has grey sides and a black top with a circular power button featuring a glowing Ouya logo in the middle, which is the only button and indicator light on the device. The back side of the cube holds an HDMI output, microUSB and standard USB ports, a power port, and an Ethernet port if you don't want to use the built-in Wi-Fi.
The controller looks like a fairly standard gamepad, with two analogue sticks, a direction pad, and four face buttons laid out in an Xbox 360 controller configuration, along with four shoulder buttons and a single Ouya button that serves as the menu button. Two AA batteries fit into cavities in the grips, covered by plastic plates that are held in place on the gamepad with magnets.
There are no Start or Select/Back buttons, which I missed in certain games. Four lights on the top edge of the gamepad show if the controller is on and connected, and if multiple controllers are connected, they also show which player that controller is. There’s a black rectangle in the middle of the gamepad that serves as a touchpad for controlling an on-screen cursor.
The controller sounds nice on paper, but it's sadly close to being outright junk. The touchpad is the worst touchpad I've ever used. It's over-sensitive but unresponsive, making the cursor fly around the screen with little concern for what your finger is doing. It doesn't click, and it takes patience to tap the touchpad just right to make it register as a tap and not a swipe. The face buttons are nice and responsive, but the shoulder buttons and direction pad feel wiggly, and the analogue sticks are overly loose and prone to dead zones and snapback. Ouya is planning an update that will allow the analogue stick to control the on-screen cursor instead of the touchpad, which could greatly improve web browsing and other cursor-based software.
You can connect other Bluetooth controllers to the Ouya, but the support and compatibility for them is inconsistent. I could pair the Moga Pro to the Ouya as a HID device, but that disables the right analogue stick and makes the left analogue stick act like a digital direction pad. I couldn't connect the Moga in its full, non-HID mode.
At the time of writing, the Ouya's game store is severely lacking. While there are some gems available like The Bard's Tale, Final Fantasy III, and The Organ Trail: Director's Cut, most games seem to be low profile, samey titles that feel like they were swept in from Google Play seemingly at random. There are almost certainly some indie diamonds in the rough, but you have to sift through that rough to find them. At least one Gameloft game is planned for release on the Ouya, and several independent developers are currently developing for the system, so the library could potentially become much more compelling in the future.
However, the Ouya store does have a very good stipulation: It requires all games to have a free downloadable element, like a freemium model or a demo mode. This makes sifting through the games much more economical since you can try them out until you find which ones you want, but it still doesn't offer much of a selection. The Apps section is particularly anaemic, with the likes of Twitch.tv and Tune-In apps, but nothing resembling Netflix, YouTube, Vudu and so forth.
The Retro section of the Ouya store holds tons of potential if you're willing to ignore certain legal and ethical restrictions. It's filled with Android-based system emulators like NES.EMU, Mupen64, and SuperGNES. Of course, to enjoy these emulators, you need to acquire ROMs to play on them, and that means dancing in the illegal sections of the Internet where software isn't paid for. Of course, I condemn such actions, but if I didn't, I'd say that the ability to play emulators on a £100 box with a relatively decent gamepad and support for other Bluetooth controllers actually makes the Ouya worthwhile when it has seemingly few other good qualities. Of course, I'm not saying that, and would condemn the use of ROMs as the greatest justification to get the Ouya.
At the time of writing, USB storage is not consistently supported. It mounted my USB flash drive and displayed it in some apps, but not in the System menu of the Ouya. This isn't just a problem for ROMs, but for sideloading software. Both Netflix and USB storage support are planned for future software updates, but even fixed sideloading software is difficult.
The Ouya's APK installer is seemingly buried in the system, and was easily disrupted by installing certain apps on Ouya's store. I found that one game strangely took the permissions to load APK files, making it seem like the system had no installer at all, forcing me to get help to install apps manually through a computer with the Android development kit. If you want to sideload anything, your best bet would be to find and download another installer or APK manager and a file manager to get around any issues the Ouya's own menus might cause.
The Ouya has an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor running at 1.7GHz. When we benchmarked it, it didn't do badly at all on measures of CPU power. Its Antutu score of 13443 and Basemark OS score of 270 match or beat the Nexus 7 tablet, although it fell short of devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 on Basemark OS.
What really disturbed us, though, was the graphics test results. The Ouya scored only 38.6 frames per second (fps) on the relatively low stress Nenamark 2 graphics benchmark. With GLBenchmark 2.5 HQ, which comes closer to console-quality graphics, it crawled along at 11 fps. That GLBenchmark test stresses most mobile processors right now, but many of them are able to muster 20 or 30 fps. The flagship Samsung Galaxy S4, for instance, can score 39 fps on the GLBenchmark test and hits the 60 fps vsync limit on Nenamark, as do many other current high-end smartphones.
Now, we had to shoehorn the benchmarks into the Ouya via the Android SDK, which means that they certainly weren't optimised for the device – but this shows the danger of running any software that isn't optimised for the device. Not only is it difficult to install, it may not perform as well as it does on a current high-end smartphone. For a dedicated gaming system which should be all about graphics, that's a real pity.
I wanted to like the Ouya. A £100 Android-based game system with a gamepad seems like a great idea. However, even though it's been released as a retail product, it's just not ready yet. It's held back by a mediocre controller and a software interface that, at the time of launch, is unacceptable. Unless you're willing to go to developer-like extents to load software on the Ouya, it simply isn't open enough and the game library isn't large enough to justify it. Its 3D graphics aren't particularly great even compared with smartphones and its controller is disappointing.
All that said, we could revise the Ouya's rating in the future if the company fixes its myriad of software omissions. For now, though, unless you're dedicated and technically savvy, it's just not worth it.
(Sascha Segan contributed to this review).
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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