Sundries.


Miscellaneous very interesting stuff. I promise.

Handheld consoles.

Sometime back in ancient history, circa: late 1980's I happened to see this handheld gaming device in a tiny, out of the way, fly-by-night computer shop. That thing sunk its hooks in the moment I picked it up. I was instantly impressed with the full screen sprite scaling in Blue Lightning (an After Burner clone) and this was a handheld, I had to get one.

lynx

Atari Lynx

lynx
$179 in Australia

It took me six months to save the dosh to buy one, and by then the little shop was long gone. Fortunately, other places had began to stock the thing. It was, The Atari Lynx! Don't feel bad if you've never heard of it.

I bought mine from another tiny shop that sold all sorts of office equipment and... Atari Lynx's. I had just enough money to buy the system and "Slime World" but nothing extra for an AC power adapter, so the first weeks were bitter-sweet, trying to scrounge replacement AA cells.

lynx cartridges
Lynx Cartridges.

lynx2
Atari LynxII.

The Atari Lynx was a pretty impressive piece of kit for it's time, somewhere between the C64 and Amiga 500 in terms of power, and designed by RJ Mical and Dave Needle of the Amiga team. I remember reading an issue of Zzap64 where a reader wrote in asking; whether to buy an Amiga or a Lynx, and the columnist suggested a C64 and Lynx combo' as the best choice.

I don't know if he was right, but it gives an idea of how the technology was regarded at the time.

In my own experience, the hardware was great, but the software was nearly always just that little bit disappointing. Earlier titles seemed to outshine later games. Which is odd, usually game development improves over time.

For a brief while the machine actually got some publicity, they came out with a slightly more compact, revised case (LynxII) and there was even a Lynx-mobile getting around our streets, giving away the usual half-arsed paraphernalia like; t-shirts, tote bags, badges, promo' pamphlets and particularly horrible sun visors. As it turns out, they would've been better off giving away free machines for all the good it did toward clocking up sales.

Not long after, Atari bit the dust and the Lynx-mobile was re-sprayed light grey and converted into the Gameboy-mobile... probably? As if to taunt me, the Lynx went through a brief post-Atari revival in my home town and even got mentioned in the paper. Optimistic as the article was, the Lynx soon re-submerged never to be seen again.

gameboy screenshot gameboy screenshot
Lynx vs Gameboy screenies (2x zoom) sort of how they looked (from memory).
LCD tech' has come a long way!

gameboy screenshot
GB's Crappy screen.

I never got into the Gameboy scene, the downgrade from the Lynx's backlit colour screen to a four-shades-of-greenish-grey reflective screen was too much. Even when Johnny Depp played Tetris on one in 21 Jump Street, I stubbornly resisted the lure of Nintendo's "inferior" technology. Turning instead to my sadly orphaned Lynx with its finite and stale games selection. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

The Sega Game-Gear popped into existence briefly and even though it got much more attention from 3rd party publishers than the Lynx, it too became a victim of the Gameboy's success. I shun it not wanting more of the same.


PC engine LT
NEC PC-Engine LT.

NEC released a handheld version of its PC-Engine platform, the PC-Engine GT. It was both rare and expensive and I've never seen one in the flesh. Later they released a second handheld, the LT with the same specs in a clamshell form factor. The machine was the Rolls-Royce of handhelds with a huge 5" colour LCD screen and TV tuner and CD-ROM add-on connectivity, but it was even more expensive and never made it to southern shores. The PC-Engine hosted some technically brilliant titles with graphics and gameplay that easily outshone the Lynx. Unfortunately, the platform never took hold in Western markets. Games were mostly limited to Jap' imports, meaning the PC-Engine enthusiast needed to brush up on their Japanese to fully appreciate the machine.

Sometime later, Sega took a shot at making the Megadrive/Genesis into a handheld with the ill fated Nomad. This was an appealing concept to me but the mainstream didn't agree and it barely raised a blip on the gaming radar. I first spotted one in a hock shop but thought it was some Jap' import thing that I'd never be able to play local games on, and besides they were asking some silly price and the MD was old news by then anyhow.

