The BittBoy PocketGo doesn't always make your life particularly easy and lacks software polish, but it’s a beautiful piece of hardware at a rather insane price. Those easily frustrated by shortcomings, though, may want to wait for the next iteration.
The lowest of low prices for the features included, and a shell that won’t embarrass you on the train, or lead to arthritis.
Hacky and picky software, lower than desirable software compatibility on stock firmware.
IT'S SUBTLE, and it's taken a long time, but we're now at a point where emulation and 'clone' consoles, the likes of which you'd buy from AliExpress or Wish.com, are actually becoming pretty good.
What 10 years ago were merely garish novelties relegated to YouTube channels celebrating the cheek of PlayStation rip-offs before ritually burning them with a blow torch, are now becoming sometimes good.
But that's just sometimes, don't get too excited.
The BittBoy PocketGo is, for our money (and that money was £36.81 on AliExpress, by the way) is about as close as any cheap knock-off has ever come to absolutely nailing what's expected of it.
It's a retro gaming-focused handheld that's small, sleek, quite powerful, has a ridiculously nice screen and successfully treads the fine line between playing both emulators and open source applications. And all with flair and quality it almost doesn't deserve.
Oh yeah, sure. This machine - and the BittBoy company - has a not-so-proud legacy of knocking out Nintendo Game Boy-alike handhelds that would hammer out a few NES games through a crude emulator, and little else. And don't get us wrong - that's still essentially the formula now.
The difference is that your £36.81 - including postage and packaging - gets you a 900mhz pocket goliath of a device, smaller and much lighter than the average smartphone, but extremely happy serving you Super Mario Land 2 on the Gambatte emulator and a robust version of Quake II on an open Linux source port of that 1998 PC classic.
At a pinch, the BittBoy comes ready to play Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, NES, PC Engine, Neo Geo, MAME for arcade, Wonderswan, SNES, Sega Mega Drive, Sega Master System, Atari 2600, Atari Lynx and DOSBox games. It also boasts PlayStation One compatibility, but more on that later.
Your mileage will vary as to what else you can make the PocketGo do, or even which specific games you can make it run with the emulators and apps on board, but more on that later.
Many bundles - depending on where you buy the machine - do sport a pre-loaded microSD card with games and demos, though, so it's fairly simple to work out how to start adding ROMs and game files (of software you already legally own, please) to customise the experience as you like, or simply enjoy the handful of classics included on the card.
The Linux-based UX, while not exactly un-scrappy, more than gets the job done to launch you into the much more polished environments of your favourite classic games and comes fully set up as part of a stock firmware offering that BittBoy offer in a regularly updated disk image form.
It's a pity that the main UX and each of the apps and emulators seem to have completely different ideas as to which button does what in each environment, however. The number of times you press 'A' instead of 'B', or Start instead of Select, and end up quitting a session or deleting something, can become quite irritating.
Where the PocketGo really does win, though, is in the hardware department. At only 2in high, 4.5in wide and a dinky half an inch deep, and weighing just over 90g on our kitchen baking scales, there is nothing to this thing. It's an absolute throw-in-your-bag-and-forget affair.
Something this small and light - and ridiculously cheap - would usually suffer poor build quality, but BittBoy has worked wonders here.
The first thing you'll notice is just how solid and high end the plastic shell feels. A brilliant white plastic shell is joined by chrome-effect sides, shiny and solid face buttons (swappable from a US SNES-alike burgundy and black to included Japanese or European red, green, blue and yellow versions). Shoulder buttons and D-pad are just as sturdy and clicky, and the whole thing fits in your hand, tiny as it is, in just a way that you won't have cramped fingers after half an hour - or even an hours' - play.
So far, so brilliant. But now onto the PocketGo's screen. It's tempered glass. We couldn't believe it either, but it really is. This makes the 320x240 display an absolute pixel-perfect joy, with easy views of the screen from the craziest angles, and an excellent backlight to boot. It really is astonishingly good for the price.
Inside, there's the aforementioned 900mhz processor, which is an Allwinner F1C500. On there sits 32MB of DDR2 RAM, all powered by a replaceable, and rechargeable via Micro USB, 700mAh lithium battery out of which we got about seven hours of solid play.
The mono speaker, which sits on the top of the shell under the face buttons, also does a fair job, but don't forget your headphones.
There's also another 3.5mm socket, which appears to be for video out, but we've heard the console doesn't actually support this (yet). That could be why BittBoy didn't actually include a cable in the box. But that aside, what you do get is the console, a short recharge cable, the replacement coloured buttons and - as an optional extra - the Micro SD card sized to your choice and loaded with software, and even a microSD to USB converter to help you more readily plug the card into your chosen PC or laptop to start tinkering.
Things fall apart
Don't get us wrong, there's a lot on offer already with the PocketGo before you start trying to add more. Even sticking with what ships on the card, you can have had a game of Quake or Heretic, checked out serviceable ports of free indie classic Cave Story or even flying kicked into excellent fan project Streets of Rage Remake, which inexplicably appears on BittBoy's pre-configured card.
But do something like, say, add the entire back catalogue of Sega Mega Drive games to replace the handful supplied, and you'll start to see performance and compatibility are a little bit hit-and-miss with the PocketGo. It's what you'd immediately expect with a knock-off, after all. You were fooled by the hardware polish, weren't you?
In fairness to the PocketGo, it's really not that bad. Probably 75 per cent of the Mega Drive games we put through it both started and ran at a decent frame rate. SNES games didn't fare as well (at all), with barely any Super Nintendo game performing even close to acceptable. Game Boy and GBA - which arguably the machine is mostly aimed towards - fared much better, with largely flawless performance on any title. And weirdly, the Neo Geo and MAME emulators are brilliant when twinned with fairly low-intensity games.
Running PC games through their bespoke Linux ports is one thing - and something we intend to keep looking into with easily-available source ports of the likes of Duke Nukem 3D and Strife easily available - but the included DOSBox application for running those oldies more 'native' is an absolute embarrassment. The bundled card only ships with the demo of the very first Commander Keen game, and we could see why when we tried even that game's crustiest peers. We couldn't even get a game of Bio Menace or Jill of the Jungle going in DOSBox, unfortunately.
As for PlayStation One, we tried Spyro through it, and it sported a framerate we could count on one hand. That BittBoy even put the emulator on the home screen is a tease too far.
We have no doubt some or many of these aforementioned issues can be solved with subsequent firmware updates, or even using a variety being readily supplied by 'the community', but that's not really what we'd want from something as borderline mainstream popular as the PocketGo.
What we want is a safe pair of hands to get us through a plane journey. The Kindle of handhelds, if you like.
The BittBoy PocketGo is definitely not that. But it's really not that far away, either.
If you can sit down and figure out exactly what you want it to play - and if it can play them before you take it on holiday, the BittBoy could be a very worthy travel companion. It's just going to take a bit more work on your part than its sleek exterior and cool packaging may have you immediately believe.
The BittBoy PocketGo doesn't always make your life particularly easy and lacks software polish, but it's a beautiful piece of hardware at a rather insane price. Those easily frustrated by shortcomings, though, may want to wait for the next iteration.
It's nearly all the old video games consoles quite literally in your pocket, and a lot of them work, with a brilliant screen and at a brilliant price.
Some of them don't work, and that can be really grating.
The UX isn't up to snuff, and is often confusing and counterproductive, especially with no shared language between selection buttons on different apps and emulators.