Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo get all the attention when it comes to video game consoles, but under the PlayStations, Xbox’s and Wiis there’s another layer of competitors vying for shares in the market. These machines exist beyond the purview of most hardcore gamers—attempts to bridge the gap between living room entertainment streaming devices, like Roku and Chromecast, and full-on gaming systems, for a price that is generally much cheaper than the big boys.
Most of these devices come with (or at least support) actual gaming controllers, have an online app store full of games, and run the usual array of online streaming services. Whether you need or want one is another question entirely, but for curious minds, here’s the rundown.
When the Ouya Kickstarter launched in 2012, few would have predicted its meteoric success raising money. Ending up with over $8 million in funding, the Ouya proved that the concept of a hackable, open source gaming system has potential. Ouya, which runs on Google’s Android system, didn’t set the world on fire when it finally hit stores and most high-end gamers ignored it, but it does have a distinct appeal.
Aside from being friendly for experimenting on by hackers, modders and other tech-savvy users, Ouya has an impressively vast game collection. More importantly, it has a huge collection of retro-style multiplayer games you can play on your couch with some friends. The lack of access to the actual Google Play store in favor of its own front-end means you can’t easily access your personal Android app collection without hacking it, but for casual users that doesn’t even matter. For less than $100 there’s a lot of fun, cheap stuff on Ouya.
AMAZON FIRE TV/FIRE TV STICK
Amazon seems intent on getting its mitts into every aspect of daily life and with the Fire TV devices they’re trying hard to get inside your TV. The Fire TV is a small set-top box with a physical internet jack, while the wireless-only, less powerful Fire TV Stick competes directly with Google’s Chromecast. Both can use Amazon’s own controller to play a wide array of games from Amazon’s Android-based app store and the company is pouring money into building its own games as well.
Still, there are no killer apps for the platform. Instead, the real strength of Fire TV is for Amazon Prime subscribers, who get access to Amazon’s library of streaming video content (plus other perks). This is, bar none, the fastest Prime video player available, especially the Fire TV (though the Stick is good too). Since the Prime software is built right into these devices’ otherwise muddled interfaces, it goes on instantly. Control it with your phone or voice, and it just works. Fire TVs also come plugged in with your Amazon account info if you buy it from Amazon.
Sony’s PSTV is easily one of the worst executions of a good idea I’ve seen in a long time. Essentially a portable PlayStation system that hooks to your TV, this system takes everything great about Sony’s vastly-underappreciated PlayStation Vita—the handheld system it launched a few years ago—and smashes it into the ground.
Compatible with only a fraction of the Vita’s library and incompatible with basic streaming apps like Netflix, the PSTV is actually being marketed as a way to stream PlayStation 4 games to other TVs in your home, but this feature is almost useless over a wireless network (unless it’s basically sitting on top of the PS4) and buggy even over a wired connection. In other words: this one is not recommended.
NVIDIA SHIELD TV
Nvidia has been toying with joining the game console market for a while; first with its cool SHIELD portable system, an Android system that resembles an Xbox controller with a screen in it; then with an actual tablet/controller combo; and now with the SHIELD TV. Using the latest edition of Nvidia’s monster processor, the Tegra X1, this system is easily the most powerful Android TV-based device available.
Unfortunately, using Android TV’s interface means the main menu is a muddled mess (much like the Fire TV) and searching for apps can be an exercise in frustration. Nvidia is banking on the future of the Tegra chipset with all its SHIELD devices and putting money into porting console/PC games like the Borderlands series, Half-Life 2, Doom 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and other blockbuster games to the platform. Better yet, if you have the right graphics hardware on your PC, it can actually stream games from your PC to your TV. The system comes in two flavors—one with the standard paltry 16GB of storage space and a 500GB version (which is beefiest mini-console in the bunch). The system also natively supports 4K video, which not even the PS4 and Xbox One are doing, making it a very high end media box that also happens to play some terrific games.
Using a slightly older version of Nvidia’s Tegra chipset, the M.O.J.O. is a wonderfully bizarre little box that will appeal to people who like to tinker. Using the stock Android system, with a control pad that has a switch to make it behave, essentially, as a mouse, the M.O.J.O. has access to the overall Google Play store with almost no restrictions. Admittedly, not everything will work and even games that say they’re compatible aren’t guaranteed to work. Since it’s a straight Android interface, you can install other app stores like Amazon’s, the Humble Bundle store, and others (including the Ouya store), making it the most inclusive attempt to put Android on a TV. The system is also the only set-top box that will let you play Blizzard’s Hearthstone, a popular competitive card game, on your TV.
That said, this system is far from user-friendly. Android touch-based interface simply doesn’t translate well to an environment without a touch screen—which your TV most likely doesn’t have—and Madcatz hasn’t done anything to make it easier. The device is very open though and will take most Bluetooth/wireless devices, so adding a keyboard and mouse is simple.
It’s unlikely any of these devices will be replacing your main gaming system any time soon, but for the curious gamer, they offer an array of strange and different experiences. Amazon’s Fire TV and the SHIELD TV are the most likely to be used as true set-top media centers, but even then, you can get almost all the same functionality on any current console system. Still, for a low-cost alternative source of entertainment, most of these offer thrills and functionality on the cheap.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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