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Console Review: GP2X

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The GP2X is a Korean-made, Linux-based handheld that shares many features with the PSP. In some cases, the GP2X dances circles around the PSP. But the GP2X is not for everyone. It is not the most accessible handheld – it takes some tinkering to get things working the way you want.

The history of the GP2X is convoluted to say the least. GamePark, a Korean company, released the GP32 in 2001. The company split because of “differences in philosophy,” and thus GamePark Holdings was created.

GamePark is planning on going toe-to-toe with Sony and Nintendo with the release of the XGP and XGP Mini, set to launch this year. GamePark Holdings, with the original GP32 design team, released the GP2X to keep with the goals of the GP32 audience.

I am quite glad they did this, as the XGP is going to be more akin to a DS and PSP, and nowhere near as open a platform as the GP32/GP2X is. Just as the GP32 before it, the GP2X is mainly geared toward the homebrew (video games written by hobby programmers) and emulation crowd, and is a big success on all fronts. Released at the end of 2005, GamePark Holdings’ handheld is a powerful little gadget that might not make it in the mainstream market. But that is what makes it so good.

While there is a good sized homebrew community around the PSP, that system has a major drawback. Sony releases a new software upgrade after the last version gets hacked to allow for homebrew and emulation (not to mention pirating of PSP games), then new games require this software version to run. This is a shame, but is a necessary evil. And quite frankly, I like the new features Sony has been adding. Although I am sure we will start to see new versions of the PSP firmware that only close holes sometime down the line.

With the GP2X, you get an entirely open environment without the constraints of a big company like Sony. You won’t be seeing the latest games from Rockstar or EA, but that isn’t the point. The homebrew community has written so much software in the short life of the GP2X that you will not be without options. Furthermore, the library of GP2X software is growing by the day.

GamePark Holdings has yet to release any information on first party games, but they have not ruled it out. The GP32 had a few first party titles, so hopefully the GP2X will too. The other major drawback is the incompatibility with GP32 software. Much of that has been rewritten for the GP2X, but backwards compatibility would have meant a much larger library from the start.

Unlike a lot of foreign games and game consoles, you do not need to import the GP2X in the U.S. (there are also distributors in Europe). In the U.S., the GP2X can be purchased from GP32z.com for $189.99 (the price varies territory to territory and store to store). You can also get a TV-Out Cable, as well as replacement parts for the handheld. It is nice that they offer replacement parts for this thing, including a custom joystick cap.

In The Box
Depending on your region, you may get more or less items in the box.

  • GP2X Console
  • Screen Cover
  • USB Cable
  • Instruction Manual
  • 2x AA Batteries

While I did not expect the TV-Out cable to come in the box, I did expect an AC adapter. The instruction manual states that you can use you own, but you want to be very careful of the voltage and amps your AC adapter uses. The back of the GP2X reads 3.3V 1A. The cheapest 3.3 volt, 1 amp adapter I could find was at RadioShack, and they wanted $40 for it. Thankfully the U.S. distributor has a $25 adapter.

Technical Specifications
CPU: Dual, ARM940T @ 200Mhz, ARM920T @ 200Mhz
Dimension: 143.6mm x 82.9mm x 34mm
Mass (w/o batteries): 161g/5.68oz
RAM: 64 MB SDRAM
Storage: 64 MB NAND Internal, SD Card
Connection Type: USB 2.0
Power: 2AA
Display: 3.5″ Backlit TFT LCD
Resolution: 320 x 240 (QVGA)

Hardware
Considering the GP2X is not seeing production numbers close to the PSP or DS, the build quality of this unit is solid. The plastic used is sturdy, and has performed well under heavy use. The buttons do not feel as firm as the PSP, but they all work just fine.

The unit itself is the same size as a DS, give or take a couple millimeters. This turns out well, as you hold the GP2X almost exactly like a DS. It is also lighter than Nintendo’s dual screen handheld.

Pick up some rechargeable AA batteries because this gadget doesn’t use an internal one. I cannot recommend the rechargeable batteries enough, as the GP2X eats them just as fast as the Game Gear did.

In testing, you will get four to five hours from NiMH batteries when playing games. Alkaline batteries won’t last as long. You should see six hours for video and 10 hours for music playback, thought I did not test this fully.

All the buttons should be familiar to anyone with a current handheld. It has four face buttons, L and R shoulder buttons, a d-pad/joystick (which also acts as a button when pushed down), volume control, and a start and select button.

The joystick takes some time to get used to, you have to push it harder then you think you should at first. It loosens up though, and gets easier to use. You can buy a different joystick if you do not like the standard one, plus there are many hacks and other replacements out there.

The speakers are well placed to the left and right of the 3.5″ TFT display. They sound good in-game and while playing music and video. If you crank the volume to the max when listening to music, you will hear bad distortion. At that level, it is more than the speakers can handle.

