Saturday, 19 November 2011

State of the open handheld scene

Yesterday I received my second Caanoo (my first one is soooo dead there was no chance to resurrect). I am so happy about this one. It's a white one this time, came already with a 4GB SD filled with some games I have heard about at FunGP but never have bought, also seems to overclock at higher speeds (my old one was crashing over 750Mhz, this one runs nicely at 800Mhz and still doesn't seem to freeze at about +10-20 additionally).

Meanwhile, some new good stuff had been released since I last have broken my Caanoo, like for example a new Playstation emulator with ARM optimized CPU emulation, a better options menu and finally proper frame skipping. 800Mhz overclocking might have also helped a little, the fact is that some games run at normal gameplay speed with good sound even if they aren't always giving 60fps. Castlevania which is mostly 2d runs 60fps at times with little slow downs. A 3d game, for example Moto Racer runs at 30+fps with normal gameplay speed. I should try more stuff, maybe play the classics (resident evil, silent hill, ridge racer, tekken, etc) at a fairly good speed on the handheld instead of a PC emulator. Secondly, the Caanoo dongle has a reason of existance now since a web browser with virtual keyboard support has finally been released, also a browsing app that downloads and installs software automatically from the classic handheld console archive and an maps viewer using google maps and other services I didn't know too. I have also tried Caanoo IRSSI which is an irc client and it worked fine. It's nice to know my Caanoo can be connected to the outside world somehow.

Anyways, to go back to the main idea of this post, I'd like to just write my thoughts as brief as possible about the current state of the open handheld scene. What do I consider as an open handheld scene? I don't think that much about the famous commercial handhelds that can also serve as homebrew consoles when hacked, like the NDS, PSP, 3DS and others. I am mainly focusing to the open handhelds which you might not buy with the main focus to play commercial games but for your own hobby matters, programming the console, contributing to the community, playing classic ports and emulators, etc. Of course you can do all these with PSP or NDS if hacked but my main love are the open handhelds like gamepark series or dingoo or others, which are unknown to the mainstream. I can't say why but I feel more love and I am more motivated to contribute by writting coding for these consoles than the mainstream handhelds.

One more element that narrows down for me the handhelds I am interested into is the existance of a community. If I was to collect every open handheld and get involved into coding them, then it would be a hell considering the vastness of newly released crappy imitations of the original idea of an open console, as seen in this blog. I didn't even know most of these handhelds. The fact is that there is no community in most of them. They are alterations of the same concept, sometimes different models of a system on chip not being drastically better, made by chinese companies usually, trying to sell cheap and make some bucks as alternative solutions for emulation and media players. So, it gets a bit weird after that and thus my interpretation of the few handhelds belonging to this open handheld phenomenon is narrowed down a lot. There might even be a company which produces one console that I consider belonging in the defined set yet the company also produces a number of other similar consoles that are irrelevant to it. For example Dingoo where Dingoo A320 is a part of the scene and not the other numerous handhelds they have released (see obscure handhelds). However, if the community shows and interest to one of this handheld and as things start moving on, I will consider it as a part of my selection.

Maybe I should not speak at large and try to speak about the little consoles that are already part of the community and the future possibilities. I am very interested to what the future might bring because there are is a stall currently in the community which is quite interesting if not scary. Will there be a good open handheld community in the future and what are the future handhelds to move on?

When GP32 was released first at 2001, this was a real novelty from the folks at gamepark. It was a totally new idea and started the part of the scene I was trying to define above. It's only much later that everybody has seen you can take a SoC, install free software in it or let the community code their own games, emuls, etc and possibly get your own audience who might or might not form a community. Anyway, it was before hell brooke lose. Now, gamepark has never really overdid it like dingoo and mostly released a new console after some time has passed. So, we have GP32 of course, GP2X at 2005, and much later GP2X Wiz and Caanoo. Each of them is a unique machine (well Wiz might be similar to Caanoo and there was also GP2X F200 with a touch screen which I forget) and are parts of the real community. Now, the sad news are that we might probably not see another gamepark console in the future.

The question is. Should the community be moving? Towards which next handheld? And if there is no new gamepark handheld then will people probably write and port more software for the latest gamepark handhelds? The Caanoo (and similarly the Wiz) have not shown their full capabilities yet. I have seen very very few software utilizing the actual GPU residing in these last two and personally I haven't even touched even if I'd like to test the performance of this one. If we were living with the thought that Caanoo is old enough and that the next generation of a gamepark handheld will be released then some people might wait for the next beast and would not be motivated to start writting a big game project (for example) for Caanoo.

What is the state of the gamepark handhelds? GP32 is my beloved and I might buy a used one someday because my old is broken. GP2X is old too, though I know there are a lot of sceners (in the demoscene I mean) who bought one with the thought of creating demos for it and never moved on to the later Wiz or Caanoo (as it wasn't a novelty anymore and the market was filled with imitations of open handheld consoles (one calls these a PMP (portable media player) trying to say it's not interesting anymore as in the times of GP32 or GP2X)). So, I know for a fact that I would still be interested to code a new classic software demo for the GP2X since some people from the demoscene might be able to appreciate, but in the open handheld community most people have moved to the Wiz or Caanoo. So, more demoscene for GP2X and more interest for other projects for Caanoo for me. Now Wiz/Caanoo seems to have a future of a steady platform that stays as it is because of the reasons I said (no new gamepark). And the scene is nice there even if the software much less than in times of GP2X (just see the total sizes and number of files in the openhandhelds archive.

