Ouya Game Console review: Huge disruptive potential not yet realized

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MSRP: $99.99

The Good The Ouya works as an unfiltered indie game repository, and at $99, is a cheap investment. Its free-to-try model for games allows you to assay before you pay.

The Bad The console has a cheap controller, unstable software, lacks compelling games, has a dearth of useful media apps, and low graphics performance.

The Bottom Line Despite its low price and free-to-try system, the Ouya fails to reach its potential as a disruptive alternative platform.

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5.7 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 5
  • Performance 6

If you’ve come here wondering whether you should buy the Ouya, let me answer that straight away: no, you shouldn’t. At least not yet.

Instead, let the hacker-types, tinkerers, and the extreme hard-core gamers be the guinea pigs for the Android-based console, because it currently needs all the testing it can get.

With any luck over the next six months, the Ouya's software library will grow to a much more compelling state, bugs will get fixed, the interface will have much-needed features added, and native nongaming content will be released. Harder to address will be the cheap controller and underpowered system architecture, however.

Of course, if one killer app is enough to justify a new console purchase, there are few launch titles in the annals of console debuts as complete and thoroughly engaging as TowerFall. It's the best reason to ignore everything I said up top. No, really. It’s that good.

The console's low price and free-to-try system for games puts another point in its corner and will appeal to gamers on a budget, but exercising patience and giving the system time to find its footing is the best course of action right now.

The Ouya has lots of potential as a cheap alternative to the mainstream wares being pumped out by Microsoft and Sony, but continued refinement will be necessary if it’s to become something viable.

Design and hardware
The Ouya is a gray and black box that weighs 0.68 pound and is small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. It features a combination of smooth embossed aluminum and glossy plastic, and its body is tapered slightly at the bottom. A circular power button sits on the top and glows with a dim white LED Ouya logo ( a "U") when powered on. The power button is surrounded by four unobstructed screws resting in each of the device’s four corners, allowing tinkerers to easily remove the top plate and access the system’s innards.

On its back is an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, a full USB port, and a Micro-USB connection. Internally there’s 8GB of storage (expandable through the aforementioned full USB port), 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and support for 5.1 sound. All games and apps must be either downloaded directly to the device or installed via external storage. There is no disc-based media.

The bottom vents work in tandem with those on the top to keep the Ouya from getting too hot during long play sessions. It works pretty well. Josh Miller/CNET

The design is no-nonsense and practical, and it thankfully features vents on both its top and bottom. It’s not the sturdiest of devices, however, and the plastic parts that make up its outer shell contribute to an overall hollow, brittle impression. But it's not an eyesore and won't look out of place in an entertainment center. And even if it did, it's so small that most people wouldn't even notice it's there.

The interface
Around 30 seconds after pressing the Ouya's power button -- and about 2 seconds after hearing the "OOUYA!" greeting bellow -- the home screen appears with four options: Play, Discover, Make, and Manage. Each is presented with large, clear fonts on a blatantly orange background. There’s currently no option to change the background, but hopefully (for the sake of my eyes) one will be added soon.

Now that's orange. Josh Miller/CNET

Play is where you’ll find all the games you’ve downloaded, each represented by a graphical tile. Discover is the games store. Titles are categorized into regularly updated curated channels. Channels can range from developer favorites to games that Ouya decides to promote. There's also a search feature for finding more-obscure games (if you know the name), or more useful is the Genres section, which allows you to browse through every piece of software available on the Ouya through categories like Retro, Platformer, App, Play with Friends, etc. As a note, this list is found near the bottom of the page; it should be surfaced higher.

Make has two functions: it's where you access the Web and launch side-loaded apps, and if you're currently developing a game on Ouya -- Ouya acts as a development kit once the SDK is downloaded -- Make is where you'll find your latest game builds. Finally, Manage houses your Ouya’s system settings, mostly mirroring typical Android 4.1 options.

The app store for Ouya could use a couple of organizational tweaks, but is pretty serviceable. Josh Miller/CNET

There’s a kind of sparse, bare-bones quality to the interface, and it doesn't feel quite professionally done. Like an experiment instead of an actual finished release, or a mock-up a buddy hacked together over the weekend, just to illustrate a design philosophy.

The orange progress bar for app downloads blends with the slightly more orange background, making it difficult to see. There's no list of your currently downloading apps, which would be useful after queuing up a bunch of downloads.

Yep. Unmistakably Android. Josh Miller/CNET

Also, while you can hold the analog stick in a direction and have it quickly scroll through a list in the Ouya’s interface, the very Android-like settings menu only supports the feature when using the D-pad. It’s that kind of small, but glaring inconsistency that makes the console feel not quite ready for the masses.

It’s also buggy, with the "Ouya launcher has stopped responding" error message appearing more times than I could care to keep track of. Sound errors were abundant and didn't always sync up when making menu selections. There are no profiles, achievements, or leaderboards and currently no online play. Ouya says these are coming by the end of the year, but it’s yet another reason to take the wait-and-see approach with the console.

The controller
The controller feels like a movie prop. Something you'd find on a set, thinking it's real only to be disappointed by its hollow feel once you've picked it up. That’s not to say it’s not functional. It works, but it just feels like an off-off-brand Xbox 360 pad. Thankfully, the lag I’d heard that plagued early Kickstarter units was nowhere to be found.

The Ouya controller closely resembles an Xbox 360 pad, until you actually hold it in your hands. Josh Miller/CNET

However, on my unit the left analog stick squeaked something awful, and on one occasion the “O” button got stuck under the right panel. The touch pad seems to have been calibrated with zero precision in mind, and attempting to use it to surf the Web is an exercise in crippling frustration. On more than one occasion when playing a game, the directional movement was reversed for a few seconds, making right left and up down, temporarily.