Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Full Length GP2X Review

Ok, after playing around with it for a full week, here's my lengthy review of the GP2X. It's the new portable open-source gaming device from GamePark Holdings. "Open-source?" Yup, this baby runs Linux! That means anyone can develop games, applications, hardware add-ons, and other fun stuff for it, without being sued out of existence. There's a good size dev scene behind it already, and will hopefully continue to grow.

I received my unit from Gamersection.ca on June 21st. Also got the AC adaptor, TV Output cable, and a replacement joystick cap, just in case. $250 CDN for all that including 7% GST (6% on July 1st, yay!) and shipping. I also bought 4 rechargeable AA's and a charger, a USB SD card reader and of course, an SD card off eBay...$145 for 4GB. And I picked up a Gameboy Advance case from a surpus store in town for $4.88, fits perfectly!

My unit is known as the "MKII" version, with Firmware 2.00, the latest release from Gamepark Holdings. Check the wiki for differences between the previous and new hardware. Dunno if you can buy the old one anymore, but make sure you get the new one if you're interested. You just might after my review.

So yeah, a pretty big pile of cash to get in the door, but every time I use it, I become more convinced it was a good move. There's only a few drawbacks I've come across so far, but they're pretty minor, and I'll get to those later. First, some of the fun:

1. Games. And I mean Games. From old skool C64 and Sega emulators, to new indie originals and remakes, your thumbs will find plenty to do with this machine. There's literally a ton of emulators available for it, check out the GP2X Dev Wiki for more info. That list is only as up to date as people make it, of course, but it's a good start. The other site I check everyday is the GP2X File Archive. I have the RSS feed in my newsreader, so I can see the newest stuff as soon as it's available.

As far as specific games, I'm currently rockin' NHL 94 for Sega Genesis...check out Reesy's Sega Emulator, DrMDx, easily the best I've used. If you like the hockey, check out nhl94.com and mackshacks.tk for updated versions of NHL games for Sega and Super Nintendo...all the teams have been updated to the latest rosters, including graphics for jerseys and arenas! Tons of work, glad someone else took the time!

As far as non-emulation games, there's a really good remake of the classic "Paradroid" called "Freedroid". Basically, you're a robot on a space ship, and you make your way from room to room encountering other robots. You can either shoot them or engage them in "brain to brain" combat, a sort of minigame where you have to highlight more circuits to win control of the other robot...maybe it's only good if you grew up with it, but I played Paradroid on the C64 and "Paradroid 90" on the Amiga, so it's great to have a new version. Also features .ogg files for music, and 3D art for the various robots, cool stuff.

Most of the Linux ports/versions of games have ended up on the GP2X, from what I can tell: SuperTux, Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem, etc. I've got them on there just to see what they look like, why not? Duke Nukem 3D brings back memories, I used to play that over dialup on my Pentium 100 with my friend on his 486. Cue the black and white archive film footage and film reel sfx... :)

Anyway, there's tons of other games available, various puzzle and Tetris clones, card games, with more coming everyday. So you have to factor that in to the purchase price...No longer spending $30 to $60 a pop on something I'll probably only play for a little while, although I do plan to donate to my favourites, keep the goodies coming.

2. Applications & Utilities. These can be launched from the "Utility" menu, and again, there's tons of stuff around. I'll just mention two ones I'd recommend: "EnergySaver" and "GP2X Stereo Fix". The first one, as you might have guessed, is a tiny app designed to save some battery life. Once launched, it runs in the background, and when it detects no input (button presses) for a set period of time, it turns off the GP2X screen and speakers, and underclocks the CPU to a very low setting. I found 20MHz was too low and crashed my game of NHL when I woke it back up, but 30MHz seems to work.

The second app is a software switch that sets your GP2X speakers to stereo mode, instead of the default mono. Not sure why mono is the default, other than perhaps they figured most people are playing Atari on it. :) Anyway, I've got both of these apps starting automatically when my GP2X boots up, they work, and don't seem to cause any problems. The settings are pretty easy to change, you just need a text editor.

3. Skins. You can change the look of the menus on the GP2X, just head to the File Archive again and check out the "Skins - GPH Linux" section. The default skin is kinda ugly (white text on yellow BG?). So I've tried a few of the higher rated ones, "dittnet GP2X Aqua" is cool, a tribute to OS X. There's tons available, so try some out, they're easy to swap. Also using "Candy", pretty nice.

4. Video and Music. Yup, in addition to all this, it also plays mp3, ogg, Divx and avi. Not sure how much I'll use it for music, since I already have an iPod Shuffle and most of my favourite tracks are in Apple's incompatible AAC format. However, since my iPod can't do video, it'd be nice to load my SD card up with some video podcasts that are all the rage these days. However, since it can't play Quicktime, so far it's proven ineffective, without converting them first, and that doesn't interest me. I also found I have to rename .divx files to .avi to get it to see them, but they play back well after that, I don't have a ton of those anyway, just testing them out.

I have put a couple mp3 albums on there, and they play back fine. The quality of the speakers is pretty bad, they're great for 8 bit games, but if you're looking for hi-fi portable playback, keep looking. Speech is intelligible, but it's not enjoyable for music. On the other hand, there's a stereo headphone jack which sounds as good as it should, plus you won't annoy people around you.

What I thought I could do was load up with video podcasts and play them in my car on the way to work (keeping my eyes on the road of course), with my Belkin FM tuner plugged into the headphone jack...this seemed to be working, until the tuner would auto shutoff as if it wasn't gettting any signal. Weird, I'll have to experiment a little further with that.

Supposedly it also plays Windows Media video and audio, but I don't have any to try with. It can also view photos, but I don't use that much either yet. It works though, just hit the left and right shoulder buttons to skip through them, use the stick to zoom and pan.

Which brings me to my negatives, but there's only a couple. Let's do the hardware specific ones first:

1. Joystick. I'd read lots of opinions on this, good bad ugly, but I can't say I have any problems with it. It takes some getting used to, especially if you're used to an up, down, left, right style "d-pad" from a GameBoy or whatever. I'm coming from the PS2 DualShock controller, so I like the analog stick feel, even though it's actually 8-way directional underneath, from what I've read. If you push it in, just like the DualShock, it acts as another button. At first I was shaking the whole unit when I would try and move the stick, but I've gotten used to it now, so I just turn the stick instead of the whole screen! :)

2. Headphone jack. Not really a problem here either, just that it's sort of recessed a little into the plastic, so if your headphones have a fat jack on them, you may have trouble getting them to stay connected. I think that what kept disconnecting my FM tuner, but I'll check again.

3. TV Out cable. This one is sort of hit and miss. The main menus work, but individual apps may vary. But I only tried it for a little while, so I'm sure support for this will come. Also, my cable itself was a little weird, I had to bend the tiny right side metal "tooth" to get it to stick in properly. Also, it doesn't seem to turn off the internal speakers when sending to the TV, so that's a little odd.

4. Power. I also had to bend one of the battery terminals to get my battery to stick in place properly. Easily done, but thought I'd mention it. Also, when you're running off the AC adapter, it plugs into the unit on the right side, precisely where you rest your hand while holding it! So you're trying to play, and this plug is constantly digging into your hand. They really should have put this on the top or bottom. I have gotten used to it, but I recommend battery use whenever you can, more comfortable. And for the record, I seem to get about 3 1/2 to 4 hours of gameplay from a pair of Sony rechargable batteries I bought, they're rated 1700 mAh, but the charger can take up to 2500 mAh, so I may get a pair of those if I can find them locally. The charger I got takes about 6 hours to recharge both sets.

5. Flash Drive-ability. As I understand it, you're supposed to be able to plug the supplied USB-mini to USB-standard into your computer and have the GP2X mount as a flash drive on your desktop, basically making the GP2X act as a card reader. For the 5 times I've tried it, it doesn't work...it freezes completely, and I have to power off my Mac! Hence the need for the USB card reader. Not sure if that's cause I'm on a Mac (there's drivers for Windows, and Linux I think), or maybe I'm just doing it wrong, but no big deal, I have to use the reader when I want to add something new to it. The reader was only $5, so whatever.

And that's about it for now I think. Great little unit, with more and more potential discovered everyday, most apps don't even use both CPU cores yet, from what I've read, so hopefully there's even more speed to come. Retro gaming, a little music and the odd video make it perfect for my needs. The drawbacks are minor, and price is not bad depending on what you want it to do.

Ok, that's plenty. Later.

1 comment:

BH said...

Sounds like you're reliving your youth, which has to be easier to do when you're still a youth...

Open source stuff always has its weak points at the beginning, but over time, it's amazing how great ideas incorporate themselves into outstanding products. So I hope you'll send your blog link to GP2x.com and let'em know that they're on a winner (if they can find another place to plug in the power cord).