But how about other alternatives? Dingoo A320, while a cheap chinese handheld nobody knew, somehow achieved creating a big community. Marketing? Contacts? Thing is, the company behind dingoo started releasing a lot of different variations of new handhelds, for example there is a Dingo A330 and a Gemei A330 (from the same people behind Dingoo, now one could confuse on A330 with the other A330) among others. See confusion and further confusion. So, there is no clear plan and the scene doesn't seem to move on from Dingoo A320. I have heard that the scene things mostly about the Gemei A330 which also seems my most favorite from all of the random junk out there, the people behind Dingux tried to port it to the new Gemei A330 but right now there doesn't seem to be sure the community moves there. We'd have to see Dingux and more stuff from it, a new archive, forum,. I mean how can the community decide with such a mess? Or maybe they will stay loyal to the old Dingoo A320? So, Gemei A330 is my personal guess for the future, concerning real open handheld community from the Dingoo side but time will tell.

Yet people might scream "Oh, but now my Iphone or my Android is much more powerful than these consoles". It's true and maybe there is a thing that could be a bit scary for the open handheld side of the scene. Though, I consider the touchpad/phone market something entirely different than my narrowed set of open handheld community. People though ask for more powerful open handheld devices and what is there?

The Pandora could be another alternative for the future of the hobby. It's 4 times as powerful than my Caanoo and it's maintain by geeks for geeks. It was an interesting project that went through various problems and maybe the release time was too late after two years of the first preorders when the touchpads and phones, recent 3DS or even possible new playstation portable will come. Though I don't personally care since as I said an open handheld is a different thing for me emotionally than big commercial handhelds that might become open if hacked. And maybe I don't want any power anymore. The Caanoo is enough powered and is still underutilized in terms of homebrew and demos (exception is most emulators which are really optimized to the bone). Maybe oneday we would see some real homebrew and demos of the class of good commercial games or some real demos. Maybe not.

Anyway, what's the state of Pandora? There was this massive drawback when people where expecting Pandora and it was late for two years and I think a lot of people haven't got their unit yet. Some kind of delays in the production proccess with Chinese manufacturers I have heard. Recent news say that a new German company has been selected for the circuit production, probably more reliable than the Chinese solution. The first new batch might arrive this January. Let's see how things will go, because with the demise of GPH (the hardware division I think) and the confusion from Dingoo, the road might have opened for Pandora to be revived. One major drawback though is that Pandora is quite expensive (around 330Euro I think?), so the community might not prefer it. People are also already pissed with the two years delay of Pandora. I still hold my believe in the project and maybe when I find a new job with a good pay, I might order one myself too.

What are other alternatives community-wise? Even if it sounds like a joke, I want to believe: The nD. A very cheap handheld for the community that you can buy more of them for just 10-20$ if your last one broke, with what I believe are still very good specs (ARM 400Mhz, 32MB ram, 320*240*16bpp) for my own love of the open handheld hobby with hopefully a big community. I see things a bit different than some people who wish a dual core 1GHZ, GPU accelerated, 256MB Ram and as much as more powered handheld, that will run PSX, N64, Dreamcast and other emuls and Far Cry and Crysis combined :P. I really don't care. GP2X was powerfull enough for me, especially for my software rendering ventures and if it's not perfect it's a challenge to optimize. Tons of good games both technically and gamewise do exist in emulators but this went mostly underutilized in every handheld released till now. Such specs are perfect for my hobby and all I need is the sense of a community too. It's gonna be very interesting if this handheld gets released and catches too.

So, in a nutshell for me the scene is no new gamepark, still personal interest in GP2X (demoscene mostly) for me, Wiz/Caanoo (these goes together almost, though I'll be working on my Caanoo mainly) will stay for the future, Dingoo A320 too (community is still strong), hoping for a pass to the next step being Gemei A330 possibly (I'd also prefer it from all the other junk), possible rise or fall of the Pandora (the prize, ah the prize) for people needing a more powerful open handheld and an alternative community concept with Nd that might be extremely interesting. Honorable mention (even though not a handheld but still an open mini computer in the similar spirit) is The Raspberry Pi. And what else the future might bring. This is in a nutshell the whole subset of where the open handheld community will move around and my interests too.

This tells me I should buy a new Dingoo A320 because my last one broke, stay loyal to the Caanoo (my Wiz has also a defunct screen, maybe I'll buy a new one in the future just for the completion and porting stuff from Caanoo), wait in hope for Gemei A330 creating a new community or not, see how Pandora goes and hope in vain for Nd. A retro comeback from my side to the GP32 if I buy one, even though you hear nothing about it in the scene anymore. So it's hardly community relevant anymore even if it was a part once.

Tons of text to put things in perspective about my love of the hobby.