GBAtemp Review of the...
Portable gaming has come an exceptionally long way. Take a moment to look over the history of handhelds, and you can easily see the progression of advancements that each new system has incorporated. When most of us began this journey, the power of handhelds provided experiences which were significantly dwarfed in comparison to their console counterparts. As we became engulfed by the alluring glow of pixels being navigated through their individual mechanics, we yearned to take those console experiences on the go. Slowly the handheld systems began to advance as they incorporated full color, backwards compatibility, and eventually console-like experiences. Yet, few allowed us the ability to replay the classics we so desperately wanted to.
Thanks to advancements in technology, powerful systems capable of PC gaming and retro experiences can now be placed into our hands. Classic games such as Doom and Monkey Island can be enjoyed alongside emulation and homebrew. No longer are we limited to just gaming, these systems can stream videos, play music, display e-books, and tune into radio stations among other things. With so many companies supporting similiar features, it can take a lot to stand out from the crowd of retro gaming enabled smartphones, handhelds, and consoles. A system needs to not only offer a great experience, but be backed by equally great support. The Zero, by Games Consoles Worldwide, is one such device. Designed to capture a segment of the retro-gaming community, the Zero offers many of the advancements one would expect from such a system, and the promise of ongoing community software support.
The Zero began as a dream for Justin Barwick, a Dingoo handheld reseller based in the United States. Justin had become heavily involved with the community, and extremely receptive to the requests of his customers. His goal for the Zero was to offer hardware that the community had requested of Dingoo Digital, with software supporting the open-source Linux based kernel, Dingux. Following a successful prototype, Justin took his idea to Kickstarter where he successfully raised $238,498 to make his dream possible.
Exactly what the Zero has accomplished and what it has to offer will be discussed throughout this review. While the Zero builds upon the success of an established community, it stands alone as its own unique entity. For this reason, it will be reviewed without formal comparison to the Dingoo and Gemei Tech handhelds. Due to the vast amount of supported emulation, this review will discuss software in passing and not focus directly on compatibility testing. While many emulators and software offerings will be fully utilized, discussing their unique issues would fall outside the scope of this hardware review.
Important GBAtemp Information:
GBAtemp has opened all reviews for user comment. Please remember that the comments must adhere to our strict guidelines. We ask that you do not post congratulatory comments or comments speculative in nature, negative in nature, or the like, that have nothing to do with the review or the review’s contents. Please consider posting only well researched comments that further the overall effect of the review and nothing more.
This review would not have been possible without the generous support of GCW and their marketing department. I must take this time to thank them for the review sample.
- Games – Supports thousands of gaming experiences via homebrew, emulation, and native engines
- Video – MP4, AVI, OGG, FLAC, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, Flash (VP6), WebM (VP8), 3GP (3GPP) and Apple Quicktime (MOV) media files via FFplay
- Audio - Flac, Ogg, MP3, MP2, MP1, WV, WVC, MOD, IT, STM, S3M, XM, .669, ULT, and M15 audio files via GMU Music Player
- Photos – 320x240 BMP, GIF, JPEG, LBM, PCX, PNG, PNM, TGA, TIFF, WEBP, XCF, XPM, XV images via Viewimg
- Text – TXT files via Glutexto
- Supports – Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8
- CPU – Ingenic JZ4770 1 GHz MIPS processor
- GPU – Vivante GC860, capable of OpenGL ES 2.0
- Display – 3.5 inch LCD with 320x240 pixels; 4:3 aspect ratio
- Operating System – Linux 3.x (OpenDingux)
- Memory – 512 MB DDR2
- Internal storage – 16 GB, most of which is available for applications and data
- External storage – microSDHC up to 32 GB or microSDXC 64 GB (SDXC cards must be reformatted before use)
- Connectivity – Mini USB 2.0 OTG, mini HDMI 1.3 mm out, 3.5 mm (mini jack) A/V port for earphones and analog TV-out
- Audio – Stereo speakers
- Microphone – Mono microphone
- Other – Accelerometer (g-sensor) and vibration *motors
- Wireless – Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4 GHz, can connect to access point or direct device-to-device
- Dimensions – 143 x 70 x 18 mm
- Weight – 8 oz / 225 g
- Battery – 2800 mAh
Currently Unsupported Hardware Features:
- G-Sensor (accelerometer) – Partially implemented
- Rumble (vibration) – Not implemented
- Analog TV-out – Partially implemented, awaits the IPU support for video scaling
- HDMI TV-out – Partially implemented, awaits the IPU support for video scaling
- USB OTG – Implemented, bug fixes required
- FM Radio – Implemented, awaits a GUI program
- Microphone – Implemented, awaits a GUI program
- IPU support – Not implemented
The Zero relies heavily on the support of the community and its developers. Each GCW developer is working free-of-charge on a case-by-case basis. Information obtained from discussions with marketing staff and developers reflects a continual development cycle, with a desire to better the Zero for its community. While the above list of unsupported features seem disappointing, my research points to these, and other features, being on the to-do list, and some are even close to being completed.
