Review: GP2X: A Linux-based Gaming and Multimedia Handheld

Review: GP2X: A Linux-based Gaming and Multimedia Handheld

I raised the question earlier this year as to whether or not consumers have finally got fed up with proprietary systems such as the Sony PSP (Playstation Portable) and do they want the freedom of an open- source handheld system like the GP2X? Some geek bloggers (1, 2) and forums (1 , 2) have gone as far as dubbing the GP2X a “PSP killer”. Yes, I may have even referred to the GP2X in the same sentence as “PSP killer”, but in reality, I believe Sony is the PSP’s worst enemy. In any case, the Geeks have been playing with a GP2X from GamePark Holdings over the past couple of months. Read on for a comprehensive GP2X review as well as comparisons to Sony’s PSP.

In fairness, I must disclose that GamePark Holdings sponsored the Gizmos for Geeks monthly contest for two straight months. Each month GPH gave the winning reader a full GP2X setup. With this said, I do plan to be non-biased in my evaluation of the GP2X and its comparison with the PSP.

GP2X

So who is GamePark Holdings? What’s the GP2X? If you are a Linux or Open Source geek, you may already know, but for our other readers, here is a quick history lesson about GPH and the GP2X. Back in November of 2001, a Korean company called “GamePark” released a portable console called the GP32. Breaking into the console business however is quite difficult and the GP32 failed as a gaming console; however, a community interested in using the device to run homebrew games and applications sprang up.

There was a divergence in philosophies within Gamepark which split the company. One side leaned towards a closed system much like Sony’s PSP while the other group wanted to remain friendly towards the homebrew community. Apparently all but one of the original GP32 developers left to create Gamepark Holdings (GPH) with the idea of creating an open source handheld console. GPH gave birth to the Linux-based handheld console called the GP2X back on November 10, 2005.

Within two months of the console’s release, bjimba ignited a firestorm within the Open Source community with the help of a Slashdot article accusing GPH of not following or understanding the GPL (General Public License). A few days later, the Geeks broke that GPH agreed to release the source for their kernel and we recently reported that GPH has even released the official GP2X SDK. GPH can no longer be accused of not abiding by the rules of the GPL.

Design, Specifications and Button Layout

Weighing in at around 5.5 ounces, the GP2X is surprisingly light, but due to the battery compartment located on the back of the unit, the GP2X feels a little bulky. With batteries, the unit weighs around 7.25 ounces which is still quite light for a handheld console. By comparison, the PSP weighs in at over 9 ounces and feels a bit heavier than the GP2X. The PSP is longer horizontally but shorter vertically than the GP2X and is the about same thickness except for where the battery compartment on the back of the GP2X adds some extra thickness.

Bottom of GP2X

The “EXT” or external connector is located along the bottom edge of the GP2X. The EXT port can be used for the TV out cable which can display up to 720×480. You won’t find this feature on a PSP without a third party product and a mod. Yes, you need to open the PSP to view the output on a TV.

Right side of GP2X

The right side includes the USB connector and AC power adapter port while the left side of the device has the power switch. Similar to a PSP, the left and right top buttons are located along the top edge of the GP2X along with a standard headphone jack and the SD card port. Of course, since the PSP is a Sony product, they use a Memory Stick Duo. SD cards are slightly cheaper and are considered less proprietary than the Memory Stick Duo. Memory Stick Duo’s are primarily only used in Sony products whereas SD cards are used in multiple manufacturer’s digital cameras and portable devices (such as my Treo smart phone).

Geeks for Relief

The front of the GP2X includes the screen and controls for the unit. The TFT LCD screen measures 3.5″ and displays 260,000 colors with a resolution of 320×240. The PSP sports a larger widescreen-formatted TFT LCD screen measuring 4.3″ with a resolution of 480×272 with 16.77 million colors. Sony has created the best looking screen of any handheld console on the market and the GP2X screen simply cannot match that. Also located on the front of the GP2X are a right and left speaker. PSP speakers are hidden a little better, but more importantly the sound from the PSP is better and cleaner than the GP2X. Bass is definitely not as pronounced on the GP2X and if you push the volume too high the GP2X’s sound becomes distorted. However, having said that, I wouldn’t classify the GP2X’s speakers as horrible; MP3s actually sound quite good on them. For instance, my favorite test for bass is the thunder in the beginning of Garth Brook’s “Thunder Rolls”. You can hear the crack and rumble of the thunder really well, the only exception being that it’s slightly muted.

