Microsoft's XBox and Sony's Playstation may still reign supreme in the world of household game consoles but there is a new crop of set-top boxes that are attempting to offer gaming to the masses. Micro consoles are game consoles of a smaller breed. They don't have the horsepower of XBox or Playstation, but they neither have the high price tag. Unfortunately they also lack the same level of game support. Nevertheless, micro-consoles are a new thing that might stick. In fact, they will stick at some level.
Primarily, these micro-consoles use Android as their underlying operating system (Android consoles). There is an exception with the yet to be Steam consoles, but by and large, Android is a perfect base for a game console. Here are some reasons:
While Android OS may seem, at the moment, like the way to go with a micro-console, there is now another OS on the prowl and ready to pounce into living rooms the World over. Enter Steam OS.
Steam is a service from Valve that millions of PC gamers (and developers) use. Steam is a distribution application that Valve initially used for their own games such as Half-Life, later opening up to third-party and independent developers. Valve has recently taken this a step further and built an entire OS meant to be used in set-top box gaming consoles. These gaming consoles will, similar to Android consoles, likely be smaller set-top boxes, but unlike Android consoles, Steam OS based consoles will probably feature very cutting edge graphics. This is yet to be seen, of course, but at the very least, there will be a variety of Steam Boxes that feature medium to high levels of horsepower.
At the moment, there are no Steam Boxes or Steam based consoles. There are, however, several Android based micro-consoles on the market - the most popular being Ouya, which came out earlier in 2013 after a (very) successful Kickstarter project.
The Ouya could possibly be the first kid on the block in the land of micro-consoles. It launched to much anticipation early in 2013, after a fairly successful Kickstarter project. The launch didn't go as smoothly as hoped, perahps. It was faced with some delays and some disappointment in what was first called an "unfinished produt" when it reached the hands of reviewers.
Additionally, the Ouya controller was torn apart by many, causing a bit of a backlash. The Ouya controller felt great in the hands for the most part, but it faced a few issues. The may gripe with the Ouya controller was with latency. In many cases, the controller just wouldn't function properly. In fact, many Ouya owners decided to go with Sony playstation controllers, which seem to work quite a bit better. Since the initial launch, the Ouya has had several firmware updates and some of those did attempt to address some controller issues. The latency and overall usability of the Ouya controller remains an issue for some, but it is expected that this will be resolved as Ouya pumps out new systems.
Another one of the initial negatives of the Ouya was the number of games supported at launch. The Ouya has an app store where developers can submit games, but games must be ported to the Ouya. Typically this isn't overly difficult for developers and requires, primarily, integrating the controller. Since launch, however, many new games have shown up in the Ouya store and the console is strating to see some support from some larger game developers.
Some of the redeeming qualities of the Ouya include being able to side load apps. Thus we can play until our heart is content with emulators and even a port of XBMC which was created specifically for Ouya.
The console is sub $100 on Amazon and if you are interested at all in Android based consoles, it is probably a good choice. The Ouya continues to draw increased support from major developers, but has had a strong following with indie devs and as such has some very original (and fun) content.
The Nvidia Sheild is an odd one. At nearly $300, it is certainly an expensive Android gaming system, compared to the others available. But it is probably also the most powerful. Many of the initial reviews suggest as much. The Nvidia Sheild Android console was released in July 2013. Unfortunately like the other Android consoles, it lacks game support.
Unique features of the Sheild include its built in screen and the fact that everything is built into the controller itself. This makes it not a very good set-top box console like the others. However there are some really cool features such as the ability to stream some PC games to the device. However, not all games work well and, in fact, there is again very little support.
Like the Ouya, Gamestick received its initial funding through crowd sourcing on Kickstarter. Unlike the Ouya, Gamestick is no larger than a USB stick and it plugs directly intonn a HDMI input on a TV. This novel approach gives it a unique value proposition. The Gamestick.tv wevsite describes it as the "world's most portable TV games console."
The Gamestick console fits snug into a small compartment on the Gamestick bluetooth game controller. This makes it a perfect travelling game console, really. The controller itself features the analog sticks, front-side ABXY buttons, triggers and D-pad. The build of the controller more closely resembles a Wii Classic controller than the Ouya's resemblance to Xbox and Playstation controllers. Up to 4 controllers can join the party.
The Gamestick console has an onboar 8GB of storage housed in the tiny package, with additional support for up to 32GB via a micro SD card. Fortunately the console also supports HID profile so that additional controllers that are not Gamestick controllers may work with the console. This is similar to the Ouya. The Gamestick console is powered by a ARM Cortex A9 processor with a MALI 400 GPU.
With respect to games, similar to other micro-consoles, the selection is limited. That isn't to say that there aren't some great Android games ported to the Gamestick and that there won't be many more added, just that, as with the Ouya, know what kind of selection of games you will be looking at. You can check out the supported games list here.
The Gamepop console from Bluestacks is a litle different in that it is subscription based. It gives you "hundreds of paid games" for just $6.99 per month. At the moment, the gamepop console is in a pre-order phase, with an anticipated winter 2013 release.
Exactly what the console and controller look like remain a mystery. More to come for sure and it will certainly be interesting to see whether this subscription based game distribution method is successful in the long run.
The Mad Catz M.O.J.O. is one of the newer Android consoles to hit the scene and it has some pretty crushing features that make it a very compelling purchase, despite the relativel high price tag (of $250). The M.O.J.O. features a blistering fast Tegra 4 processor and 16GB of storage, expandable to 128GB through SDXC cards. But the biggest difference between it and Ouya or Gamestick is the fact that Mad Catz plan on making it open to Google Play store. This means that everything available on Google Play is potentially playable on your big screen tv. Of course, if all you have is the controller, you will be constrained by the controller support built into specific games, similar to how you would with any third party Android controller.
Additionally, the M.O.J.O. game controller also features media controls and a clip similar to the PowerA MOGA and Gameklip controlers.. This makes it also a portable gaming system, when combined with your Android phone.
The Mad Catz M.O.J.O. is in a pre-order phase and expected release is in December 2013.
Snakebyte, the company that also has a great Android controller, is releasing an Android based console/media player/tablet towards the end of 2013. The console features a dockable tablet with a Rockchip quad core running Android Jelly Bean. Snakebyte is offering two packages of the tablet/console - the first with only the dock and the Snakebyte air mouse (that doubles as a keyboard) and a second package that also ships with a controller very similar to the Snakebyte idroid:con controller.
It's an interesting approach that on its own is fairly unique, although not something completely unique in its various components. With a $200 pricetag, one could look at the package as an affordable Android tablet that also comes with a dock and controllers.
Last but not least is a super unique yet to be released console called iConsole.tv. Unlike all the other Android based systems listed here, the iConsole.tv is powered by x86 chips instead of ARM based processors. This enables the iConsole.tv to be pushed far faster than the others - many times over.
The iConsole.tv features a custom Android OS but also has a custom Linux OS that allows the user to run Android based games or apps, or Linux Steam games - whichever the user chooses. Additionally, the iConsole.tv is ste to feature possible support for TV tuners (ATSC or Cablecard) and offer a variety of other video streaming capabilities - making it possible a great TV console or media player.
For now, Developer Kits are avaialble for a fairly hefty cost. There is no date set for Consumer release.