Gaming can be an expensive hobby. The latest Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo game consoles costs hundreds of dollars, and gaming PCs can easily cost several times as much.

Over the past few years a number of companies have tried to shake things up by launching micro-consoles which are typically smaller, cheaper, and less powerful than a PS4, Xbox 360, or most PCs. Results have been mixed at best.

The much-hyped Ouya was a flop. The Razer Forge TV has suffered from lousy reviews. And the NVIDIA Shield TV gets good reviews… but priced at $200 and up, it costs nearly as much as a full-fledged game console.

This summer Emtec is wading into the micro-console space with an interesting little device called the GEM Box. It’s a small box that’s small enough to hold in one hand. It comes with a pretty good Bluetooth gamepad, and supports Android games. But its best feature might be that it also lets you play PC games… by streaming them either over a home network or from GameFly Streaming.

The GEM Box is available for pre-order from Amazon for $100 and it should begin shipping August 18th September 8th.

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GameFly Streaming is a subscription-based service that lets you stream PC games over the internet. Pay $7 to $10 per month for a bundle of games and you an play titles such as Tomb Raider GOTY Edition, Grid, Evoland II, and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light without investing in a PC with a discrete graphics card.

That’s because the game are hosted on a remote server. You’ll need a reasonably fast internet connection in order for games to look good and feel responsive, but I’ve been pretty impressed with the performance of GameFly Streaming on the GEM Box… for the most part. More on that in a bit.

The main point I want to make here is that there are only a handful of devices that currently support GameFly Streaming: The Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Samsung Smart TVs from 2014 or later,  LG Smart TVs from 2015 and later, and the GEM Box.

GameFly Streaming support alone makes the GEM Box a device worth considering. But if that’s the only feature you’re interested in you could probably save $10 and buy an Amazon Fire TV Stick and Fire TV gamepad for $90.

So why would you buy a GEM Box instead? Good question… and one I’ll try to answer after having spent the past week playing with a demo unit loaned to me by Emtec for review.

Overview

The GEM Box is a tiny black box that measures about 3.3″ x 3.3″ x 0.9″ and which has a blue power button on the top right corner. It weighs less than 4 ounces and it’s small enough to slide into a pocket… or to tuck out of the way behind your TV.

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It has a 10/100 Ethernet jack and supports 2.4 GHz 802.11b/g/n WiFi. Since GameFly Streaming requires either a wired internet connection or a 5 GHz WiFi connection, you’ll need to use Ethernet if you want to use GameFly Streaming. But other Android apps and games work over WiFi.

There’s a single full-sized USB 2.0 port, a microSD card slot, and an HDMI 1.4 port with HDMI-CEC support (for turning your TV on or off).

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The device is powered by a 1.5 GHz Amlogic S805 quad-core ARM Cortex-A5 processor with Mali-450MP6 graphics and it has 1GB of RAM and 16GB of eMMC storage.

While those specs aren’t exactly state-of-the-art, the GEM Box never felt particularly sluggish during my tests and was able to handle video streaming, game streaming and downloaded Android games.

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Emtec includes an AC adapter, HDMI cable, and Ethernet cable in the box, as well as a Bluetooth gamepad with two analog sticks, a D-pad, four shoulder buttons, a home button, back button, start button, and X,Y, B, and A buttons.

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I’m not a serious gamer, but the gamepad felt comfortable to hold, seemed reasonably responsible when I pressed buttons, and the layout reminded me of an Xbox-style controller.

There’s also a switch that lets you turn off the gamepad when it’s not in use, turn on gamepad functionality, or enable mouse mode.

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In mouse mode you can use the left stick to move a cursor around the screen, while using the A button to emulate a tap on the screen. This comes in handy when interacting with Android apps that may not be designed for use with a game controller.

If you want an extra gamepad, you can buy one for $40.

Software

Here’s where things get… kind of weird. The GEM Box has a user interface that’s designed to be easy to navigate with the gamepad, and for the most part it is.

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You can use the left analog stick or D-pad to move between menus, the A button to select, and the B or back buttons to go back to a previous menu. Everything works pretty smoothly when you’re only using pre-installed apps like GameFly Streaming or the handful of games that come pre-loaded, including Asphalt 8 Airborne, GT Racing 2, Wonder Zoo, or My Little Pony.

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Things get a little stranger when you want to install third-party apps, dig into the settings, or making other changes.

