The GCW-Zero: A new open source handheld console (Kickstarter)

gcw-zero-tinyUpdate: I am getting lots of feedback telling me I am judging that device too fast, and that my expectations are not on par with the goals of the project. Since I wouldn’t like my own projects to be judged by people who have never even tried them once, I took the plunge and ended up backing the project. I will be trying the device and give it a fair review when I receive it.

tojoleon, a member of our /talk community, pointed me to this new Kickstarter project which aims at creating a new open source handheld console, mostly dedicated at homebrews and emulators, the GCW Zero.

In essence, the GCW-Zero is the spiritual successor of consoles such as the Dingoo or the Open Pandora. The Open Pandora was a nice attempt at an open source system that, when it was announced, would have blown the PSP out of the water in terms of performance. But Kickstarter didn’t exist at the time, and the Open Pandora had too small an amount shipped to ever become relevant.

With the success of the Ouya kickstarter, and the lack of decent competition for a dedicated open source handheld gaming device (some Chinese Android devices are trying to fill the void, but generally fail, see my review of the DroidX360 here), I am sure there is a market for a dedicated open source gaming device. Is the GCW-Zero up to the task?

On the paper, the GCW-Zero is a mix of good and bad choices in my opinion, and I am not sure if the device will find its audience (that being said, the people behind it have way more experience than me in that market, so they probably know better than me what their audience is looking for).

On the side of the good stuff, a real analog nub, accelerometer (g-sensor), Wifi support, usb connection, and decent specs for the CPU and GPU (1GHz MIPS process, OpenGLES2.0 compatible GPU). And of course, 100% open source, and most emulators are already supported.

gcw-zero-2

Sadly I am finding a few questionable choices that make me not back this project up at the moment. All of these are probably personal, I’m sure the devs of this project had to make some choices to reach a good quality/price ratio, and I’ll let everyone make their own choice and debate in the comments below, but:

  • 256MB of Ram is not enough if the device attempts at becoming more than an “oldies emulator” system. 256MB of ram is enough on a system like the PS3, where devs have all the time in the world to optimize their game in a limited environment. Not in an open source system where people will first try to quickly port existing games and applications, in a world where even the cheapest Android devices today have 1GB of Ram. This threatens the multimedia possibilities of the GCW-Zero.
  • I question the HDMI output on a device that might not have enough juice to play High Definition TV because of Ram or GPU limitations. As a gaming device, portable device + HDMI cable does not make much sense, unless you plug a wireless controller on the device… but then what’s the point of the screen and the integrated gamepad…. I would gladly exchange the HDMI support for anything else dedicated to gaming (see below)
  • Only one analog nub? Why stop there? The lack of a second analog nub has been the main criticism against all handheld consoles before the Vita. A Kickstarter project has the opportunity to fix this. This shows again that the GCW-Zero is in only for old games and emulators, and will not try to fix broken implementations of some FPS games.
  • A 320×240 4:3 screen, in 2013, is not enough. This one is probably the worst flaw of the design to me. The Vita has taught me that a OLED screen and a high resolution does improve the gaming experience even on older games. 320×240 means that the gaming experience will be limited, and forget about multimedia support.

Update: The GCW-Zero team addressed this question in their FAQ, I am copy/pasting their answer here:

A bigger screen on the GCW Zero = less battery life / more work on the CPU / less fps in emulation / blurry, rescaled graphics and a higher manufacturing cost…

The reason behind choosing a 320×240 display isn’t just monetary. Of course, a larger display would have raised the final price of the device, but it also has many other cons for a device aimed at retro gaming. First of all, a higher resolution is not needed because most retro games we support run at 320×240 at most. A larger screen would require everything to be rescaled, so the CPU would have an extra load of work and this would result in worse gaming performance and less battery life.

