There’s a new Linux gaming handheld, the GCW Zero. Compared to the Open Pandora, the price is reasonable. The price of the GCW Zero is $120+shipping. The Open Pandora is $500+shipping, $700+shipping for the 1GHz version.
If you’re interested in these non-mainstream gaming handhelds, the Obscure Handhelds blog is a good place to learn about them.
The best mobile games are old consoles, played in an emulator. I’m referring to Atari2600/Atari800/C64/Dosbox/MAME/NES/SNES/N64/GB/GBC/GBA/SEGA MASTER/SEGA GENESIS/GAME GEAR/PSX. (However, PSX and N64 handheld emulation varies in quality, depending in the hardware. It wasn’t clear if PSX and N64 work on the GCW Zero with 0 frameskip and 100% speed.) Both the Android and Linux gaming handhelds use emulation to get a large game library.
Technically, it’s illegal to download rom images via BitTorrent and play them in an emulator. It isn’t enforced, and if someone sued you, you might successfully argue that the copyright was abandoned. There’s no legal way to buy a collection of “all NES rom images”. Theoretically, I could hunt down old copies and buy them, but that money goes to collectors and not the original developers. I spend more time playing old games I liked, than exploring new ones.
I’m currently using my Motorola Droid 3 (Android) phone for gaming on the subway. I’m exploring other options.
I considered and rejected the idea of getting an old hacked PSP. The SONY memory cards are much more expensive than generic sd cards.
First, I’ll discuss the Droid 3. There are lots of flaws.
The external micro sd card is buried behind the back cover. That makes it hard to swap sd cards. With 16GB external sd and 16GB internal, that isn’t enough space to carry the full library of games I’d like.
I should buy an SD card case and swap memory cards. Unfortunately, the Droid 3 makes it hard to swap memory cards. When I bought my Droid 3 phone, two 16GB micro SD cards cost less than one 32GB card. I thought that I’d buy 2 cards and swap, but the Droid 3 design makes it hard.
The Droid 3 has *LOUSY* battery life, especially for something CPU-intesive like emulation. I only get 1.5-2 hours, requiring a recharge during the day. The battery is buried behind the back cover, making it hard to carry a spare battery. The Droid 4 is even worse regarding battery. For the Droid 4, Motorola made the stupid design decision of including a non-removable battery. If the Droid 5 has the same flaw, I might avoid it when it’s time to upgrade. The Android OS crashes on me once a month, requiring a battery removal and hard OS reset.
The Droid 3 keyboard is not suitable for gaming. If I need multiple simultaneous keypresses, such as moving diagonally, or move+run+jump in Super Mario Brothers, then it doesn’t work well.
The emulators are low-quality. I’m using Yongzh’s *oid emulators (NESoid, Gameboid, etc.) I’m considering buying fpse, Dosbox Turbo, and the *.emu emulators. However, buying emulators comes close to the cost of a GCW Zero!
I don’t understand the proliferation of Android gaming handhelds. Why use Android OS when you can use a proper Linux OS? The Android OS is lousy for emulation. All code must run via the Java virtual machine, rather than run natively. There is C for Android, but it also compiles to Java bytecode rather than a native binary.
At this point, a troll says “Running bytecode in a JVM is just as fast as natively compiled C.” That hasn’t been my experience actually using it. I’ve heard a lot of people swear that just-in-time compiled bytecode is just as fast as natively compiled code, but my experiences with Java and .NET was that they were very slow and inefficient. Also, Android doesn’t give apps direct control of the screen, sound, and input, leading to problems. The Android OS has other stupid design decisions, in addition to “all user code runs in the JVM”.
Why would anyone put Android OS on a gaming handheld, rather than Linux?
The Android handhelds also have a bizarre feature. Many have an “analog nub”, but it’s mapped to the D-Pad. Does the Android OS support analog game controller input? It’s a boneheaded design decision, to include an analog nub but map it to the same input as the D-pad.
The GCW Zero has a true analog nub. However, that only matters for some Dosbox games, N64, some PSX games, and some native LInux games. The Open Pandora has two analog nubs.
With the GCW Zero and Open Pandora, the emulators are 100% open-source, ports of other open-source emulators. The GCW Zero runs all Dingoo software, giving it a good library from the start. On Android, I have to pay for the best emulators (or root my phone and try hacked copies). Most of the good Android emulator ports are for-pay.
The GCW Zero does not have a keyboard. That would be a problem, because I could not use it for blogging. No keyboard would be a problem for Atari800/C64/Dosbox. It might be better to get the GCW Zero and the keyboard controller made by the Open Pandora team (iControlPad2), rather than getting an Open Pandora.
The GCW Zero costs only $120 compared to $700 for the 1GHz Open Pandora. That’s more than 5x cheaper! I’m much more willing to risk $120 on a handheld purchase, than $700.
Open Pandora screwed over the early preorders, making them wait for years. They are using profits from new sales to cover the loss on early preorders, because they are honoring the original preorder price. If new sales fund old orders, then shouldn’t the price should come down once all the old orders are filled?
For both the GCW Zero and Open Pandora, if I wait to buy, I should be able to get cheaper prices or more powerful hardware. However, if nobody buys the current version, there won’t be any sequels!
There’s another advantage of Open Pandora compared to Android. It’d be easier to write code on the Open Pandora. I could try writing a game while on the subway. However, with the right tools I might be able to code on the Android.
Here are the possibilities I am considering:
- Stick with Android, and buy the better for-pay emulators.
- Get the GCW Zero, but keep the Android phone for blogging.
- Get the GCW Zero, and the iControlPad2 made by the Open Pandora team.
- Get an Open Pandora, and downgrade to a non-smartphone when my contract expires.
- Get the GCW Zero, and later upgrade to an Open Pandora or GCW Zero v2.0.
I never understood the proliferation of Android gaming handhelds. Android OS is a lousy choice. Why use Android and cripple your device, when you can use Linux?
The GCW Zero is an interesting mobile gaming alternative. It’s cheaper than my Droid 3 and an Open Pandora. With a proper controller and a Linux OS, it should be better for gaming than my Droid 3. The only negative is the lack of keyboard, which I use for blogging on my phone. However, it’s best to wait until non-GCW-insiders have the handheld, for an unbiased review.