Smach Z in Dire Straits


So just about a day ago, the team behind the SMACH Z project has finally sent outan official message regarding the situation they are in. Previously, we knew about the state of the project via some messages to the backers’ forums, or via Reddit when refunds were issued, but now this is the real thing. First, full text below:

I feel that this deserves quite a few comments to give proper perspective. Some of the claims are questionable. Let me pick up a few of them:

  • The timing of the COVID-19 global pandemic has been the worst for our project, to put it blandly. We were just arranging the last manufacturing details when it blew up, forcing us to change production partners from China to Spain and resetting key production elements.

While this may well be true (the fact that COVID-19 created a disruption for numerous industries), it sounds like a good old excuse as Smach Z has been repeatedly claiming that they would launch units WAY EARLIER than the COVID19 pandemic even hit the Earth. Let’s not forget that Smach Z had declared they were shipping second half of 2019 in the first place. You can’t just use COVID19 to pretend everything was peachy until the virus came along when you have been late over and over again and lost all credibility whenever it came to any time window you committed to in the past.

  • Also, due to COVID and its economic impact, the company was forced to file an ERTE (measure from the Spanish Government to help companies survive), reducing our workforce considerably, having last this situation until now.

This may well be true, but why was this situation not transparently communicated to backers of the project, especially since it has been the case for a long time?There are benefits in being transparent as things occur, not so much in retrospective after the project is pretty much dead.

Before starting production, we were proceeding with a final testing in a CE certification laboratory, that we did not manage to pass, due to a charger failure. Even though the charger manufacturer who provide us with them was able to certify it, we could not manage to complete the work. This provider did not give us reasonable solution to this issue, which result in new delays in our manufacturing calendar, once again. Also, this setback meant that additional funding was needed to find a solution to it.

This seems like a strange claim to make. If the original manufacturer has already certified themselves against the CE requirements, there is no need for Smach Z to certify the charger again by themselves. Either the actual description of the problem is incomplete, or this is something not related to the CE certification at all. If anyone has a better knowledge of that situation, feel free to commnet below.

Last, but not least, during the assembling and testing of the first 200 units, problems related to the batteries were found. We have not been able to determine or solve them and, therefore, an analysis by an external technical expert team is required. The issue occurs when the device has less than a 10% of battery and the charger is plugged, making the batteries to overheat. This increase of heat activates automatically the system protection, which stops the batteries to avoid degradation, leading to a shutdown of the system. Even if we turned off this automatic protection, the batteries would degrade sooner than expected, reducing their full charge in a matter of months, so that was not something acceptable for our final units.

All right. An actual technical issue. However this hardly sounds like a deal breaker. They could have put in place some mitigations plans instead of not shipping anything at all. For example:

  • Ship the first 200 units anyway, let end users know about the issue, and in the meantime have a software fix that forces the system to shut down when the battery reaches 15%. It’s an ugly hack, but it’s hardly something unseen for new product launches.

  • In the meantime, find better ways to fix the issue (battery design, battery firmware, etc…) and have a replacement policy for the ones who received the first units

The priority number one for such projects is to SHIP something, even if that something is far from being a 100% perfect product. Hardware revisions are a thing (look at how Pine64 operates: they keep improving upon their Pinephone motherboards, and release upgrade parts for those who want to benefit from the latest ones).

From what we have explained before, together with the continuous delays of a project that we had not been able to monetize, the exponential increase of our initial budget and the uncertainty about being able to have a final viable product to be commercialized; made it very difficult to raise additional funds to continue with the project. As you can imagine, during our journey it has not been easy to deal with all the providers, and, due to the essence of the project, it required a lot of external work, that has resulted in issues, delays and extra-costs. This high dependency of external providers, along with the limited resources that we had and some unfortunate missteps in key moments, have definitely brought the project to this situation.

Well your project was always going to be a time-bomb. It was clear that sooner of later there would be solutions like the Smach Z on the market from other manufacturers because mobile chips keep improving in performance and there’s a everlasting wide appeal of handheld gaming. Exponential increase of the budget should have been a red flag that the project is not viable in the long run: the more it costs, the more each unit will cost, and more efficient manufacturers will eat up your share at the first opportunity.

W always have tried to be as clear as possible and inform you of the current status of the project. We know this is a sad communication, but even though, we will keep fighting until the end to try and sort things in the best way for all of you.

This is a claim to make you choke! “Always tried to be as clear as possible” seems like a bad joke. Even backers of the project kept complaining over and over that there was no communication for months after months despite contacting the Smach Z team directly. The only right thing to say at this point would be “sorry guys we realized how bad we were at this whole community management thing, we sucked really hard at providing any piece of information along the way”. That would be a lot closer to the truth.

Also, we would like to say we are very sorry for our failure regarding the communications goals we set at the beginning of the project. We can say we have tried our best and worked as hard as we know, having enjoyed this journey with all of you, for real.

Missing the goals is not uncommon for hardware projects, but these guys were supposedly experienced designers, not actual amateurs. What is damaging is when you keep communicating new goals and keep missing them over and over again: you lose all credibility, very very quickly.

All in all, this is a sad state of affairs. I had an actual prototype in my hands back in 2019 and it was still a very enticing device at the time, despite the fact that it was way too expensive, and by then the Switch had launched, making it a little more obsolete. As pointed out a few weeks ago, while the Smach Z is dead, there’s many new competitors on the market, and who knows, maybe the Steam Pal from Valve sooner or later to spice things up further.