A Game of Thrones – War for the Android Crown

THERE CAN BE ONLY SEVERAL

By the good graces of Kickstarter and venture capitalists, a cavalcade of Android-powered video game consoles will be debuting over the next year or so.  While they all offer a controller-led gaming experience, there are several wrinkles that separate each from one another. 

 

OUYA – Boxer8

Official Website               

$99

On Sale Now

 

TECHNICAL SPECS

CPU – nVidia Tegra 3 T33-P-A3 Quad-core 1.7 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore (ARMv7-A architecture)

GPU – nVidia GeForce ULP @ 520 MHz (12.48 GFLOPS)

1 GiB DDR3-1600 SDRAM

1 USB 2.0, 1 microUSB

8 GB eMMC Internal Flash storage

HDMI 1.4; 1080p or 720p resolution. Stereoscopic 3D support WiFi 802.11bgn

10/100 Ethernet (8P8C), 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth LE 4.0 Wireless controller with 2.4Ghz RF

Android 4.1 (Jellybean) with custom Ouya launcher.

 

 

The first of the Android-heir apparent to the throne, the Ouya caught public attention with its quirky looking box and boomerang controller. Clever pitch in hand, the Ouya continually broke all kinds of Kickstarter records, ultimately netting 8.59 million.

It helps that every title has a free-to-play demo.  That coupled with a $100 price tag makes for a relatively low cost of entry.  Ouya further seeks to ease the shift to an alien tech gizmo by offering dozens of popular apps for free.

Compared to its competitors, the Ouya runs middle of the road in terms of supported outputs.

Compared to its competitors, the Ouya runs middle of the road in terms of supported outputs.

 

Beyond concerns over its basic functionality, the biggest question mark hovering over Ouya is the game selection.  Right now the catalogue is only 180 or so titles deep.  Every Android developed game will ultimately be available in the future, but there’s no time table on this transition. Even within that existing group of a couple hundred the quality can vary wildly, and very few games take advantage of the 1080p output.  Right now none of them take advantage of the center touch pad either.

Multiple Ouya early-adopters have complained about the controller.  From its cheap feeling plastic construction, to its overly wide fame, to the sticking buttons – almost every aspect of the device was panned.  Engadget reported a slight lag between the controller and console as well.

Not so different from the original demo’d PS3 controller, no?

Not so different from the original demo’d PS3 controller, no?

 

They’re continuing to evolve their firmware, eliminate problems with downloading, add social media options, and rope in a browser.  A lot of this stuff should have been weeded out already, but none of these speed bumps should derail their mission entirely.

 

 

M.O.J.O. – Mad Catz

Official Website               

$???

2014

 

KNOWN TECHNICAL SPECS

CPU – Tegra 4 Chip

16GB Internal Flash Storage & Micro SD Card Slot (32 GB capacity)

2 USB 3.0 and one HDMI port with 1080p output

Wifi b/n/g and Bluetooth 4.0 controller connectivity

 

 

Should it surprise anyone that Mad Catz couldn’t help themselves at this crazy juncture of wild hardware development?  Ironically, the one player in the game that should hold the most promise instead produces the most skepticism.  Mad Catz has time and time again proven they just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to the console market.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

 

For years this company has focused exclusively on third party hardware peripherals, designing controllers, headsets, light guns, pedals, and all manner of other weird, superfluous shit for the past several generations of consoles.  The naturally following expectation would be that such devices would be superior to the original models.  Their PC products have recently posted a great track record, but the console hardware has room for improvement.

Of course the console will function with the “entire eco-system of gaming peripherals”, of which there is an overabundance.  In the process of finagling too many cross-peripheral mutation schemes, Mad Catz President Darren Richardson has created an eco-system not unlike my Viva Pinata garden:

Don’t look too closely, there’s some weird shit in there.

Don’t look too closely, there’s some weird shit in there.

 

They have yet to announce SKU details, but it’s great that any kind of existing Bluetooth powered controller will work with the new console.  Ditto for headsets.   This is a critical detail: allowing players to use their 360 controllers or PS3 headsets goes a long way towards enticing those outside the (small) Mad Catz fan club.

It’s tough to say more about the MOJO until more details roll out – for now it’s safe to simply say that existing Mad Catz adopters that want an Android console have probably found their soul mate.

