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GamePark GP2X F-200

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1 Review

Manufacturer: GamePark Holdings / Type: Handheld games console

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      08.05.2011 11:36
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      Not an obvious choice, but a dream for the tinkerer

      (Note: My category request was for the GP2X in general, not just the F200. As the F100 is identical with a couple of exceptions -- mentioned in the review -- I feel justified in posting this here.)

      == Introduction ==

      Handheld game consoles have been popular for a very long time now. Although there were a few around as far back as the 1970s (the Microvision, released in 1979, was the first to use cartridges) the sector really took off with the release of Nintendo's Game Boy at the very end of the following decade. These days the handheld market is mostly a carve-up between Nintendo and Sony, but for those who like the idea of taking a different path there's Korean outfit GamePark Holdings' GP2X. It's not for everyone, and it has plenty of rough edges, but I love mine to bits.

      GamePark Holdings grew out of a split in the original GamePark company that was responsible for the GP32, another handheld to which this might be seen as the spiritual successor. The corporate politics needn't concern us here, as they don't have any real bearing on the GP2X itself. This machine was designed from the start to be an open system that actively encouraged homebrew development, and that is perhaps its most significant feature. If you know how to program in a suitable environment, you can write games for this console; there are no lockouts to negotiate or lawyers to placate.
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      == The hardware ==

      There are really two and a half models of GP2X. The original F100 (often referred to as "Mk1") which was black and had a rather unsatisfactory thumbstick with too large a deadzone and awkward vector positioning. This was replaced after a while by the also black F100(B) - or "Mk2" - which had a much improved thumbstick; this is my own model. Finally, there was the white F200 (the model in the category picture) which added a touchscreen and replaced the thumbstick with directional buttons. The *great* majority of software written for one will run on the others, with obvious exceptions such as programs depending on the touchscreen.

      The GP2X is powered by a dual-core 200 MHz ARM processor running on a version of Linux; this choice of an open OS is a large part of what gives the system its extensibility. (It does, however, mean a 20-second boot time.) The console is powered by two standard AA batteries, whose life varies enormously depending on what you're doing. Even alkalines will last a fair while if you're just playing simple games or browsing photos, but for more complex tasks - especially watching movies - you really do need to get hold of a couple of pairs of high-capacity NiMH rechargeables. The choice of AA over Li-ion power has its pros and cons; it's largely a matter of personal preference.

      There is an optional cradle (which I don't own) that adds, among other things, several standard USB ports, allowing you to attach keyboards, mice and so on: it's not much of an exaggeration to say that doing so would give you a functional, if in some ways limited, Linux computer. The DC supply is not the commonest (a thin 3V, 1A jack) but a multi-adaptor from the likes of Maplin should solve that problem. There's 64 MB ROM and 64 MB RAM as standard, but importantly there's also an SD slot allowing far more storage. (The F200 can also take SDHC cards, whereas the F100 has to use plain old SD.)

      == Looks and handling ==

      I actually prefer the look of the F100(B) to either of the other models, which is handy as that's the one I own! Although, like most black electronic devices, it does tend to attract dust, this isn't a huge problem and the occasional wipe with a soft cloth should keep the unit in order. The screen is a backlit 3.5-inch, 320x240 affair capable of 16-bit colour display and is satisfyingly sharp and bright, though annoyingly there are no hardware controls for contrast or brightness. As with most LCD panels, the screen is extremely hard to see in direct sunlight, but it works very well in other conditions.

      I very much like the feel of the GP2X in my hands. It sits very comfortably, and is just the right weight once you've put the batteries in; all the buttons (including the triggers on the top corners) are easily reachable without stretching. Those with particularly large fingers might consider the A/B/X/Y buttons to be a tad too close together, but that's not a problem for me. My only real complaint is that the DC power socket's placement halfway up the right-hand side does mean the plug and lead can get in the way slightly until you get used to them.

