Review cover AYA NEO 2021 Pro (Retro Power) (Hardware)
Official GBAtemp Review

Product Information:

Less than a year after launching their first product, AYA NEO not only changed management, but also launched another handheld gaming PC, the AYA NEO 2021 Pro. Packing an upgraded AMD 4800U processor and improved hardware, how does this new product stack up? And what does it mean for the future of this company and the handheld gaming market in general? Let’s find out in this review of the AYA NEO 2021 Pro Retro Power variant!

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In mid-2020, news emerged of an AMD-based handheld gaming PC going by the name of AYA NEO. It piqued the interest of handheld gamers, including myself, but also raised eyebrows given that it came from a newly-founded startup with no previous experience in handheld console manufacturing, let alone PC gaming sales. They launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to bring the device to the masses and, despite the uncertainties tied to such campaigns, the product actually did ship to backers and was even reviewed here on GBAtemp.

But in the meantime, while the campaign was still ongoing, the original creator of AYA NEO sold and left the startup he founded. When the founder himself leaves the boat midway, it does not paint a very bright picture of the endeavour he pushed forth himself. 

But under the new management headed by entrepreneur Zhang Ao, also known online as Uncle Tail or Arthur Zhang, AYA NEO seems to be doing fairly well, if not better than before. They have shipped crowdfunded units of the AYA NEO, revamped the website and social media channels, released a dedicated software and launched a beefed-up handheld named the AYA NEO 2021 Pro. Moreover, for those who wished for an upgrade and didn’t have their IGG units shipped, the company offered the option to upgrade to the Pro version at an extra cost. They also offered additional DIY hardware upgrade options for the PCBA, battery, SSD, as well as physical buttons (at an additional cost) to those already in possession of the original AYA NEO.

With these moves, AYA NEO seems to be closely catering to its user base; and it should given that it has strong competition ahead. Valve’s competitively-priced Steam Deck is an obvious comparison; but there are also other manufacturers with more experience in the handheld gaming PC niche like ONEXPLAYER and GPD. If AYA NEO wants to stay relevant, it might as well butter up and strengthen its community with such customer service.

But what if it is all smoke and mirrors? We might not know for sure but testing out the AYA NEO 2021 Pro and recent developments in the handheld gaming scene provided me with some pointers.

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AYA NEO 2021 Pro contents and specs

The AYA NEO 2021 Pro comes in 3 colour variants (Dark Star, Light Moon and Retro Power) which all pack similar internals but differ in the aesthetics. The Retro Power model is under review and is the pricier one among the three, coming at $1,315. This price tag alone will ward off many potential buyers, especially given that the Steam Deck starts at $400. But handheld gaming PCs are a niche market that Valve has only recently popularised with its own take which still has to ship. This is where companies like AYA NEO come in with handheld gaming PCs that are available right now and cater for the needs of handheld gamers. I am finding myself to become increasingly reliant on handhelds (a trend that started way back when I first got my GBA) and the ability to play the latest PC games up close, practically anywhere and with decent performance, is frankly fascinating. This is the promise that devices like the AYA NEO 2021 Pro sell and what those finding the appeal will consider such devices. For example, GPD has been launching crowdfunding campaigns for handheld gaming PCs and UMPCs practically every year for nearly half a decade and has been mostly successful in hitting its target. The demand, although niche, is indeed palpable and that’s why we see competitors like ONEXPLAYER and AYA NEO emerging.

Given that AYA NEO doesn’t have the resources of Valve, the startup cannot match the cost of the Steam Deck; and neither does the competition. The GPD Win Max 2021 which also packs a 4800U costs $1,143  and the ONEXPLAYER (also a 4800U model) is priced at $1,099. So you will always find cheaper ways to play the games that the AYA NEO 2021 Pro can run, be it on a new console, a second hand laptop or by building your own PC. But if you are in the handheld gamer camp, such a device might still be worth considering if you can afford it and want a device that’s shipping right now.

