Somewhere in the midst of the face-off between Sony and Nintendo for the handheld gaming market is a third competitor. It’s not got the marketing budget, it’s not got the big name games. Heck, its price sits between the two of them, too, with the Nintendo DS Lite a good thirty quid cheaper. And yet the GP2X handheld gaming device is carving out an admittedly small but nonetheless noticeable niche for itself.
Its looks are clearly influenced by the rival handheld gaming machines. A large screen dominates the unit, to the left side of it is the traditional thumbpad, on the right are four control buttons, and on the shoulders are a couple more buttons to push.
Actually, we should make a correction right here. The GP2X has potential far beyond a gaming device, and its manufacturers are being savvy enough to play on that. It actually goes by the title ‘GP2X Personal Entertainment Player’, and that’s a fairer reflection of what it can do.
Built in from the start is movie playback capability (with XviD and DivX supported), audio (through MP3 or WMA, along with welcome support for the OGG codecs), and it’s simple too to browse images and suchlike. The 64MB of internal storage won’t hold too much, but there is an SD card slot and a port that allows you to hook up the likes of a fully-fledged hard drive. Yes, you did read that right. There’s USB hook-up on offer too.
But the system’s trump card is still to come, which is that it’s built on a Linux operating system, with no firmware lockouts and plenty of new developments always underway (although it does delay the machine’s start-up time while the OS boots up).
The open source community has quickly embraced the machine, and while on one hand the developers have sacrificed a little user-friendliness by leaving it so open to tinkering, they’ve also opened a constant stream of software development for it, without having to butter up Electronic Arts first.
Ironically, given its appearance, the one thing you won’t find too much of is specially dedicated gaming software. But there is the small matter of the emulation scene: here again, people have been quick to embrace the console’s possibilities. As such, there’s a gamut of emulators you can load, and thanks to the virtually limitless storage potential, you can stuff it to the rafters with all your favourites from yesteryear. It’ll play back games right up to the PC and Playstation generation, although naturally there are copyright issues to consider.
There are elements of the GP2X that are a little raw and ready, and clearly the mainstream consumer who likes things simple is still likely to furnish Sony or Nintendo with their hard-earned.
But for the real enthusiast, the GP2X is an absolute treat. It might be a little pricey, and we could live with slightly longer battery life (around six hours from a set of double-As seems to be the norm), but this is still much more than an antidote to the big two, and one of the most fascinating gadgets of the year.
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