      Inevitably perhaps given GamePark Holdings' lack of resources when compared to the likes of Sony, build quality is not up to the standards you would expect from the big boys. The unit doesn't feel *flimsy*, but it's certainly not the superbly engineered creation that a PSP is, for example. The power switch on the left edge of the GP2X is a good example: it does the job perfectly well, but it's slightly fiddly (you really need to use a fingernail) and it feels just a little bit loose at times. Another example is in the battery compartment: it's a very tight fit, and there's no fabric strip under the batteries to help with removal.

      == Games etc ==

      The user base for the GP2X being what it is (perhaps no larger than 50,000 units worldwide) it's unsurprising that very little commercial software was written for the console, and even most of that is no longer on sale. Some versions of the machine (such as mine) include a few games as standard in the internal memory, but this is not the case with all models, so don't count on it. There are therefore two main avenues to explore: the homebrew/porting scene and the emulation capability. I'll deal with the latter in a minute, but will first look at original games.

      The archive at openhandhelds.org is by far the most comprehensive source of GP2X software in existence... and all of it is free! A few programs are commercial demos, but the great majority are freeware, much of it open-source software distributed under the GNU General Public License. There are well over 500 free games to try, and although inevitably some of them are pretty poor, that still leaves plenty that will reward your attention. Some of the puzzlers are particularly impressive, and wouldn't look out of place on a top-line console. Try Tilematch, for example, a great clone of the Nintendo DS game Zoo Keeper.

      Although games are really what the machine is about, I mentioned that "etc" for a reason: there are quite a few applications available too. A fun paint program with strong echoes of the Amiga classic Deluxe Paint; an audio player that works like Winamp; PDF viewers; software synthesisers... and even a fully-featured version of the classic POV-Ray ray-tracing graphics program. If you *really* want to go to town, you can install Qtopia or GPE and turn your console into something akin to a true PDA. (With a bit of fiddling about, it's even possible to run programs like Opera, Gnumeric and AbiWord this way!)

      == Emulation ==

      The GP2X makes a really excellent emulation station. Although some of what exists for, say, the Sony PSP is more polished, the hoops that need to be jumped through in terms of downgrading firmware and so on are simply absent here: an absolutely standard GP2X with official firmware will play commercial games, homebrew games *and* emulators with no fuss. Of course there are other factors to consider when running emulated software, not least the sometimes complex legal situation, but assuming you are able to clear that threshold this is a hugely enjoyable way to emulate.

      It's impossible in a review like this to list *all* the emulators that are available for the GP2X, but it's fair to say that just about all the well-known 8-bit and 16-bit console and home computer systems are catered for (even the BBC Micro, hurrah!) as well as some of the less common ones: how about the PC-Engine, the Wonderswan or the Commodore Plus/4? The most recent console emulated at full speed is the Sega Mega Drive; an updated SNES emulator has recently been released, but this is not usually capable of more than about 30-40 fps unless you overclock the GP2X in its settings (most consoles can be pushed to at least 240 MHz).

      Although not strictly emulators, I'll also note here that there are interpreters available for data files from many popular PC games. There's a decent port of ScummVM to allow you to play the likes of Flight of the Amazon Queen and Beneath a Steel Sky, while first-person shooter devotees will be pleased to hear that the likes of Quake and Duke Nukem 3D are playable at full speed. With most of these games, you can use the data files from the freely available (PC) shareware versions to get a taster, but will need the original CDs to play the full game.

      == Multimedia ==

      The GP2X can play videos, and does so very nicely, although there is one major restriction: they must be in DivX (or Xvid) format. Conversion tools are available for PCs easily enough, but it is a slight shame that you can't simply transfer across files in formats like MP4, AAC and so on. On the plus side, the console's hardware decoder will scale anything from 720x480 downwards to fit on the GP2X's 320x240 screen. (You might as well rescale earlier, though, if only to save space on your SD card.) You can choose Low, Normal or Extra Power settings; the lowest stutters horribly when confronted with more than a tiny movie, while the top one eats batteries for breakfast; I leave it on Normal most of the time.