"The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed..."

Eventually some likely contenders emerged in the form of the little known SNK NeoGeo Pocket and Bandai Wonderswan. As it turned out both were mere flashes in the pan and in some ways, technically inferior to the Lynx, five years after its retail demise. Bummer.

neogeo pocket wonderswan
Neo-Geo Pocket & Bandai Wonderswan.

Then finally, Nintendo themselves had a crack at killing their technically crap but commercially brilliant love-spawn with the release of an incremental upgrade, the Gameboy Color (GBC). In a spasm of impulse buying I got one almost immediately, and was soon disappointed. I bought maybe 2 games for that thing and played them for as many hours. Eventually, it became a hand-me-down to my little brother. Which might not be an act of generosity.

gamegear
Sega Gamegear.

More time passed and I briefly flirted with a s/h Gamegear (GG) I got a "limited edition" yellow one for 30 bucks from a hock-shop with a "Magic 30 in one" cart. The cartridge didn't work when I first tried it. I soon discovered, the yellow GG's have a little jumper inside that stops them running grey-market software, once I desoldered that, voilĂ  it worked! The Gamegear was ok, better than the GBC at least. Wolfchild was almost as good as the Amiga version and the Ninja Gaiden series were worthy platformers.

Nintendo then had another shot at upgrading the GB line and released the Gameboy Advance (GBA). Like some obsessive handheld fan, (who had, so far only actually really liked one handheld), I bought it on release day.

Finally, something worthy of being called a Lynx successor! Kudos Nintendo.

gameboy advance sp
GBAsp.

The GBA was a huge performance improvement over the previous upgrade attempt (even though it still lacked backlighting). I bought all the Castlevania games and played them through repeatedly. When the backlit and beautifully designed GBAsp turned up, I gave my original GBA to my brother and bought one right away, (although I was keenly aware of buying effectively the same product twice. A practice that continues to work for Nintendo again and again).

The GBAsp was leaps and bounds ahead of its former iteration aesthetically. With my product designer hat on, I'd have to rate the thing as probably the slickest handheld ever created. The simple yet confident lines and ultra-compact form-factor ooze elegance, but then I've always been a fan of the Braun-shaver school of "form-follows-function" minimalism.

My GBAsp is a bit of a mutant with a Mk1 GBA-MP (GBA-Movie Player) hanging out the front, it spoils the looks but improves function hugely. Until recently, I used it for reading ebooks and tooling about with homebrew software.

DS phat
NDS(phat).

Next on the chop is the Nintendo DS (phat). Unlike the GBAsp the DSphat is one ugly mutha. I bought it solely to play Castlevania; Dawn of Sorrow and later, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia. I haven't bought anything else for it. I think this is the point at which I discovered that I'm not really all that interested in mainstream handheld gaming.

On a whim, I bought one of those OneStation el'cheapo handheld things. I bought it out of curiosity and because it was dirt cheap. It's really just a screen with controls in the form of a GBA micro. The cartridges have the brains and software, they're either 8bit or 16bit and have a variety of knock-off style games that are similar to old NES games for 8bit, or mobile phone quality games for the 16bit stuff, their play value is rather limited. I'm vaguely interested in using the (surprisingly good) screen for something else...

GamePark and Open handhelds

I'd been reading about the GP32 scene on and off for a while but was put off by it's slightly-too-high price combined with the risky nature of buying stuff online (this was before paypal etc). Also, emulation sounded a bit patchy in most reports and there seemed to be ongoing incremental changes to hardware creating confusion with 3 or 4 different revisions available simultaneously. So I resisted the urge to buy in. Eventually, its successor the GP2X emerged and looked to be a big step forward. Early Mk1 hardware was fraught with several tech' issues and most owners had a love-hate thing. Mk2 units resolved most of the issues though there was lingering discontent concerning the control stick and battery life. The latter was a non-issue for me having been tempered early on by the unholy power demands of the Atari Lynx. The former, I could always modify.

 

GP2X f100

GP2X

One day just before Xmas, I bit the bullet and ordered a GP2X-f100 Mk2 from play-asia.com, it was only AUD220 and cost less than the crappy MP3 player I'd bought a year or so earlier, yet could do so much more...

