Hands on with the Wikipad, the high-end Android tablet with actual buttons and analog sticks
James Bower is CEO of Wikipad, and he showed me the device at a meeting during PAX Prime. The concept is simple: this tablet is supposed to offer the best possible experience for gaming, complete with a dock that brought real physical controls to tablet gaming. The meeting was off to the good start; the internals were impressive. “We had to be very careful of the fact it has to be as light as possible and as powerful and as fast as we possibly could,” Bower told the Penny Arcade Report. “We used in the recipe for this tablet all the top components that we possibly could to make it efficient, light, and have a long battery life. We came out with this design, which just happens to be one of, if not the lightest tablets that’s come to the market this holiday season.” He handed me the tablet, which I later learned was “less than” 560 grams, and it felt pleasantly light. For reference, the iPad 3 is 652 grams. “So it’s a Tegra 3 processor, quad core. It has 1GB of RAM, and it’s going to come preloaded with 16GB of storage. It has an expandable SD card slot for an extra 32GB on top of that. It’s going to be running Android jellybean, which is the latest release,” Bower said. The screen resolution is 1200 by 800. These are pretty standard for high-end Android tablets, but a few design quirks help it stand out. The hardware has a ridge on the back so you can hold it comfortably with one hand while reading. “A lot of other tablets don’t have that, that was a very intentional design, and it allows it to hold the controller,” Bower said. There are more benefits to the ridge, as it disperses heat by keeping the hardware from laying flat on table and other surfaces. The tablet also has a strong set of speakers, and the design amplifies the sound coming from the speaker when laid flat on a surface. “You don’t have to have an accessory to sit in a room and enjoy music,” he explained. The real selling point for gamers is the dock, that adds a full set of analog controls and buttons to the tablet. “It’s always frustrating trying to play an interactive game with touch. You just don’t have that responsiveness and interactivity you have the controller,” Bower said. “So we decided to design this controller, which will come bundled with the tablet itself.” He slid the controller over the tablet, and handed it back to me. I did notice some grit to the trigger buttons, but this is a pre-production model, so hopefully that will be fixed in the final version. I tried playing a few games, but we ran into some software problems. I couldn’t steer in Grand Theft Auto using the controller, nor could I fire in the third-person shooter I was shown. I did play Cordy, which is a fun little Android platformer, and enjoyed that experience immensely. The tablet connects to the dock using a 30-pin connecter, and any game that comes with game pad support should hypothetically take advantage of the dock with few problems. It was stressed to me that the hardware I was seeing wasn’t using the latest version of Android, so I could expect some improvements in usability in the final version. There will be an accessory that allows you to connect the dock and tablet to your TV via HDMI, and there will also be support for WiFi Direct, which allows you to move content from the tablet to your television without cables, if your television supports the technology. They’re also aggressively courting gaming content from a number of sources. “The tablet itself is Google Market certified. So you’ll have access to all the Google Market games. Some will just be touch control, but some will support gamepads as well. It will come preloaded with NVIDIA's Tegra Zone, which sorts the games that are optimized for the Tegra platform and optimized for the controls as well. We announced our relationship with Gaikai, which is the streaming service that was recently acquired by Sony.” The Wikipad is also certified for Sony’s PlayStation Mobile initiative, where certain games will be offered on Android tablets, and one purchase get you the game on tablets, phones, your Vita and PlayStation 3. The hardware will launch in October for $499.99, and you can pre-order your tablet at GameStop. I’m skeptical that the Wikipad will find mass market acceptance; most Android tablets that break through and sell in large numbers are priced way more competitively against the iPad, but it’s hard to argue with the power of the hardware and the competitive advantage of actual buttons. We’ll be offering some thoughts on the final version of the hardware when it launches, so I’ll let you know if the control issues and fit and finish are improved in the shipping product. No matter the fate of the Wikipad, it’s always good to see a company go after the gaming market so single-mindedly. If there’s a market for high-end gaming on the Android platform, this is the product that’s going to grab it.