The Wikipad, the long-awaited 7" tablet with a controller attachment, is in theory a great device. The gamepad attachment looks a bit big and goofy at first, but it’s a comfortable experience and one of my favorite ways to play games now. But the hardware being a year behind current high-end tablets, especially as a gaming device, causes the Wikipad’s overall value to suffer, which is a shame: this is a fantastic concept.
The body and guts of the tablet are the same as the original Nexus 7: it’s about the same size, has a rubberized back (though with back ridges that jut out), has a Tegra 3 processor with 1 GB of RAM, all the same basics. Running a 3DMark benchmark showed a score of 3629, compared to 4185 in their database for the 2012 Nexus 7, (Update: Futuremark reached out to me and said that this is an error: 3800-3900 is the average benchmark score for the 2012 Nexus 7, the 2013’s benchmark scores are currently mixed in with the old model’s scores.) but it actually outclasses it in two fashions: one, it has a microSD card slot built in so that its storage can be expanded, which is key for the gamer audience that this tablet targets. Second, it has a microHDMI output on the top of the tablet, which is something that the Nexus 7 lacked (even with SlimPort or MHL functionality through the microUSB).
The tablet is laid out in an intelligent way. Yes, 7-inch tablets are actually quite usable in portrait, but like most tablets, they’re great because they can be used in landscape. And the Wikipad puts its microUSB slot on the bottom, with all other inputs on the top. Sure, it has to by necessity of the gamepad attachment, but still, it’s nice to use a tablet and not have to awkwardly place my hand around the charging cable. And the Wikipad seems to have a lot of background battery drain for whatever reason, so I’m glad it isn’t in the way.
OS-wise, the Wikipad is running 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, which is disappointing now that 4.3 is out and 4.2 has been out for a decent spell. The rest of the OS is largely untouched, so I hope that Wikipad is hard at work at bringing the OS up to speed with 4.3.
Now, the gamepad attachment. Yes, this thing is big, considering that it envelopes the entire tablet. But it turns the 7" tablet into something that’s the width and height of the Surface Pro, so it’s not necessarily all that huge. It feels a bit weird at first holding a controller that’s far wider than the standard-width gamepads on the market, but it’s not a bad thing.
Thanks to the rubberized construction, this thing is an ergonomic joy. The shoulder triggers and bumpers all work well. The face buttons are solid. The d-pad works exceptionally and is great for fighting games if Samurai Shodown 2 is any indication. The joysticks were the only area of skepticism with me, when I tried out Dead Trigger, I had to change the sensitivity of looking in-game in order to make them feel better. Still, using these joysticks was a lot better than the touch screen. I was dropping zombies left and right, which is quite welcome for that game.
The combination of tablet and gamepad attachment is not particularly weighty: perhaps holding it in one hand feels a bit heavy, but with two hands, the weight is properly distributed and feels very comfortable. This is a perfect device for sitting back, and enjoying some Android games that support gamepads. The built-in TegraZone app (also available on Google Play) has a gamepad section that’s worth perusing, though it’s not an exhaustive list. Really, Google not showing which games are compatible with the gamepad is a drawback that needs to be addressed.
The gamepad attachment has a microUSB charging port and powered speakers to go along with it, and the charging port is set up in a way that it’s pointing outward, so there’s no awkward cable bending. There was a lot of thought that went into the Wikipad’s physical design, and it shows.
The one big deviation on the OS level is the inclusion of PlayStation Mobile, which is really cool: some of the indie games that are on PS Vita are available here! Except this winds up being a disappointment: there’s no gamepad support! This could be addressed in one of two ways, either Sony enabling HID gamepads in Android for PSM games (since they largely require the manual enabling of a virtual gamepad anyways), or Wikipad implementing touchscreen-to-gamepad mapping. It’s something Archos’ gaming tablet supports, and is something that rooted third-party apps can do, but sadly is not present here despite it seeming quite possible. Think about it: if every game could become possible to use with the gamepad, the value here would be enormous.
As for the tablet’s current value, it’s $250 for the tablet and the gamepad. Now, here’s where the problem with the Wikipad lies. This is year-old hardware. Google just refreshed the Nexus 7 and it’s $229 for its 16 GB model, though a decent gamepad isn’t. Nvidia just released the Shield, which is $299 but also one of the most powerful Android devices available with the Tegra 4 processor. So it’s at a disadvantage that it wasn’t at, say, 5 or 6 months ago.
This is not to say that it’s not still capable hardware: it plays most if not all games quite well, though I did notice the occasional stuttering. But that’s true of the 2012 Nexus 7 as well, and given that it’s a very popular device, most if not all games will support it. It’s just, especially for gamers, who are a performance-focused group on the whole, offering them a sub-optimal horsepower is a major ding.
It’s true that this is a unique package, with the gamepad attachment. Just based on that alone, it’s a more interesting proposition than the Playstation Vita because of the screen size. And given the HDMI output and just general design, it’s got a lot of compelling features. But the horsepower issue is one that will keep coming up.
This is kind of like the Surface Pro, a device in comparable size: both are really great ideas, but as products their first generations suffer from not having the most up-to-date hardware. The Surface Pro, with the Intel Haswell processor microarchitecture and its improved power management should make any potential second generation much better. The first generation? Buying into the idea as much as the product. That’s the same with the Wikipad: it’s going to need people buying into the idea, willing to put up with hardware that is not at its peak in order to get what they want eventually. The Wikipad is perhaps the best tablet gaming experience out there on paper, it just needs more horsepower under the hood to be something I can wholeheartedly recommend.