The Screen Cover is replaceable if you get it scratched. It does scuff easily, so be careful. I got a scratch on mine minutes out of the box, but that was mainly due to “user error” (me). It is great that I can replace the Screen Cover if/when needed.

The screen is clear and bright enough for everything I tested. There is no brightness adjustment, but you can make some adjustments in software. For the games it plays, the screen does a terrific job. It does not compare to watching movies on the PSP, but I was not expecting that.

There are plastic covers over the TV-Out, USB, AC, and headphone ports. These push back into place very easily, similar to consumer digital cameras. The system has two LEDs, one for power and one for low battery.

The quality of the hardware meets the price tag. But for $190, I expect to have an AC adapter bundled with it. This is a small oversight, and definitely not a deal breaker.

The TV-Out cable works with most games/applications. There is a TV-Out fixer that allows some of the popular emulators to also work, although you will need to fiddle with the refresh time a bit.

Software
The GP2X’s operating system, or firmware, is feature packed. The “second edition” model comes with version 1.2 firmware installed, this cleared up a lot of the issues with the first models. I immediately installed version 1.4 as it fixed, and added a number of very nice features. You should always keep up to date with the firmware. Unlike the PSP, it does not lock you out of all the goodies.

The entire OS is skinnable, with many skins available. It is also quite easy to craft your own, if you are into that sort of thing.

The “main menu” of the GP2X is broken down into eight sections: Video, Game, Music, Photo, E-Book, Explorer, Utility, and Settings. The Game and Utility entries are how you access games and applications, respectively, on the handheld. Explorer is a well-built file explorer with move, copy, and delete functions.

In Settings, you will find a Test Mode, battery gauge, and info screen. This is also where you go to change LCD settings, and connect the GP2X to USB or your TV.

The E-Book reader is rudimentary and about the weakest piece to the otherwise great user interface. Text files are shown with white text on a black background. The text wraps, sort of, when too wide for the screen.

With version 1.4 firmware, you can change the speed of the CPU for watching video files. The GP2X supports DivX 3.x, 4.x, 5.x, XviD, OGM as AVI files. A max resolution of 720×480 and frame rate of 30 fps is supported. It also supports high bit rates, 2500Kbps for video, and 384Kbps for audio. This video player also supports .srt subtitle files, and displays them very well. More formats and codecs may be supported in the near future.

The music player also has a lot of features. It supports, OGG, and MP3 at 20Hz to 20KHz. It supports 16 bit audio at 8 to 48KHz. One of the nice things about OGG files is that it sounds better at lower bit rates than MP3. Though OGG is not that widely used, it is nice to see the support. The music player has 11 EQ presets from Dance, Pop, Rock, Metal, and more.

The photo viewer, just like the music player, has a nice interface overplay with a lot of options. You can zoom in to 400% and out to 13%, rotate, and fit to frame. Using the L and R buttons, you can skip through images in a folder. Image formats supported are JPG, BMP, PCX, GIF, and PNG. The GP2X handled well when processing large JPG files.

All the above is great, but the games is where this thing shines. There are emulators for just about every retro game system out there including Amiga, MS-DOS, MAME, NES, SNES, Genesis, NeoGeo CD, and many more. Now all you need to do is hunt down the ROM files, and you are set.

Besides the emulation, there are a bunch of homebrew games. The 2006 coding competition turned out some great ones, including Geometry Wars and Zuma clones. You can also install Doom and Quake. The possibilities are really endless, and do not stop at games.

Conclusion
The drawbacks to the GP2X are minimal, and at $60 less than a PSP, it seems like you are getting your money’s worth. This system is great for people who want to take a stroll down memory lane. I personally love being able to play Q*Bert and Arkanoid again. The emulation of most computers/consoles is pretty good. This software is being improved every day, and the emulation will only get better. That is the best part of an open source community.

If you can get past the fact that this is not a Sony or Nintendo handheld, and things crash here and there, you will do fine with the GP2X. It is nothing out of the ordinary from running Debian or Fedora on your PC.

With a video player, music player, photo viewer, e-book reader, and Linux based emulation and homebrew applications, this is truly a portable multimedia powerhouse. Add to that support for things such as DivX, XviD, and OGG, and you really have the complete package.

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About Ken Edwards

  • http://www.davidrperry.com David R Perry

    Nice review. I had been curious about this since hearing some stuff around its release. Good to hear that support and fixes are progressing nicely.

  • http://speedyb.co.uk/ SPeedY_B

    Nice review. Tempted to put money down on one of these :D

  • JoBlo

    Good stuff, will be ordering one of these now that the 2.0 firmware and new stick/screen is out.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Ken Edwards

    The new “Mark II” units are shipping now, with the 2.0 firmware, new joystick and screen.

    The 2.0 firmware itself is a nice upgrade. More than I expected.