For $1,315, you will find the following items out of the Retro Power-themed box:

  • AYA NEO 2021 Pro console
  • Charging brick
  • EU/US/UK adapter plugs
  • USB-C cable
  • 2x USB adapters
  • User manual

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As for the AYA NEO 2021 Pro specs, you can find them below:

  • CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 4800U with Radeon Graphics; Core count: 8; Threads: 16
  • GPU: AMD Radeon Graphics; Video Memory: 3 GB
  • Storage: 1TB (supports upto 2TB PCIe SSD)
  • RAM: 16GB LPDDR4-4266
  • Battery:  47Wh
  • Wireless connectivity: WiFi 6; Bluetooth 5.2
  • Screen: 1280*800; Display Frequency: 60Hz; Screen size: 7-inch
  • Ports: 1 headphone jack; 3 USB-C ports (2 of which are USB 3.2 and support both power supply function and DisplayPort)
  • System: Windows 10
  • Dimensions: ~ 255 mm long x 106 mm wide x 20 mm thick

Save for the AMD 4800U upgrade (and potentially the origin of the sourced parts), looking at the specs of the AYA NEO 2021 Pro tells us that it is mostly an incremental upgrade to the OG AYA NEO (aka AYA NEO 2021). This is likely because other manufacturers like GPD and ONEXPLAYER launched powerful AMD-based handheld gaming PCs of their own following AYA NEO’s steps (which was the only AMD-based handheld when it released). It is of course a marketing move from AYA to keep up with the competition. But the 2021 Pro is also the first AYA NEO product under the new management and it shows from a hardware point of view, as we will see in the next section.

New hardware, new feel

In addition to the processor update, the AYA NEO 2021 Pro represents a major upgrade on the overall hardware. While the original AYA NEO had decent hardware for the company’s first device, there were some quirks that I noted in my review like the quality of the triggers and the loud rumble. These have been fully addressed in the Pro model. The vibration is much softer, doesn’t feel intrusive (which was a drawback from the previous model) and is even customizable. The triggers for their part have been revamped to include analogue ones. This was a highly requested feature and it’s always heartwarming to see companies listening to the community feedback and delivering on that. 

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Those new triggers also feel pretty good to use, as are the other face buttons which have a more gentle feedback thanks to the membrane underneath. All the buttons are within reach while the device is in use and the model brings back the handy keyboard, task manager, escape and windows keys, in addition to regular controller hardware. I will however miss the cyberpunk-ish font used in the former console model as a new one features on the Pro version.

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Another hiccup with the original AYA handheld was that the power and volume buttons were next to each other and one could mistakenly press the power button in-game while trying to adjust the volume. The 2021 Pro also fixed this issue by making the power button flush with the casing. The user can easily feel the difference without looking and it will be quite challenging to accidentally press the power button. Moreover, the latter packs a different colour compared to the volume keys.

Speaking of color, I will dearly miss the first AYA NEO’s transparent casing but the 2021 Pro’s shell has a satisfying matte finish to it that adds a rather classy touch to it. The Retro Power is clearly inspired by retro consoles (especially the GameBoy) and AYA NEO isn’t shy to admit it. So it does play on the nostalgia appeal while also packing a quality build.

But when it comes down to it, the Pro 2021’s mould is essentially the same as the original but the feel and quality is much more different. It’s more professionally built and there are all-round improvements on the hardware end. 

And given that this new model uses the same mould as the original device, it still packs the lighting control key that worked on the transparent shell. It has been rebranded as the “accessibility button” but it doesn’t seem to be doing anything. I couldn’t configure it or assign a function to it on the AYA Space app (more about it later).

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The company also expanded its hardware lineup with accessories. I got to test the $29 storage case. It’s pretty handy as the console fits neatly in and also has generous space to store the charger and earphones, making it a handy all-in-one storage case to take with you. However, it’s rather bulky and space-consuming in one’s bag; but luckily, the slimmer $20 portable storage case is also an option. 

On closer look, the storage case is a repurposed MaxCarry Case for the Nintendo Switch from Skull & Co with the AYA logo on top. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you have an extra Switch carry case, you might try it on the AYA NEO to see if it fits before getting such a case.

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Skull & Co also made $8 Rocker Cap sets  that fit snuggly on the AYA NEO’s joystick for added grips. They also partnered with AYA NEO to make a $6 tempered screen protector which is something of a must-have if you’re getting such a pricey device to take with you on-the-go.

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There are also other accessories in the works like grips, a dock with additional ports and Retro Power-themed case. These haven’t been released yet but gives an indication that the AYA NEO family of devices will have a whole hardware ecosystem built around them to cater for various needs.

