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Not too long ago, a craze hit Kickstarter in a huge way. That craze was the Android micro-console. First, the OUYA (which we reviewed) exploded on Kickstarter. Immediately after that, the much smaller GameStick hit the crowd-funding service, and while it did not explode in the same way as the OUYA, it still commanded far beyond its funding goal.
Now, months later, we have the $79 GameStick and its controller in our hands, and we’ve had some time to explore the games available, and of course, play them. How is the console? How does it compare to the OUYA, or even a more traditional game console? Keep reading the review to find out.
We bought this GameStick ourselves, we’ve tested it, and now we are giving it away to one lucky reader! Find out how to win your own GameStick, so you can get in and enjoy some Android gaming without spending a dime.
Introducing The GameStick
The GameStick was designed to be the most affordable, open and portable TV games console ever created. While they managed to nail their goals in terms of pricing, personally, the GameStick is just about as portable any other gaming console — not very portable at all. Why make a portable gaming console without a screen? The need for a TV negates the notion of portability, and puts the GameStick in the same category as other Android games consoles; mainly the OUYA and Mad Catz M.O.J.O. — so we’ll be comparing the GameStick to those consoles. If you’re looking for a truly portable video game console, you might want to consider the NVIDIA Shield.
The GameStick is an Android-based gaming console, like the OUYA and Mad Catz M.O.J.O. (which we also reviewed). Unlike those consoles, the GameStick is incredibly tiny. At first glance, it actually looks like a thumb drive, and it’s small enough to fit inside of the controller for easier transporting.
One major selling point of any of these Android consoles is the price. When they were first pitched by the companies, they talked about granting gamers the ability to play games without spending big bucks. From a price perspective, the GameStick beats all of the competition — it retails for just $79, while the OUYA, with similar specifications, costs $100. The GameStick has a clear edge, but price isn’t everything. At $79, it still needs to deliver a solid gameplay experience. The Mad Catz M.O.J.O. costs a lot more at $249, but it’s also quite a bit more powerful than the other two.
So when the GameStick arrives at your home, what will it be like to crack open the box and get to playing? Well the first thing you will notice is that the console is actually quite small, as advertised. It’s only slightly bigger than an average USB drive, and since it connects to the TV through HDMI, it literally has zero footprint on your media center.
On MHL-compliant televisions, the GameStick micro-console can draw sufficient power through HDMI alone. For non-MHL televisions, it accepts power through micro-USB, which you can connect to either your television’s USB port, or to a wall outlet with the included power brick. This means the GameStick isn’t as ultra portable as advertised, and requires carrying an additional cable around, if not the power brick as well.
The other thing you will probably notice is the controller — it’s rectangular. The last rectangular controller I can recall using is that of the NES, which was released in 1985. If you’ve played with the NES, you should know that while it gets the job done, holding a rectangular controller can be uncomfortable after a while. Thankfully, the edges are slightly rounded, which should alleviate some of the hand discomfort the NES used to cause back in the day. We’ll get to just how it feels to play games on the controller in a bit.
As for what comes in the box, you will find the GameStick console, the controller, an HDMI extender cable that will allow you to hook up the device if there is not enough space between HDMI ports, two USB cables, a power adapter, and the paperwork you will need to get everything up and running.
We should also mention that during the setup process, our GameStick malfunctioned. We contacted GameStick support and they set us up with the files we needed to copy to a thumb drive in order to reinstall the device’s software within 24 hours. The cable that is used to power the device has a splitter on the end that can be used to allow the console to read the files on a thumb drive.
So just what is under the hood of the GameStick? For the CPU, it features an ARM Cortex A9. The GPU is a multi-core Mali 400. It also comes with 8GB of onboard memory for storing games purchased from the store, as well as support for microSD cards up to 32GB.
For connecting to the Internet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi is included. No wired Internet is available, so you will need a wireless connection to get online and use the micro-console. It also has Bluetooth 4.0 for connecting the controller.
While the specifications cannot compare to the Tegra 4 featured in the Mad Catz M.O.J.O., very few Android games are actually able to harness that power, and as such, the GameStick is sufficient for the games offered through its store. While not cutting edge by any stretch of the imagination, it definitely gets the job done for playing the types of games it aims to bring to players.
The GameStick console is just a tiny white plastic stick with an HDMI plug sticking out of the end, and a micro USB port near the other end. That being said, it’s a pretty nice looking little console, which glows white when the console is powered on.
As for the controller, there is a lot more room to work with. As I said previously, the controller is rectangular in shape, but it has slightly rounded corners that make holding it more comfortable. It has a d-pad, two joysticks, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and four buttons in the middle of the controller.