  • The pledge levels are not exciting enough in my opinion. They are probably realistic, but projects that I have backed in the past had promises that gave incredible incentive to being a backer. I know not all projects can afford to do that, but at a price close to that of a 3DS in order to get the device, this is a bit disappointing.
  • One last concern I have is the quality of the gamepad itself. My experience with a few independent products has proven to me that companies like Sony invest a lost in R&D to make the controls smooth and resistant. Hopefully the direct involvement of qbertaddict (whom I know has tested the droid X360 and met the same issues as me) in this project will help prevent physical issues with the controls.

gcw-zero-3

Don’t get me wrong, the GCW-Zero is a great project and I hope they succeed, if only to see a “version 2″ that will meet my personal expectations. My points above are just to explain why I personally won’t pledge for this project. To put it another way, I was much more excited by the Open Pandora, which was extremely expensive, but also had specs that (at the time) would have killed any other handheld console in the world. Kickstarter today makes a project like the Open Pandora actually possible on a large scale. But the GCW-Zero just feels like it is lacking ambition to me (and again, this is from a pure “end user” approach. I am not saying that setting up a project with a handful of people, to ship thousands of units worldwide is “unambitious)

In the end, how much difference will there be between the GCW-Zero and a hacked PSP? Are people willing to exchange the nice PSP screen for the boost in Ram and CPU of the GCW-Zero? The project still has 15 days to convince backers.

What are your thoughts?

Source and full details: Kickstarter

  1. SteveBass’s avatar

    What resolution do all other retro (open or not) handhelds have? Oh yeah, it’s the same as this!
    Trust me, along with the case design it was one of the biggest discussions on the forums and most people (not to mention the OD developers) thought this was the best bet. The other big issue was the case – putting it in a cheap plastic PSP case would have drastically cut the price and production time, however the community wanted quality and good original design, which is what they got.

    There is already lots of homebrew for this resolution, look at Dingoo A320, Caanoo, GP2X Wiz….. Not a problem for them at all. People are developing for it all the time.

    Before development on OpenDingux was really ramped up (and those guys work hard for free) look at the names of the people who were developing for Dingoo, then have a look at the list of names on the GCW Kickstarter page. Sound familiar? They know what they’re doing.

    One last remark about the price – take a look at the Neo Geo X. This is a very similar (lower) spec handheld to the GCW0, underclocked and running a bastardised Dingux with the FBA port (no sources and violates GPL). It’s cheaply made and does a fraction of what the GCW0 does (poorly I might add) yet sells for twice the price and people lap it up, cheap plastic controller and all.
    Maybe GCW should have bought a license, violated GPL and closed the system off?

    Reply

    1. wololo’s avatar

      I don’t know where you are coming from with the NeoGeoX. Do you see me praising the quality of that console? No, and for a good reason.

      Side question: where can I find a list of homebrews for the dingoo family? In particular, homebrews that are not emulators or ports of commercial games.

      Reply

      1. Artur

        I don’t think there is a complete list anywhere, but right now the following homebrew games were ported with the approval of their authors:
        * Sqrxz 3
        * Unnamed Monkey Game (my own game)
        * Puzzletube
        * Worship Vector
        * Flare
        * Samegoo
        * Astrolander

        There is more homebrew already ported, but we never contacted the authors (usually because there is no need to – they’re GPL):
        * Blockrage
        * Heroes
        * Spout
        * Liero (I have talked with the original author once, it wasn’t exactly about GCW but rather Dingoo and Dreamcast ports, yet he was very happy someone is porting his old game)

        There’s also a ton of the old commercial game engines ported, so that you don’t think it’s all we have.