 

 

UNU – Sunflex / Snakebyte

Official Website 

$199 Media SKU / $249 Gaming SKU

2014

 

KNOWN TECHNICAL SPECS

Tablet Screen – 7” 1280 x 800 IPS

CPU – RockChip 1.6Ghz quad-core

GPU – Mali 440 Quad Core

8GB Onboard Flash storage & Micro SD Card slot (32 GB capacity)

2 Micro USB 2.0 ports & Mini HDMI with 1080p output

 

 

The Unu is the tabula rasa of this lineup: they’ve confirmed the fewest details of anyone and have made the most promises.  No ambition is too large, no peripheral too farfetched.

There are several aspects, hardware and software side, presumably all working in concert:

The tablet already looks a little defunct: the bezel is a little too thick, the screen size a little small, the resolution is respectable but nothing to write home about.

The tablet already looks a little defunct: the bezel is a little too thick, the screen size a little small, the resolution is respectable but nothing to write home about.

 

Unu is anchored around a version 4.2 Android-run tablet, capable of everything it’s expected for that to entail.  There are several ports packed in, but most important is the mini-HDMI out that connects the console to the TV. An optional dock provides additional video outs, charging, and a nice stand for second screen games (of which there are few).

There’s also a gaming controller – it handles all the…gaming.

There’s also a gaming controller – it handles all the…gaming.

 

Plug your tablet into the TV and it doubles as your gaming console, primarily operated with another slick looking but ergonomically challenged controller.  The OS/browser navigations buttons on the bottom are a nice touch, but a little unnecessary.  The controller comes with the ‘Gaming’ edition – no word yet on whether customers could upgrade from the ‘Media’ edition by purchasing it separately.

As for games?  They’ll support the Google Play store, but they’ll also have their own shop of specially corralled titles. None of those titles will be exclusive games for the Unu – at least none have been announced yet.   Confused yet?

The keys feel crisp and responsive.

The keys feel crisp and responsive.

 

Then there’s the small wireless keypad – this is the smart TV side of the equation.  Bluetooth operated, it’s designed to provide all the lite-computer functionality desired from that kind of media experience.  The problem is that the unit is a little too large to pull off a full handheld QWERTY keyboard.  Kids especially will find it daunting to reach those G and H keys while trying to surf the web.

On the other side you’ll find a universal remote controller for the console and connected TV.  Rounding out the Swiss Army knife approach, said device also functions as a motion peripheral.

When interviewed at E3, Snakebyte’s lead developer Jens Lawrenz sneered down Nvidia’s Shield, calling it a “niche of a niche of a niche”.  That’s certainly true when stacked up against the Unu, but does that mean the jack of all trades, master of none approach will click with consumers?

 

 

GAMEPOP MINI – BlueStacks

Official Website 

$6.99 / Month

Q4 2013

KNOWN TECHNICAL SPECS

HDMI port

Android version – Jelly Bean 4.2

iOS Game/App support

 

 

An Android emulator for PC desktops jumped into the hardware race as well back in May when the Gamepop released.  Bluestacks aggressively sought to carve out a portion of the Ouya market by offering its home console for free if reserved by the end of May.  They pursued the subscription model – $6.99 a month for a minimum of one year.

The Gamepop Mini continues the same trend, just with a smaller package.  It’s lacking a couple ports and slightly fewer options in terms of accessories, but it’s still an identical game and service experience.  A bit bizarre considering the original still hasn’t shipped yet.

It’s apparently a rule that all Android consoles must issue from edgy, forward thinking design philosophies.

It’s apparently a rule that all Android consoles must issue from edgy, forward thinking design philosophies.

 

The Mini conversely is “forever free”, again with a minimum one year subscription.  That comes out to roughly $83 a year – cheaper than most competitors in the short term.  Like its other Android competitors, the full list of games capable of running on the Mini hasn’t been released yet, but it’s said to be estimated at $250+ worth of gaming value.  This includes a select handful of iOS games.

John Gargiulo seems to have left his strategy at “let’s copy Netflix”:

“That’s the plan. That’s always been the plan. Look at Netflix — it’s everywhere. We want the GamePop service to be everywhere.”

This analogy only works so far though.  Netflix’s key selling point is a cornucopia of content that conventionally can only be found on cable channels at certain times.  Gamepop Mini’s games are, by contrast, available cheaply on a huge variety of different platforms and devices.

Perhaps ideal for those that can’t afford the upfront payment, it’s hard to see what the larger benefit would be considering the Gamepop doesn’t have any notable exclusive services or titles.  $250 worth of content sounds great until it’s broken down.  How many of those games are terrible, or maybe a type of game you simply don’t like?

