August 9, 2006

GP2X: It's all fun and games

Author: Mark Antony Kent

The GP2X is an open, Linux-based handheld games console manufactured by Game Park Holdings of South Korea. It has a typical handheld control layout, a good quality backlit screen, built-in stereo speakers, headphone socket, and several connectivity and expansion options. My son is completely taken with the device, and it has won me over too. At £125 (or $190), you're not going to find a less expensive handheld device that can be expanded into a full-blown computer.

To make the GP2X usable, you really need to pop in an SD card, as the onboard memory is only 64M. We purchased a 4GB card, which slots in the top. The unit takes standard AA batteries; we bought a pair of NiMH 2500mAh batteries to use. Under heavy usage, the manufacturers claim about five hours on one charge, but AA batteries are cheap, so carrying a spare set is no problem.

The GP2X comes with a movie player for DivX files; we had good success playing a variety of films. Connectors are available to send the output to a television, so you can play back your DivXs to your TV and hi-fi; the quality is good. The device also includes an MP3/OGG player, filesystem browser, binary launcher, and ebook viewer. You can get a Web browser for it too!

You can connect the GP2X via the USB port to your PC. It works in either a USB-network mode, where it acts as a Samba server, or a USB-storage mode, where it looks like a standard SCSI filesystem. The vendor, however, recommends that you do large file transfers using a standalone card reader, as that's faster and won't use your batteries up.

My children are about to spend a week on holiday with their grandparents, so in preparation, Number One Son and I set about installing some entertainment on his GP2X to take with him. The GP2X site has a Dev & Downloads page with links to lively community sites that offer a wide range of apps for the device. You can find still more sites using a traditional Google search.

We installed the GPLed gnuboy Gameboy emulator and the fishnes Nintendo emulator. There is a huge range of emulators available for the GP2X, but to take advantage of them, you need legal ROMs for them. These two alone make between 500 and 1,000 games available to the GP2X platform. The emulators work fine -- sound and colours are fine, and the frame rate makes games perfectly playable. As these are the ported Linux emulators, the usual customisation capabilities are available, so that keys can be remapped as required.

We also downloaded a copy of Doom clone PrBoom. We pulled the doom2.wad file from the original CD and put it in the doom directory as per the installation instructions. PrBoom provides sound effects, but to hear the game's music, you need to install timidity as well; we chose not to do this. PrBoom keymapping is particularly playable (Doom on handhelds has not always been good!). The two buttons on the top of the case are used for "strafe left" and "strafe right," which makes real competitive play practical. With both doom.wad and doom2.wad supported by PrBoom, at least 4,000 wads are playable -- more than enough for a holiday, train, or plane trip.

For other entertainment, Number One Son chose four TV series episodes, all in DivX, and MP3s of the BBC Foundation (Asimov) series, Harry Potter (audio), and an animated film of The Hobbit. He also grabbed the MP3s of most of my Iron Maiden collection, and in order to keep his hand in, one CD of an audio Spanish course, and one CD of an audio French course (he's back at school in only six weeks).

Finally, he took about 30 ebooks (text files). The GP2X ebook reader is particularly good, showing clear white text on a black background. It's easy to read, and the joystick moves you through the book.

With all that material in the device's storage, he still had 600MB of free space. He's not sure what to do with it, but I'm sure he'll find something.

Along with the game console itself, we purchased the Breakout Board for £30, which provides audio/video out and four USB host ports. It supports mouse, keyboard, joystick, and external storage, so it can be used to create a full retro-computing environment, or, via USB, another networked terminal. A word of warning here -- the expansion card is supplied as a card, with no box around it - this is real retro computing.

The GP2X Web site says, "The GP2X is totally open to development from anyone, commercial or amateur." With that kind of attitude, and given enough interest and support, drivers for Wi-Fi or Bluethooth USB devices could be included in the kernel, making for a full networked gaming experience from this inexpensive but excellent box.

The GP2X comes with one commercial game demo, and more promised. Having seen the display quality and responsiveness of the machine, I expect that high-quality modern games could be run on it easily.

I thoroughly recommend this little device. When we were first looking at the GP2X, I was going to get one for myself, too, but was told by Number One Son that it wouldn't be cool if I had one, and besides, I already have my Nokia 770, haven't I? So my dilemma now is -- how can I get one without him finding out?

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