GEMBox reviews: A low-priced and capable Android console

A low-priced and capable Android console let down principally by its focus on games

Google’s Android operating system works perfectly on smartphones and tablets, but it’s always had a bit of trouble when it comes to the TV. Google’s own Nexus Player, Nvidia’s Shield TV and a slew of Android consoles like the ill-fated Ouya and long-forgotten GameStick all prove that Android still has a way to go as a home entertainment platform. Sadly, EMTEC’s GEMBox continues that trend.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, because what the GEMBox does well, it does fantastically so. Having used the dinky box for the best part of three months, this isn’t some half-baked attempt at a portable Android TV streamer or console. Instead it’s a considered solution targeted at a very specific market. Whether we in the UK match that demographic is another question entirely, though.

GEMBox review: The good

But, before I get to my concerns over GEMBox, let’s cover the stuff it does well. First, it’s fantastically simple to set up and get started with. All you do is plug-in a power lead and HDMI cable to get started.

Because of this simplicity, and its tiny 83 x 83 x 23mm size, the GEMBox is perfect for popping in your bag and using on your travels. You don’t even have to worry about dodgy hotel Wi-Fi as many Android games are playable without an internet connection and you can store films on a microSD card or USB drive.

As EMTEC want GEMBox to be a family-friendly portable Android games console, it’s gone to a lot of trouble to create it’s own custom user interface. Instead of simply directing you at a list of stock Android TV-friendly titles, or sending you to browse the Google Play Store, EMTEC has hand-picked more than 100 games that it assures us work perfectly on GEMBox.

Games are split into different genres with their PEGI (Pan-European Game Information) rating clearly on display, and there are warnings on titles that have in-app purchases, all before you decide to download and play.

It’s also possible to side-load games and apps onto GEMBox’s 16GB internal storage and, if you fancy something a bit meatier than Android titles, you can use it to stream games from your PC directly to your TV. Even if you don’t have a PC, the GEMBox can connect to GameFly’s on-demand game streaming service so you can play console games like Batman: Arkham City or a number of the LEGO games for a monthly subscription fee.

The titles on offer via GameFly won’t set the world alight, but that’s fine. The audience  EMTEC is targeting with the GEMBox isn’t comprised of die-hard gamers but families with kids who are interested in games but not enough to warrant the purchase of an Xbox One orPS4.

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GEMBox review: The bad

Because EMTEC has focused on pushing games as the front-and-centre of GEMBox – so much so that it comes with a controller as standard – other areas of the box suffer greatly in comparison.

Its UI may be perfectly suited to finding a game you’d like to play, but doing anything else is horribly clunky. Trying to find a standard app is a farce as the Google Play Store really doesn’t play nice with the controller.

To circumvent such navigational issues, especially when browsing the web or using apps like Crunchyroll or YouTube, EMTEC provides a “mouse” mode toggle switch on its controller. It’s hardly an elegant solution to the problem and, as far as I’m concerned, will only serve to alienate your average user.

Another major problem is the GEMBox’s lack of compatibility with big-name TV streaming apps such as NowTV and Netflix. Because the box uses Android 4.4 KitKat as its core OS (later versions of Android don’t allow for custom-built UI – instead forcing manufacturers to run Android TV) – many of the apps you’d expect to use simply aren’t compatible. There are workarounds via compatible services such as Kodi or Aptoide that allow you to download compatible APK files, but many consumers won’t want to deal with such compromises when buying – what should be – a complete product.

Another minor niggle is its custom keyboard. Using a similar approach to Valve’s Big Picture Mode on Steam, GEMBox’s Android keyboard assigns a letter to the pad’s coloured X, Y, A, B face buttons. It’s a dream to use for fast typing, but if you’re browsing the web or using mouse mode in an app, you’ll need to continually switch back to gamepad mode to actually be able to type. It’s fussy and cumbersome, but isn’t a total deal-breaker.

Using EMTEC’s optional remote, which comes with a built-in keyboard, would help alleviate many of the navigational issues – as it also turns into a Wii-style pointer for mousing – but it’s still far from perfect. It’ll also cost you an extra £30 if you didn’t pick one up as part of a bundle.

GEMBox review: Verdict

GEMBox is perfect for those who want to play Android games on a TV or stream PC games to the big screen, it’s more feature-rich than a Steam Link and costs only a little more, at £100. However, if you’re looking for a media streamer that has some gaming capabilities, this isn’t going to be the device you’re looking for.

Given that for its low price you get a gamepad and four pre-installed games, there’s a lot worse you could spend your money on, just don’t expect this to be the device that causes an Android games revolution.

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