My Big Fat GP2X Review

Here’s a question for you.

How much would you pay for a gadget which lets you play divX movies, anywhere? How about if it played mp3s too? What if it’s screen was as good (if not better than) the one the Sony PSP, ran off standard AA batteries and could hook up to the TV too? Oh, and it’s got so many games that it’s literally impossible to count how many. I’d make a conservative estimate of over 20,000, easy. How about if it used SD cards for media storage and could display your digital photos straight from camera.

Oh, and it’s got a dual core CPU, is powered by Linux and has a completely open architecture.

What if I told you that such a gadget exists, and it only costs £125/$189?

No, I’m not dreaming, on drugs or just fooling around. It’s real. Really real. And I’ve got one. Thanks, Alex :)

The GP2x is a handheld console which bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Gameboy Advance on the surface, but is really a powerhouse in a tiny package. Unlike the GBA, the GP2x has an excellent 16-way digital joystick rather than the now standard + pad, and it’s a vast improvement. All of the other keys are smooth and responsive too; this is a well constructed handheld.

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Separated at birth?

Even ignoring it’s game-playing capabilities, it’s an amazing piece of kit. As a portable media player it’s right up there with the best. It’s managed to play every media format I’ve thrown at it including avi, divX, mp3, mp4, ogg, png and more. The fact that I can hook it up to the TV and watch divX movies on the bigscreen is an added bonus. If this was all it could do, it would be well worth the money.

But there’s more. And boy, it’s good.

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Joystick. A real joystick. Oh boy!

The GP2x is, first and foremost, a chameleon. It’s an emulation addict’s wet dream, capable (with the right software) to pretend to be pretty much any retro console or computer imaginable. If your idea of heaven is being able to play Donkey Kong Country 3 anywhere or yearned for a handheld C=64, then this is the system for you. Among other things, the GP2x can be a SNES, SEGA Genesis, Gameboy Advance, Amiga, Atari ST, Gameboy, Mega CD, arcade console (via MAME), NeoGeo and much more. And all for free too – this is Linux where software wants to be free, remember. Your only price of entry is the cost of the hardware itself, so unlike some handhelds I could mention (cough PSP cough), the price you pay for the hardware is the only price you pay. After that, it’s emulation all the way.

A large part of the appeal of the system comes down to the software, and I’m pleased to report that the emulators are of sufficiently high quality. PocketSNES leads the pack as one of the best emulators around. Even demanding games (such as the aforementioned Donkey Kong Country 3) run perfectly. In fact, the only emulator I’ve had trouble with is GPSP, the Gameboy Advance emulator, which can be a little flaky with larger roms. Development continues apace though, and in 90% of the gba games I’ve tried it’s worked just fine.

That’s the other thing about the GP2x. As it’s open in both source and
philosophy there’s a massive community of developers who lead the pack with original applications and games for the little console. It’s these games designed specifically for the system which show the GP2x at it’s best. The screen and graphics capability is simply stunning, as best shown by Payback and Vektar. These are among the growing list of commercial games for the system which show the system to easily be the PSP’s equal. Seriously, watching it run classic SNES and Genesis games at full speed with crystal clear clarity is one thing; seeing it toss around thousands of pixels under it’s own steam is a whole other league. All in a package 1/3rd the price, with more games, an open philosophy and Linux powered to boot.

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Payback and Vektar. Feel the power!

This is a real hacker’s system. Hook it up to another computer with a bog standard USB cable and you’ve got a system with samba and telnet servers built-in. There’s 64 Mb of non-volatile RAM as well and limitless storage with SD cards. Mini SD cards (as found in many cellphones) work just fine too with an SD adapter. There are several complete developer enviroments available too, making this the best handheld system for coding homebrew games and demos, bar none. The downside to this is that the default interface isn’t exactly user friendly. Thankfully, there’s many very good alternative skins and menu systems available.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. Nothing ever is. The GP2x eats batteries for breakfast. Use 2600MaH rechargeables and you should get 4-5 hours’ use between charge. You’ll be lucky to get a single hour out of no-brand single-use cells. Consider yourself warned! It doesn’t help that there doesn’t seem to be a sleep mode, so it’s a 20 second wait for bootup each session. I’ve grown to love the Nintendo DS’s ability to sleep when the lid is closed and be immediately available when it’s re-opened, and would love to see some kind of keypress combo do the same thing on the GP2x. Thankfully the GP2x’s open nature has a solution; there’s a sleep app which solves just this problem. There are no problems when the Open Source is the solution :)

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Fully customizable interface. Here’s mine.

The only other missing element is wifi. While it would be nice to have built-in wireless capability, it’s not missed during actual use. Being able to surf on this tiny console would just have been icing on an already over-iced cake, and would doubtless have increased price and lowered battery life even more. If it’s a major issue for you though, there is an open hardware solution too. Man, I love this way of working. Oh, there’s also a cradle which adds four USB ports too meaning a keyboard and mouse can be added, making this the complete Linux system it really is.

I’d put off writing this review for a few weeks because I’ve wanted to really get to know the system. I’m the kind of person who makes first impressions fast, and didn’t want my initial thoughts about the GP2x to colour the review as a whole. As a result, this is more of a real, honest-to-goodness review of the system rather than a post of initial impressions.

And I love it!

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