Like 64,000+ others I bought into the OUYA dream, both figuratively and literally. Its initial announcement had me skeptical as I really couldn’t foresee any reason as to why I’d want one, but it quickly grew on me and I thought, at worst, I’ve bought myself a media extender that I can use pretty much anywhere. I dropped a decent amount of coin on it, enough to net me a console and 2 controllers, and then patiently waited for that box to show up on my doorstep. I was excited to review it, since it was a new piece of hardware that I helped to create, and I was told I’d get my hands on it long before it hit retail shelves.
I got mine the same day it hit retail shelves in the USA and that was only the beginnings of my frustration with it.
The device itself was well packaged however the additional controller was just kind of dumped in the shipping box along with the additional batteries to power it. After peeling over the various protective covers that seemed to coat every single part of it I wired it up to my television and turned it on. It emphatically shouted “OUYA” at me and then asked for my wireless credentials to hook itself up to the Internet. This was all fine however it seemed to randomly drop the connection every so often, requiring me to sift through the menus to make it rediscover the connection again. This is with the router being only 3m away from it with nothing but air between it and none of my other wireless devices seemed to share the same problems.
Singing up for an account was pretty standard and after that I greeted with a few menu options. I hit play figuring there’d be a couple titles installed just to get you going (there aren’t) and after that I hit up the Discover section (which I guess counts as the shop) where I perused around for some titles. All of the lists that adorned the front page contained a similar mix of games which made them rather useless for discovery so I ended up looking for some titles that I remember being advertised as coming to the platform. After getting a couple recommended titles and all the emulators I could find I sat down to play through a couple of the games and I can’t say I was terribly impressed.
There’s clearly 2 classes of games on the OUYA store currently. The first is the truly free software which if its a utility seems to work great (all the emulators function as expected, but more on them in a bit) and the second is the essentially the free trial version of the game. Now I knew that there would be paid titles on there however I figured they’d be like the Android store, I.E. I’d have to pay to get them. That’s not the case for the titles that I got my hands on as pretty much all of them have the upsell as part of the game or hide behind tricky mechanics like “coins” or other kinds of micro-transactiony malarkey. I can’t say that this endeared any of the games to me but then again if I was a developer I’d probably do the same thing to get more eyeballs on my product.
Probably the saving grace of the OUYA is that the emulators do work since the OUYA has enough grunt to power them however the process to get them working could not be more of a pain in the ass. If you follow any of the guides that come up when you Google “get ROMs on OUYA” you’ll likely end up having to trounce through the settings menu looking for downloaded files so you can side load file manager onto it. If you’re really unlucky (like I was) the APK files will refuse to install which means you’ve got no way to manage the files. Thankfully the USB driver seems to work well enough to recognize thumb drives and read the files directly off them. This is where integration with the Play store would really come in handy as I could just skirt that whole process and use the web interface to deploy files to it. I do understand why they’re not doing that, however.
As you can guess I’m pretty underwhelmed with the whole experience and I’m going to level most of the blame squarely at the OUYA itself. We didn’t get off to a great start when I, someone who was an early backer, got mine when it went generally available. The whole experience after that point was just marred with little issues that just cemented that feeling of displeasure. Sure there are some redeemable things about the platform but honestly it’s nothing more than what I could get with a $6 app and hooking up my PlayStation 3 controllers to my Android phone.
For the past year I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my tech friends because I choose to get an iPhone 3GS instead of one of the Android handsets. The choice was simple at the time, I had an app that I wanted to develop for it and needed something to test on, but still I copped it sweet whenever I said something positive about the platform since I’d usually be the only one with an Apple product in the area. When it came time again to buy a new phone, as I get to do every year for next to nothing, I resisted for quite a while, until one of my friends put me onto the Samsung Galaxy S2¹. The tech specs simply overwhelmed my usual fiscal conservativeness and no less than a week later was I in possession of one and so began my experience with the Android platform.
The default UI that comes with all of Samsung’s Android handsets, called TouchWiz, feels uncannily similar to that of iOS. In fact it’s so familiar that Apple is suing Samsung because of it, but if you look at many other Android devices you’ll see that they share similar characteristics that Apple is claiming Samsung ripped off from them. For me personally though the Android UI wins out simply because of how customizable it is allowing me to craft an experience that’s tailored to my use. Widgets, basically small front ends to your running applications, are a big part of this enabling me to put things like a weather ticker on my front page. The active wallpapers are also pretty interesting too, if only to liven up the otherwise completely static UI.
What impresses me most about the Android platform is the breadth and depth of the applications and tweaks available for the system. My first few days with Android were spent just getting myself back up and running like I was on my iPhone, finding all the essential applications (Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Battle.net Authenticator, etc) and comparing the experience to the iPhone. For the most part the experience on Android is almost identical, especially with applications that have large user bases, but some of them were decidedly sub-par. Now most would say that this is due to the fragmentation of the Android platform but the problems I saw didn’t stem from those kinds of issues, just a lack of effort on their part to polish the experience. This more often happened for applications that weren’t “Android born” as many of the native apps were leaps and bounds ahead of them in terms of quality.
The depth of integration that applications and tweaks can have with the Android platform is really where the platform shines. Skype, for example, can usurp your outgoing calls and route them through their network which could be a major boon if you’re lucky enough to have a generous data plan. It doesn’t stop with application integration either, there are numerous developers dedicated to making the Android platform itself better through custom kernels and ROMs. The extra functionality that I have unlocked with my phone by installing CF-Root kernel, one that allows me root access, are just phenomenal. I’ve yet to find myself wanting for any kind of functionality and rarely have I found myself needing to pay for it something, unless it was for convenience’s sake.
Android is definitely a technophile’s dream with the near limitless possibilities of an open platform laid out before you. However had you not bothered to do all the faffing about that I did you still wouldn’t be getting a sub-par experience, at least on handsets sporting the TouchWiz interface. Sure you might have to miss out on some of the useful apps (like Titanium Backup) but realistically many of the root enabled apps aren’t aimed at your everyday user. You still get all the benefits of the deep integration with the Android platform where a good 90% of the value will be for most users anyway.
Despite all of this gushing over Google’s mobile love child I still find it hard to recommend it as the platform for everyone. Sure for anyone with a slight technical bent it’s the platform to go for, especially if you’re comfortable modding your hardware, and sure it’s still quite usable for the majority who aren’t. However Apple’s platform does automate a lot of the rudimentary stuff for you (like backing up your handset when you sync it) which Android, as a platform, doesn’t currently do. Additionally thanks to the limited hardware platform you’re far less likely to encounter some unknown issue on iOS than you are on Android which, if you’re the IT support for the family like me, can make your life a whole lot easier.
Android really impressed me straight from the get go and continued to do so as I spent more time getting to know it and digging under the hood to unlock even more value from it. The ability to interact, modify or outright replace parts of the underlying Android platform is what makes it great and is the reason why it’s the number 1 smart phone platform to date. As a long time smart phone user I feel that Android is by far the best platform for both technophiles and regular users alike, giving you the usability you’ve come to expect from iOS with the tweakability that used to be reserved for only for Windows Mobile devices.
Now I just need to try out a Windows Phone 7 device and I’ll have done the mobile platform trifecta.
¹I’m reviewing the handset separately as since Android is available on hundreds of handsets it wouldn’t be fair to lump them together as I did with the iPhone. Plus the Galaxy S2 deserves its own review anyway and you’ll find out why hopefully this week 😉