Performance of an incremental upgrade

Now, while the device’s own hardware is solid, it also needs the performance to go with it. I’m happy to say that this is indeed the case with the Pro 2021. But you will need to keep your expectations in check regarding what you are expecting of a handheld. You won’t find 4K/60fps here, in fact, the screen is still a 7” one with an 800p resolution. It’s as gorgeous as with the original AYA NEO but you won’t get past its hardware limits. The 4800U APU is a rather good chip for a handheld but can’t compete with newer desktop towers, so performance is relative here. The device’s dimension is also a compromise between portability and screen real estate. But for most handheld users, it will work fine since it packs a similar dimension to the Switch (albeit thicker), meaning it’s easily portable and not obnoxiously large.

To give you an idea as to what to expect, I’ve tested a couple of games and emulators, all at 15W TDP. For PC gaming, recent titles are playable, with a fps ranging between 25 and 30. Moreover, you can still get better performance by bumping the TDP settings but that will impact the battery life; so I personally found 15W to be really a sweet spot for decent performance and sufficient play time. 

Despite many complaints about performance issues on beefy rigs, I found Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade to play rather smoothly on the AYA NEO 2021 Pro with the settings set to low. In more crowded areas like Sector 7 Slums, the performance dips a bit to around 25 fps; while in less busy segments, the framerate bumps to 30. By switching to 20W TDP, the performance is better, at around 30-35 fps or even more in certain instances. Deathloop also performs rather well, averaging at around 25-30 fps. Mass Effect Legendary Edition displayed the best performance on the device as it ran at a consistent, smooth 60fps with all graphical options enabled like motion blur, dynamic shadows, antialiasing and ambient occlusion.

You can see more of the performance and associated metrics in the video below:

Timestamp: 0:00 - Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade; 3:23 - Deathloop; 6:02 - Mass Effect Legendary Edition

For me, playing such games on a handheld and the convenience it delivers is already pretty impressive. I’m satisfied with AAA games running at 25-30 fps on the go and consider this to be rather good for a handheld; especially considering that many of those games are also on home consoles. It is a niche appeal but one that will feel more than satisfying on the AYA NEO 2021 Pro if you are in that niche.

Of course, with such a device, emulation also comes to mind. I tested a couple of those with default settings and you’ll find a video performance below. PS2 titles via PCSX2 fare pretty well. Shadow of the Colossus runs smoothly at 60 fps throughout as does Indigo Prophecy.

For Switch games, it really depends on the games you want to play. I found Metroid Dread to play at 60fps for the most part with occasional stutters and framerate dips during transitions and some animations. But I would say it's playable if you can bear with these inconveniences as I found those to be relatively minimal. For Super Mario Odyssey, cutscenes are very laggy and it was also an issue I had on the original AYA NEO. Its actual gameplay performance ranged between 20-30 fps but can bump up in closed areas. But it suffers more when there are animations as you can see towards the end of the gameplay footage below. Performance also tanked while emulating WiiU’s Breath of the Wild via Cemu. 

But those performance issues were mostly because I played at default settings at 15W TDP. With emulators, you can get better performance by fiddling with the settings. For example, by switching to Vulan from OpenGL on Yuzu (still at 15W TDP), Super Mario Odyssey would display significantly better performance. It would run more stably at around 30fps in open sections and 60fps in closed areas.

That said, emulation is better than what you'd get on the original AYA NEO. While tweaking around with the settings for each game/emulator might fix some issues, I wouldn’t recommend getting this device just to emulate consoles. Emulation is more of a (really) nice add-on to what the device can already manage and what it is advertised as: a handheld to play PC games. And that it does pretty well already.

Timestamp: 0:00 - Indigo Prophecy (PS2 - PCSX2); 06:40 - Shadow of the Colossus (PS2 - PCSX2); 12:33 - Metroid Dread (Nintendo Switch - Yuzu); 14:36 - Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch - Yuzu); 20:41 - The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild (WiiU - Cemu)

While in use, the AYA NEO 2021 Pro’s screen also enhances the overall experience. Images are crisp and colors are warm which combined, deliver a compelling visual experience. Moreover, the handheld experience isn’t hindered by the device getting too hot. Its integrated heatsink and fan do a fine job at dissipating heat so as not to inconvenience the player.

When it comes to battery life, how long you'll be able to use the device for depends on several factors from the type of game you play to the brightness levels. On average, I could get around 1.5-2 hours of playtime at 15W TDP and charging takes around 1.5h. This is comparable to the 4500U-based AYA NEO 2021.

