Official Review: AYA NEO (Hardware)

By Prans Dunn, May 9, 2021 (updated May 10, 2021) 41 28

Up for review is the AYA NEO handheld gaming PC. Starting as a single person's dream to have a more capable Nintendo Switch-like handheld, is it really the non-Nintendo Nintendo Switch Pro?
Prans Dunn

attachFull262093

After having spent some time with the AYA NEO, I can now elaborate more on my thoughts on the device, address the requested features to be tested and give my verdict. However, I would highly recommend you to check out my first impressions piece of the AYA NEO published some weeks earlier as it is still very much relevant and I won't repeat what's already been said there. So be sure to check it out before diving into this review!

A challenger approaches...

First of all, the AYA NEO is a niche device. On Indiegogo, the limited, 42 unit Super Early Bird perk for the 500 GB model went for $699, so you should expect it to cost more post-crowdfunding. For that price, you can always buy a cheaper laptop, build your own PC or buy a new console which would give you better gaming performance and visuals than the AYA NEO does. The specs below can give you an idea regarding how it compares to other devices:

attachFull262095

However, the AYA NEO targets another demographic, one that wants to have access to the latest PC games on-the-go, without the need to be tied to a desk/chair. Or simply if you want a system ready to play such games without the hassle of sourcing your own parts or being bulky. Although relatively small, there is a demand for such devices on the market considering GPD’s successful yearly crowdfunding campaigns, One Note venturing with its line of OneGx handheld PCs and AYA NEO’s Indiegogo campaign selling out. And for this niche demographic, there's much to like about the AYA NEO.

It has a similar form factor to the Switch but is understandably heavier and is comparable to a Switch with a power bank attached to it. Even with that extra weight, it's still perfectly usable as a handheld. I myself have grown fond of this handheld convenience to indulge in some night-time gaming on the device.

attachFull262097

attachThumb262096 attachThumb262098 attachThumb262104 attachThumb262106 attachThumb262113 attachThumb262105

In my impressions piece, I compared the build quality to be akin to that of the Switch and it holds true, except for the triggers which feel a bit odd. They are fully functional, even if they feel a bit spring-y and borderline wonky and cheap.

Other than that, I'm overall satisfied with the build. The keys are ergonomic and easily accessible. However, I am still not a fan of the positioning of the power and volume keys. They are next to and feel the same as each other, so one can easily be mistaken for the other. I'd also note here that the rumble can be quite loud, which could attract some unwanted attention. Such hiccups in the hardware design can be attributed to the team being new to the game or just that they've been trying a bit too much to replicate the form factor and button layout of the Switch.

Unlike its competitors, the AYA NEO lacks a keyboard, so setting up your Steam account and such will be a bit awkward with the touchscreen. To make navigation on Windows easier, the AYA team has thankfully made available some apps and drivers to optimize your experience with the device. There's Joyxoff that lets you use the control sticks as a mouse and there's also a dedicated button to call up a virtual keyboard. These options work, although not giving an ideal experience, but the lack of a physical keyboard also helps making the device less bulky and less heavy.

attachFull262101

attachThumb262100 attachThumb262102 attachThumb262103

Also unlike its competitors, the AYA NEO features an AMD architecture and is the first to do so on a dedicated PC gaming handheld. We’ll take a look at how it performs in the next section.

Gaming on the non-Nintendo Nintendo Switch Pro

AYA NEO’s AMD Ryzen 5 4500U processor and Radeon graphics means that the performance is among the best in the handheld PC gaming market as the ones that have been available so far like the GPD Win Max and OneGx relied on inferior processors. But of course, you'll have to keep your expectations in check with such a device. If you're looking for constant 4k60fps across all titles, you will not find it with the AYA NEO. Even its screen (which is really gorgeous to look at by the way) has a resolution of 800p. If you're fine with such resolution and lower FPS performance, the AYA NEO will handle the latest PC games you throw at it.