The final list of free games available will be the real test, but what major releases of this ‘mini-Generation’ could surface to really ship units?

 

 

GAMESTICK – PlayJam

Official Website

$79.99

August 2013

 

TECHNICAL SPECS

CPU – Amlogic 8726-MXS (dual-core Cortex A9 chip at 1.5GHz)

GPU – Dual-core Mali 400 (400MHz)

1GB DDR3 memory

8GB Internal Flash storage & SD card slot (32 GB capacity)

HDMI interface, MHL support for direct power from HDMI slot (Power options available for older TVs)

WiFi – 802.11 b/g/n & Bluetooth – LE 4.0

Full 1080p HD video decoding

Android Version – 4.2 Jelly Bean

 

 

Another Kickstarter success story, Game Stick combines the portability of a handheld, single compact unit for easy carrying with the home experience of an Android console.  As the name implies, the conceit of an HDMI pluggable stick powering a home gaming experience is both novel and inherently limiting.

The ‘Stick’ has a mini-USB port on the side for charging purposes.

The ‘Stick’ has a mini-USB port on the side for charging purposes.

 

Due to its diminutive form, the processing power of the GameStick is definitely a step or three behind some of the other Android console products out there.  Assuming this current wave of consoles was able to constitute its own ‘mini-generation’, they would all conceivably share in a collective pool of ‘multi-platform’ releases.  It’s possible that various games developed down the line may not run as well on the GameStick, if engineered for the more powerful Ouya or Shield.

Make no mistake though, there’s a ton of functionality packed into that small casing.  Bluetooth connectivity for four controllers, 802.11 b/g/n Wifi, and its own internal processor.  The add on docking station offers wireless controller charging as well as USB, HDMI, SD card, and Ethernet connections.

The $39.99 dock will allow connectivity to other third party devices as well.

The $39.99 dock will allow connectivity to other third party devices as well.

 

But what about games?  The PlayJam store will feature around 100 games at launch, sharing a few of the various beefed-up Android console games like Shadowgun.  The final list doesn’t seem like much to write home about, but they’re hoping that an open platform and freely circulating SDK will help get more games up quickly.  Partnerships with Netflix and Hulu will try and ease that burden in the short term.

There is a special appeal in being able to very conveniently export the console experience to any TV.  Add in support for any Bluetooth controller supporting HID and it’s painless to tote an afternoon of gaming to any friend’s house.

 

 

EVO 2 DX – Envision

Official Website

$579 Standard SKU / $679 Blu-Ray SKU

 

???

KNOWN TECHNICAL SPECS

CPU – Socket AM3/AM2+/AM2 Quad-Core Opteron™ & Phenom

GPU – Integrated ATI Radeon HD 4200 (DirectX 10.1)

350GB Internal Hard Drive

2 GB DDR2 RAM

1 VGA / 1 DVI-D / 1 HDMI 1.3 ports

1 32-bit PCI / 1 mini-PCI Express / 2 eSATA connections

Realtek PCI-Express gigabit Ethernet

Stereoscopic 3D enabled & 3D motion sensor

 

 

In some ways the most conventional of any of the Android consoles, the EVO 2 has mimicked the trajectory of the Big Three to the point of adding motion controls and a Blu-Ray drive.  It’s the new model in what Envision has slanted as it’s ‘line of consoles’, replacing the original EVO.

The first tip-off that this is much more than an HDMI fed mobile game peddler.

The first tip-off that this is much more than an HDMI fed mobile game peddler.

 

It’s also the most expensive and largest of any of the Android consoles – the bulky black frame closely resembles other set tops.  Like Microsoft and Sony, Envision wants this to be your one stop shop for media and entertainment when you turn on your TV.  In this context, their biggest competitors would actually be FragBox, the Piston, etc.

The biggest departure from its peers is under the hood: the EVO 2 isn’t just running Android.  Working with a modified version of Windows 7, PC and Android games will run as well as its modest processor can muster.  Future models may run Windows 8 and beyond, but the 2 DX is stuck where it is with DirectX 10.1.

Then there’s the DX Pocket, the Android 2.2 powered mini-tablet that comes with every SKU. Envision claims that every game will be able to continue to be played, right from where you left off, on your tablet once you leave your TV.  Neat, but it’s beyond misleading to call this a ‘tablet’.  With a 4.3 inch screen, it’s much smaller than a Galaxy Note and barely larger than an iPhone 5.

