Let’s break this down shall we? Imagine taking a fairly powerful Android phone, removing the screen and replacing the navigation system with an Xbox-style controller, then outputting the video to your TV. That’s basically what you have here.
Inside is a quad core CPU, 1GB RAM, 16GB of storage, WiFi, Bluetooth and a full HD output via a HDMI connector. There’s also an Ethernet port, which I found to help quite a bit with the streaming content, which I’ll get onto in a minute.
It’s a diddy little thing, and as you can tell by the size of the plugs in the back here, it really doesn’t take a great deal of room on your TV cabinet or kitchen worktop. It’s portable too, and you can take it with you on holiday or to a hotel very easily. During my testing we’ve taken it to friends and relatives houses easily.
In the box, a HDMI lead, charger and the controller itself. You’ll need to charge this, and we got going pretty quickly by using a portable charger to power it up. Connecting the controller to the box itself is easy enough, and one of the first screens you see will explain how to do this – it basically involves you pressing the home button for 5 seconds to complete the sync.
Out of the box and things can be a little frustrating. Sure, I connected onto the internet fairly easily and yes, Android is neatly hidden underneath a GUI which matches the controller well, but it went through about 6 updates in the first 30-40 minutes. Whilst this is good to see, and I welcomed online updates popping up immediately, it was ever-so-slightly annoying to have it update, reboot, update again, reboot, update again, optimize apps, reboot, update, reboot…
I couldn’t see any noticeable difference either. To be fair the experience and menu system seemed pretty much the same each time it rebooted.
During this process it did become clear that the Ethernet connection was the best way to go. Despite my WiFi access point being fairly close to the GEM Box, the download speed of the updates was noticeably faster on the wired connection, and I kept the Ethernet connection as the preference when playing the streamed and downloaded games which came from GameFly Streaming and Gameloft respectively.
The Gameloft games, which included Asphalt 8, GT Racing 2, Wonder Zoo and My Little Pony, were available “out of the box” and it seems like EMTEC and Gameloft have worked alongside each other to ensure that the games were well with the controller. There’s on-screen help which is geared towards the controller, so these aren’t just the standard Android versions.
Now, if you want something like this tested, give it to my son. Here he is showing you around the GEM Box :)
I’m going to go off at a slight tangent here, but if you do decide to hop into the Google Play store, which is possible on this Android box, you’ll find yourself using the on-screen text-entry system. It involves you using the coloured controls to select one of four letters, then using the left stick to move between those banks of letters. Here you’ll see that in action…
This is all done with the controller in the “standard” mode. There’s a switch at the bottom which turns the controller off, onto standard or into a “mouse” mode where you have an on-screen pointer which you move around. This mode is sometimes needed when you’re in Google Play and, likewise, if you download a game or app from that store, you might need this mode to select certain things within the app. This came into sharp focus when I downloaded an Android app and it began showing adverts which had to be dismissed by clicking the top-right cross.
Another little foible is that some apps won’t update because Google Play is set to “update on WiFi” and, with my Ethernet cable plugged in, it simply refused to update. You’ll need to ensure that you flick “WiFi” back on for that.
Controlling and navigating your way around is easy enough and very straightforward. The menu system is a simple and clear top level interface where you can get into the settings, the multimedia, the games, your apps and all the usual Google stuff including YouTube and Hangouts. As mentioned, you can also head into Google Play and get additional apps. You’ll see that I installed Kodi on here and, as I’ve mentioned before, that can open up a world of TV for you too.
Gemstore has a selection of games though that are geared to the controller. It’s all sorted by category here with sport, racing, action and kids games to name just a few. Here’s some of the games you can play.
Of course, if you want to install an Android app then you can, and you’ll find that neatly sorted into the “My Games” and “My Apps” sections. Just remember that the controller may not be suited for the app and you may have ads popping up on screen that you’ll need to dismiss.
Here’s me using that on the browser, because that’s installed too…
As you saw earlier, there’s a microSD and USB port on the side, so you can whack the card out of your phone into here or a USB drive and watch videos or view photos that you’ve snapped easily. You can also send files from your phone or, if you’ve got a NAS drive or other media box on your WiFi, you can watch videos and see your snaps that way too. It’s a smooth and quick experience and I experienced no jitter or problems.
Although my son played a lot of the provided GEM Box games, there’s also the streaming games, which are available via Gamefly. You can watch the trailer for each one and play a short burst of a game, but if you want to play for longer you’ll need to pay. It’s not a great deal per month and you get a big selection of games to choose from. What does become apparent though is that WiFi doesn’t really cut it, especially 2.4GHz and if you’re a little bit far away from your router. The games run on the Gamefly servers and are streamed to your TV via this clever little box. It’s minimal latency and high video quality, but you’ll need at least 5 Mbps on your internet connection and I’d definitely recommend connecting via Ethernet if you can do it.
The Family Pack includes Dirt 3, BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, GRID 2 and Ace Combat Assault Horizon plus much more. The Gamer Pack has Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Deadfall Adventures, Evoland 2 and a huge load more. If you buy this box then you’ll get a month of GameFly access free and without obligation. As I mentioned though, you can play each game free for 10 minutes or…
I couldn’t find any parental on this box to keep the 18-rated streaming games out of reach of younger eyes, so perhaps keep to the Family Pack if you’re unsure. However, just as I was packing up this box to send it back, an update flashed up which was called “Parental CTL Update”, so you may indeed find that this functionality is added if you buy one.
Overall I’m really quite impressed. Look around the internet and you’ll find this for £89.99 from IWOOT or £94.99 on Amazon. My son took to this thing like a duck to water and really enjoyed playing the 4 free full version Gameloft games that came pre-installed – Asphalt 8, GT Racing 2, Wonder Zoo and My Little Pony. There was an element of stutter sometimes, which – after a lot of testing – felt like it was mostly network related, but there was a little bit here and there on locally-installed games. If you can, get your box connected via Ethernet or connect to a 5GHz WiFi connection, it’ll really help and reduces the stutter so it’s less noticeable.
In a way this is scary. A small box, which in essence is just a smartphone without a screen, is very close to an expensive console. Games can be streamed instead of purchased (how many of you pay £40-£60 for console games?) and you get the freedom to install streaming TV services, play GEM Box-approved Android games that’ll work well with the controller and you can view your home videos, pictures and music.
Where this box did well is with the Gameloft pre-installed games, the GEM Box Store and those controller-approved games. It also played the Gamefly games extremely well over Ethernet and my home video collection played very smoothly.
Install a radio app and get yourself a little radio player. Install a TV app and watch TV. Install any app you fancy really, it’s also good in that respect, but be aware that the made-for-Android games which haven’t been tweaked by EMTEC will need to have the “mouse mode” enabled on your controller and there may be an element of “fiddle” to standard Android app, so perhaps invest in a mouse or similar if you want to take things further.