Moving on to the GP2X buttons, on the right side you have the Select and Start buttons and the A, B, X and Y buttons arranged in a circle. The left side of the unit includes an 8-way directional joystick as well as a volume bar allowing you to press right to increase the volume and left to decrease. The ABXY buttons are virtually in the same place as the PSP’s triangle, circle, square and X buttons. The joystick rises fairly high above the surface of the GP2X which works for gameplay but makes me nervous that something could snag the joystick when the not in use. The GP2X does not have any other buttons like the PSP’s directional arrows. As a husband that has lost his rights to play the PSP in bed late at night due to the noise of the buttons, I appreciate that the GP2X ABXY buttons are much quieter than the ‘clicky’ sounds of the PSP buttons. The PSP’s joystick seems to move smoother than the GP2X, but since the PSP joystick barely hovers above the surface, thumb cramps occur more frequently than on the GP2X.

The brains of the GP2X include two 200MHz CPUs (an ARM920T and a ARM940T). While these CPUs are rated at 200MHz, they can be overclocked by software up to 266MHz safely and possibly up to 300MHz. There is 64MB of NAND Flash ROM memory and 64MB of SDRAM RAM. Of course, one of the biggest features of the GP2X is the fact Linux, an open source operating system, is used. The PSP uses 2 222MHz CPU chips and only includes 32MB of onboard memory running a proprietary operating system. There seems to be a mantra among geeks: “don’t let your friends upgrade PSP firmware.” Why is this? Well you need to run version 1.50 of the PSP firmware in order to play with homebrew applications on the PSP. Sony has made working with homebrew applications a rather difficult proposition and do not allow restoring to earlier versions of firmware. One promising update in this area is the Undiluted Platinum PSP Mod Chip which promises the use of previous flash updates or custom firmware builds opening the possibility of running unsigned homebrew applications on the PSP. Of course, you need to modify your PSP and void the warranty while the GP2X was built for homebrew. The GP2X MAME port (watch out for pop-ups on this link) is active and supports 1128 different romsets currently. I’ll cover the GP2X MAME port in more detail shortly, but the PSP port of MAME is nowhere as advanced as the GP2X version.

Power

Using just two standard AA batteries, the GP2X can provide 6 hours of gameplay. Since AA batteries are standard, you can pick up more battery life just about anywhere which is useful on travel. The GP2X can also be powered by an AC adapter allowing gameplay even while plugged in. The PSP uses a Lithium-ion battery which is not easily replaced or an AC adapter which interferes with gameplay. I tend not to use my PSP when it’s plugged in as the cord is in the way of my hand.

Networking

Networking is one feature that the GP2X machine simply did not come with; I had to update the firmware. The latest release of the firmware added USB networking support which allows network access via wired or wireless network interface adapters such as a USB 802.11x wireless stick or a USB wired Ethernet adapter. I unfortunately did not have either to test with so I had to setup a network connection using RNDIS and a shared connection through a host machine. This process took me less than five minutes, but this is more of an advanced setup that I would not recommend to non-geeks. By contrast, the PSP has a wireless built-in connection which is simple to setup.

The latest firmware also added support for USB host support for use with USB devices attached to the machine via a breakout box or custom cable. Some examples of USB devices that can be connected include mice, keyboards, gamepads, external hard drives and USB flash sticks. In addition, support for mounting external hard disks and other USB storage devices like USB flash sticks have been added. The PSP does not support hosts via USB. The fact that you can actually hook up an external USB flash drive or USB hard drive to the GP2X is an excellent feature that can really open up the possibilities with a GP2X.

Applications, Games and Multimedia Support

MAME on GP2X

With all these neat specs and features, what can the GP2X do? Well, it’s pretty open-ended mostly thanks to having been designed using an open source operating system.

When you first boot the GP2X, the main menu includes icons for Video, Game, Music, Photo, E-Book, Explorer, Utility and Settings. GPH really has not set out to compete with typical handheld consoles like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, but then the GP2X was created with homebrewers in mind. The device also works well as a personal entertainment player especially now that USB host support has been added. Now, with an external hard drive full of videos, music or photos, you can play this content through the GP2X displayed on a TV.