The GEM Box is running a customized version of Android 4.4 KitKat.

android versionThat’s right. Google is releasing Android 7.0 Nougat this summer, and Emtec is shipping a device that runs a version of Android from 2013. The company says that’s because “If it ran the latest version of Android, it would require a much more robust CPU which would then increase the device’s cost” and that the current CPU is good enough for GameFly Streaming.

But it also means that while the GEM Box ships with the Google Play Store pre-loaded, there are many apps and games in Google’s store that aren’t available for download because the latest versions require Android 5.0 or later.

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That includes Netlflix, Hulu, and many other popular media apps as well as some games. Emtec’s solution? If you want an easy way to download working versions of those apps, install a third-party app store like Aptoide.

On the other hand, the device already has YouTube and Google Play Movies & TV pre-installed, and both work just fine. There’s also a video player for playing local media, and I had no problems downloading and installing SPMC (a fork of Kodi media center) from the Google Play Store.

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In fact, SPMC did a better job of detecting and connecting to my shared network drive on a Windows computer than just about any other version of Kodi for Android I’ve tried, making it easy to stream movies over my home network.

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If you do decide to install apps from the Play Store, just be prepared for the fact that you may need to enable mouse mode to navigate, since the version of the Play Store available for the GEM Box was clearly designed for phones and tablets, not TV boxes.

You may also want to consider connecting a keyboard using Bluetooth or the GEM Box’s single USB port: you can enter text using the gamepad, but it’s a pain in the butt. Emtec designed a custom keyboard that features a series of circles.

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The idea is that letters are arranged in groups of four. The left-most circle has A, B, C, and D set up so that you can enter them by hitting the X, Y, B, or A buttons on your gamepad. Use the D-pad to move over to the next circle and you have E, F, G, and H. And so on.

There’s pretty much no way to get familiar enough with this keyboard to touch-type, so you’re constantly looking at the keyboard to figure out where you are or what button to press to toggle numbers or capital letters.

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You can do a quick search for games by title this way, but I wouldn’t want to do any serious writing. And if you’re just setting up your GEM Box and plan to install a bunch of games in one sitting, a physical keyboard will probably save you a lot of time.

There’s also a web browser… I wouldn’t ever suggest using it without a keyboard.

Emtec does sell an optional $40 motion remote with a QWERTY keyboard on the back if you want a keyboard that also function as a controller.

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I was able to install a handful of games including Wind Up Knight 2, Riptide GP2, Minion Rush, Final Fantasy IV, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. They all downloaded and installed without any problems, and they were all easy to play using a gamepad. Your results may vary.

It’s nice to have the option of installing third-party apps, but since some aren’t really designed for gamepads, it could also be frustrating not knowing whether they’ll be playable until after they’re installed.

If you want to make sure you’re only installing games that are known to work with the GEM Box controller, you can navigate to the GemStore section of the Games menu. This isn’t actually a store. Instead it’s a list of shortcuts to about 150 games available from Google Play. They’re divided into categories such as Simulation/Strategy and Action/Adventure and they’ve all been tested with the GEM Box.

Emtec did a pretty good job of designing a custom Android launcher that makes it feel like you’re not using an operating system designed for touchscreens. Is it as thorough a transformation as you’d get by using the Android TV software that runs on the NVIDIA Shield or Google Nexus Player? Nope. But since the software is based on stock Android 4.4 it’s pretty easy to install all sorts of third-party apps that might not be available for Android TV. Just don’t be surprised if the installation process is clunky and some of those apps are hard to navigate using a gamepad.

 

But most of the time you use the GEM Box, you probably won’t be installing apps. You’ll be running them. So once everything is set up to your satisfaction, the user interface is actually pretty nice.

Of course it’d be even nicer if you didn’t need to install a third-party app store to get popular apps like Netflix.




What’s it good for?

Theoretically the GEM Box can run just about any app that’s available for Android 4.4. That includes web browsers, office software, communications apps, and much more. But it’s a device without a touchscreen and without a good keyboard. It’s clearly designed first and foremost for gaming and media consumption.

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And it’s actually a pretty nice little gaming device. It handled the Android games I installed about as well as any recent phone or tablet I’ve tested, and some games like Riptide GP2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are a lot more pleasant to play with a gamepad than with touchscreen controls.

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There’s also a “Retro Gaming” section with emulators that let you play classic console games including NES, GameBoy, and PlayStation 1 titles, among others.

Actually, the Retro Gaming menu is sort of like the GemStore: there aren’t any emulators pre-loaded. Instead there are links to download three popular emulator apps from the Google Play Store. All have been confirmed to work with the GEM Box and all are free to download, although you may be able to unlock additional features through in-app purchases.

