Hands-on: Nintendo TVii

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By Paul Hunter

Sundays are always my favourite day to relax and watch a movie or get caught up on my favourite TV shows.  Considering how much I enjoy TV time, if there's a way to enhance the experience I'm all for it, so that's why this Sunday I decided to power on my Wii U to test out Nintendo's new TVii application.  The new service, which is available free to all Wii U owners, combines your home TV with the Wii U GamePad to deliver a unique, second screen experience. Does Nintendo TVii "transform and enhance the TV viewing experience" as the company claims?  Well, not exactly, but it has potential.

Set-up

At its core, Nintendo TVii attempts to bring together the hundreds of satellite and cable channels, and multiple video-on-demand options, into a customizable, personalized viewing application. Provided you did the day one system update that takes about an hour to download, then Nintendo TVii has already been installed on your Wii U, it's just been inactive until now.

The set-up of Nintendo TVii starts with entering your postal code and selecting your cable or satellite provider.  After entering my postal code, Nintendo TVii gave me an alphabetically sorted list of local providers and it took me a brief moment to swipe horizontally through the list to find my provider, Rogers Cable.

Once your provider is chosen, Nintendo TVii then displays cover art for a list of popular TV shows and asks you to select your favourites, which is done with a simple tap on the image.  If your favourite show(s) don't appear on the provided list, you can search by keyword for additional shows.  The same process of selecting your favourites is done with movies to build up your personal profile.  Next, you can select your preferred sports teams, but presently there are only options for NFL, NBA, NCAA Football, and NCAA Basketball.  Next, Nintendo TVii lets you select your favourite TV channels from the provided list or through keyword search.  All of your preferences are then saved in a "Favourites" section where you can browse and manage your selections.

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The main Nintendo TVii screen

Social Connectivity

Nintendo TVii is meant to be a social platform and by default it's linked into your Miiverse account.  There is also an option to tie your account to Facebook, which provides you with a URL to visit and a code to enter, then asks you to link the app to your Facebook account.  Associating your account with Twitter is even easier, and only requires you to type your login information using the Wii U GamePad touch screen keyboard. Now you're ready to join live conversations (called TV Tag) by tweeting, updating your Facebook status and posting on Miiverse about how much you love the Simpsons, Zoolander and the Toronto Raptors.

Or, maybe not. As I soon discovered, not every TV show has commenting enabled, and in fact the vast majority don't.  I tried accessing TV Tag for a wide range of shows, including Family Guy, Family Feud, Friends, 30 Rock, and more, and each time I was given the following message:

"TV Tag is a feature that allows you to follow along on the GamePad while you watch your sporting event or TV show.  TV Tag is not currently available for this show."

It seems that TV Tag is only active for a select few TV shows, mostly during primetime, and some sporting events.  Bummer.

Main Menu

On the main Nintendo TVii menu there are options for Favourites, TV, Movies, and Sports.  Here's a quick explanation of each:

Favourites

This area contains a list of your selected favourite TV shows, Movies, Sports and Channels.  There's also a "Queue" section that shows you a list of live and upcoming shows you may be interested in (based on your preferences), and a history of the past TV programs you've watched.  I did notice that TV shows are placed in your "watched" area regardless of how much of the show you actually did watch, so even if you accidentally load up a show for a few seconds it'll stay permanently in your "watched" queue since there's no way to remove shows. It may not sound like a big deal, but I'm assuming the Favourites area is used to help shape the TV shows that appear in the "Recommended" TV, Movies and Sports lists (more on this below), so having shows you didn't watch could mess up the accuracy of recommendations.

TV

This area contains a list of Featured, Live, and Recommended TV Shows.  The "Featured" section has a small selection of popular TV shows, likely chosen and featured by Nintendo, with mine presently showing Family Guy, Dateline, The Voice and The Colbert Report.  The "Live" section you'd think would contain a rundown of live TV shows, but oddly enough most of the shows on my list had a counter icon indicating how many minutes, or in some cases, hours, before the TV show started. I was a bit bewildered by this, since usually when I turn on my cable box I want to know what TV shows a playing now, and not what's on two hours from now.  Perhaps knowing upcoming shows would be more useful if Nintendo TVii supported DVR functionality, but unfortunately that feature won't be rolling out until next year.

The "Recommended" list seemed pretty generic, and including numerous shows far my general tastes such as The Bold and the Beautiful, Dora the Explorer and America's Next Top Model.  These are all great shows, with their respective audiences, but when you list WWE Raw, Kenny vs. Spenny and The Walking Dead as three of your favourite TV shows, you don't expect to get soap operas and children's cartoons in your "Recommended" list.

