Ouya, a new game console from a startup company of the same name, was designed with a simple premise in mind -- providing consumers an inexpensive way to play games on their big-screen TVs.
To reach that goal, Ouya's founders decided to learn some lessons from the mobile industry, rather than trying to build a device that could compete head-to-head with Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3. Instead of offering a powerful but pricey machine, they designed a $100 gadget built around a customized version of Google's (GOOG) Android operating system and a processor more commonly found in smartphones and tablets. And instead of playing $50 disc-based games, the console is designed to run downloadable games that consumers can try for free and purchase for prices that are typically less than $10.
The idea was a sound one. Much of the growth in gaming in recent years has come from low-cost or free games designed to be played on Facebook or smartphones rather than on traditional consoles. By building off Android, Ouya promised consumers a way to play some of the same games they've enjoyed on their mobile devices on their big-screen TVs.
But for now, Ouya remains little more than a promising device. It has a poor selection of games, and its hardware and software both need refining.
Unlike traditional game consoles, Ouya doesn't take up a lot of room. With a shape reminiscent of a dreidel (without the stick on top), it's about 3 inches in height, width and depth.
It's also relatively easy to get up and running: You just have to plug it in, connect it to your TV via the included HDMI cable and connect it to the Internet over either an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi.
Once you've got it connected, you have to set up an account with Ouya. This is a painful process, because you have to enter such things as your name and credit card number by navigating an on-screen keyboard with a game controller. It would be great if Ouya allowed you to register on your PC or to connect to the console with your smartphone or tablet and use its keyboard, but no such luck. Fortunately, you should only have to go through the process once.
After it's up and running, Ouya offers a simple menu of options that connect users with the games they already have on their machine or find and download new ones. Users can also adjust their settings or go to a "make" area, which was designed to give game developers a chance to test the games they are making.
Unfortunately, the menus underneath the homescreen are far less straightforward. Icons for the games on your machine are lined up in rows that stretch beyond the width of the screen. Games that you've played most recently are displayed first, but other than that, there appears to be no order to the listing. The system does offer a search feature to help find particular titles.
The store is an even bigger jumble filled with similar rows -- just lots more of them. Among the rows are ones filled with featured, exclusive and popular titles, as well as those recommended by particular designers and Ouya employees. However, because the system offers relatively few games, the same ones keep showing up over and over. Unless you know a particular game is in the system -- and use the search feature to look for it -- it can be difficult to find.
Ouya does break down its titles into categories that you can browse, but those categories are buried under the rows of featured and recommended titles and can be easy to miss.
According to Ouya's website, it now offers 231 games for the device. That number would be underwhelming for a smartphone or tablet, though it would be impressive for a just-launched traditional game console.
But the number of games doesn't matter as much as the kinds and quality of the games available. And it's here where, at least for now, Ouya really comes up short. What you'll find is a group of games that's mainly composed of obscure titles from independent developers and older games developed years ago for other game machines.
Among the more recognizable games are "Final Fantasy III," "Sonic the Hedgehog 4," and the trivia game "You Don't Know Jack." Those are all fine, but they're not exactly "Halo" or even "Angry Birds." And many of the other games on the system are even less satisfying, offering fairly simple graphics and gameplay more suited for killing time at the bus stop than for playing in the living room.
There are a few more sophisticated games with more up-to-date graphics and gameplay, including "Shadowgun," a third-person action game, and "Chronoblade," a role-playing game. But these games can be frustrating to play because of a short but noticeable lag between pressing a controller button and seeing the action translated on screen.
Ouya promises the device will be much more than a game console, that you'll also be able to use it as a digital media adapter like Apple (AAPL) TV. But that part of the device is underdeveloped. You won't find Netflix (NFLX), YouTube, Amazon video, Pandora or any of the other popular digital media services. You can, instead, stream videos and music from your computer to the Ouya -- but it's a somewhat difficult process that requires you to have the right software installed and configured on your PC.
So, while I like Ouya's price and promise, I'd hold off on buying it until it comes closer to reaching its potential.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.
Likes: Low cost; relatively easy set up; inexpensive games free to try; Android-based, which offers the promises of many more games to come.
Dislikes: Game selection so far is small, with no must-have titles; interface after the home screen is difficult to navigate; lag between button presses and on-screen actions; few digital media apps or options
Specs: Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor; 8GB internal flash storage; includes one wireless controller.