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Using these emulators I was able to play a few classic games including Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Final Fantasy VII.

But the most impressive gaming experiences I had were through GameFly Streaming. The most powerful game console in my house is a Nintendo Wii purchased in 2007 and used mostly for fitness-oriented games. Most of my computers are of the low-power variety. So I’m not really used to playing modern games with highly detailed graphics. The GEM Box doesn’t really have the processing power to handle bleeding edge games either, but it doesn’t need that kind of power, because it can stream those games over the internet.

Emtec set me up with a trial membership to GameFly Streaming for the purposes of this review and I spent a few hours playing Tomb Raider (2013), Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (2010) and Evoland 2 (2015).

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I lost track of time playing each game and never experienced any buffering or graphics glitches. Hardcore gamers might detect some amount of lag, but I didn’t really notice any — although I also avoided games that required a lot of split-second timing because I stink at first person shooters and other games of that type.

Still, it’s important to consider what’s actually happening here: when you select a game, it loads on a remote server and sends graphics to the GEM Box over the internet. Every time you press a button on the gamepad, the GEM Box registers that action, sends a message to the remote server which then responds and sends the appropriate actions back over the internet to your GEM Box… which displays it on your TV. It’s remarkable that this works at all, and it’s not surprising that GameFly Streaming requires a fast internet connection.

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GameFly says you’ll need a 5 Mbps or faster connection… and if it doesn’t detect one, it won’t let you use the service at all. It also won’t let you play games over a 2.4 GHz WiFi connection… and since the GEM Box doesn’t support 5 GHz networks, that means you’ll need an Ethernet connection to use GameFly Streaming on this device.

I’m told that when Emtec began testing the GEM Box it did work over 2.4 GHz connections, but GameFly seems to have changed its requirements recently, which helps explains one of the strangest things about this box: one of its key features is support for GameFly Streaming. But you can’t actually use that feature unless the box is close enough to your router to use a wired connection.

Sure, you can buy the GEM Box and only use it to play Android games or retro games without signing up for a GameFly subscription. But there are dozens of other Android-powered TV boxes that can do that. It’s the game streaming that really helps this model stand out.

I should point out that there are thousands of PC games that aren’t available from GameFly Streaming. The service offers a few dozen titles and you can try any game free for 10 minutes (although you’ll have to spend a lot of that time wading through opening credits and cut scenes in some games). When you find games that you like you can sign up for the subscription pack that includes that game.

If there are a handful of games in a pack that you want to play, and you expect to be able to play through those titles in a few months, GameFly Streaming could be a lot cheaper than paying for the games outright — especially since you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a game console. But the selection of games is small enough that it’s entirely possible you won’t find any games you want to play.

The GEM Box does also have a feature that might appeal to folks that already have a gaming PC: you can stream games over a home network using an open source implementation of NVIDIA’s GameStream technology called Moonlight. You’ll need a GameStream compatible PC with a recent GeForce graphics card and GameStream-compatible games to use this feature (so I couldn’t test it), but this opens up another way to play PC games on a big screen without sticking a PC in your living room.

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While gaming is clearly the GEM Box’s raison d’être, you can use it for other things. I streamed some videos from YouTube and Google Play Movies, and they looked fine. I did have to use mouse mode on the gamepad to navigate in some apps: Google Play Music was particularly cumbersome to try to navigate using just the direction buttons, but it became much more user friendly when I started moving a cursor around the screen.

I didn’t test Netflix or Hulu, but expect similar navigation issues since these are also apps that are designed for touchscreen devices. Yes, both of those online video providers have TV-friendly apps for other platforms (including Android TV), but try installing them on the GEM Box and it’ll become pretty clear that you’re using a mobile operating system. The home screen launcher may have been designed for TVs, but the operating system itself was designed for phones and tablets… and that’s what many apps expect to be running on.

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Fortunately the GEM Box doesn’t come with Gmail or Hangouts apps pre-installed, and doesn’t display notification pop-ups, so you won’t be distracted every time someone sends a message to you Google account (a problem I’ve had with some other Android-powered TV boxes in the past).

Is it better than the competition?

Maybe.

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For the past two years I’ve been using an Amazon Fire TV Stick to stream internet video to my TV. It’s small, cheap, comes with a remote control, and generally makes it extraordinarily easy to stream videos from Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and other sources.