To wrap up on the performance, it’s safe to say that the 4800U in the 2021 Pro is indeed an incremental upgrade to the 4500U found in the original AYA NEO. I’d recommend checking the review of the latter here to have an idea about its performance. If you own the 4500U version, there’s not much reason to get this new model. But if you want something beefier and haven’t invested in such a handheld yet, what the 2021 Pro offers as a whole package from the hardware build to the performance is worth considering.

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Earlier on, I mentioned the AYA Space app, which is a dedicated software developed for AYA NEO devices. It is a launcher of sorts that can be fully operated by the controller buttons and shows your games library at a glance as well as lets you access them. At the time of writing, it supports the automatic detection of Steam and Xbox Live libraries but I also found it to identify Epic Games Store games (FF7R). But Mass Effect from EA Play is not currently automatically detected. The company says that more storefronts will be supported in the future. But you can still manually add games to the list.

Moreover, it allows you to tune other settings of the device and check the system status. For example, you can quickly toggle the TDP to your needs, whether it’s to favour gaming performance, saving power or a balance between the two. You can also adjust vibration intensity to your liking. In-game the AYA Space app can be accessed by holding on the “KB” key to view stats and adjust settings quickly.

At times it's a bit wonky. Like pressing the quick access key will load the whole AYA Space interface and block out the game. But despite requiring further polishing, its features are undeniably useful.

Overall, it’s a user-friendly app and packs some rather neat and handy features. But I wish it could enable mapping actions like screenshot to the “accessibility” button though. But it’s encouraging to see that AYA NEO is also catering on the software side and hopefully will keep updating it with useful features.

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The future is in your hand(held)s

To wrap up, the AYA NEO 2021 Pro is a handheld gaming PC that looks and feels good; and packs the performance to boot. If you have a soft spot for retro consoles, the Retro Power variant will deliver on that aesthetic as well as the ability to emulate a number of retro consoles decently to back that look. Even if I am not a fan of scored reviews, the 2021 Pro earns the same score as the original AYA NEO did since the upgrades are relatively minor and don't yet represent a fully next gen of AYA NEO but is more of a stop gap than anything else.

While the upgrades in the AYA NEO 2021 Pro are incremental, they are still very welcome and show that the company is willing to churn out new and more powerful devices. In fact, AYA NEO recently teased a new handheld gaming PC named AYA NEO NEXT. It seems to have a new form factor with curved grips and will use GuliKit’s drift-free joysticks. Interestingly, AYA NEO is touting the device as the “next generation” of Windows gaming handheld. It is unsure if they secured a deal with AMD for custom processors like Valve scored with the Steam Deck but it  will definitely be interesting to see how these two compare in performance.

But what this indicates is that AYA NEO is still very much in the game and wants to decidedly make an imprint on the handheld gaming market, even if bigger players will pose serious competition. And with other companies like GPD and ONEXPLAYER also very much in the game, we can expect to see more devices emerge as competitors next year. It will be interesting to see how the new generation of Windows handheld will fare when the Steam Deck starts shipping with its significantly lower cost; but such companies now have the timed advantage of having a fanbase and actual products to ship. They can thrive by leveraging their community and coming up with more innovative products. And ultimately, it's us gamers who will benefit from such competition with more options on the market to suit our needs. We might find cheaper alternatives, or more compact models or ones with the right specs to emulate the console we want. The industry is still in its infancy but is growing and it's worth keeping an eye on what the manufacturers will come up with.

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Verdict

What We Liked ...
  • Great handheld gaming experience
  • Improved hardware
  • New dedicated launcher
  • New dedicated accessories
What We Didn't Like ...
  • Merely an incremental upgrade
  • Pricey
8.8
out of 10

Overall

While mostly an incremental upgrade to the original AYA NEO, the AYA NEO 2021 Pro delivers a much better hardware finish and represents a commitment by the company to continue investing in this space to cater for handheld gaming enthusiasts.
"Pricey" as in "Expensive as F***".
I'd love to have those AYA devices, but their prices are insane.
It's higher than my monthly wage.
might need to get a better job. computer stuff isn't gonna get cheaper anytime soon with the chip shortage and the new fire that broke out at one of the largest chip manufacturing plants in the last couple of days. i mean it's gotten so bad car manufacturers are taking out usb ports and digital displays for speed, temp, etc. heck look at the price of used cars as well.
 
This doesn't so much read like a review as an advertisement. But I'm not sold. (Note to my family: If I ever spend $1300 on an underpowered handheld PC go ahead and have me committed to the lunatic asylum.)
 