Also sold separately for 79.99.  Not terrible for a cheap tablet, but the archaic version of Android, lethargic 600MHZ processor, and small screen make it more of a novelty.

Also sold separately for $79.99. Not terrible for a cheap tablet, but the archaic version of Android, lethargic 600MHZ processor, and small screen make it more of a novelty.

 

It’s difficult to really piece together the target market for this device, since its expensive enough to instantly rule out many non-tech head consumers.  The hardware isn’t upgradeable and it’s already too weak to run demanding PC games at top ballast.  It’s also a little ugly – the EVO could barely beat a VCR in the set top beauty pageant.

If you’re a consumer interested in but not fanatical about video games, without a Blu-Ray player equipped pan-media device, and want another phone that can’t make calls, this may be exactly what you’ve been looking for.

 

 

THE SHIELD – Nvidia

Official Website

$299

August 2013

 

KNOWN TECHNICAL SPECS

CPU – NVIDIA Tegra 4 Quad Core Mobile Processor

Tablet Display – 5” 1280×720 (294 ppi) Multi-Touch screen

2GB RAM internal memory

Integrated Stereo Speakers / 3.5mm stereo headphone jack & Built-in Microphone

16GB Internal Flash memory storage & MicroSD storage slot (64 GB capacity)

802.11n 2×2 Mimo Wi-Fi & Bluetooth 3.0 & GPS

1 Mini-HDMI output / 1 Micro-USB 2.0

3 Axis Gyro & 3 Axis Accelerometer motion support

28W/hr Battery

 

 

The Shield takes a different direction by claiming itself as the first and only handheld, Android powered gaming device.  Like the Moga, it has a catalogue of games that were designed to take advantage of the full controller setup, but will transpose controls on any Android game to make it function.  The built on screen folds over to cover up the controller face, creating a smooth hard shell surface that fits easily into your pocket.

The downside to the manageable form factor is a slightly awkward design.  The wings of the controller are a little too stubby and tucked in; the crease that leads down to the (too deeply) recessed thumb sticks chafes both palms a little too much.

The downside to the manageable form factor is a slightly awkward design. The wings of the controller are a little too stubby and tucked in; the crease that leads down to the (too deeply) recessed thumb sticks chafes both palms a little too much.

 

Comparisons with the Moga end here though.  Not surprisingly, a device manufactured by the leading video card producer packs a ton of power within its small frame.  A quick review of the spec list and it’s no wonder it has no problem streaming some full on Steam and PC games.  Either the mini-HDMI on the back of Wifi allows streaming games directly from your PC.

As a stand-alone device, the Shield has a phenomenal battery life and excellent speakers.  Some of the on-board apps are excellent, including ESPN streaming that looks very crisp on the 5 inch, 720p screen.  The Shield can stream to big screens as well when plugged in or connected with a WiFi enabled TV.

The Shield can double as your controller while playing any game on a GeForce GTX GPU powered machine.  No word on whether the attached screen can feature an alternate display (signs point towards no).

The Shield can double as your controller while playing any game on a GeForce GTX GPU powered machine. No word on whether the attached screen can feature an alternate display (signs point towards no).

 

Although it runs on Jelly Bean, this powerful handheld is obviously competing with other high-end mobile gaming experiences such as the Vita and 3DS.  The one piece of the puzzle missing is LTE connectivity – right now only WiFi is supported.

 

 

MOGA – PowerA

Official Website Moga 39.99 / Moga Pro 49.99

 

On Sale Now

 

MOGA PRO TECHNICAL SPECS

Arm can accommodate any Android phone up to 3.2” / 88mm wide

Product Dimensions – 2.6 x 7.9 x 5.4 inches / 6.7 Ounces

Bluetooth 3.0

Rechargable Li-Ion battery rated at 12-15 play-hours

 

 

The Moga actually docks your Android phone in a firmly locking arm that folds up from the center.  It’s also responsible for connecting and charging your phone while you play.  This docking arm is adjustable and can work with any Android phone thrown at it, plus Windows 8 phones.

The docking arm firmly situates the phone – no simple bump could knock it loose.

The docking arm firmly situates the phone – no simple bump could knock it loose.

 

The construction feels solid and there’s a nice carrying case, but it’s also a bit awkward to easily pocket the device. The analogue sticks have a great grip to them, making it all the more difficult to stuff into a pocket when it’s suddenly your bus stop.  Pocket real estate still presents a bit of a problem.

The Pro controller is a significant step up in every way from the standard controller.  It includes a true D-pad, clickable sticks, the larger grips are more comfortable, and the buttons are larger.

