There’s a lot to be said about a small, portable and easy-to-use Android-based gaming box that gives you some fair options at an inexpensive price.
The first thing you want to do when you’re judging a portable gaming box is to think about its ‘ease-of-use’. Using our own personal, yet modified, technology acceptance model, the first thing you want to take a long hard look at is a claimed ‘easy-to-use’ product to see if hooking it up takes any special feats. The answer to this first question is quite simply no. Straight out of the box, the GEM Box is incredibly intuitive to hook up, get installed and then get started. Press the bottom right power button and you’re in. The interface guides the user along without confusion and with good explanation.
Out of the box aside, one big concern I had when first getting started with the device was the lack of keyboard and mouse. Dependence on the controller, which is a page right out of an Xbox 360 controller, was at first alarming. Two things helped to circumvent my concern, though. The first thing is that the controller had a mouse option. On the bottom part of the controller there is a small switch where you can turn it on and use it as a gaming controller. Big deal, right? Well, you can also switch it to mouse mode, where an onscreen mouse icon displays and moves around with the right analog stick. You can use the buttons on the controller as lift/right clicking, just like an actual mouse. This means you can navigate through menus with easy without the need of a keyboard or standalone mouse.
Related, the second solution to help out with the lack of keyboard and mouse is how the text entry works. Normally, for a device like this, you would get a virtual keyboard to navigate through the alphabet to choose your letters. Over the years, this method has certainly improved, but it still can be cumbersome when you’re trying to do things quickly. The best virtual keyboard that isn’t part of a mobile device has to be on the PlayStation 4. The PS4 controller layout is matched perfectly with the keyboard navigation, which allows for quick typing, changing of symbols and such. Having said that, I think the GEM Box does a superb job of giving users a way to navigate letters by offering up multiple circles on the bottom of the screen with multiple letters within each circle. The letters are assigned to certain buttons on the controller, which makes selecting letters incredibly quick and easy. I wish more people would license out this design, as it is nice and easy to use.
Now, the only moments where it was a frustration was with the mouse option on the controller. The mouse option turns the buttons into other activators. When you’re on the controller option, then the letters work the way they should. Eventually switching back between mouse and controller made the process easy, but getting such a natural task through to my brain without forgetting what controller setting I was on posed a bit of a challenge. That might be me, though, so I hate to take it out on the Box. I am old and slow.
In terms of functionality, I found navigating and launching apps with the box enormously simple. I even had an easy time connecting my Google account with the box, which allowed me easy access to the Google Play Store to download more apps. Access to material, especially gaming, wasn’t an issue. The issues in functionality resided in the games themselves.
The android portion of games didn’t work as smoothly as the GameFly games. The games that are packed in with it, such as Asphalt 8, are fine. Not the smoothest and fastest gameplay, but decent. The GameFly games, when plugged up nicely to an ethernet connection, work fantastic. It’s a very smooth experience with GameFly, so having this ability is pretty darn nice for a $99 box. Now, games that I downloaded from the Play Store struggled quite a bit. I acquired a MyLittlePony title (my daughters like it) and a Super Mario knock-off. Both had issues with the controller, as they were built for a touchscreen and not a 360 controller-esque interface. Before you take that sentence and try to apply to other titles, there are some titles out there that are controller friendly. You just have to find them. The real trick for the GEM Box folks is convincing developers they should implement a controller option for their games. I know that Google is wanting to push this initiative, as CES 2016 was littered with Android-based televisions that had NYKO gaming controllers with them. As of right now, they are far and few between. Hopefully this option will be a norm in the near future.
On the video side of things you’re really down to one thing — Google’s movie store. Google Play does indeed have no issues streaming HD movies, as I type this I’m watching Edge of Tomorrow without a hitch. That said, VUDU, Netflix and HULU do not work with this device. VUDU won’t allow you to login for whatever reason and HULU actually turns horizontal on my screen, thinking that it’s on a mobile device in vertical mode. I haven’t figured out a way to get it turned the right way, that it is amusing. Maybe I can convince my wife to let me buy that swivel television mount? Probably not. Beyond the usual streaming services, I actually tried to download and use PlayStation Vue, which the box allowed me to do. The Vue app is slow to start, but once it gets going, then it works…until it tells you there is an error in the channel during playback and to try another channel. No matter the channel, I still get the same message after about 15 seconds of playing. If this option worked, it would be a game changer for this device, at least for me. Sadly, no go, though.
If you like GameFly and can deal with your movies through the Google Play, which are fine for me because they’re good through Google Play, then you’re going to be in heaven. The device does a good job in those two categories. The rest are a mixed bag at best. Some of the games work well, some of them don’t. Consistency is a concern with gaming on the GEM Box, but it definitely depends on what you want out of it. Spending $99 on a device to play Google Play movies and have an outlet for your GameFly subscription might be worth it, but, again, it just depends on what you’re looking for with the GEM Box.
For me, I can see its value, but it’s honestly teetering on the edge overall. A bit more upgradable hardware options, better software, as well as an up-to-date Android operating system, and the value of this system skyrockets.