My favorite thing about the Fire TV Stick is its simplicity: sure you can install apps like Kodi, root the device, and bend it to your will. But sometimes all I want to do is turn on the TV and start streaming Star Trek: TNG episodes. The Fire TV Stick handles that beautifully.

But you can also pair an Amazon Fire TV Game Controller or other Bluetooth gamepad with the Fire TV Stick and play games. There are plenty of Fire TV-compatible games available from the Amazon Appstore, and the Fire TV Stick is one of only a handful of other devices that also supports GameFly Streaming.

As someone that already owns a Fire TV Stick, my experience with the GEM Box has me tempted to just buy a gamepad for my existing hardware and sign up for GameFly Streaming. I’d honestly never even though of doing that before, but after testing the service on the GEM Box, I paired the GEM Box gamepad with my Fire TV Stick, installed the GameFly Streaming app, and ran through a 10 minute demo of Batman: Arkham Asylum. It works just as well as the GEM Box… except the Fire TV Stick was able to connect to GameFly over WiFi (which is good, since the stick doesn’t have an Ethernet port).

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But that’s me… there might be a few reasons you might prefer the GEM Box to the Fire TV Stick. For one thing, it has the Google Play Store instead of the Amazon Appstore. Even though not all Android apps and games in the Play Store will run on Android 4.4, there’s a much wider selection of content available in Google’s store than Amazon’s.

Second, the GEM Box allows you to install third-party app stores, which means you can install software that’s not available in the Play Store without going through the hassle of sideloading APK files.

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Third, the GEM Box has an Ethernet port, a USB port, and a microSD card slot: all features which you don’t get with the Fire TV Stick. Yes, Amazon sells the larger, more powerful Amazon Fire TV for $100, but that price doesn’t include the optional $50 Fire TV game controller, so I think it’s more fair to compare the $100 GEM Box with the $90 Fire TV Stick + gamepad.

So the Fire TV Stick is simpler, has a truly TV-friendly user experience, and doesn’t require you to go to third-party app stores to install Netflix, Hulu, HBO, or other popular video apps (although it doesn’t support Google Play Movies at all). The GEM Box is a little less user friendly, but potentially much more customizable.

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Six of one, half dozen of the other?

Should I spend $100 on this thing

Again… maybe. It depends on what you’re hoping to use the device for.

If you’re looking for a premium gaming experience with support for the widest possible selection of recent games, you should probably buy or build a gaming PC or buy a Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo console. And if you’re looking for the best game streaming experience available on an Android-powered device… you might be better off with an NVIDIA Shield.

NVIDIA’s console sells for $200 and up and while it doesn’t work with GameFly Streaming, it does support the company’s own GeForce Now streaming service. For $8 per month (after a 3-month free trial), you can stream more than 50 games at 1080p resolutions and 60 frames er second (GameFly Streaming tops out at 720p30).

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The Shield also runs Android TV software that’s truly optimized for big screens, supports 4K video playback, and has a bunch of other premium features. But it’s also twice as expensive as the GEM Box.

So here’s what it comes down to: in a vacuum, the GEM Box would be a pretty impressive device for $100. You can use it to play high-quality PC games and thousand of Android games or retro games using console emulators. It can stream online video or play local video. And if you really want to go through the trouble, you can use it to run Android apps that aren’t designed for media or gaming.

But the GEM Box doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a pretty good little gaming/multimedia device for the price. But so is the Amazon Fire TV Stick. So is the NVIDIA Shield. Heck, even Roku devices can handle some games.

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I will say that I got tired of testing Chinese Android boxes a few years ago, because there seemed to be a never-ending sea of them, and they all seemed to have the same strengths and weaknesses. The reason I jumped at the chance to try the GEM Box was because it’s something different: a device designed for gaming (and game streaming), and it delivers on the promise. it’s pretty good at what it does.

But Emtec made a few sacrifices to keep the price low, and they could limit the useful lifespan of this device. Its lack of 5 GHz WiFi support means that right out of the gate it won’t stream GameFly games over a wireless connection. And Emtec’s decision to use Android 4.4 means that there are already a number of Android apps that aren’t downloadable from the Google Play Store. Over time that number will likely get bigger.

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The company does plan to offer occasional software updates for the GEM Box, and Emtec doesn’t rule out the possibility of eventually updating to a newer version of Android. But given that the OS was chosen for its ability to run well with a slower processor, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

So I guess here’s my verdict: the GEM Box is certainly worth $100. Just don’t expect it to do things it can’t… and understand that there may be other devices that suit your needs better.



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