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TEch Lab

With Wii U, Nintendo takes the lead

With Christmas past and the gift cards melting in your pockets, it’s time to go hunting for whatever goodies didn’t turn up under the tree. A new video game console, perhaps. And this year, you can get one that’s truly new.

Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox 360 is seven years old; Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Co.’s Wii console each rolled out six years ago. So Nintendo’s just-released Wii U is the first new game console of the decade. Priced between $299 and $349, it’s a massive upgrade that features a new game controller with a 6-inch video touchscreen.

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Unlike the original Wii, the Wii U can handle the high-definition graphics of today’s top-drawer games.

But it’s more than a game box; the Wii U delivers built-in videoconferencing, a system for sorting your favorite cable television programs, and easy access to Internet streaming videos from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon.com.

Indeed, the Wii U is Nintendo’s bid to create the ideal digital entertainment hub. Alas, the new console doesn’t quite make it. It’s hampered by a host of annoying imperfections. None are too severe, and some will probably be fixed with software upgrades. Still, I’m a little pained to see that Nintendo’s very good machine just misses being a great one.

For instance, there’s the new GamePad controller, which carries the usual array of buttons and triggers, spread out to make room for the video screen. Despite its bulk, the GamePad is light and comfortable in the hands. Video game designers can use the touchscreen to display extra information or provide a better way to control game play. In the grim action game Batman: Arkham City, for example, you touch a stylus to the screen to receive radio transmissions with vital clues. In the frivolous, family-friendly Nintendo Land game, the screen displays mini-games that let you win extra prizes. Adding the second screen opens up plenty of creative possibilities, just as it did with Nintendo’s DS hand-held game units.

The touchscreen can show a different point of view inside the same game, making the Wii U well suited for multiple players.

The GamePad’s built-in web­cam and microphone support videoconferencing with fellow Wii U gamers. Also, you can stream Internet video to the GamePad, so you can look at a Netflix video while your wife watches “Bridezillas.”

An infrared transmitter on the GamePad allows it to function as a TV remote. It works nicely with Nintendo TVii, a new service designed to make it easier to find and watch your favorite shows.

You program it to identify your cable TV set-top box and cable provider. Now you can look up TV show listings on the GamePad and tune to the show by tapping the screen.

On the downside, Nintendo TVii doesn’t fully integrate cable TV and Internet viewing options. Look up the TV series “Revenge,” and you’re pointed to Hulu Plus and Amazon.com to buy Season One episodes. But there’s no mention of Netflix, which also carries the show. I’m still waiting for a streaming video service that gets this right.

Meanwhile, the touchscreen isn’t as good-looking or responsive as the one on the average smartphone.

The GamePad’s battery life is a disappointment, as well. I never ran it dry, but it was about three-quarters drained after a couple hours of heavy use.

Other minor irritations abound. There’s no Ethernet port for connecting the Wii U to a hardwired home network. You can purchase an optional Ethernet adapter or rely on Wi-Fi wireless networking, which is usually slower.

This matters because every new game seems to require a software download. Just setting up the Wii U for the first time required more than an hour of upgrading.

The Wii U’s menus and online services are often remarkably slow to load and run. Maximum data capacity is 32 gigabytes, compared to the 250 gigs you can get on an Xbox 360. The Wii U’s optical drive doesn’t play DVD or Blu-ray disks.

And why is there no speech-recognition feature? I should be able to tune in TV shows with a few voice commands. And though the Wii U will run older Wii games, only a handful of new titles take advantage of the console’s advanced technology.

The Wii U’s sheer newness is a disadvantage here; it will be an even stronger contender in a year or so. But having savored its innovative GamePad, high-definition graphics, and strong suite of video features, I can’t argue with gamers who won’t want to wait.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Watha.
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