I got Outriders at an average of 23 fps on low/medium settings. At similar settings, Cyberpunk 2077 would run at around 15-20 fps while Horizon Zero Dawn would even reach 30fps. While playing those PC games, I did not encounter significant or noticeable dips in performance nor any audio issues. Additionally, the AYA NEO's 7-inch H-IPS 215ppi screen does help in enhancing the experience as it delivers gorgeous visuals throughout every gaming session with the device. So really, it’s only the FPS that isn’t what you’re used to on a desktop PC. 

You can have an idea about the performance of these AAA games on the device in the videos below, where you can also see the settings at which each game is being played at.

 

These are games that are meant to be played on home consoles and PCs, but being able to play them on the go, from start to finish, does deliver a wow factor. Battery life will depend on several factors like the settings you’re playing at and other system features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, but on average, I would net between 1.5 to 2 hours of game time. As for charging, you should account for around 1.5h to juice up the device again.

But overall, being able to play titles like Horizon Zero Dawn (originally a PS4 title!) and Cyberpunk 2077 with the convenience of a handheld is really something I personally favor, even if that means a compromise on visuals and performance. Playing AAA PC games on-the-go was the AYA NEO’s main goal and marketing edge and it succeeds in that endeavor. 

But, of course, you won’t stop at PC games with the AYA NEO as its AMD architecture gives it an edge as a more than decent emulation device. So, next up, I threw some retro games at it to see how it would handle different systems. 

For PlayStation systems, I played PS2 titles via PCSX2 and got Ratchet & Clank to run at a stable 50-60 fps while Shadow of the Colossus would have a performance varying between 30-60 fps. The AYA NEO also handles PSP titles well with Ridge Racer running at a smooth 60fps while Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker stays at a constant 20fps due to the game being intrinsically capped at that performance on PSP.

 

Timestamp: 0:00 - Ratchet & Clank, 5:23 -Shadow of the Colossus, 13:06 - Ridge Racer, 17:57 - MGS: Peace Walker

Following my impressions piece, I got a request to test Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots on the AYA NEO with RPCS3. I managed to get it to play, but with some occasional stuttering and no in-game BGM, save for steps and gunshots (cutscenes and Codec calls work fine). However, MGS4 is a notorious title to emulate that has been unplayable until recently. I could reach till the point in the video below and then it’s just a black screen from there. To play it, I tried both the custom build from rajkosto and the official canary patch with similar results. With the canary patch, I could get in-game audio but there would be issues with the textures and weird pop-ins like a headless Snake or hovering guns due to enemies being invisible. The latter aren’t ideal in a stealth game like MGS but maybe there’ll be more patches down the line.

In the next video, you’ll see a compilation of how this handheld PC fares with emulating Nintendo systems. With Dolphin emulator, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes runs stably at 60 fps while The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess plays at 30 fps due to its original performance cap. Skyward Sword on the Wii was also locked at 30 fps and that’s how it plays on the AYA NEO while Super Mario Galaxy plays at a constant 60fps.

Wii U emulator Cemu offers mixed results with Breath of the Wild performing at around 15-20 fps, with some occasional dips in frame rate. Splatoon on the other hand fared better, with performance even hitting the 60 fps bar.

Now for something meta, I threw some Switch games on the AYA NEO, a device that was itself inspired by the Nintendo Switch. I was not expecting much out of it but I was pleasantly surprised to find games that I tested to be more or less playable (this term is, again, rather subjective). With Yuzu, Super Mario Odyssey would hit around 20-30fps and experience stuttering audio during cinematics. But in more confined areas, I could even occasionally hit 50-60fps. Pokémon Sword plays at a rather stable 30fps indoors while in the overworld performance dips to between 15-20fps. Battles also aren't bad, running at 30fps and occasionally dipping to 22fps during some battle animation. 

