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Hands-on with the $499 Wikipad gaming tablet

There’s a general stigma that tablets can’t and will never do “hardcore” gaming justice because they just don’t have actual buttons, analog sticks and shoulder triggers. As standalone slates, tablet’s will probably never fit the needs of a gamer, but Wikipad wants to change that. It’s a standalone Android tablet and it’s also an oversized gaming handheld. BGR sat down with James Bower, CEO of Wikipad, to gauge the device’s potential and see how well it works.

At $499, the Wikipad features a 10.1-inch display with a 1280 x 800 resolution. It’s got a 1.4GHz NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, 16GB of internal storage (expandable via microSD for an additional 32GB), a micro-SIM card slot, 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash and a 2-megapixel front cam. It’ll be available at GameStop starting October 31st.

As soon as I held the Wikipad in my hand, I was blown away by how light it felt. Not only is its tablet part light, but when it’s got the controller attachment on, it still isn’t heavy. The full outfit is bulky, not heavy, but the Wikipad is made of plastic and it shows.

Still, the Wikipad’s design is thoughtful. Make no mistake, a game’s sound is just as important as its graphics, gameplay and controls. Whereas most tablet speakers generally are poor, the Wikipad has a stereo speaker design that can be amplified by the ridge on the device’s back. When the Wikipad is set on a table, the sound will rivet off the ridge creating fuller-sounding audio. It’s a neat trick and the ridge also doubles as a great way to grip the tablet in one hand.

Let’s talk about how this thing works. It’s huge and even more so when it’s got the controller attached to it. If you think the PS Vita or the 3DS XL is too big, wait until you hold the Wikipad.

Set-up is as simple as sliding the tablet into the controller shell. There’s really nothing more to it.

The controller has all of the standard buttons you’d find on a console controller. There’s a pair of analog sticks, a D-pad, four action buttons (Bower says they’ll be chrome-colored in the final unit), and two pairs of trigger buttons. In my brief time playing with it, the controller was fairly comfortable. At no point during my hour of playtime did I feel fatigued because the controller was just so light.

The buttons have a good depth to them and the triggers feel solid. However, the analog sticks could still use some work. They’re not quite as precise as the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 analog sticks and the calibration did get undone at one point, but Bower says that issue will be squashed when the Wikipad ships.

So how does it play? For the most part: beautifully.

Wikipad isn’t trying to revolutionize gaming. It’s merely trying to bring console controls to the tablet experience. And it works. First-person shooters such as Dead Trigger work so much better when you’ve got dual analogs. And playing Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto III feels like you’re playing a portable PS2. It’s great. You’ll look totally silly playing with the Wikipad in public, but it works as advertised.

As for games, the Wikipad will have tons of them available on Google Play, Sony PlayStation Mobile, GameStop and NVIDIA Tegra Zone. Any Android game that works with USB controllers will work with the Wikipad; no additional programming is required. I didn’t get to test it, but the Wikipad will also support Gaikai’s streaming cloud games.

That said, there are some things I didn’t like about the Wikipad. First, it uses a proprietary 30-pin port (ugh, another one) to charge. Second, if you break the controller attachment, it’ll cost another $100 to get a new one. Third, while Bower told me that Wikipad will ship with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, I found the prototype running Ice Cream Sandwich to be somewhat slow and laggy. Games do load up pretty fast, but as a standalone tablet, the Wikipad is nowhere near as smooth as an iPad or Nexus 7.

All in all, the Wikipad is a solid device, but it’s $499 is still a bit too high, especially when the 3DS costs $169.99, a PS Vita is $249.99 and the Wii U and its tablet-style GamePad is $299.99.

Sadly, I’m not sure exactly who would buy this when there are already so many gaming alternatives that cost less, but I guess that’s for Wikipad and Bower to figure out.

Oh, and one more thing: The Wikipad and controller attachment can be used as an R/C controller for toy helicopters and cars. But details haven’t been announced for that feature.

Raymond Wong

Raymond Wong is a technology reporter with a passion for cutting-edge gadgets and clean design. His writing has appeared on DVICE, Ubergizmo, G4TV, Yahoo News, NBC blogs. You might even have seen his videos on Xbox LIVE.