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Review: Mad Catz M.O.J.O.
Android everywhere. Phones, tablets, watches, glasses, fridges… you name it, someone’s putting Android on it.
One area where Android has made surprisingly slow inroads is in the realm of the TV. Various no-name, Chinese manufactured TV sticks have come and gone and have generally been rather awful. Google have tried to crack the big screen with both Google TV and the Nexus Q, both of which were rather astounding failures. Only now are they getting any sort of (debatable) success with the Chromecast.
One relatively recent phenomenon in the Android on your TV world is as a games console, or a ‘micro console’ as Mad Catz would call it. Ouya made big noises on Kickstarter with their Tegra3 powered machine, Gamestick too crowdfunded a device and Android-on-Windows startup Bluestacks have the Gamepop, a subscription based console that is still yet to ship. Heck, even Amazon have been rumoured to be getting in on the action.
Such products are inevitable, as the space is ripe for disruption. Consoles are expensive, games are REALLY expensive (compared to games for your phone) and mobile devices are getting more and more powerful. Some of the games on Android now are really excellent yet still retail for a couple of pounds (often supported by In App Purchases). The idea of playing these games on your TV is a compelling one, which is the role the M.O.J.O. looks to fulfill.
How does it fare? Is it ready to replace your Xbox or your Playstation? What about as a media box? Read on to find out.
The M.O.J.O. (Mad Catz really love their full stops) is a small, wedge shaped device. The styling itself is fairly minimalist – a blue LED on the front, the Mad Catz logo on the top and all the various ports on the back. You certainly won’t be left wanting when it comes to connectivity. The M.O.J.O. has 2 USB ports (1 x USB 2 and 1 x USB 3), a microSD socket, a full size HDMI port, a 3.5mm headphone port and an Ethernet port to supplement the included 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi. One of the USB ports is occupied by a dongle for the controller.
At the heart of the M.O.J.O. sits a 1.8GHz Tegra 4 processor, which means 4+1 main cores and 72 GPU cores. Probably the perfect choice for a games focused machine, the CPU is complemented by 2GB RAM and 16GB ROM, expandable via the aforementioned microSD slot. The M.O.J.O. certainly shouldn’t be short of horsepower and you should be able to get content on and off the device at decent speeds thanks to the excellent built in network connectivity.
To give Mad Catz their dues, it’s hard to think of how the main unit itself could be improved on. It’s compact and good looking, worthy of a spot under your TV, and has all the appropriate specifications you’d expect for a device of this type. So far, so good.
The C.T.R.L.R is the M.O.J.O. controller. See, I told you they loved full stops! It's solidly constructed out of black plastic with no creaks in use, which really is what'd you expect given Mad Catz's background in making this kind of peripheral. The controller is glossy on the top (REALLY glossy, a serious fingerprint magnet) but with a matte surface underneath to help give a good grip. I would have preferred to see a matte finish on the top too, but it's not too bad. Mad Catz branding and the '3 slashes' logo (as seen on the M.O.J.O. itself) are present.
The controller is powered by 2 included AAA batteries and has the full complement of buttons. 2 analogue sticks, a dpad, 4 buttons on the face, 2 shoulder buttons, 2 triggers, back and start buttons, a power / home button and media controls for volume / rewind / play-pause / fast-forward. Everything you'd expect to find is here, so provided you have software support, a great gaming experience is possible.
All of the buttons and sticks respond positively and feel great, with the exception of one - the mode switch on the front of the device. The mode switch is used to change between gamepad / mouse / PC gamepad modes, something that you'll find yourself doing quite frequently. The switch is flush with the front of the device and is extremely 'muddy' when switching, such that you can't really be sure you're in the right place for the mode you want without looking at the device and fiddling with the positioning a bit. A somewhat disappointing oversight on an otherwise great controller.
Included with the controller is an expanding 'travel clip' accessory which allows you to clip your phone to the C.T.R.L.R. Since the controller connects to the M.O.J.O. via Bluetooth Smart, provided your phone supports this, you can use it for gaming on the move. In reality the design is somewhat inelegant - you probably wouldn't want to chuck it in your bag with the clip attached and when you remove it, you're in danger of losing the required thumbscrew - but it does work well. A nicer option might have been some sort of MOGA style foldable clip, but that would potentially have compromised the experience for normal gaming, which is when the controller will be used most. Swings and roundabouts.
