I think most of us still have to fight the urge to shrug when someone mentions a gaming console that runs on Android. The Ouya left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth when that console didn't turn out the way many hoped it would, and while gaming on Android certainly hasn't died, set top boxes running Google's mobile OS aren't really marketed for gaming anymore. EMTEC's GEM Box, however, uses mobile gaming as one of its selling points and allows you to play your Android games and apps on a big screen, and tries to compile a bunch of your entertainment options into a small box with a price to match. Let's take a look and see if this little box is worth the $99 admission price.
The GEM Box is a tiny 3.26×3.26×0.94-inch box that has a Quad Core 1.5 GHz CPU, an ARM Mali-450MP6 GPU, 1GB of built-in memory (expandable by installing a micro SD card) running on Android 4.4 Kit Kat, and is able to play most common audio and video formats natively, including MP3, FLAC and OGG for audio and AVI, FLV, M4V, MKV, MOV, MP4, MPG and WMV for video. It also has WiFi capabilities and Bluetooth built into it and ports for Ethernet, HDMI, and one USB controller.
Inside the box you will find the GEM Box unit, an AC adapter, HDMI cable, ethernet cable, and a quick-start guide to get you through the (very straightforward) set-up. Due to the GEM box's size, it's easy to set it up wherever you want, and the relatively little amount of cables probably won't make managing the cables of all your devices harder than it has to be.
Bundled with the GEM Box is a proprietary controller you can use to navigate the system's menus or play games that you've downloaded. Its design is very close to the Xbox 360 controller we all know and love, but the build quality of the GEM Pad isn't even remotely close to being as sturdy as Microsoft's controllers. It has a little switch on the button that lets you switch between mouse mode and controller mode, which works well enough, although I did get the sense that the controller became unresponsive for a few seconds after switching from one mode to the other. When you're using the device to navigate the menus, you're best off using the controller and a USB keyboard to do most of the heavy lifting. You can type with the controller thanks to an input menu that is reminiscent of the one you get in Steam's Big Picture mode, but plugging in a keyboard will make things much easier on you in the long run.
With its small design and unassuming color scheme, the device doesn't really catch your eye in any way, shape, or form. All it is is a little set top box with a blue lower-right corner acting as a switch on/off button. Its tiny size also makes it easy to take the GEM Box with you wherever you go since the device fits in your pocket easily.
Software and Apps
As I mentioned before, the GEM Box uses a by now outdated version of the Android OS, which means that some of the apps you might want to download from the Google Play Store can't be downloaded since they require a newer version of Android to operate. However, because it's running Android, you could always look up the .apk for the app you want to use, but it's far from ideal. The GEM Box also doesn't seem to want to upgrade to a newer version of Android, probably because the GEM Box's OS is built around Android 4.4 and it's not possible to update to a newer version of Google's mobile OS. Media center apps like Kodi and PLEX do run on the GEM Box, so you can use the device to access and play media over your home network. The device's own OS is clean and usually snappy, and makes use of the tons of customization options you get on an Android device. This means you can take advantage of all the Google apps like Gmail, Gcal, and so forth.
EMTEC is pushing the GEM Box as a hybrid between a media center and a games console, and allows you to download and play mobile games from the Google Play store or from the built-in GEM Store (or stream them from your PC to your TV), which lists a bunch of games for you to download from the Play Store but optimized to work better with a controller, since navigating the actual store with the controller can be a bit of a pain. While that functionality is pretty neat in and of itself, the GEM Box feels like a very underpowered device when it comes to the games. The GEM Box came with Asphalt 8 (and 3 other Android games, as well as several emulators so you can play old handheld games) preinstalled, and while the game was certainly playable, the GEM Box has trouble maintaining a constant frame rate, and I noticed frequent dips below 30 fps while playing the game. Now, I know all games are not created equal so your mileage will vary depending on how graphically intensive the game you want to play is, but it does go to show that 3D games have a hard time running well on the GEM Box—newer ones especially.
The solution to this, maybe, is GameFly. GameFly is a service that allows you to stream PC games from their servers to the GEM Box, allowing you to play big AAA titles on your TV via the device, provided you have a connection that can handle the amount of data needed to stream a high-resolution and graphically intensive PC game. The service also has a monthly subscription fee attached to it, which may put you off, although you get a 1 month free trial with your purchase of the GEM Box.
The GEM Box offers a few really neat features in a very small package. I can definitely see this being used as a media center for you and your family, but what it all comes down to it, it's a device that has already been surpassed by the mobile phone industry and chances are that your phone is capable of running more kinds of apps better than the GEM Box can. If you're primarily a PC gamer who wants to take gaming from his office to his living room, you might be better off giving the Steam Link a go and save around $40 in the process. If HD gaming and in-house stream are either things you don't want to do or don't have the money for, then the GEM Box is a great option to bring budget gaming and streaming to your living room. If you already have these things, then the GEM Box has very little to add to your arsenal.
The GEM Box has a MSRP of $99.99 and can be ordered from EMTEC's official website on September 9.
The GEM Box was provided to us by the manufacturer for the purpose of this review.
The GEM Box is a handy device for your living room, but it has already been surpassed by other tech on many fronts, making this device hard to enthusiastically recommend. Not bad, but not particularly great either.