GP2X f200
GP2X f200, the f100's
joypad & touchscreen
equipped sibling.

When I unboxed it and tried it out, with ordinary alkaline batteries (I can hear GP2X owners snickering) it seemed like it was DOA. A rainbow of vertical lines followed by shutdown. "FeCK!!!"

Deep breath, "...mutter...maybe...try some other batteries?"

I slotted in some 1700mAh NiMH from my camera and...

"ding, dong, dee, deow, dooh."

To my relief the thing booted to its GUI and seemed ok, I twiddled around and found some pre-installed games, tried them, 'better than I thought so far. I switched it off with a stupid smile on my face. "Time to get a big SD card and some better batteries."

As far as emulation and homebrew on a handheld goes, the GP2X is the best thing around at the time of writing. To be honest I haven't tried any homebrew on a PSP, I don't own one. I bought a PSP for my brother one Xmas, but I'm just not enthused by the thing. Too many uninspired PS1/PS2 ports, not enough solid 2D titles? Maybe it's backlash at years of Sony-hype which promises "potential" their products rarely live up to, I dunno? I've tooled around with homebrew on the DS a bit and my impression is mostly positive but, I have a GP2X for homebrew and most of my time is spent with that.

Anyway, if you like your retro-gaming in a hand held form, then you'll like the GP2X (so long as your not one of those people who can't abide the control stick).

A while into owning the GP2X I noticed my unit's battery warning light didn't work. I tried a nice little app for testing it and sure enough the LED was doa. A quick look on the forum and it turns out it's not unheard of, hence the existence of a test app. Instead of being upset about being sold a slightly defective product, I was happy to have a good excuse to open the thing up and take a look inside. This is where (for me) the GP2X differs from other products. I approached the GP2X aware it had some technical/manufacturing issues and knowing it wasn't a mainstream product but something for a niche audience to modify and improve. It wasn't difficult replacing the LED with one from my collection, putting the unit back together was more difficult than I imagined though. Having an indepth knowledge of injection moulding and assembly from my years as a product designer, the GP2X has a few "features" in its design that are unexpected, that glossy centre strip which houses the LEDs is a bit weird and awkward in the way it interlocks with the front and back shells. It's a pain to line up all the port covers, power switch and the shells with only two hands! I'm not that keen on opening it up again anytime soon, this from someone who's de-shelled 100's of products. Let the merely curious beware!

As well as lots of emulation, the GP2X has some really stand-out homebrew on it, I strongly suggest anyone intrigued have a look at the GP2X file archive.

Sadly, the GP2X went out of production. It was superceded by the "Wiz" or GP2X-Wiz which went on sale in May 2009.

GP2X Wiz GP2X Wiz
GP2X Wiz.

I'd been following the news on this device, there were misgivings about the action buttons early on as they were to be a solid single piece like the d-pad, meaning it might be tricky (try impossible) to press opposing buttons at the same time. Thankfully that issue was quickly resolved, but then there were delays blamed on issues with the GUI, which is flash based. The problem was bad enough that GPh missed the 2008 Christmas sales period. Some more flies in the ointment, hint at hardware quality issues:

  • - On fast moving screens, there is a subtle but noticeable diagonal screen tearing / shearing artifact which can be reduced/corrected in software but is understood to be a result of the type of screen they chose.
  • - A few reports of dead or slowly degenerating groups of pixels, where a cluster of pixels die over time, known as the dreaded "Pixel Plague"! This seems to be caused by the OLED screen being very sensitive to impact.
  • - Some of the USB cables sold with the first batch are poorly constructed. At best they don't work, at worst they could damage any computer they're plugged into!

The first two were deal breakers for me. The other thing that put me off is that it has unremarkable performance compared to the GP2X, so apart from hardware improvements like battery life and physical size the Wiz wasn't a major upgrade from the GP2X. The Wiz is no longer in production.