Currently Supported Emulation:
- Amstrad CPC
- Arcade (MAME, FBA)
- Atari 2600
- Atari 5200
- Atari 7800
- Atari Lynx
- DOS (x86)
- Game Boy (Color)
- Game Boy Advance
- Game Gear
- Genesis (32x, CD)
- Master System
- Neo Geo
- Neo Geo Pocket (Color)
- Nintendo Entertainment System
- Super Nintendo Entertainment System
- Watara Supervision
The Zero currently offers more emulators, out-of-the-box, than the Dingoo A320 did. As more developers receive their units, the list of ported emulators should continue to grow. Potential owners should understand that incorporating Dingux does not necessarily mean that Dingoo ports can be simply recompiled. By comparison, the library of games Dingoo owners are currently playing is greater than those available for the Zero. Yet, the Dingoo has been available for years and the Zero has only been publically available for a few short months. Those purchasing a Zero under the pretense that it is a new Dingoo, with full Dingux legacy backwards compatibility, should reconsider.
It is entirely possible to run some Dingux legacy software not designed with the Zero in mind. While some software may run perfectly fine, others may present serious issue. Until these projects are properly compiled for the Zero, they do not fit into the scope of this review, and will only be mentioned in passing.
- Decent 2
- Dink Smallwood
- Doom (Freedoom, Mods)
- Duke Nukem 3D (Mods)
- Engine02 (Multiplatform Game Engine)
- Exult (Ultima 7)
- Flashback: The Quest for Identity
- Hexen 2
- NXEngine (Cave Story)
- Open Sonic (Open source Sonic the Hedgehog)
- Open Tyrian
- Quake 2
- Rise of the Triad
- Shadow Warrior (Wanton Destruction)
- Solarus (RPG Game Engine)
At the time of this reviews publication, this list represented a majority of ported software, engines, and interpreters. As new games are ported directly to the Zero, this list will become outdated.
It is entirely possible to run some Dingux legacy ported software, engines, and interpreters, not designed with the Zero in mind. While some software may run perfectly fine, others may present serious issue. Until these projects are properly compiled for the Zero, they do not fit into the scope of this review, a will only be mentioned in passing.
Contents and Packaging
1x GCW Zero (White or Black)
1x Carrying Pouch (GCW Logo)
1x Wall Charger
1x Mini-to-Normal HDMI Cable
1x Mini USB-to-USB OTG Adapter
The Zero ships in a matte finished, black colored, cardboard box. The box is wrapped with a cardboard GCW logo sleeve, which helps to add a level of professionalism to the packaging. Sliding the sleeve out of the way, the box reveals images and information about the console. The top of the box displays the GCW Zero logo, an image of the black colored console, and the catch phrase, “the ultimate open source handheld”. Holding the box so that the information and images are right side up, the right side displays a GCW logo, while the top displays a GCW Zero logo. The left side of the box contains the technical information, a check box area for which unit color is in the box, and various FCC/RoH3 compliant logos. The back of the box contains another image of the Zero, text that describes the system and its intended experiences, 10 gaming images, and the GCW Zero Web site address.
The top of the box pulls upwards, and slowly slides away, to reveal the Zero resting in a white cardboard tray. The Zero is protected by a thin, soft, plastic composite bag. The tray is designed to hold the Zero securely, as it is only slightly larger than the unit itself. The box feels extremely sturdy and thick enough to be adequately crush proof. Found under the tray is the carrying pouch, wall charger, AV-out cable, mini HDMI cable, mini USB cable, and USB adapter. The items are free floating but packed tightly enough that they should not cause any issue during shipping.
The charger is a traditional 2 prong charger; it’s not grounded and will plug into a N. American outlet in either direction. The charger plugs loosely into the Zero, it does not insert completely and can be disengaged by accident. The Zero can also be charged via a powered USB port, which means it will charge while you are transferring your favorite games and applications. USB cables fit more securely, and disengage rather smoothly. The included mini USB cable is approximately 3 feet in length, and while most hobbyists will already own one, it is still nice to have one provided. The AV-out and mini HDMI cables are completely standard, and are of the quality shipped with similar retro handhelds. Both AV-out and mini HDMI ports require extra force when plugging or unplugging cables. