GP2X Review

GP2XI first heard about the GP2X back in September when Mike 'Isofarro' Davies mentioned it in a Sony PSP thread on AccessifyForum  (external link). I'd been toying with the idea of buying myself a portable device with more grunt than my worthy-but-dull Loox PocketPC, but wasn't sold on anything in the marketplace. The GP2X sounded too good to be true - this handheld would play DivX movies, had an mp3 player, e-book reader and photo viewer built in, ran the Quake engine, and had the promise of a raft of emulators including Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and Sega Megadrive. It used AA batteries and cheap SD cards, had TV-out, USB and support for external power supplies, and cost just 125 quid. In an unusual display of impetuosity I pre-ordered one, sat back and waited for the launch.

The first units were expected to be rolling off the production line in late October, but with Gamepark Holdings (the producers of the GP2X) being a small company, there were inevitable delays as firmware and hardware issues were ironed out. I eventually received my unit on 22nd November, one of the first batch from UK supplier GBAX  (external link).

In this review I'm going to concentrate on my personal experiences with the device, which have been mostly positive. There are plenty of other views of the GP2X on the GP32X forums  (external link), both positive and negative, so if you're interested in reading more I'd recommend heading over there after you're finished here.

So, 8 weeks on what do I think of my new toy?

Hardware

The build quality is pretty good for the price. The unit is black plastic, with a substantial feel in the hand, not at all flimsy or cheap. It features two shoulder buttons, four thumb buttons, a thumb stick, a volume control rocker switch and select and start face buttons. The thumb stick is also clickable, which is a nice touch. I've fairly large hands, but the GP2X is comfortable to use, and the buttons are all easy to reach and easy to use accurately. The thumb stick is the weakest part of the setup - unlike some other users I have no problem with the dead-zone or the travel distance, but the convex shape of the cap combined with its hard, slightly shiny material makes it very difficult to get a good grip, and consequently precision movement can be a problem. Fortunately the cap is detachable and there have already been several modified caps tried and tested, and someone is now selling a nice looking concave cap in a grippier material.

This demonstrates nicely one the major strengths of the GP2X - the community around it is already incredibly active, thanks largely to its predecessor the GP32. There is a core of developers and enthusiasts who are dedicated to supporting the GP2X, evidenced by the incredible quantity and quality of software already available, less than 2 months after the first units were shipped. More on that later.

One of the most important elements of a quality handheld device is the screen, and for me the GP2X's 320x240 pixel LCD display is a winner. It's bright, clear and has a wonderful colour range. Running Megadrive or PC Engine games shows its talents off to the full. There have been some gripes on the community forums about scanlines and interference, but I've found neither problem seriously compromises the screen, while the former will be improved in later firmware releases, and the latter is fixable with a simple hardware modification (which does involve opening the unit), which will almost certainly be fixed in later hardware releases (it may be even now, it's such a simple fix).

As mentioned above the unit runs on 2 AA batteries. I'm using Uniross 2100mAh 15 minute rechargables and getting up to 4 hours usage per pair. This will improve with future firmware releases from Gamepark, since the unit is currently drawing full power at all times regardless of the task. Even so 4 hours is fine for me, and long enough to watch any extended LoTR film uninterrupted. The shutdown is somewhat sudden though, with no warning - a promise for a future firmware fix is for the battery light to shine once power is getting low.

USB connectivity is somewhat flaky at present, but SD card support is improving after some initial problems. The best option currently is to use a card-reader attached to a PC to get stuff onto the SD card, bypassing the need for USB. The 3.5mm headphone socket is annoyingly located at the top of the unit, so headphones with a fairly long lead are recommended.

One final gripe you'll hear elsewhere is the boot time, which is currently 20-odd seconds. My solution is to turn it on 20-odd seconds before I need to use it, elimnating all that waiting around at a stroke, but then I'm a certified genius.

Software

Here's a quick summary of the software included as part of the unit's OS:

Movie Player

Based on the highly-rated mplayer  (external link), it has all the basic features you'd expect. The unit has hardware DivX support, plus some other codecs. Xvid support is reported to be flaky, but I've only used DivX files and they've worked flawlessly. It's a comfortable watching experience, and I've enjoyed a good few episodes of Home Improvement in the bath already.

MP3 Player

As with the movie player this is a basic package. I haven't used it much, it's really just a bonus feature for me and not something I expect to use often.

eBook Reader

Erm, a bit of a misnoma, it's really just a very crude text file reader.

Image Viewer

Don't know anything about this, haven't tried it yet. Specs say it supports JPG, BMP, PCX, GIF, and PNG files, which is nice.

As well as these packages there's a very basic file explorer, a utility installer, and some info screens for battery level, hardware version, USB and TV-Out settings.

More details of all this and the GP2X technical specs can be found on the GP2X Wiki  (external link).

So out of the box, provided you have an SD card, you can watch movies, listen to music, look at images and read text files - not bad at all. But the real action is to be found in the homebrew scene - emulators, games and utilities from the community.

It's incredible just how much software has been released for the GP2X in just 2 months. I'm only going to list my personal highlights here, for a fuller picture visit the excellent GP2X file archive  (external link) - at the time of writing there are around 250 distinct pieces of software to download, all free, all increasing the fun you can have with the device.

Emulators

The way things are going you can expect fairly accurate emulation of most 8-bit and some 16-bit consoles, handhelds and home computers on the GP2X within a matter of months. Below I've detailed some of the best releases so far, but also well on their way are OutcaST (Atari ST), SquidgeSNES, Stella (Atari 2600), NES, PC Engine, Atari 800, Gameboy Colour, Gameboy Advance, Fuse (Spectrum) plus many others.

Commodore 64 - Frodo

A top-notch, almost perfect C64 emulator and includes a virtual keyboard, save states, 1541 emulation and a speed limiter. So we're talking mobile Space Taxi, Hero, Jumpman, Paradroid, Kickstart, Archon, Beach Head, M.U.L.E., Blue Max, Elite, Impossible Mission, and so on and so forth. I owned a C64 when I was a kid, so this is a great nostalgia trip, but some of the games hold up surprisingly well despite their age.

Sega Megadrive / Genesis - DrMDx

An incredibly polished package, with more options than you can shake a stick at, and again with near flawless emulation, this time of Sega's 16-bit console. Before using this I'd only played on a Megadrive once, many years ago, so I had no idea of what to expect. But there are loads of sites out there with top xx listings for the console, and I've been pleasantly surprised to find some real gems, mostly arcade style games but some strategy and RPGs too. I've completed the classic ZeroWing, of 'All your base are belong to us' infamy, and am now working my way through Shining Force, a nice RPG, with a game or two of Populous thrown in for good measure.

Arcade - Mame

When you've got 10 minutes to fill there's nothing quite like Mame - just long enough for a quick game of Carnival, Bubble Bobble, Galaxian, Dig Dug, Scramble, Pooyan, Phoenix, Time Pilot or whatever takes your fancy. Being born in 1969 I'm just the right age not to care that this release is based on Mame 0.34, and so only supports older arcade games. I can remember playing pong at the local swimming baths when I was about 7, and for the next 10 years or so I avidly followed the steady progress in arcade technologies, with firm favourites like those listed above securing a place in my memory to this day. Ah, please excuse me while I wipe away a tear.

Anyway, it's a solid emulator, and apart from a bit of jiggery-pokery to get the romsets to work with 0.34 it's a doddle to use.

Interpreters

Slighly different to emulators, interpreters are complete rewrites of game engines which can make use of the game's original data-files. There are two notable releases I want to mention, but other than these we've got Quake 1 & 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Frotz (for Infocom text adventures), Another World, Flashback and Hexen:

Exult

An interpreter for Ultima VII, one of the best games ever produced, a hugely involved RPG in Origin's famous and successful series. It's a fine piece of work, is very playable and supports the original Black Gate and its expansion the Serpent Isle. Unmissable if you're an RPG fan, or like a good story.

ScummVM

LucasArts produced some of the most engaging and funny point-and-click adventures of all time - Sam and Max, the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and so on. ScummVM provides access to these fantastic pieces of work on your GP2X. It's not close to perfect yet - there are sound-synch issues, some interface weirdness and doesn't yet have scaling for games with higher resolution than 320x240 (e.g. Broken Sword), but hopefully these will be ironed out in due course.