On the bright side it's only a matter of time before something more powerful hits the scene, I've had quiet interest in the Pandora project but because it's a bit over my budget and has taken sooo long to get anywhere I haven't taken it very seriously. Now that they are shipping units, there's the hope that they can iron out the remaining wrinkles, ramp up the production process, and get some momentum so that would be buyers don't have to wait 6 months to see their purchase in the flesh.

GP2X Caanoo

GP2X Caanoo

GPh had another shot at making a handheld with the weirdly named GP2X-Caanoo. I wasn't terribly impressed at first but did appreciate the attempt to rectify the screen and other issues. The Caanoo is effectively a Wiz with an LCD screen, more RAM, a new case, analog stick and a couple of minor hardware additions (namely; microphone, tilt sensor and vibration features). I can't help but think GPh missed an opportunity here to step up the performance. For me, a Caanoo with 2-3 times the processing power of the GP2X would've been an automatic buy. The Caanoo is more of an incremental update to the GP2X family meaning if you already own one of its kin it's not all that compelling.

Then the Aussie dollar went berserk and hit parity with US currency and what with Christmas around the corner and my old GP2X showing its age... I though ferkit and ordered one from Playasia. At AU$145 it's roughly AU$80 less than what I paid for my GP2X-f100, if it's half as good it'll be a bargain!

It arrived the following week. My first impressions weren't good, the box was badly crushed in transit and I opened it expecting the worst. Fortunately, the contents survived and smashed parts didn't spill out everywhere.

Out of the box, I was immediately impressed by the build quality, GPh have obviously worked hard to get the Caanoo on par with mainstream products. In this respect it isn't a huge exaggeration to say that it could be made by any one of the big brands. Compared to my GP2X-f100 the moulding quality is in another league. The end result is a far slicker, more sophisticated looking product. It doesn't hurt that I see a passing resemblance to my ole' Atari LYNX too (except much less brick-like obviously). Put the GP2X-f100 and GP2X-Caanoo side by side and its hard to believe they were designed by the same company. The Caanoo is also more compact than the f100, its about the same width, but about 10mm less tall and 7mm less deep without the f100's battery bulge on the back. The screen is about the same size and the button and stick placement is similar. The new analog stick is remarkably good, responsive and accurate and also looks much neater than the f100's much maligned cap-stick, it's effectively a ball-joint with a small raised rubberised thumb grip.

Caanoo menu pic1
GP2X Caanoo Menu.

On the software side, the Caanoo's interface loads faster than the f100 (FW:2.0.0), and is a great improvement over previous efforts. One very nice feature is the "home" button concept which results in a standardised one-touch escape to menu, (no more random button mashing to get out of an app). Another welcome addition is the title bar for each app, which is fully customisable as it is just a .png file, so you can generate a set of graphics for your app menus. Navigation is quick and intuitive with a simple curved main menu featuring Games, Music, Photo etc which slide away when selected to reveal the sub menu. It's not as slick or clever as Apple products but is very effective with a feel similar to the blade concept of the original Xbox360 dashboard.

A few interesting but as yet underutilised hardware features are the microphone, tilt sensor and vibration. There's a basic dictation/recorder app, MAME allows you to use the tilt sensor as a joystick, while it's not particularly accurate as a substitute it is fun to try.

The touchscreen has no issues I could detect, it just works. Coming from an f100 it's a nice new feature to me and makes games that take advantage of it like Animatch a lot more fun to play.

The LiIon battery is a very welcome addition. I got battery cycling down to a fine art with the GP2X-f100 so now I don't see it as a big problem. But not having to think about batteries is nice and charging via USB is painless. The USB cable also provides PC connectivity that just works, meaning I no longer have to remove the SD card and use a card reader on my PC to get new app's onto the device, another ease-of-use box ticked.

The only thing holding the Caanoo back as a perfect replacement for my f100 is the lack of app's at present. With luck more dev's will adopt the hardware and we'll see a steady flow of ports and conversions from the GP2X and Wiz. Ginge has opened up part of the GP2X/Wiz library but it's hit and miss. The Caanoo's library continues to grow each week. One recent standout application is PCSX ReARMed (Caanoo version by notaz) which does a very good job of emulating the original PlayStation.