The Pro controller is a significant step up in every way from the standard controller. It includes a true D-pad, clickable sticks, the larger grips are more comfortable, and the buttons are larger.

 

Hundreds of developers have received their “extremely friendly” developer kit, allowing them to make games specifically for the device.  But the Moga development crew themselves have translated the controls on numerous title to function with analogue sticks and buttons.  It makes a huge difference just having your thumbs off the screen, showing more of the action.

The Moga Pro adds HID mode as well, meaning that it can act as a conventional controller for any computer that supports HID.  This also means that, like a keyboard or newer mouse, any button can be programmed for any function on the Moga.

 

 

THE FALSE KING?

Not so fast!  Google recently announced that they’re jumping into the race with their own gaming console.  This yet to be named device shared the announcement spot light with a smart watch, and will be a multi-faceted media box.  Coupled with the recent retirement of Google+ Games, it’s clear that larger plans are afoot in Mountain View, CA.

Hold that thought – Google is way too big to jump into the middle of frays like this.  (Great work by Shane Snow!)

Hold that thought – Google is way too big to jump into the middle of small Android console frays. (By Shane Snow)

 

Anyone that thinks their device will be about games proper is sorely mistaken – Google has bigger fish to fry.  There’s much speculation swirling around Apple TV and the tech giant’s aspirations to pack gaming into the device’s total reimagining.  Google will want their ‘Android console’ to go toe-to-toe with their antagonist’s product on every bullet point.

On top of that, it’s an attempt to revitalize their Google TV product.  Now just a humble app that ships with only a limited number of TV models, Google surely has big plans in store for their Trojan horse, so designed to topple the incumbent cable box.

So while it may end up finessing the gaming side of the equation better than anyone above, it’s much more concerned with ultimately becoming a one-stop shop when consumers turn on their TV’s.  Google understands their real competition, while the rest of the guys in line clearly do not.

Contrasting their various Android gizmos with the PS4 and Xbox One may cast a nice light on their selling points, but it doesn’t come close to the crux of the problem.

Contrasting their various Android gizmos with the PS4 and Xbox One may cast a nice light on their selling points, but it doesn’t come close to the crux of the problem.

 

 

THE FALSE CROWN?

Even the most ardent tech geeks could be forgiven for not staying on top of all these Android based video game consoles releasing over the next year or so.  Exoneration further covers the notion that such a state of affairs was necessitated in the first place, or even desirable somehow.

Not in the eyes of these zealous producers.  Perhaps the strongest similarity between all of these Android-king-hopefuls are their own pretensions of ineluctability.

There’s a special hubris in the idea that consumers across the globe would be playing video games day and night, if only they had your product.

There’s a special hubris in the idea that consumers across the globe would be playing video games day and night, if only they had your product.

 

It’s true that mobile gaming has only exploded over the past decade.  It’s also true that steep price points on upcoming consoles have some consumers looking for cheaper entertainment options.  Previously the small fries, games like Angry Birds and Farmville have proven that cute little games can tote massive brand power.

None of that makes this a cut and dry equation.  All of these producers are in for a rude awakening when consumers remind them that Android games carry appeal because you can play them on planes, while impatiently waiting on the check, during a parent’s lecture from the front seat, etc. Sure there are the Infinity Blades out there, but most of these games demand different mindsets than that of living room gaming.

The Moga and Shield aren’t out of the woods either.  The reality is that, even under the most generous assumptions, they’re sitting at #4 at best in terms of pocket space priority.  Until apps like Google Wallet and touchscreen locks prevail, crap like a wallet and keys will crowd out whatever sized form factor they come up with.

The current Android bubble is not so dissimilar to the bevy of home consoles released in the 80’s.

The current Android bubble is not so dissimilar to the bevy of (crappy) home consoles released in the 80’s.

They may not end up being fiscally viable.  They may not be actually very innovative.  They may not pave the way for that many new Android games that otherwise would never have been made.  They may not even ultimately get released.

But this life and death struggle over the Android market is a wonderful sign for the video game industry.  Taken as a kind of health barometer, it’s an encouraging affirmation that all pioneering vitals are stable, that competition fundamentals are firming in place.  Wild, openly flourishing product development is unquestionably better than stagnant, isolated puddles that lead to industry mosquitos.

To a certain extent it is an apples and oranges comparison, but could anyone ever see anything like this happen in the TV/cable, radio, film, or music industries?  Didn’t think so.

Author: Wu

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