This is another of my hardware reviews, albeit one with a lot of plot twists.
In short, I spent a little while playing games this year, and decided to get a new handheld gaming device for my birthday as a little treat to myself, and due to a few other somewhat dubious points:
- I found myself wanting to relax on the couch (or bed) without pulling out an Xbox controller and taking over the TV, which can be troublesome in a family setting.
- We have a Switch, but the only game I really play on it is Breath of The Wild, and I don’t need reminding that I haven’t finished it yet.
- Most of the games I really want to play are on the Xbox (and probably Steam, but I don’t have a gaming desktop), and I actually prefer streaming because it affords me continuity across devices.
- I have staunchly resisted getting a Steam Deck because I think it’s big, bulky and don’t want a hot, noisy piece of hardware on my lap.
- Sometimes I like to play retro games, especially arcade games like R-Type.
- I liked the idea of having a handheld Android device, since I still entertain the idea of (some day) spending some time playing with Godot and maybe do a couple of games1.
It bears noting at this point that we already have an Ambernic RG351M in the house, which I got during a similar moment of weakness last year and does arcade emulation pretty well (when I can get my hands on it):
Why Another Handheld?
But I sort of miss my PlayStation Portable and I wanted something able to talk to our Xbox, do xCloud game streaming, and maybe Steam/NVIDIA streaming as well. And yes, this was a bit of an indulgence.
It also bears noting at this point that Apple’s attitude towards xCloud has effectively turned me off the iPad for gaming, and fiddling with external controllers always kills the mood a bit anyway.
So I’d actually been looking at retro/emulation handhelds for a while in hope they became viable streaming platforms. Which raises another question:
Why Not The Logitech G Cloud?
In short, because Logitech made the somewhat boneheadeed decision to limit sales of their Cloud Gaming Handheld to the US.
Otherwise I would most likely have gotten one, even if it seems overpriced. I have zero issues in paying for a lightweight, high quality display and controller, although their choice of chipset is… underwhelming.
So I started looking around, checked a couple of enthusiastic reviews, and decided to order a Retroid Pocket 3 directly, since it was pretty cheap.
The day I got the Pocket 3, there was already a system upgrade waiting, which boded well–despite other things I’ll recount further down.
Getting an Android device that actually seems to be updated by its manufacturer, especially in a niche outside the mobile phone market, is… interesting, to say the least.
Also, the software setup experience was pretty neat–most reviewers lauded the custom launcher and the automatic emulator configuration, and I can confirm it was pretty seamless. Even with just a handful of ROMs (mostly my arcade staples and some ports, plus Little Sound DJ) it worked great and auto-configured the emulators for me, and I then tacked on a few native Android games.
But these kinds of devices come with a series of constraints that stem both from their target market but also the vicious competition for price points, and I was about to find out about most of them.
I trained myself to tolerate thumb sticks on the Switch and how to get some finesse with Xbox controllers so I found these serviceable but clearly not what I’d like to use for extended periods of time–which is a reasonable compromise2.
Back to the display, I should acknowledge that for me these days even the Switch display already feels small and hard to read on occasion, so I really must rant at Logitech again for their short-sightedness in picking target markets.
But those were more in the order of minor nuisances than problems. The real problem with the Retroid Pocket 3, I think, is the way the company dealt with bringing it to market.
A Torrent of Revisions
Merely days before my unit arrived, I got an e-mail from Retroid announcing a 3+ revision with nearly twice the performance:
- Faster processor: A Unisoc Tiger T618 Octa cores CPU: [email protected] + [email protected]
- 2x the GPU performance: Mali G52 [email protected]
- 2x the RAM - a 40% increase in speed
- 4x the Storage (4G+128G eMCP)
- +50% faster charging speed
- larger capacity 4500mAh battery
- USB hub support
…and this line:
As a valued customer, we would like to offer the enclosed $5 off coupon RETROIDPOCKET, good towards the purchase of the Retroid Pocket 3+, as a token of our appreciation!
I wasn’t too happy about this considering there was already a bit of controversy around the model I got (with it apparently being successively delayed and performance not being quite on par with other devices launched this year), but their releasing a completely new model while I waited for mine was really annoying.
Then I hopped on
r/retroid and many people were fuming, since they were in the same situation and there were already rumors of a 3S model coming next year.
If you want a great summary of why this is unacceptable behavior for a company, Wulff Den manages to deliver it in a few minutes.
Given the rest of this post I think it’s important to mention that Retroid also put up for pre-sale a kit for Pocket 3 owners to upgrade to a 3+ with a similarly miserly discount, which I definitely rate as too little too late–not everyone has the will, time or, most importantly, the skills to do that kind of upgrade.
However, things soon took a turn for the worse: My unit started stuttering and crashing after a few minutes of play, with audio looping and all the hallmarks of hardware issues.
I hopped back on
r/retroid, realized that quite a few other people had similar issues, and, like them, contacted Retroid. After I explained the situation, support told me, rather tersely, to:
Unplug the battery, hold the power button down for 30-60 seconds with the battery out, put the battery back in and power it up.
That’s it. That was the entire e-mail. Now, this entails opening the device, which is something I have no real problem with (I do spend a fair amount of time dealing with hardware), but actually has a few twists (you’ll see why in a little while).
After a few more terse e-mail exchanges, support told me they would be sending a replacement board, then… nothing.
A few weeks later I reached out, asked for a refund, and finally got a tracking number that I apparently should have gotten in the first place3.
My replacement board arrived this week, and the first thing I noticed is that its serial number is older than mine.
More to the point, the “new” board is stamped
21-02, leading credence to the rumors these things sat in warehouses for a year or so before launch.
And getting it into place is an interesting process:
As you can see, the board swap requires disassembling the whole thing, since inserting the flex cables for the new board requires getting the battery out altogether. There is very little clearance to get a pair of tweezers in the right position to nudge them in otherwise.
But, more to the point, even getting to the battery connector requires removing a couple of internal backplates, so I guess it’s a good thing I had all the right tools (and patience) to do this twice.
So far, the “new” board seems to be working fine, but it’s only been a few days, and the original board took a few days to start failing.
Optimistically, I have added a few more apps, games and emulators to it without hassles, and other than a few weird glitches in emulators that I have seen in other Android devices, it has been OK.
But if it breaks again, I’m not going to be surprised, or even try to fix it4. I’ll just chalk it up as a learning experience of sorts and look for something else.
Retroid support did come through, but I will think twice before buying from them again. Even if the device and software experience had the potential to be a cut above the rest, the way they handled the launch, sales and “transition” to the 3+ does not fill me with confidence.
So I will keep looking for opportunities to get my hands on a Logitech G Cloud Handheld–and if you’re reading this in the US, let me know if you can help with that (maybe in time for Christmas? One can always hope…)
And if there’s something I learned from my brushes with the gaming industry, is that having testing hardware matters. ↩︎
Besides, it’s not as if I am going to play Halo on this thing. I tried, of course, but I really don’t get why the last section of the game is so bad – I have been stuck in what I think is the last tower levels for a few weeks, and since that section of the game is so frustrating I just went and started replaying the open world section again at higher difficulty. ↩︎
Which is common in small Chinese companies. I have a similar story regarding another gadget that I have yet to finish writing, and I get that it may seem chaotic to most Westerners… ↩︎
Also, as an engineer, I do wish I could test the failing board a bit more, but it apparently does not power on without a battery (and I can only check its HDMI output). ↩︎