The controller switches itself into standby when not in use to save power, when the power / home button will glow red (it's normally blue). Switching the controller out of standby seems to be something of a black art, it doesn't 'wake up' as quick as I'd like, but after a few weeks of use i've got used to it.
The M.O.J.O. is a fascinating tale with two sides. First up it's probably worth remembering that Mad Catz are a hardware company. Their expertise is in designing, building and shipping gaming hardware and as we've heard, it shows - the M.O.J.O. is a wonderful piece of technology. The flipside? When you spark up the micro-console, save for an icon on the desktop that's effectively a browser bookmark, you wouldn't know it from any other Android Tegra4 device.
The M.O.J.O. ships with virtually stock Android (4.2.2 out of the box with a KitKat update to follow), which is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because, with you and I being experienced Android users, we know exactly what we're going to get. It's as pure as Nvidia devices come - sure, Tegrazone is loaded, but that aside it's just the AOSP bits with the Play Store and a couple of (not all) the other GMS applications. The curse? A complete lack of optimisation for a TV / controller experience.
When the M.O.J.O. is powered on, after a pretty quick boot process, you arrive at the Android home screen. It's worth noting at this point that you're encouraged to never really turn the M.O.J.O. off - the architecture ensures that when it's not played the power usage is minimal (no doubt a virtue of that 4+1 CPU) and the benefit is that it's ready to play in seconds.
The Android home screen that you're dropped into really is THE Android home screen. Back / Home / App switcher buttons in the navigation bar at the bottom, pull down notification bar at the top, icons on the desktop itself and an app drawer. You can click around some of the UI with the C.T.R.L.R in gamepad mode but in reality, the only way to navigate fully is in mouse mode - which is one reason why the aforementioned unconvincing mode switch button is a bit of a shame. When in mouse mode you are effectively emulating the touchscreen, so you can do everything you could do on a phone / tablet, albeit in a rather more long winded manner.
When you start up the device the first thing you're probably going to want to do is play a game. Since there aren't any preloaded (!), the Play Store will be your first port of call. At the Play Store login prompt the normal Android on screen keyboard will pop up for you to navigate using the controller. Whichever way you look at it, this is a painful process. Thanks to the built in Bluetooth (and USB ports), a normal keyboard and mouse can be connected, which is a very good idea. I used one of the USB ports to connect a Logitech K400, which worked a treat and made life a whole lot easier.
Generally speaking when you know that a device has the Play Store preloaded, then you know what you're going to get when it comes to apps / games / content. Unfortunately, on the M.O.J.O., it's not quite that simple. I'm sure you've come across situations on your phone / tablet where you try to download an application / game and it says that it's not compatible with your device. This is determined by a number of factors, but generally it's either because the developer has specified that only certain models are supported or because the developer has mandated a specific hardware feature that your device doesn't support. One such feature that developers can mandate is 'touchscreen support'. The M.O.J.O. doesn't report itself as having that feature. And it's pretty disastrous.
Searching through the Play Store on the M.O.J.O. can be an extremely lonely affair. Gmail? Not compatible. Facebook? Not compatible. Sega games? Not compatible. Most of the top emulators? Not compatible. Click through from a game even listed with controller support in the TegraZone app? Also possibly not compatible. Developers are slowly coming round to the realisation that they need to remove the touchscreen requirement to be compatible with devices like the M.O.J.O., but it's a slow process. The ball is out of Mad Catz's court from a technical perspective (if a device is mispresented in its hardware profile it will simply fail Google's GMS certification and not be approved for sale with the store) and while Mad Catz are trying their best to get developers on board, it's a mammoth task. I'm pretty disappointed that Google haven't found a way to make things easier - after all, isn't a mouse mode effectively emulating a single-touch touchscreen?
There is a slight silver lining on this cloud in that rooting and modding the M.O.J.O. can fix the compatibility issue (by restoring the touchscreen hardware profile), but it really shouldn't be necessary.
