For those that owned the Wii U since day one, cast your mind back to its UI (user interface) and OS (operating system) when you fired up the system for the first time. It was, to be rather blunt, a mediocre experience, mainly due to its excessively slow performance. Don't forget that a popular video of a Japanese fan becoming agitated and timing the system's boot period was far from inaccurate — compared to various modern gadgets, it was below expectations.
Of course, the nature of any new system and its OS is that it'll be far from perfect on day one. Nintendo knew this, and there's little escaping the fact that when the system launched it was in a state that could be summarised as "that's functional, it'll do". TVii, for example, wasn't ready for launch in the US despite being promoted heavily in the region — it's still not available in the EU, of course — and gamers became used to absent-mindedly checking emails while waiting for menu transitions.
This recent update is the fifth major version, with each category having multiple tweaks in-between. The day one update was actually version 2.0 and the most substantial, essentially turning a husk of a machine into a full fledged console. Think that's an unfair characterisation? Not really, as version 2.0 added Nintendo Network ID support, Wii backwards compatibility, Miiverse, the eShop, the internet browser, the friend list, external hard drive support, Wii U chat, Wii system transfer and the download management tool. You could play games without installing the update, but not much else.
That, in fairness to Nintendo, is par for the course with a new console release, with day one updates common in an era where changes are made late in the day and manufacturing begins months before release. It's also worth bearing in mind that, slow performance and issues aside, the updated Wii U on launch day was far and beyond the capabilities of the final Wii after its updates; some of these features may have been common on rival platforms, but it was a big leap for Nintendo.
Two subsequent minor updates provided that good old system stability, but version 3 came along in April 2013. The major new feature was that the system could now download content and updates while in standby mode, a feature that's increasingly in use on the current-day. Elsewhere services such as Miiverse and the web browser had added support for controllers such as the Wii U Pro Controller, downloads were set to automatically install, Wii Mode could be accessed quicker and there were general improvements in areas such as the eShop. The headline feature was that the operating system had a boost in speed, though it could still be undeniably ponderous at times. A notable mini update in this set came in July, meanwhile, opening up the automatic notification of content through SpotPass.
Version 4 was to come in late September 2013, and the main feature was that it allowed the system to automatically download — though it's optional — free or trial software; examples include the Wii Sports Club main app Wii Karaoke U. Support for a USB keyboard was added, while the browser included support for easily uploading a screen of the TV or GamePad to social networks, for example. A quirky headline addition from this update is the ability to play Wii games solely on the GamePad, and when a pointer is required the camera serves as a sensor bar — one of those "awesome but I'll never use it" features, we suspect. There were neat improvements overall, though it was perhaps the lowest profile of them all so far; three minor updates followed that served the role of boosting stability, oh how we love stability.
That brings us to version 5, which arrived without a moment's notice this week, delivering some key enhancements promised by Satoru Iwata earlier in the year. Namely, it introduces the Quick Start feature, as upon immediately booting the console the ten most recently used games and apps are displayed on the GamePad — a simple tap of the icon loads up that game, in the case of disc copies assuming that it's still in the drive. Even if you want to access the standard menu it's just one tap away and, undoubtedly, seems quicker than before. The option to set a default user for automatic login is now immediately accessible when tapping on the user account icon on the GamePad; in our experience movement between apps and the home menu seems slicker than before, with an obvious error on one of our machines in failing to fully quit Netflix, for example, no longer to be found. There's a zip to the OS that is quite striking.
The user interface has also had a minor overhaul, with subtle but pleasant changes made to add neater quick access shortcut buttons and a cleaner look. For those just buying a Wii U now it seems like a slick, and importantly quick, system that actually uses the GamePad like a handy tablet-like device, though navigating with other controllers is, of course, an option.
Over 18 months after the Wii U launch and onto our fifth major firmware version, there's a feeling that the operating system is evolving into an appropriately modern setup, decidedly less clunky and limited than in October 2012. Zipping between apps is the way it should be in the face of strong interfaces on PS4 and Xbox One, though each is very different from Nintendo's, and likewise in a tech climate where pacey iOS and Android devices are the norm. The GamePad, meanwhile, all set to be prominent at E3, can and perhaps should be pitched to parents as an accessible, inexpensive tablet-like device that enhances how a console can work in the home. A quickly launched game is only a tap away, the interface is clear and easy to understand, and it'll even have some DS content in the future. A recent Wii U adopter we know, despite being tech-savvy and owning plenty of gadgets, enjoys the fact he can start a game loading on the GamePad while using its universal controller to turn on his TV. All built-in and accessible. Add the fact the GamePad will now act almost as a standalone device in delivering notifications, and it's looking a little more essential to the hardware.
The Wii U of today certainly feels like a fully-realised setup, albeit short of some key apps such as the ability to live stream that's enjoyed on other current-gen systems, while we'll complain about the Nintendo Network ID being hardware based until it isn't. Those complaints aside, however, the system's come a long way since its launch.
If Nintendo can use exciting exclusives to get more consoles into living rooms, consumers may be pleasantly surprised at what it can do.