        And yes, GCW originates from the Dingoo scene, so we have quite a repository of games we have ported to the Dingoo in the past, which we are slowly polishing and porting to GCW one by one.
        Some of these that will be ported in the future and belong to the homebrew category:
        * Powder
        * Meritous
        * ASCII Portal
        * Biniax 1/2
        * Freedroid
        * GNU Robbo
        * Powermanga
        * Wizznic!
        * Nethack
        * Super Transball 2

        That’s just from the top of my head. That list will be MUCH longer in the future :)

        Also, thanks for giving us a chance and preordering a unit. If you want to join our community, we’re available at #gcw irc channel on freenode.org

        Reply

        1. Artur

          Here is an (outdated) list of homebrew for the Dingoo A320:
          http://wiki.dingoonity.org/index.php?title=Dingux:Games
          You can find some more titles in this repository: http://dl.openhandhelds.org/cgi-bin/dingoo.cgi

          Reply

      2. SteveBass’s avatar

        I used it as an example of a similar spec console that people lap up which is nowhere near the quality of the Zero yet costs much more (twice the price over here), which “borrows” code from the community.
        People have “hacked” it to run OD but you can get the real deal for much less.

        For Dingux software check out the Dingoonity Wiki and openhandhelds:
        http://dl.openhandhelds.org/cgi-bin/dingoo.cgi
        http://wiki.dingoonity.org/index.php?title=Main_Page

        Some of that will be for the A320 Native OS and some will be legacy Dingux and will not work on OD at the moment (due to coding habits, not OD).

        Oh and regarding the Vita for emulation, a 32gb memory card will set me back nearly £60 so make sure you take that into account.

        Reply

  2. Deagle275’s avatar

    Seriously , the point is :
    Would you rather have CGW-ZERO or a jailbroken vita with Ark.
    I would choose a CGW-ZERO .

    Reply

    1. wololo’s avatar

      But then you give up on the great screen, vita and psp games, youtube, web browsing, the touch pad, the dual nub… Sure, the vita is almost twice the price… if emulators are the only thing you are looking for, I guess yes…

      Reply

      1. Deagle275’s avatar

        Yes they are most of what i’m looking for .

        Reply

      2. Deagle275’s avatar

        Also , i haven’t said the vita is worse . But for homebrew and emulation CGW-Zero is nicer . At least now.

        Reply

      3. Lorz’s avatar

        Personally wololo, I really want to like the Vita, but I can’t, not because of the hardware or the price, because I find all of that great, if not amazing…. but the company behind it has continually and arrogantly screwed gamers and homebrew enthusiasts over and over and over and over and over……. I cannot support that, my conscience simply will not allow me, it may seem harsh, but i really hope Sony either changes, or simply leaves the consumer media industry all together, it may sound childish to wish for the demise of a company like this, but they have done far more damage than good to an industry that is supposed to be all about having fun.

        Reply

        1. wololo’s avatar

          I’m with you on this. The only reason I got a Vita is to blog about the hacking side of it, and my personal hopes is that things like the Ouya, or the recent moves on Steam are going to disrupt the market in a way that will either kill Sony on the Western market, or make them change their ways dramatically. Sounds far fetched, but one can hope :)

          Edit: as a device though, the Vita is simply awesome. But I agree that it hurts me more and more to give money to a company like Sony.

          Reply

          1. Lorz’s avatar

            I agree, it’s an amazing device, I love my PSP, but the Vita is what the PSP should have been in the first place, I’d really love to have one, but only if it’s made by someone(anyone) than Sony, lol.

            I’ve recently been playing with cheap android handhelds…. JXD S5110, it’s alot like the Droid X360 you reviewed, except arguably improved in some areas, and worse in some other areas…and though it hasn’t been perfect, I’m pretty pleased so far.

            Oh, btw wololo, there is an upcoming Android based handheld which I think you might find interesting, it is retailing for $150 US, and is set to compete with the Archos gamepad, its features are a 7 inch screen(which is a little too big for a handheld imo), Amlogic MX dual core 1.5ghz CPU with mali 400 GPU, dual analogs(and they are supposed to be actual analogs….. but we are wating for confirmation from a distributor who has offered to test it and report the results)…. It’s the JXD S7300, and if interested, you can find out more about it at dingoonity in the android section, or at willgoo.com… a distributor for dingoos and android handhelds, who also happens to be active on the dingoonity forums.