I wouldn't buy the AYA NEO based on whether or not it emulates Switch games but its ability to manage to do so still impresses. 

Timestamp: 0:00 - MGS, 6:58 - Twilight Princess, 10:07 - Super Mario Galaxy, 15:51 - Skyward Sword, 19:44 - Breath of the Wild, 24:17 - Splatoon, 26:42 - Super Mario Odyssey, 33:05 - Pokémon Sword

EDIT: Added some pictures of the 3DS' Resident Evil Revelations and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater running on Citra. Resident Evil Revelations plays at around 20-23 fps at up to 75% speed but with occasional stutters and lagging audio. MGS3 on the other hand performed much worse at around 11 fps or lower at around 50% speed and with lagging audio as well. But of course, 3DS emulation performance will depend on the titles you throw at the emulator and those were relatively demanding games.

attachFull262335

attachThumb262332 attachThumb262333 attachThumb262334 attachThumb262336 attachThumb262337 attachThumb262338 attachThumb262339

Hopefully, these videos helped give you an idea of what the AYA NEO is capable of. It’s worth noting again that it’s an on-the-go PC gaming device first and a competent emulation system second. Emulation should be considered add-ons and the AMD architecture makes them as really nice add-ons. You can expect to play PS2 titles and up to some Wii U games on it at playable speed. And if you have no other means to play Switch games on, emulating some on Yuzu can be bearable. But PC games, and especially the latest ones, are totally playable on AYA NEO which delivers some crisp visuals on its excellent screen to boot.

You should really consider getting the AYA NEO if you want a handheld gaming PC rather than a laptop replacement. Even if it functions as one, it’s a bit fiddly to use as it has only USB-C ports, which would need adapters (two are provided) to work with other devices. The AYA team also listed a dock among its Indiegogo perks and this could enable you to plug in more peripherals easily and better use it as a laptop/mini PC.

But again, it’s a niche device and if you’re in the target market, you’ll indeed find lots to like in the AYA NEO. It’s a shame that the clear shell model isn’t available overseas as it is my personal favorite but I hope to see it going up for sale after the crowdfunded units ship!

And beyond

In recent years, we've seen a fair share of indie video game developers crafting memorable games like Undertale and Stardew Valley or even AAA-styled titles like Bright Memory. These were created thanks to the sheer dedication of those small teams or even a single person. Such endeavors have encouraged countless others to pursue their vision and thanks to this, we're able to have within our games library more experimental yet memorable titles like Telling Lies and Tales from Off Peak City rather than set templates from risk-averse AAA developers.

We have been acclimatized to such indie developers when it comes to software but not so much when it comes to hardware. However, we seem to now be entering an era where similar experimentation is possible with hardware; and the AYA NEO perfectly represents this.

This project was publicly unveiled via the video shared below which showed an early prototype that was literally held by Lego bricks. In it, Mr. Song Zheng or "Uncle A", a person with no prior background in such handheld PC production, outlined his vision of building a handheld device that could handle the latest AAA games. He acknowledged that the Switch could be what comes to mind for such a concept but he wasn't totally satisfied with the device's performance, especially for AAA games that get ported to the device. 

So the idea was clear: make a more powerful Switch-like device. The prototype, first termed  as AYA EVE, looked as such, but packed a more capable AMD Ryzen processor and was shown to be running games like GTA V and Doom Eternal. This video picked up steam online and Uncle A built a small team of equally passionate members to bring such a handheld into the hands of gamers.

Recall that all this happened while a pandemic was raging; and in less than one year, the AYA team was shipping AYA NEO Founder Edition units in China and sold out on Indiegogo as the number of backers (2600+) hit the manufacturing limit. So the demand for such a handheld, although niche, is palpable.

Why I’m concluding with AYA NEO’s unlikely origin story is to point out how it could be indicating a change of tides in the handheld gaming PC industry. Now that a previously-unheard of Uncle A put such a powerful device on a market that has been so far practically single-handedly dominated by GPD (due to a blatant lack of competitors), other players might be encouraged to follow a similar path of their own. 

