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PlayJam GameStick review: Low cost Android console gaming has potential

In January the GameStick appeared as a Kickstarter project. It is available now for $80 and some games are fun, but more games are needed and the user interface could use more work.
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By Matthew Miller, Contributor on
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1 of 22 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

GameStick retail package

I enjoy gaming on my mobile devices and via my Xbox 360 on my TV. As a frequent traveler, I was interested in checking out the new GameStick portable TV game console and have been playing games on it for a couple of weeks.

The GameStick was a very successful Kickstarter project, taking in nearly $650,000 from almost 5,700 backers in January 2013. It is now available for $79.99 with games priced from free to $4.99.

Hardware

The GameStick kit is composed of a couple primary pieces; the controller and the HDMI dongle. Both pieces are charged via microUSB with the HDMI dongle requiring a constant connection while the controller is rechargeable.

The small dongle has a male HDMI connector on one end with many slots in it to allow for air to pass through as it heats up. It is powered by Android with an ARM Cortex A9 CPU and Mali 400 GPU inside. There is 8GB integrated in the dongle/stick with a microSD card slot supporting up to 32GB cards.

The GameStick has integrated 802.11 b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 with support for 1080p video playback. There is a microUSB port in the side for charging up the GameStick. It fits right into the controller for taking your gaming on the go.

The other main piece is the controller. It definitely doesn't look and feel as ergonomic as a Xbox or Playstation controller, but is actually quite functional and enjoyable to use. It is quite light and the plastic isn't the highest quality available. Then again, the controller and stick itself are only $80 so it's tough to complain.

I like that the controller is mostly coated in soft touch material, has two joysticks, four easily accessible directional buttons, a directional/plus controller, and two large upper shoulder buttons. There is a microUSB port on the bottom to charge it up with four indicator lights for charging status.

The GameStick unit doesn't slide in and out of the controller as easily as I would like, but it really just takes a bit of practice to get it working properly.

Software

The setup wizard is easy to understand and follow. However, making game purchases and selections is a bit more complicated than it needs to be. You have to go to the GameStick Zone and choose your games and then go to another area to select games to download and then select games to install. While games are installing, you cannot do anything else with the GameStick.

There are three main categories in the game area; Featured, Popular, and All. There are currently no games shown in the featured section and nine shown in the popular category.

There looks to be 41 games available for the GameStick at this time. I played a few of them, including Riptide GP, ShadowGun, Ski Safari, and Retro Racing. So far my favorite is Ski Safari with enjoyable gameplay, fun graphics and music, and challenging levels.

PlayJam, the creator of the GameStick, announced that Prince of Persia would be coming to the platform, but it is not yet available at the time of this review.

There is a section in the GameStick Zone labeled Media Apps, but I do not yet see any of these available for the GameStick. I am not sure what these will include in the future either.

You can manage your account with the controller on your TV or login online and manage your account via a web browser. The web browser access is really preferred since you can enter payment information and find games more easily using your keyboard and mouse than you can with the controller.

Usage and experiences

The GameStick software could use a bit of work to make it more user friendly, but after using it for a few minutes you can navigate around and figure it out. It needs to get better for the average user though.

The games I played were fairly simple, yet they were enjoyable to play. So far I haven't seen complicated and extremely detailed games like you find on popular consoles, but the cost is much less too.

Pros and Cons

To summarize my experiences with the GameStick, here are my pros and cons.

Pros

  • Functional controls
  • Fairly high Android specs in a small stick form factor
  • Portable system
  • Low cost games and system
  • Easy setup

Cons

  • Limited quantity of games
  • Fairly basic gameplay
  • Purchase and installation process needs some work

Pricing and availability

The GameStick is available for $79.99 from GameStop.

The competition

Competitors include the Ouya and maybe even the Nvidia Project Shield. The Ouya didn't do that well, priced at $20 more than the GameStick with many more software and supply chain problems.

Specifications

  • ARM Cortex A9 processor with Mali 400 GPU
  • Android Jelly Bean OS
  • 8GB internal storage
  • microSD card slot
  • 802.11 b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0

Conclusion

I like the idea of the GameStick and even find the controller to be decent enough for the current available games. It would be great to be able to use an Xbox or Playstation controller with the GameStick unit, but for the price I understand the compromises that were made.

While a few games were enjoyable, I was expecting more powerful Android games like I see on my various Android smartphones. The GameStick is not high priced, but I personally wouldn't buy one quite yet. After some more work on the front end user interface and support for more advanced games then I might consider it as a gift for younger gamers.

It is priced much less than Microsoft and Sony consoles so there is some potential here. It would be great to be able to play Android games you already purchased on your smartphone on the GameStick and vice versa.

Contributor's rating: 7 out of 10

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Opening up the retail package

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Retail box contents

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GameStick controller

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Switch to slide out the GameStick dongle

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GameStick dongle/device

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Slot where the GameStick is stored

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microUSB port on side of the GameStick

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HDMI male end of the GameStick

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Indicator lights and microUSB on the controller

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Right side of the game controller

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Left side of the game controller

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HDMI extension and GameStick connection

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Setting up the system on my TV

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Settings on the TV

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Browsing the store for games

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Installing games to the GameStick

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Purchasing games

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Managing my wallet

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Payment methods

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Playing Ski Safari

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Playing ShadowGun

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