Set-top device that could have been
Before the iPhone redefined the idea of Apps, the Nintendo Wii offered up its own grid of Channels with a variety of Internet-connected information functions--in their own way, apps. The potential was huge, especially since Channels could be downloaded directly from an online Wii Shop, but only a few were ever made--and no significant ones in the past couple of years. A Web browser remains the most useful, but navigation gets awkward with the Wii Remote, not to mention some sites have difficulty showing up at all. Other Channels offering global weather, news, and quirky polls felt like gimmicks, and their novelty wore thin. Apps from the likes of Pandora, YouTube, Hulu, or ESPN would be welcome, but of course they don't exist. Microsoft and Sony have been far more active in this regard, offering sports videos, Hulu Plus, Vudu movie streaming, MLB and NHL games, Last.fm, and many other functions.
The Wii does have a downloadable Netflix Channel, and it works wonderfully. While the app doesn't have HD streaming, navigation with the Wii Remote is effortless, and Netflix's streaming library offers the sort of entertainment that the DVD-free Wii couldn't previously provide. It's not enough, though: we'd like to see more Channels like these, hopefully sooner than later, but at this point, we'd be shocked if they ever came.
Where's my entertainment?
The biggest failing of the Wii, in that regard, is its awkwardness as a set-top box. Netflix aside, there aren't any useful channels or apps that make the Wii anything that anyone would want to use, except to play games on. That's fine enough considering the Wii's a game console, but today's systems are transforming into multipurpose devices quite rapidly. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have multiple video-streaming applications, and can also act as media hubs to stream content from nearby PCs. The Wii stands on an island, its only source of content being the Wii Shop, and its only source of interaction with other devices being a Nintendo DS.
Online, and yet not
The Wii connects online for Wii Shop downloads and occasional online play in some games and Channels, but in most other regards the system is closed off compared with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. User profiles are shared with friends via complicated 12-digit "friend codes," a method designed to protect young gamers, but for others, the system is so arcane that it's likely never to be used. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have far more elegant methods for online messaging, game matchmaking, and community-building.
The Wii does have a capable Web browser that can even play Flash video, but navigation can be a challenge. We'd rather have Internet-connected channels that offered more compelling features than the handful that are currently available.
The Wii Shop has a large library of downloadable games for the Wii, both in the form of Wii-specific games ("WiiWare") and classic emulated games from old systems including the Sega Genesis, Super NES, N64, and more ("Virtual Console"). The library of games offered at this point is substantial, and fans of classic games are in for some treats in the Virtual Console.
However, Nintendo has no method for transferring or redownloading digital content once it's been purchased and stored on a Wii. Games can be stored on SD cards, but not transferred to another console. If you wanted or needed to buy a new Wii, there's no way to copy one's digital library to another console, short of sending both Wiis in to Nintendo directly. It's not that you'd really find a need to transfer games, but both the Xbox 360 and PS3 handle digital content in a far friendlier manner.
Storage space on the Wii is also extremely limited: internal storage space fills quickly, and you'll find yourself saving and shuttling between SD cards after that. The lack of a hard drive is a big miss if you download more than 10 games, but you're not likely to run out of space if you just play disc-based games.
While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 offer downloadable demos of upcoming titles, the Wii has yet to adopt such a preview system. Such a feature has become increasingly popular and allows the user to try a game out before a purchase. Nintendo has begun rolling out game demos for certain WiiWare titles, but we're not sure there will ever be such options for disc-based games.
The future, and the past
In the end, it's hard to imagine the Wii with any real future after 2010. Games feel like they're dwindling into a retro-embracing spiral, as opposed to boldly finding new ideas. We'd like to dream that the Wii will have support for Hulu Plus or other video options someday soon, but we're not holding our breath. Besides, with no HD support, the Wii will never compete with a Roku box or Apple TV for video quality in any HDTV-owning household.
Frankly, we're a bit surprised that the Wii hasn't gone through another price drop in time for the 2010 holiday season. It seems its competition in Sony and Microsoft have not only added great features, but actually lowered their prices as well; whereas the Wii has remained mostly static all these years along with maintaining that $200 price tag.
This leaves us with the only real uses for the Wii we can think of: as a kid-friendly fun casual games box and a shrine to Nintendo games for loyal fans. There are certainly plenty of great Wii, GameCube, and Virtual Console games to keep any Nintendo fetishist happy for years, and as a museum piece of Nintendo technology, the Wii succeeds greatly. Its variety of health-oriented games and peripherals such as Wii Fit and EA Sports Active could also be appealing to some.
Otherwise, the Wii represents a product whose best days seem to lie in the past--a product we had higher hopes for, and which ultimately, from a technological standpoint, can't keep up with the pace of modern game development. If Pandora, Hulu, and other media features were to find their way onto the Wii in the future, we'd believe that this box could have some life as a set-top option. Otherwise, perhaps you might prefer an Xbox 360 or a PS3.
Still, we can't deny that the Wii is a democratic game platform, one that suits nongamers and those who don't transform their living rooms into hotbeds of high-end technology. It's suitable for a dorm room or in a media center, and can be enjoyed by a kid or a grandparent. For the time being, that universal accessibility remains the biggest appeal of the Wii, although we wonder how much longer that appeal can be sustained. If you spend $200 on one now, it'll certainly offer up plenty of entertainment--but its greatest days and games lie in the past, not in the future.