Just like it has been the case with indie games, we could be seeing more indie devices delivering performance that gaming giants like Sony and Nintendo aren’t even considering to put out there. But following Uncle A and the AYA team’s efforts, we could see a Cousin C or Brother B (you catch my drift) come out of nowhere to shake up the market. Even if AYA does not turn out to be successful (there have been concerns before that it might be the next Smach Z or PGS, and these concerns surged again after Uncle A sold the company, but the new CEO assured his commitment to running the startup professionally), others might pick up the torch.

EDIT: Following the publication of this review, I got the confirmation that Uncle A indeed sold and left the company. The startup is now 100% owned by an entrepreneur named Zhang Ao, also known online as Uncle Tail or Arthur Zhang.

This blip in the hardware market radar might even make bigger players consider developing one such device of their own (recently we’ve seen concepts from Alienware and Lenovo and even a patent from Tencent for handheld gaming PCs). Among such competition and experimentations, there is one clear winner and that’s us; the consumers, the gamers.

attachFull262108

attachThumb262107 attachThumb262109 attachThumb262110 attachThumb262111 attachThumb262112

Previously, GPD was practically the only one in the handheld gaming PC market and would make the market dance to its tune with its own pricing and devices. Lately One Netbook has been presenting itself as GPD’s competitor with its OneGx line, but the AYA NEO promised something different with its AMD architecture which is more capable on handheld systems. This device even pushed GPD to start working on its own AMD-based handheld and this is the type of competition that breeds innovation. Whether the AYA NEO succeeds or fails, this is the legacy that it will leave behind.

But this concept of a legacy and of an unknown player disrupting the market should not be what sells you on the device. It’s the performance and quality of the device put forward that should; and after reading this review (and the first impressions piece too!), I hope you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about the device when it goes on sale again. That is, if the AYA team holds its end of delivering the goods to customers. Caution should always be advised for crowdfunded products but with AYA, it seems like delays are eventual but do end up delivering. However, it remains to be seen how they handle it for 2600+ backers. 

As the startup’s first device though, they hit strong as the AYA NEO surely impresses with its performance as a handheld, its quality and the overall experience it delivers. Their first foray into the handheld gaming PC market already puts the company as a strong contender to lead this niche industry, should they keep up with the standard (and ship their product). And they might have set the bar for AMD handheld gaming PCs (by default) as the AYA NEO really is the closest we have to a Nintendo Switch Pro for now.

Verdict
What We Liked . . . AMD-based handheld gaming PC Great handheld PC gaming experience Gorgeous display Well-suited to handle loads of emulators That clear shell! What We Didn't Like . . . Quality and feel of triggers Power and volume buttons are close and can be mistakenly pressed Loud rumble Crowdfunding uncertainties
8.8
out of 10
Overall
From a single person's vision to create an ambitious gaming handheld, the AYA NEO promised a lot and the actual product does deliver on its promise.

    41 comments

  • raxadian
  • Foxi4
  • lordelan
  • ZeroT21
  • raxadian
  • kenenthk
  • MultiKoopa
  • MultiKoopa
  • Retroboy
  • DSwizzy
  • MultiKoopa
  • Prior22
  • raxadian
  • eriol33
  • DSwizzy
  • BitMasterPlus
  • MultiKoopa
  • Goku1992A
  • DSwizzy
  • darkshadow1997
  • Silent_Gunner
  • Vilagamer999
  • Foxi4
  • MultiKoopa
  • Foxi4
  • DaFixer
  • Brayton1-7
  • Prans
  • Brayton1-7
  • Prans
  • cashboxz01
  • Scarlet
  • Camm
  • Prior22
  • cashboxz01
  • cashboxz01
  • Prans
  • Prior22
  • Prans
  • SuperDan