I have a fairly major problem with the controller that I noticed as soon as I tried to use it to type on the onscreen keyboard. That problem is the joysticks, which are far too sensitive. They seem to have almost no dead zone, which makes precision movement an issue. I found that typing with the d-pad was much easier and far more accurate.
The last key design aspect of the GameStick is the interface, which is incredibly simple. On the left side of the screen you will see Games, Media, your user name, and Settings. You navigate through these menus using the up and down buttons on the controller. Above the list of apps you will see menus for featured games, those you can play now, popular apps, and a complete list of all apps. The most important one is called “Play Now,” which is where games you have downloaded will appear. I think it would have been better if it was just called Downloads, because if you didn’t know where to look, you might not know where your downloads ended up.
Overall, the look of the operating system is nice, and it’s mostly easy to navigate. However, the main reason it works in its current state is because there are so few games. Over time, more games will populate the store until a point where navigating it will be too cumbersome.
Gaming On The GameStick
Playing games on the device is a decent enough experience, but sadly, it’s very limited by the few games available on the service. As of this writing, there are only 71 games available, which might sound like a lot, but is put into perspective when you compare it to the OUYA’s 199 games — and the OUYA didn’t have much of a head start either.
Of the games in the library, only four of them are free, so if you really want to jump in and do some gaming, you are going to need throw down some money. Thankfully, most of the games are under $5, so they’re affordable. However, unlike the OUYA, there’s no trial option, so you can’t really test them out before committing to a purchase. Personally, the ability to test paid games before buying them was one of my favorite features on the OUYA, and I wish the GameStick offered the same feature.
As for the type of games you will find, most of them are pretty standard Android games. Titles like Ski Safari, Edge, and plenty of other staples are available for purchase. There are some shooters and the like on the store, but of course, this device won’t replace your Xbox One (see our review) or PlayStation 4 (our review). That’s not really what it sets out to do anyway, so we can’t knock it for that.
The gaming experience is average, but the GameStick controller is not the best I’ve used by any stretch. I thought the OUYA had among the worst controllers I’ve ever used, and the GameStick isn’t far off. The rectangular shape, while not necessarily the best, isn’t really the problem, but the loose joysticks are. They just don’t feel precise at all, and they really hinder the gameplay experience.
As far as game consoles go, there is really nothing special about the GameStick. The games are your standard Android stuff, and it doesn’t seem like PlayJam, the company behind the device, is putting nearly as much effort into getting games on the platform as OUYA. With time, we do expect more games to hit the service, but it’s limited right now.
That being said, if you are looking for a gaming console to put in a child’s bedroom that is affordable with a bunch of cheap games, the GameStick will certainly do the job. Not every family can commit to spending over $400 on a game console, so letting kids play games on the GameStick, at just $79, isn’t such a terrible idea. For the more serious gamers, though, the games found on the GameStick will probably be a disappointment.
GameStick As A Media Player
The GameStick is a competent media player, though not the best. There are only two apps available under the media section of the device, but it has the only one you truly need to get what you want – XBMC. With it, you can install all of the third-party addons you would expect, including any of the piracy-orientated ones, though we don’t necessarily recommend using those.
As you might expect, you’ll use the GameStick controller to navigate through XBMC. The problems with the overly sensitive joysticks really stand out when trying to type on the on-screen keyboard, but it’s something you will get used to after a while.
Even if you don’t plan to do much gaming with the GameStick, a tiny $80 dollar XBMC player is an idea worth entertaining. It costs about the same as Roku, but it does give you the bonus of playing games as well. However, you will notice many of the big names in media are not available. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are all absent, which is quite surprising, considering those services seem to be available on any device that connects to a TV. If you want to play games and consume media, this is not a bad option. However, if you are just looking for a media player, then a dedicated device or even a Raspberry Pi is probably a better option.
Although the GameStick was designed primarily for portability, we can’t recommend it because without a built-in screen, it’s just not a portable gaming console. If the argument is the ease of transport, then how much easier is the GameStick to put in a box, as opposed to the OUYA or M.O.J.O.?
All in all, the GameStick is a pretty decent device, but it’s not great. There aren’t that many games on the store, and even fewer of the games are available for free. It’s an acceptable media player with XBMC, but it’s not fantastic. That’s kind of the story of the device – everything is okay, but it doesn’t seem to light the world on fire in any category. However, it’s only $79, so it’s really not a huge commitment.
MakeUseOf recommends: If you’re looking for a gaming device for a child’s room that won’t break the bank, or a cheap media player that’s also capable of gaming, the GameStick is certainly worth considering.
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