It’s real, it’s here and it’s spectacular. After a few delays, and a desire for perfection, Justin Barwick’s baby has finally shipped to those who helped crowdfund it via Kickstarter. The Linux-powered handheld gaming device is exactly what I expected. It’s portable, attractive, and expansive. It also scratches an itch I’ve had for years: the desire to roll up my sleeves and dig into the inner-workings of an OS. With a street price of $150, the GCW-Zero is not a direct competitor to mainstream devices like the PS Vita or Nintendo 3DS. Rather, it’s in a class in and of itself.
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My Zero arrived in a slick and heavy-duty black box with game images on the back reminiscent of the original NES box. Inside is a USB cable, VGA and HDMI cords and a carrying pouch. The pouch is not of the highest quality, but an appreciated throw-in for early adopters. I didn’t find anything unnecessary in the box, nor did I feel like something was missing. The inclusion of both TV-out and HDMI is a huge plus. The device was wrapped in a plastic sleeve and well protected by a white cardboard cutout. The LCD was also protected.
Immediately after taking a few pictures for this review I turned on the Zero with the lockable power slider located on the right hand side. A 2-second hold did the trick. For an instant I was enjoying the terminal-output of white on black on the 3.5″ LCD. But as quickly as I powered on the device, I found myself at the gmenu - the OS’s main user interface. The startup time is under 5 seconds. You’ll notice the low resolution but, as most of the games I want to play are from the DOS, NES and Super NES era, I am not underwhelmed.
In terms of how to get support, one must rely on tribal knowledge of Linux and a young community. As a former programmer, I know enough to be dangerous. After hours of searching, I contacted Justin for help and he put me in the very capable hands of Zear from the development team. I was attempting to hack together a workable dosbox instance with Ray Dehler, which never would have worked. But that is the fun of working on the Zero. It’s completely open to development and hacking. The alpha build of dosbox by Zear is not yet available for public distribution. It has a few bugs, such as the analog stick not always mapping as the mouse. That made playing Warcraft 2 challenging. More on that later.
I can’t stress enough just how comfortable the Zero is to hold. It’s lightweight and the buttons feel good to press. While the LCD could be of higher quality, it is well suited to the retro games you’ll play. Also, the analog stick is difficult with precise actions and it feels more like a physical issue rather than software related.
CPU: Ingenic JZ4770 1GHz MIPS
GPU: Vivante GC860 (OpenGL ES 2.0 capable)
Display: 3.5″ LCD at 320×240 (4:3 ratio)
OS: Linux OpenDingux
Memory: 512MB DDR2
Internal Storage: 16GB
External Storage: up to 64GB micro SDXC
Connectivity: Mini USB 2.0, Mini HDMI 1.3, 3.5mm A’V port for earphones and analog TV-out
Audio: stereo speakers, mono microphone
Other: Accelorometer and vibration motors
Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHz
Dimensions: 143 * 70 * 18 mm
Weight: 8 oz / 225 g
Battery: 2800 mAh
The Zero came pre-loaded with several games built from the ground-up for the console. It included everything from rogue-likes to platformers. I didn’t come across any bugs in those games. There are several games that are in alpha stage and downloadable online. Those games include Quake 2 and Hexen 2.
After some button mapping, I had a great time with Quake 2. It’s not quite the same without a keyboard but it is something I felt the urge to return to, even while playing other games. The real highlight of the Zero is emulation. Playing retro games on a PC is not anything new. But the portability and ease of access to library is on the Zero is my favorite implementation to date. I played NES, SNES and GBA titles within 30 minutes of unboxing my Zero. Thanks to Super Metroid, four hours flew by on a flight to Chicago. I even took my Zero to work so I could put a few more minutes in between breaks.
Like most emulators, you can save and load states, adjust the speed and change the screen settings. I was surprised to find that ending the emulated game took me back to the library where I can either select another game or press the “start” button on the Zero to return to the gmenu. I assumed I would have been forced to restart the device. When loading dosbox I was able to select the game I want from the file manager and then exit back to the gmenu when done. Games played in dosbox are not flawless. Keep in mind, while the GCW Zero team are working on optimizing dosbox, the games you install and play under dosbox are not optimized themselves. This is where patience and some knowledge of DOS and Linux can help. For instance, Warcraft 2 for DOS requires the CD for authentication every time you load the game. While some people download no-cd cracks for their .exe files, I prefer to avoid the inevitable spyware and .ISO my CDs. That means I had to perform the following process in order to play Warcraft 2 on my Zero:
- Install Warcraft 2 on my PC
- Copy installed game files from my PC to my Zero
- Copy the .ISO of the game CD to my Zero
- Create a .BAT file that mounts the .ISO to D: using imgmount
- Run war2.exe
This procedure is not complicated, but most Vita and 3DS owners don’t even know this is possible. This represents a significant barrier for the Zero if it wants to steal marketshare from Nintendo and Sony.
There have been many Linux-based gaming handheld attempts in the past. Such as the Dingoo and OpenPandora, which I reviewed last year. I can assure you the GCW-Zero is the new leader in this segment. Not only is the hardware the most impressive yet, but the software quality and development support appears to be the least challenged. I’ve had direct communication with members of the development team. They are serious, dedicated, and well aware of what people are asking for. I’m under embargo and cannot share too much. I simply suggest you check back here for more info in the coming weeks.
If you want to get your hands on the Zero, you can purchase one directly from us: Purchase GCW Zero for $145.