E3 2016: hands-on with EMTEC’s new GEM Box console

gembox-pack 3D high def

At E3 this year, we were able to sit down and test out the new GEM Box, a $99 Android powered console set to be released later this year. The GEM Box is aimed towards families and casual gamers that want an affordable way to play games on their home TV. There are four different ways to play video games on the GEM Box: Google Play, Gamefly Streaming, Retro Games, and PC mirroring.

With Google Play, gamers need to log into their account through the GEM Box and then they will be able to play mobile games on their TV. The GEM Box comes with four games pre-installed on the machine: Asphalt 8, GT Racing 2, Wonder Zoo, and My Little Pony. The developers wanted a machine can families can use right out of the box even if they don’t have an internet connection. The developers also cultivated a list of gamepad compatible games in what they call the GEM Store. Gamers can sort through a list of racing games, strategy, action/adventure, and more. All of the games in the list have been tested to make sure they are fully compatible with a controller.

The second way to play games on the GEM Box is through Gamefly’s streaming service. Gamefly has adopted the Netflix model and has curated a lot of last generation games that are streamable through multiple outlets including the GEM Box. EMTEC partnered with Gamefly to provide one month of Gamefly’s streaming service for free with the purchase of a GEM Box console. Where other set-top boxes require almost a 20MB/s internet connection to stream games effectively, the GEM Box only requires an internet connection of 5MB/s. What that means is that gamers can get a quality gameplay experience on a smaller internet connection. Even playing a racing game like DiRT 3 off-site from the convention floor, the racing game was smooth and reliable.

The third way that people can play games on the GEM Box is through Retro Gaming. What’s interesting about Retro Gaming is that gamers can play old games without the need of an actual retro console. EMTEC has pre-installed the emulators which function as digital consoles and let players download the games themselves. What’s distressing about it though is the fact that there’s no way for publishers to get credit for the download or sales of these games. Developers and publishers need to create an online space where players can easily purchase these classics to give credit back to the publishers and game developers. Granted that does open up a bigger debate about whether publishers actually want their classic games on multiple platforms, but on the whole it’s something the industry should move towards.

The final way to play games on the GEM Box is through PC mirroring. This is one of the more intriguing options, especially for gamers that have big gaming PC rigs. The GEM Box connects to the PC’s video card over the home wi-fi and streams games to the TV. This is another option, like the Valve Steam Link or the Nvidia Shield that grants players easy access to their PC library on their TV.

One of the biggest advantages of a small set-top box like this is the ability to travel with it. Families who go on vacation can easily pack this and set it up in a hotel room or TV at a relative’s house. The box itself is nice and compact and it has all of the major ports needed from a small console. It even includes an SD Card slot to save games to and a USB slot to play media or games from. The GEM Box even lets players use an Xbox 360 controller if it’s plugged into the USB slot.

Speaking of controllers, the GEM Box controller has a familiar feel without being directly compared to either of the major console makers. The controller feels solid and responsive and felt like something that could take a beating in a household with kids. The coolest feature on the controller is the little switch on the bottom that can turn the controller into a mouse pad. The left stick is used to control the pointer and the mouse mode makes it easier to navigate the web browser on the console. The only issue with the controller I ran into was the fact that the sticks are close together. If I move all of the way to the right with the left stick and all of the way to the left with the right stick my thumbs run into each other.

Some of the concerns I have with the GEM Box is the market that the developers are shooting towards. By diversifying their reach into casual gamers, families, and serious gamers, there’s a chance that they might not penetrate in any one of them. Another concern with the upcoming console is the fact that they’re walking a grey area by encouraging the download of emulated games by pre-programming the emulators onto the box itself. If there was a real-world way to easily provide players with the ability to purchase classic games, it would go a long way towards the Retro Gaming market.

Overall, the GEM Box is an interesting low-cost console that’s poised to assert itself in an area of the market that isn’t dominated by any one company. With such a great price point, a bevy of ways to play games, and a strong tech company behind it, the GEM Box has a chance to carve out its place in the world. The GEM Box launches August 18, 2016 and will be available to purchase on Amazon.com and on Gamestop’s website.

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