Odroid Go Advance BE: Much Better Now

This is my first Odroid device. A few years ago, I considered very seriously replacing my Raspberry Pi with an Odroid XU4 SBC, but I ended up purchasing a huge ass rack server instead for the same price.

Following Cow_killer’s review of the OGA, I decided to follow progress of the device very carefully to see when it would be back in stock, since the first run was in very limited numbers.

And it’s not just the same version they starting selling again in May but a redesign, including two new shoulder buttons, L2 and R2, to make it even more useful at emulating PSX in particular. The charging port has changed, and there’s onboard Wifi as well, but more on that later.

So what do I think about this device? Well, there is a lot to say.

First, you can’t really beat the value proposition: the unit costs a little more than 50 USD, and with shipping it ended up something like 75 USD in my case. Still, for what the device can do, it’s a bargain.

Of course, it’s all DIY when you get it, but for me that was also the extra fun this device brings to the table. There was a QR code in place of instructions in the box, pointing to a YouTube video to show you how to assemble everything. Sadly, either the QR code was wrong or I did something silly, because I ended up on the instructions for the original OGA, and realized too late I had to go back and follow a different video. A lot of cursing incurred.

If you want to be on your most direct way, the actual instructions are here:

While the device is cheap, there’s no hiding that all materials look cheap as well. In particular the case and the buttons will make it clear that you don’t have a premium device in your hands. I can clearly remember when I purchased a Sony PSP back in 2004, and how the whole thing looked and felt beautiful in every single way. Well, the OGA is the opposite of the first PSP model.

But it’s functional. The screen is sharp, the buttons responsive, and even the tiny L2 and R2 plastic pieces of crap sticking out of the unit are actually usable. The unit is very, very light too. Easy to pick up, and to keep in your hands for long periods of time.

You also get 6 buttons at the bottom of the screen for additional shortcuts (menu, function key, volume control, brightness control, etc…). They are actually essential — it would have been a huge pain in the ass to control all these functionalities through software — it was a smart choice on HardKernel’s part.

Now, I can’t say I am delighted by the fact that the microSD card is sandwiched between an internal connector and the case itself. It feels… foolish and dangerous, knowing how brittle microSD cards can be – I certainly have no wish to take it out and insert it again numerous times. So far so good, but on top of the pressure it’s exposed to, having the microSD card directly accessible would make it easy to steal if you were to leave this unit around. I would have preferred a slot with a spring or a mechanism to hide the card within the unit somehow. But when you go for a 50 USD price point you probably want to avoid anything at all that increases the cost.

Another omission is a fan, or even a decent passive cooling system. Currently the heat is exhausted through large openings behind the unit, and after a while it can get a little hot. Not burning hot, but uncomfortably hot. It’s not really an issue when you are holding the device since your fingers are not on the vents, but leaving the unit turned on, face up on the table will make the whole thing a lot hotter in very short order.

How good is this device for emulation? That’s a whole topic in itself! First, I have only used Batocera so far as a dedicated distro for this device. EmuElec is apparently another good choice, but I have nothing to report about that yet.

Batocera lets you emulate tons of systems, but is missing important ones at the time of writing: the Sega Saturn, for example, is not supported (while EmuElec does, I have been told). Drastic (Nintendo DS, proprietary) is also not supported out of the box. If you are familiar with the OpenPandora community, you know that Drastic came from there before making it to Android – there’s still no better NDS emulator around!

Batocera is basically a GUI for Retroarch — it’s not a typical distro as you know it. There is no package manager, so everything is pretty much static like on an old console, except that you may sometimes get firmware updates.

Most ancient systems will work fine on the OGA. SNES and Megadrive all run flawlessly and very smoothly. I have had less success with the Amiga: things work, but the absence of a keyboard makes it really painful for certain games, as well as screen tearing for PAL games. This is apparently a documented bug for Amiberry, the UAE-based emulator running in Batocera.

Neo-Geo and PC Engines are also working as expected. No surprises here, and great performance.