Update: The Caanoo is out of production. So where to next?

Pandora is still scarce and expensive. Blaze's GameGadget - the DRM hobbled Dingoo - was a non-starter (to put it kindly). The GCWzero caused a stir early on but all but withered on the vine, besides I couldn't shake the feeling that it was just a rebranded Chinese PMP with custom firmware and $ markup eventhough GCW were telling everyone they designed it. Some likely options seem to be in the glut of inexpensive Android based handhelds that have started flowing out of China, though each one has its own niggles, ranging from sloppy controls to audio lag. Given some time the OEMs will find the right mix and one or two devices will shine. Of the recent crop, the Yinlips YDPG16 has potential, so too the JXD S5100.

I recently got a YDPG16, it's an OK device for less than AU$80 but it has diy icon some issues and the resistive touch digitiser on mine is horrible with glitchy responses to touch. The PG16 is also let down by software niggles. It comes with a lot of Chinese cruft installed including the notorious "Game Manager" which is well intentioned but clumsy and annoying in practice. It's not until you reflash the PG16 that it becomes a device almost on par with the Caanoo in terms of usability. The Android OS is bit of a resource hog (compared to the dedicated linux based OS's of the Caanoo and GP2X) so even though the PG16 has a 1Ghz+ CPU it feels like a lot of performance is lost in running the OS. Anyone looking for a "works out of the box" experience, should look elsewhere.

Yinlips YDPG16JXD S5100
Yinlips YDPG1 & JXD S5100.

I'll hold of buying any more of these Android based handhelds until someone can tick all the boxes in one product:

  • - real controls that don't suffer keyboard clash
  • - fix Android sound lag
  • - real D-pad, not separate buttons
  • - independent and real analog nub(s)
  • - shoulder buttons (at least 2 or better, 4)
  • - multitouch capacitive screen at least 800px wide
  • - feature filled stock ROM with no cruft
  • - not PSP/vita shaped, it looks cheap!
  • - 1Ghz+ CPU (pref' multi core)
  • - better all round quality

 

GPD-G5A

Update: Someone finally ticked all of the above boxes.

GPD G5A

I got myself one of these from Willgoo during Chinese New Year 2014. It's remarkably good.

Obscure Handhelds has a review that mirrors my impressions. It's an exceptional device for the money (around $AUD120 delivered). I had mine for a few days before updating the firmware to a Skelrom. The stock ROM is better than what you usually get with Chinese+Android handhelds and definitely usable (it comes rooted), the Skelrom just fixes a few issues and gives you a fresh Android 4.2.2 or 4.4.2 install to work with. The G5a is capable of emulating everything from the 8bit era to Dreamcast and PSP! The (Skelrom included) tincore key-mapper does an excellent job of mapping the G5a's controls to the emulated device. The Analog sticks are effectively the same as those on the Xbox360 pad, very comfortable. The screen is probably 2-3 year old TN tech' but is more than usable for a gaming device. The 5-point capacitive touch is way better than the lousy 1.5-point resistive screen on my YGPD16. Battery life is pretty good around 4-5 hours. Wifi is strong and just-works.

I really have no complaints with this device - if anything the aesthetics & ergonomics could use a bit more thought, but functionally it's great. It's already become my "every-day" gadget, my Caanoo is still a lot more pocketable and will probably continue to get use when I travel, but this device is more feature-packed with quad-core CPU/GPU, larger screen, smooth emulation, huge library of Android apps and web browsing.

It's good that handheld tech' has some momentum at last. Back when I bought my Lynx, handheld machines were pretty limited, gameplay was handed down from 8-bit computers and consoles and didn't really take advantage of the portable nature of the devices. Nintendo's stranglehold on the portable gaming market halted technological progress and innovation for many years. Today, the mainstream market has adopted handheld tech' and while the main players are still largely constrained by a closed-source mentality, at least there are inexpensive ways to unlock the hardware for those who want to do more. We are pretty spoilt now, on top of this we have Android and open-handhelds designed with user-generated content in mind. Going by tablet and smartphone adoption rates, it's clear handheld devices are the new normal.

Next: Console Gaming.