What is great though is that clicking on a TV show gives you plenty of content to root through including: (1) a list of upcoming Episodes, (2) Show Info, (3) a full cast listing, and clicking on a cast member opens a profile page listing the movies and TV shows the actor has starred in.

The TV area also has a "Grid" feature that calls up an interactive TV listing, but there's no ability to skip to channels by typing the channel number, so you have to flip manually, page by page.  This makes the Grid feature completely useless since most cable providers these days offer 100s of channels -- far too time consuming to flip through page by page.

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The "TV" area (note: this is preliminary photo, menu labels have since changed)

Movies

This area is almost identical to TV section, in that it contains a listing of Featured, Live, and Recommended movies.  What's cool here is that each movie includes the Rotten Tomatoes score, the movie rating, and a link to the trailer. Many of the same issues noted above are present here as well, as for example the recommended list seemed a little too generic to be tailored to my selected favourites.

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The "Movies" area (note: this is preliminary photo, menu labels have since changed)

Sports

The sports area is perhaps the most interesting and shows the biggest potential.  The only drawback is the lack of sports, since it currently only has NFL and NCAA football, and NBA and NCAA basketball (come on, where's the NHL?)  Selecting a sports league calls up a game schedule and current scores for active games.  Once you click to view an active game, the Wii U GamePad displays a robust interactive menu on the left-half where you can browse an impressive list of live updated game stats, such as (for football), stats for passes, rushes, kicks, turnovers, penalties, total yards, and more.  The right-side contains a play-by-play description of the action, which can get updated multiple times every minute.  Scrolling through the plays updates a mini map on the left which shows a visual representation of the field and exactly how the play panned out. It's really impressive to see, and means you could walk away for 5 minutes and come back to review every play you missed.

The live sporting events I checked out also had the TV Tag feature enabled, which allows you comment on Miiverse, Facebook or Twitter.  Instead of allowing you to freely comment, Nintendo TVii restricts comments solely to the entries in the live play description news feed.  Posting on your Facebook simply adds your comment verbatim to your timeline wall, without any context of what you're posting about, so for example if you write "nice goal!" that's what will appear on your Facebook wall. As for Twitter, the comment will also appear verbatim, and will also include the #NintendoTVii hashtag.  Hopefully Nintendo will update this feature to include information on what sporting event you're commenting on (e.g. "nice goal! -- Washington vs. Dallas (NFL)")

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The "Sports" area (note: this is preliminary photo, menu labels have since changed)

Negatives

While Nintendo TVii shows potential, there are a number of drawbacks that take away from the experience.  As a whole, it's a bit slow to navigate through, which is a common problem of the entire Wii U menu interface.  Furthermore, the application completely froze on me once, requiring me to hard reset my Wii U, and several times the app would just pause for 5 or 10 seconds at a time.  It's also problematic to switch users, since you're required to go back to the Wii U homescreen and login as another user, then relaunch the TVii application -- a process that can take upwards of 90 seconds to perform.  As previously mentioned, there is no DVR functionality, so while Nintendo TVii lists upcoming shows you may be interested in, you can't record any of them.  I also experienced a really annoying bug where every time I launched a TV show, it initially would bring me to the Rogers "Quick Search" screen, and not the actual TV program, so I had to press the "Guide" button a couple of times to bring up the show (perhaps this problem is isolated to Rogers cable).  The most significant complaint I have is that it doesn't appear that Nintendo TVii recognizes that channels you've actually subscribed to when making its recommendations.  Far too often Nintendo TVii would recommend a TV show to me on channels I didn't subscribe to, such as suggesting I watch Family Guy on KTLA (Rogers - channel 344) and Total Recall on HD PPV.


Conclusion
I like the idea and kudos to Nintendo for tackling the challenge of making the complicated TV viewing experience a simpler, better one.  If you view the current version of Nintendo TVii as a beta, then you could perhaps look past the shortcomings noted above.  In its current state, Nintendo TVii feels rushed and incomplete.  It just doesn't fulfill its mission of bringing together TV and video-on-demand services into a fun and friendly experience.  Nintendo TVii may be an app you'll want to show to family and friends, simply for the novelty factor, but until Nintendo improves the stability, usability and functionality, I can't see many people using this service as their de facto TV programming hub.



[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]