Pros: Elaborate system for viewing sports, searches for specific titles among all your services, is free.
Cons: No sensible way to browse, a shocking absence of basic customization options.
I was thrilled when I heard Nintendo was developing TVii, a free service for the Wii U that would unify streaming services like Hulu Plus and Netflix, DVRs, and cable TV into one easy to navigate interface. I thought it was a great idea that could move the Wii U beyond the Nintendophile market. I was disappointed that the service wasn’t available when the Wii U launched on November 18th.
Now that I’ve tried it out, I’m disappointed Nintendo even bothered putting such a mess onto their console.
The Basics: A System to Access Your Media
When you start TVii for the first time you must choose your television provider, which might be cable or satellite or just broadcast TV. You are asked to specify your favorite channels, and also presented with a list of movies and TV series and asked to declare some of them as favorites.
Once that’s done, you see the main screen, which offers icons to access TV, movies, and sports, and another icon that brings up a TV remote.
Of course, the Wii U gamepad has a TV remote built into it, which has power, input, volume and channel controls, but the TVii remote is a bit fancier, with buttons that take you to your favorite TV stations and video playback controls (play, pause, etc.). What neither remote has is a mute button. This really annoys me, as I consider the muting of odious, blaring commercials to be essential. It’s a small omission, but perhaps indicative of Nintendo’s lack of understanding of how TV viewing works.
When you go to a subcategory like TV or Movies you are presented with “featured” programs, which are generally things I have no interest in seeing. Another category, “recommended” programs, is not better; why on earth does Nintendo think I would enjoy Cheaters, Cash Cab, The Young and the Restless, or Doctor Phil? TVii offers no system to remove recommendations or to customize them in any way, nor does it appear to use your favorites as a guide for recommendations.
The more useful TV modes are “Live” and “Grid.” “Live” tells you what’s on TV right now, although Nintendo apparently believes “now” and “20 minutes from now” are basically the same thing. “Grid” is a standard TV Guide grid listing what’s on by channel and time.
There are a few problems with this system. First off, like pretty much everything in TVii, you can’t customize it, meaning the application shows me channels I can’t get or have no interest in watching, such as foreign language stations. Also, if you select a show through “Recommended” or “Featured” it comes up with a description of what the series is, while from the grid you just get the episode name and the channel. So if you see a movie in the grid and you are wondering what it’s about, there is no way to find that out.
Finding Things to Watch: Undernourished Browsing
When I’ve used services like Hulu Plus and Netflix, I’ve spent a lot of time just exploring what movies and shows were available and choosing things that sounded interesting, but TVii is not a good choice for browsing. I can choose from a handful of recommended or featured movies, or I can search for a movie title and it will tell me whether it is available from one of my media sources, but it is much easier to go to an app for a specific service like Amazon where I can make choices by genre or popularity and even store them for future viewing. It is as though the designers of TVii have never seen a streaming media interface, since theirs lacks almost any feature you'll find in the others.
Amazon’s streaming service, which TVii supports, is a good example of how badly TVii supports these services. If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, which offers a subset of its total offerings for a monthly fee, TVii can’t tell you whether the movie you’ve chosen is part of your subscription. Even when it is, TVii still tells me I can “buy or rent” it.
If you find something you want to watch, it will tell you all the ways you can watch it, which may include cable TV and multiple streaming services. If you choose to watch it on the TV it will tune your TV to the correct channel. If you choose to watch it through a streaming service it will launch the app for that service. So it’s not really fully integrated, which would allow you to watch movies through the TVii interface and jump back to that at any time.
The Single High Point: Sports
One potentially cool feature of TVii is TV Tags, which allow you to comment on key moments in TV shows. Unfortunately, not a single show I watched supported the feature, which supposedly is supported for the “top 100” series.
I did see TV Tags in action though in Sports, the one area where TVii looks genuinely impressive.
In the Sports section you can choose a sport and then choose from a list of current and upcoming games. While watching the game, there is a diagram of the arena with indicators of where the players are, and you can comment on plays using the TV tag feature. You can also get various stats.
It’s actually very impressive, but you have to be into sports, which I am not.
The Verdict: Not Worth the Bother
Currently the only streaming services TVii supports are Amazon and Hulu Plus, although in future it will also support Tivo and Netflix, and eventually probably more. But it doesn’t matter how many services the application supports if it doesn’t make the users viewing experience better.
There are a few places where TVii seems somewhat useful. It looks very promising for sports, the TV grid and Live TV views would be useful if you could customize what channels are shown, and if you have a specific movie in mind and want to know which services offer it, then it’s downright handy.
But overall, TVii is a huge disappointment that fails to deliver the streaming media revolution we were promised, a service vastly inferior to the individual services it is meant to supplant.
Most of these flaws are so obvious that I feel that the service was simply released far before it was ready. The potential is there, and I’m sure Nintendo will continue to tweak the system (I would recommend basic customization as a number one priority), but I’ll be surprised if TVii becomes genuinely useful within a year, if ever. In fact, now that I’ve written my review, I’ll probably never use it again.