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Reactions: Marc_78065
People might want to reconsider getting a gaming laptop at that price instead. Laptops with GTX 1650/ti or RTX 3050 should be around that price. That would be a better bang for your buck. It may not be as pocketable nor portable as this one but it is way better with bigger display and higher refresh rates at at least 144hz. As for retro handhelds, there are cheaper and better alternatives than this including a smartphone.
 
People might want to reconsider getting a gaming laptop at that price instead. Laptops with GTX 1650/ti or RTX 3050 should be around that price. That would be a better bang for your buck. It may not be as pocketable nor portable as this one but it is way better with bigger display and higher refresh rates at at least 144hz. As for retro handhelds, there are cheaper and better alternatives than this including a smartphone.
And lots of expensive smartphones have gorgeous AMOLED display
 
might need to get a better job. computer stuff isn't gonna get cheaper anytime soon with the chip shortage and the new fire that broke out at one of the largest chip manufacturing plants in the last couple of days. i mean it's gotten so bad car manufacturers are taking out usb ports and digital displays for speed, temp, etc. heck look at the price of used cars as well.

This would still be expensive as F for what it offers, no matter if I got on of the top salaries in the area. (Which would make it around 30% of the corresponding monthly wage).

The sad kicker is that I work with IT, but we're extremely underpaid over here, though much better than the general populace, but let's not digress from the review.

Like said above, it's around the price of a great mid-range laptop, around here, where stuff is already more expensive.
I found one already for pretty much the same price:
"GeForce RTX 3050 (4GB GDDR6)
Intel® Core™ i5-11400H 2.3GHz, (Turbo Max 4.6GHz) - 12MB cache
15.6” Full HD WVA 120Hz
8GB DDR4 RAM (3200MHZ)
SSD M.2 NVME 250GB - [1.800 MB/s ]
Intel® Dual Band (2.4GHz, 5GHz) Wireless AX201 - Bluetooth 5.1
Original Windows 11 Home Single Language
US$ 1331,61
"
 
  • Like
Reactions: LiborNX
$1,315 is more than just "pricey." 🤣

Not sure who their target audience is with a price tag like that. I can afford buying it, but I prefer playing on a TV.
 
$1,315 is more than just "pricey." 🤣

Not sure who their target audience is with a price tag like that. I can afford buying it, but I prefer playing on a TV.
It can play on a TV. It's got Bluetooth and USB c to display port/HDMI support @4k60hz. Also it's a full laptop crammed in a switch form factor. Not sure why people here are freaking out about prices. Has no one looked at modern laptop prices?
 
  • Like
Reactions: Marc_78065
It can play on a TV. It's got Bluetooth and USB c to display port/HDMI support @4k60hz. Also it's a full laptop crammed in a switch form factor. Not sure why people here are freaking out about prices. Has no one looked at modern laptop prices?
Mostly because the biggest competitor is going to be the steam deck that retails at like HALF of the price of this and offers most of the same features plus a major brand behind it?
 
It can play on a TV. It's got Bluetooth and USB c to display port/HDMI support @4k60hz. Also it's a full laptop crammed in a switch form factor. Not sure why people here are freaking out about prices. Has no one looked at modern laptop prices?
If someone favors a Switch-like design over a Laptop, then this would be suitable for him/her.
 
once the steam deck will launch... all these "pricey" handheld will not survive unless they can lower their prices but seem doubtful... if they can, that means they have been ripping a niche market.
 
This would still be expensive as F for what it offers, no matter if I got on of the top salaries in the area. (Which would make it around 30% of the corresponding monthly wage).

The sad kicker is that I work with IT, but we're extremely underpaid over here, though much better than the general populace, but let's not digress from the review.

Like said above, it's around the price of a great mid-range laptop, around here, where stuff is already more expensive.
I found one already for pretty much the same price:
"GeForce RTX 3050 (4GB GDDR6)
Intel® Core™ i5-11400H 2.3GHz, (Turbo Max 4.6GHz) - 12MB cache
15.6” Full HD WVA 120Hz
8GB DDR4 RAM (3200MHZ)
SSD M.2 NVME 250GB - [1.800 MB/s ]
Intel® Dual Band (2.4GHz, 5GHz) Wireless AX201 - Bluetooth 5.1
Original Windows 11 Home Single Language
US$ 1331,61
"
Well, IT is suitable for remote work for some foreign company or clients. Perhaps something to look into?

Whatever the case, yes it is quite expensive.
 
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