[TGS2019] The Smach Z is Very Close to Release


We can finally put the rest the idea that the Smach Z portable gaming PC has been vaporware all along. I feel the need to say that because every single time I write an article about it, I get comments here and on Reddit that this whole project is a scam and nothing will ever come out. Last year at TGS 2018, Smach Z had a non-working prototype and people suffering from confirmation bias saw this as another proof that they were clearly deceptive and full of shit.

Well, I am glad to say that those people will be all proven wrong now, because this time around they had a fully working version of the Smach Z, and I had it in my own hands. How more real can this get?

It’s not a 100% final version apparently, as there are still some final changes to the buttons they want to make, but everything else hardware wise is complete and working.

What does the timeline look like now? Well, according to the project leader, Oscar, pictured below, they plan to ship the first units to backers starting from October 2019. After fulfilling pre-orders, they will move up to sell the device to everyone else who is interested - before the end of this year. Don’t expect them to sell like millions of units every month though. Like all projects in that realm we are talking about small batches and they gave me the number of 1000 units per month at first. Talking about backers, the first country of origin of backers is the US, followed by Japan, which is probably why they have decided to show up at the TGS since last year.

So what does it feel like to have a Smach Z in your hands? Well, it’s very large. The Switch is already in that category, but imagine something even larger and with better controls and a slightly smaller screen: you have the Smach Z. This is not a device you can carry in your pocket, that’s abundantly clear. Yet, the prospect of being able to play most of your Steam games on the go is… really cool. They were showing off Monster Hunter World as well as Ni no Kuni 2, and both ran very well at 1080p - obviously not at max details, but still very nice on this small screen, at 30 fps. I expect heavy 3D games to run at 30 fps maximum, while lighter 2D or 3D games (think indies) will probably hit 60fps without issues. (They had another unit running Cuphead as well, but Cuphead runs in 1080 60fps even on a potato so hardly an achievement).

I liked the controls. It felt just like having a gamepad, and the haptic trackpads felt very similar to the Steam Controller. using the “S” button on the device you can switch input styles between a gamepad mode and mouse mode (or anything else since that button’s operation can be customized). It uses Xinput and while I was playing Ni No Kuni 2 I changed input style on the fly and the game had no issue recognizing the new control mode.

The unit felt pretty warm on the back, but not exceedingly so. They had a fan as well as a large vent to ensure they can dissipate the heat, and it looks like it was working. The heat is rather concentrated around the back center of the device so you do not feel it at all when you hold the controls.

At the show they were running the Windows version of the handheld, but they are still working on their custom Arch Linux build as well. Apparently all drivers work on the Linux version but they are still working on optimizing the battery life as much as possible. On Windows, on a game like Ni no Kuni 2, they told me you could expect to play about 2 hours continuously. On less demanding games, it could go up to 5 hours. While this is on the low end for portable devices, this is not very surprising either. I remember the first PSP when it came out had a very similar range of battery life. The battery can be charged using a usb connector (fast charge).

In terms of connectors there is an HDMI and display port above the screen. The AMD GPU is capable of driving up to 3 external screens apparently, so if you are really serious about making this a kind of portable workstation it looks like it would be possible. You could connect a keyboard and a mouse using bluetooth, and additional storage on the single USB3 port available. Of course, it is doubtful it would ever be used this way, but the fact that it could is always nice to have. The more likely outcome is to use it as a home console, where you connect it to a larger screen and play in your living room with the exact same settings (since the screen is already Full HD).

The Smach Z is user-upgradeable. You can apparently easily replace the storage medium in the device and extend it for a larger capacity, and even better, the SOC will continue to evolve over time: you can therefore imagine (as long as the company behind Smach Z exists, at least) buying a better, more capable SOC 2 years later and enjoy better framerates in your games. I would recommend not to count on it at this stage, and assume that this device will remain “as is” until proven otherwise.

One of the things not available at the show were the 2D gamepad shapes that you can stick on the haptic trackpads to play older 2D titles like there were designed (especially important for fighting games). It sounded like they were not fully ready yet.

So there you have it! It’s an impressive device both in size and capabilities. It’s also fairly expensive (700 EUR for the cheapest version that only has 64GB or storage and 4GB of RAM), but still understandable if you are used to seeing this kind of ultra-specialized devices (like the DragonBox Pyra, the GPD Win, etc…). I could really see myself using one, but I am not sure I can justify the price point right now. As the word spreads out I am however pretty sure they will easily find early adopters beyond the backers of their campaign.