      There's also an audio player built in, though it handles only MP3 and OGG formats. (As with most aspects of the machine, there are third-party programs available that will play other files.) It's not the most exciting player around, but it does a fairly good job and sound quality is fine. Well, it is through headphones, at least: the GP2X's speakers are not really up to the job, and even at top volume remind you a little of the better class of mobile phone speakers. Do watch the volume, though: things are a *lot* louder through headphones than they are via the speakers!

      The picture viewer, once again, is unexciting but functional. It can handle the usual common formats (JPG, PNG and so on) and has basic zoom and rotate options. There's no way to *edit* files using this program: that's another thing you'll need third-party software to do. Finally, there's what is very ambitiously touted as an e-book reader, but in fact is nothing more than a plain text file viewer. It does that job well enough, and it's entirely adequate for scanning through readmes, but if you want to look at PDFs then you're going to have to go the third-party route once more.

      == Programming ==

      I'm not much of a programmer myself, so this section will of necessity be rather short. However, if you *are* the sort of person who'd like to write handheld games but is put off by the corporate restrictions of the big players, the GP2X may even today be for you. Off the top of my head, I know that SDL, Allegro, Code::Blocks, Pygame and sdlBasic all exist for it, and I believe there are plenty of others. Some of them are still in beta, and may never emerge from it - Perl, for example - but those with the requisite knowledge should find something that works well enough for them. There are a couple of Linux terminal programs around, too, which will be useful for developers. Oh, and with the right connections you can telnet into it as well.

      == Problems ==

      As I said right at the start of this review, the GP2X has its rough edges. It's rather prone to locking up, for example, and not only when being overclocked. It would be an exaggeration to say it was a *common* problem, and it rarely happens once a program has successfully launched, but it's something you're likely to encounter from time to time. Volume control is a pain, too: many, if not most, games set it about right for speakers... but therefore *far* too loud for headphones. Don't put them on until after you start the game; your eardrums will thank you for it! Finally, the "low battery" light on F100 models give you literally ten seconds' notice; it's not surprising that it disappeared on the F200!

      It is possible, though thankfully not that easy, to "brick" your GP2X. If this happens, it is almost always the result of a failed firmware upgrade. The console's open nature means that upgrading is not at all a difficult job, but it takes some time and a lot of power, so it's very important to do it with the machine plugged into the mains. If power dies halfway through, you may be in tOh, and with the right connections you can telnet into it as well.rouble. Many seemingly-bricked machines can be rescued, but not all of them. Frankly, if your firmware is v2.1 or above (mine has v3.0.0) I'd be inclined to leave well alone. You have been warned!

      == Buying and verdict ==

      The GP2X is not a particularly well-known console, and as such prices on eBay vary considerably. You should *not* pay huge "rare!" premiums for one, though, since they simply are not. With a modicum of patience an F100(B) could be yours for around the £50 mark, though you'd be unlikely to get much more than the basic console and perhaps some headphones and an SD card. (Oddly enough, boxed examples *don't* command large premiums.) An F200 in good condition (don't forget the stylus!) is likely to be more in the £70 range.

      It should be apparent by now that this is a rather different animal from the Nintendos and Sonys of this world. If what you want above all is a "plug and play" handheld console that can offer a large range of big-name games, then forget about this and get some flavour of PSP or DS. On the other hand, if you like poking about with programs to see what happens, and are prepared to do a little work sometimes to get things going, it would be hard to find a better way to do so than the GP2X. It gets four stars here because of its irritating drawbacks, but *personally* I think it's wonderful!

      == Useful links ==

      GP2X file archive: www.openhandhelds.org (click on the GP2X symbol)
      GP2X wiki: wiki.gp2x.org (gets spammed a fair bit, though)

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