When you have managed to get an application loaded on, either by finding one that is in the Play Store, sideloading the game or perhaps using an alternate store such as the Amazon Appstore, then the experience itself will vary, generally between completely awesome and unplayable. The completely awesome games are those that have built in controller support. Riptide GP for example runs brilliantly on the M.O.J.O., with smooth gameplay and stunning graphics that really showcase the potential of the system. Sonic the Hedgehog is a retro classic that works perfectly with the gamepad - with the updates it's had for Android it's still a fantastic game today. A growing number of emulators have controller support so you can relive your gaming youth with the M.O.J.O. When the Reicast Dreamcast controller adds support (and I might even add that in myself since it's open source), I'll be in nostalgia heaven. As you might expect, the unplayable games are those that are relying on touchscreen / tilt etc. for their control and are therefore rendered unusable on the M.O.J.O. You generally won't know until you load a game on how it is going to fare, so installing software can be a very frustrating experience.
M.O.J.O. isn't the first Android based gaming system on the market, having been preceded by the Archos Gamepad, NVidia shield and Ouya amongst others. All of these systems offer something however that the M.O.J.O. does not, and that is controller specific optimisation. On the Gamepad and Shield the manufacturers have added the ability to map controller actions to on screen or hardware actions, effectively removing the requirement for developers to manually add support to their games. The Ouya approach is slightly different in that the available apps are cultivated - only the ones that work are available. It makes for a smaller number of titles available, but ultimately a better user experience.
The question that has to be asked is why Mad Catz haven't done something similar - with controller mapping - and perhaps why Nvidia, obviously partners in the M.O.J.O.'s development and set to profit from any success of the device - haven't offered the Shield's software solution for this console.
Alongside gaming, media playback will probably be the main use of the M.O.J.O., and thankfully for this the device excels. Certainly, most of the apps will need to be used in mouse mode, but with the powerful processor and dual band WiFi / Ethernet connectivity, the M.O.J.O. is the best device i've used for playing back content from my Plex server, as well as online streaming services (provided they support Android of course). Arguably if you're only going to be using the device for media then a Roku box might be a better investment, but I did come away impressed.
With a KitKat update apparently in development for the device, some little niggles in the overall experience should be resolved, the main one being the navigation bar that's always on screen. KitKat's immersive mode will resolve this problem, which is rather annoying in the Jelly Bean release.
Hacking / modding
The M.O.J.O. ships with an unlocked bootloader, which means rooting is relatively easy. The device can be booted into fastboot mode, which means using a superboot to root is straightforward as i've created one! The MMM (MoDaCo Mod for M.O.J.O.) also restores the aforementioned missing touchscreen file, for full Play Store availability.
A custom recovery for the M.O.J.O. is certainly possible, but not available yet. The same applies to custom ROMs. Many of the device's problems could certainly be improved upon by enterprising ROM developers, but generally speaking such developments depend on the device reaching a critical mass of popularity, something that is certainly far from certain for the M.O.J.O.
The M.O.J.O. is currently priced at £219.99 on Amazon UK.
For comparison purposes, a Nvidia Shield is currently £279.99, also on Amazon UK and shares pretty much the same internals but adds a screen. You'd probably want a HDMI cable to play it on your TV.
Another option to get a similar experience would be an Advent Vega Tegra Note 7 (with also has Tegra4 internals, with RAM dropped to 1GB) at £129.99, a MOGA Pro controller at £43.99 and again a HDMI cable.
The Shield will offer a far superior gaming experience and also give you self contained gaming on the move, the tablet will give you pretty much the same gaming experience (perhaps with slightly more controller game compatibility being a MOGA) and again, let you play on the go. At a cheaper price too.
The M.O.J.O. is a powerful piece of kit for sure, but it's hard not to think that at the current price, it's slightly too expensive.
Taken as a whole, it's easy to read the review as somewhat damning of the M.O.J.O. and while it unquestionably has software issues that are very serious, you are buying a well designed and powerful piece of hardware that's just waiting for someone to make most of it.
It's impossible to recommend the M.O.J.O. at the moment for the general consumer, but that's not who we are! With some hacking it can already be improved and if the development community steps up (and Mad Catz can keep developing the software) then it MIGHT have a future.
Time will tell.
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