Out of the box, the Wii U is able to play disc-based games and let you create little Mii characters. What it's not able to do is hop online or utilize the many network-connected features of the platform, nor does it even show off the completed launch interface. For that, you'll need to download a patch.
And what a patch it is. On the evening before the system went on sale in the US, we spent about 90 minutes downloading the update, though we've seen others speak of up to three-hour download times. Luckily, the update itself only takes about 10 minutes to install.
Ultimately, though, the patch opens up a lot of possibilities for the system, and the Wii U is dramatically better equipped for online interactions than its predecessor.
Case in point: instead of swapping randomized friend codes to connect with pals, you can register a free Nintendo Network tag of your choosing. That alone is a night-and-day improvement over the original Wii and even the 3DS (as of now), though like Xbox Live, you're capped at 100 friends.
The eShop is a much glossier version of the 3DS original, and it's well-stocked: the vast majority of retail games are also available as downloads (full-priced, sadly), while promising and prominently-featured indie games like Little Inferno and Chasing Aurora offer lower-priced experiences. Streaming video trailers are a nice touch for certain games, as well, though playable demos are currently MIA.
Miiverse is Nintendo's attempt at offering a baked-in social network of sorts for Wii U players, allowing users to swap stylus-based drawings, tapped-out messages, and other little challenges and observations in communities based on individual games. It's also a hub for seeing the notes and messages your friends send, making it an essential stop for well-connected users. Miiverse is shallow and restrictive, but lightly charming in its simplicity.
Day one jitters intervened regularly with Miiverse, though. We often had trouble connecting at all, and for most of the launch day, were unable to see any messages at all in any community. We also had issues with the Wii U Chat video feature, which lets you call pals (with an adorable ringtone) and scribble on each other's pictures as you talk. Calls failed to connect; ones that went through lagged and dropped quickly. With luck, both are early issues that Nintendo can scale up to avoid.
The Wii U Internet Browser is an OK choice for couch-based browsing on the TV, with the touch screen allowing you to tap in URLs and search terms and scroll the screen with relative ease (aside from occasional tap-and-drag issues). Multiple tabs are supported, as are favorites, plus you can surf privately on the GamePad by drawing virtual curtains on the TV screen – a cute touch.
But if you're planning to surf solely on the GamePad and already have a smartphone or tablet, you're probably better off using that, particularly if it runs at a higher resolution than the GamePad – and has native apps for services like Twitter and Facebook, which Wii U lacks.
We caught a couple of oddly rendered fonts on the GamePad screen, plus sites were inconsistently displaying standard and mobile versions of sites with no apparent local option to force one or the other. Also, streaming video may run at a slower frame rate, depending on the source. Essentially, it's a decent option for occasional web look-ups, but if you have a better option within reach, use that instead.
As of day one, Netflix is the only video app that actually works on our US sample – the icons for YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video are placeholders. Netflix on Wii U is a fine, but unremarkable experience; the GamePad is used to flip through content, which can be displayed on either screen, though we'd like to see the ability to browse content while video still plays on the TV.
Following the large system update, the games themselves also in many cases have separate, smaller updates that seem to implement the previously locked online features and potential other tweaks. These updates typically take a few minutes to download and install, though you can continue playing while the download occurs in the background and install later.
When we get hold of a UK unit, we'll update this section so stay tuned.