  3. Deagle275’s avatar

    Sincerely , ” I would prefer a psp” . I would prefer a GCW Zero . You pay additional 35 dollars for :
    Three times the processor
    Open Source
    No jailbreaking
    You can play Starfox on the SNES Emulator.Try it on the psp emulator.
    G-Sensor .
    4 times the ram .
    Sincerely , if you like emulation , but you prefer to buy a psp , you’re drunk brother .

    Reply

  4. HIMFan’s avatar

    I agree with your original opinion 100% wololo. I’m rather disappointed. And the fact that Android has officially become a non-open source OS means that things like this have no future without being expensive. So we’re going to pay a lot for something that a good Android phone and a MOGA gamepad couldn’t already give us…and in better quality.

    So if they decide to take the route of using an older Android OS, then people will also lose out because most apps other than emulators will cease working. This thing is basically an NES controller with 1 nub and designed to play emulators. I’d welcome it with arms wide open in 2009. I would’ve called it a marvel of technology in 2005. But in 2013, everyone already has this device already in their house.

    Reply

    1. joevar’s avatar

      This doesn’t run on Andriod. It runs on a customized linux called OpenDingux, or OD for short. OD was originally created for the Dingoo A320. (Note: There was a previous Linux distro for the Dingoo A320 was called Dingux which commonly used to replace the default Symbian based OS. All Linux distros on the A320 were always unofficial.) At some point the OD maintainers, brewers, and supporters decided that they could create a better device. Since they already had working software, they designed and build newer hardware around it. The GCW-Zero is this device.

      Reply

      1. Artur

        The default os for Dingoo A320 wasn’t Symbian but uC/OS-II ;)

        Reply

        1. joevar’s avatar

          I remembered it being Symbian from some reason. Thanks for the correction.

          Reply

  5. SatanClause’s avatar

    Perfect device for homebrew. I would prefer a screen featuring 16:9 aspect ration, but I suppose that can either be emulated or a screen replacement shouldn’t be a problem. I would actually go ahead and move all the hardware into a PSP casing.

    Are these available for order now? I would like to present one of these to my class and see if we can maybe do an independent project, programming a few apps and games for this platform rather than the others. I’m sure my professors wouldn’t mind at all.

    Reply

    1. Artur

      They are currently only available via KickStarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gcw/gcw-zero-open-source-gaming-handheld

      A programming class project sounds awesome! You can count on the help of our devteam if you join our IRC channel #gcw on freenode.org

      Reply

      1. Richard’s avatar

        After some serious debate in the comments section here on our Kick Starter page and other forums, we have decided to upgrade the RAM from 256MB to 512MB.
        We have also decided to upgrade the internal storage capacity from 8GB to 16GB on the console.

        We think both of these upgrades will provide more value for the money you are pledging to get this great gaming console we call The GCW-Zero.

        Reply

  6. andrej’s avatar

    I know it’s all about emulation, but why everyone keeps forgeting about native PSP games?
    I don’t see anyone making high profilr games for GCW such as God of War, Lumines, Crisis Core, Patapon, Wipeout and so on…

    Reply

  7. Vita_User’s avatar

    Built for gamers by gamers yet it has no second analogue stick?

    The single analogue stick it has doesn’t look very good either.

    Reply

    1. Aero’s avatar

      This rubs me to no end, you have no idea. The only thing I can take away from this is that only a couple of PS1 games require two sticks (Ape Escape and R/C Stunt Copter by my recollection)

      Also…this thing can’t emulate a dreamcast, and that’s almost literally all I want at this juncture. A portable N64 sounds grand as well…but not $130 grand.

      Reply

  8. Hiroyasu’s avatar

    Id like to give this project the benefit of the doubt but by only building it with 1 analog such as the psp, you might as well just get a psp. Bye for any chances of having any sort of f2p styles of games on it or any other 3d 3 person view games.

    Reply

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