Of course, it’s very attractive to use this device as a portable PSX. And it handles PSX (PS1) games beautifully, while that is hardly a surprise. My OpenPandora already did that almost 10 years ago, and at a higher resolution too. Still, I can’t say it’s not cool to be able to play Castlevania: Symphony of the Night pretty much anywhere, anytime.

The device can also run PSP and Dreamcast games, but this is only borderline acceptable. I tried WipeOut Pure on PSP and it’s almost a slideshow until you tweak the options to find a sweet point for performance, and still you’ll need massive frameskip to actually play the game.

The Dreamcast seems to be a little better in terms of speed, while you won’t get 60 fps either by default without frameskip. We are not too far, though… if someone can come up with a device that’s roughly 30% faster I believe very decent PSP and Dreamcast emulation would be within reach.

As usual, every single device has to pass the “can it run Doom?” challenge. And the OGA is actually a pretty decent device to play Doom on. Oh, I am not surprised at all that Doom runs fine on it — that’s expected. I am referring to the controls that fit very well with the Doom control scheme. Now it’s just missing Brutal Doom to be perfect.

So lots of games work, the controls are pretty good, the hardware is cheap but functional… how about the battery life? Well, don’t expect to play games the whole afternoon with it. I guess YMMV with the system you are emulating, but 3~5 hours is what you can expect (I mostly play PSX games). I think that’s OK. they could have made the device larger, thicker, with a bigger battery – but keeping it small and light was equally important.

The good news is that the OGA-BE can now be charged with a USB-C connector. No need for Yet Another Proprietary Charger just for this device. You can use a regular power bank or USB charger to replenish your battery. You do not need to keep the device on to do so as there is a micro-kernel that handles the charging even when your device is off, just like for smartphones.

And yes, you can play at the same time as you are charging the device. Since there is additional heat involved, I am not sure I would recommend it, but you guys do what works for you!

As hinted at the beginning, the OGA-BE brings onboard Wifi, probably the biggest reason to upgrade to this edition if you were lucky to grab the first one. With Wifi, you can SSH to the device and SCP files to it over the air — much more practical to drop content to it than to write on the SD card by taking it out over and over again.

So here you go. The Odroid Advance Go Black Edition. I like it. I would probably want something that has a larger screen. I would like to have a full distro instead of Batocera, too. And why not, a mini DisplayPort while we are at it, to be able to connect the device on a TV. But man… 50+ USD (before shipping) is an incredible deal. That’s almost the price of a Raspberry Pi that comes with no battery, no case, no buttons, no screen!

For a company that has never manufactured a gaming system before this one (the exception being the original Odroid Go), it’s a substantial success. I am also convinced they are tapping into a market they did not expect to be very big, and are now discovering that they will keep selling out in no time. I’d wager they will keep iterating on the concept and become a serious contender on the retro handheld gaming market. Since volumes are typically limited in this domain, don’t expect them to produce millions of units. Components are hard to secure in large numbers if you are not Apple, Sony or Nintendo, and the retro handheld gaming market is not huge either.

Handheld gaming is fun, but I still think most games benefit from being played on a larger screen. The bigger the better. I don’t ever want to play Final Fantasy VII on a screen the size of a stamp. But… Advance wars? Yes. Final Fantasy Tactics? Why not! Mario Kart? Anytime.

Anything sweet and short is pretty much at home on the OGA.

Let me say one more thing. The DIY aspect may well be a game-changer. Who knows? Someone may find out larger, compatible screens for that hardware, and 3D print larger, better custom cases for it. So the OGA would be technically the first device where both software and hardware are easy to customize. Depending on how successful this is, it could be the start of a new model.

There’s already one guy who sold aluminum cases and buttons as a mod for the OGA.

The DIY concept had its roots in cost savings. But it may end up having unintended consequences: bringing many other ideas on how to improve upon the device, driven by the community around it. Fun times.

Here’s wishing you guys can get your hands on one too!

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