The GP2X can play various CODECs including MPEG 1, 2, 3, 4, DivX 3.11, 4.x, 5.x and higher, Xvid, WMV (7, 8, and 9 series are supported, AVI, MPG and MPEG formats. MP3, OGG, WMA and WAV audio formats are supported as well as JPG, BMP, PCX, and GIF image formats. This is fairly comparable with the PSP except the PSP only supports custom converted MPG4 video files. GP2X uses a modified MPlayer for all media functions. Storing media on the SD card, I played various files and the GP2X performed flawlessly until I viewed several larger JPG files I had stored on the device. It took as much as a second to loop to the next picture after scrolling back and forth through the slideshow using the Left and Right buttons. One feature that is really nice on the GP2X is that the GP2X scaling chip will resize any size and any resolution to fit on the screen.

MAME on GP2X, pic2

Next, I tested Game, the GP2X port of MAME. Once it loaded, I pulled up my favorite ROM… Galaga. Galaga played beautiful. Currently, 1128 romsets work to some extent with the GP2X MAME port! Other emulators that have been ported to run on GP2X include Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Gear, Neo-Geo, NES, Sega Master System, Genesis, SNES and even MS-DOS! Other games such as Quake and Doom have been ported to run on the GP2X, but I had issues running some of these games perhaps due to the upgrade to the latest firmware. I did run a couple of homebrew games. While these games do not play as well as Tiger Woods PGA Tour on the PSP, GP2X game developers have created some addicting games!

Next, I played with the E-Book menu function. The E-Book application simply displays text files and allows you to scroll the files using the joystick. Explorer is another simple utility which is part of the GP2X suite of applications. You can browse through the filesystem and perform various file operations such as copy, move and delete files. Finally, I tested the Utility launcher by launching a few different applications including one that reads a text file and a replacement launcher with skins. The Utility application works as advertised.

Firmware

The final menu button is Setting. Here you can enter test mode, check the battery level, access a USB utility, modify the TV-Out setting, get information about the firmware and GP2X, tweak the LCD settings. There is also a System button new to firmware 2.0 which allows you to change various items such as turning the GP2X into a USB Host, turn on USB networking (including assigning an IP address), and enabling/disabling Samba, Web, Telnet and FTP Servers.

You may have noticed I mentioned Firmware 2.0 several times. Well, Firmware 2.0 was released on April 26, 2006 and provided huge improvements over the previous version of 1.4. GPH used a different developer for v2.0 and the code is reportedly cleaner and more stable as well as fixing numerous bugs that existed in older versions and adding many new and useful features. Having used both 1.4 and 2.0 versions, v2.0 has really made the GP2X a much more viable product with the new features and fixes. According to GPH’s web site, boot time has been shortened from roughly 30 seconds to just over 10 seconds, the NAND onboard memory area is available, battery life is improved, there are more configuration menus available (see the description above regarding the Setting the System buttons), and the USB connection is also improved. This was vital as the USB connection was horrible at best on firmware versions less than 2.0. The USB connection is actually reliable now! The firmware upgrade was a challenge, but I found that the key was to ensure that the SD card is formatted as FAT32. GP2X’s wiki contains more information about updating the firmware. Other features worth noting about the 2.0 firmware include: added USB Host support, ability to mount USB drives, an integrated LCD tweaker feature allowing removal of ‘scanline’ effects, the addition of USB networking support and several servers including Samba, Web, Telnet and FTP servers.

One of the most attractive features of the GP2X is the ability to develop your own games and utilities. The official SDK was recently released for Windows and Linux and is free. Simple Directmedia Layer (SDL) is the media library that gives developers low level access to the GP2X’s video, audio and control functions and is part of the SDK.

Our verdict

The Geeks feel the PSP is a better gaming device and much more of a mainstream gaming console than the GP2X. We do not think GP2X will overtake PSP in the gaming console market anytime soon, but the device could potentially make a run at that market in the future as more commercial games are in development for the GP2X and an increasingly growing number of handheld game developers are joining the GP2X community.

The GP2X excels as a personal entertainment player especially with features like USB Host support, TV-Out support and automatic resizing of videos. The PSP has access to external storage only though the mostly proprietary Memory Stick Duo memory stick format which currently only provides 4GB or maybe 8GB and can only play custom-converted MPEG4 videos and UMD movies (largely viewed as a dying format). In addition to being a better entertainment player than the PSP, the GP2X fulfills homebrew dreams and GPH fosters development for the GP2X by building the device on top of Linux and providing a free SDK. The GP2x is definitely a gaming and entertainment platform worthy of a computer geek.

Overall
5 Stars