Homebrew

If the thousands of games exposed by that little lot aren't enough for you, you'll be pleased to know that there are a good few freeware games available too already. Check out the file archive for a full list, the quality is variable as you'd expect but I've nothing but admiration for the developers who are learning to code for the GP2X and making the fruit of their efforts freely available. The only game I want to mention here is TileMatch, a very impressive Zoo Keeper variant, well worth checking out if you like challenging puzzle games.

It's so encouraging that I've got my Dev-C++ environment all setup to do a bit of game coding, all I need now is to stop playing the bloody thing and make some time to get started!

Conclusions

The GP2X is a fantastic, high-value, multi-functional device, which isn't for everyone, but then everyone isn't GPH's market. Let's be clear, this is not intended to be a direct competitor to gaming platforms like the Sony PSP or Nintendo DS, or to other mainstream handheld multimedia devices like the video iPod or Creative Zen. It's aimed squarely at those of us who like to have raw access to our technology, get our hands dirty and still have some fun at the end of the day. There are some rough edges, and reports of bricked units due to unsuccessful firmware upgrades do put some people off, but in reality it just adds to the fun (big tip - don't upgrade your firmware until you've read a few success stories!).

As it stands today it's already hugely useful to me, and the promise of future firmware improvements and more refined software means things will only get better.

The GP2X retails at £124.99 including postage. If you're interested in buying one I'd recommend using the official distributor (and yes, I do get commission): http://gp2x.co.uk/go.pl?A696  (external link)

Buy the GP2X from the official UK distributor

Comments

THANK GOD someone posted a review of this thing. I've been dying to find one other than the (p)review on lik-sangs site. Only other thing i was wondering is, how's the tv out quality?

Posted by: christopher at January 19, 2006 8:19 PM

Don't know Christopher, it doesn't come with a TV out cable as standard, and at the moment I've no plans to buy one. From other reports on the forums it seems like the first batch from Korea were of questionable quality, but later versions available from gp2x.co.uk are much better.

Posted by: Dan at January 31, 2006 8:55 AM

Greetings from the States. Finally a decent review. I found you with Google. Love the Coffee stains on your site BTW.

I think I am going to order one of these from Liksang (about $175 US) but I was hoping to ask you a few questions.

Have you checked out the image viewer yet? My digital camera uses SD and it would be nice to have a bigger screen to view the pics with, they are 3.2MP images.

Are you running the newest firmware? Did they speed up the boot times? Also the newer firmware is supposed to improve battery life.

How is the responsiveness of the LCD? How about it's viewing angle. While the PSP has a beutiful screen, the response time was very crummy.

DivX playback is hardware accelerated then? Was it very smooth? Have you tried any other CoDec's like any of the MPEG4 variants like H.26x ?

Thanks again for the review. Please KEEP BLOGGING!

- Jason aka Kiteless

California, USA

Posted by: Jason at February 6, 2006 10:40 PM

Hey, great review, just read about this in Popsci. I was wondering if the video supports a .avi file?

Thanks a ton and great review!

Posted by: Nick at October 14, 2006 3:17 AM

Hi Nick. Yes, it will play .avi files, including DivX and XVid.

Posted by: Dan at October 14, 2006 7:08 AM

Is the linux version a "real" standard linux or is it like quotopia.

If normal, I'm gonna get one and write some applications for it. :-)

Cheers
the boss

Posted by: bob hartley at November 1, 2006 5:13 PM

Thanks for the review! Interestingly, I've not seen any site with a spec on the screen size. Looks like 4~5" to me. Size anyone? 8)

Posted by: Snappy! at November 14, 2006 4:28 AM

Here's a slew of gp2x videos on youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=0E61A69E659F2144

Posted by: gp2x video at November 25, 2006 4:39 PM

The "bricked units" is a bit misleading. To recover from a firmware oops simply load an SD-card with known working firmware on it (either re-extract the upgrade you were trying or do so for a previous version of the firmware) and hold "select" on bootup - it will restart the firmware upgrade process.

Posted by: Jakub Sadowski at November 30, 2007 2:43 AM

Jakub, this review was posted nearly 2 years ago when the first GP2X units were shipping. So while there may not be any problem with bricked units now, there certainly were at that time.

I'm planning to buy and review the F200, which will address any inaccuracies this review now presents.

Posted by: Dan at November 30, 2007 7:41 AM

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