Update: 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.
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.
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.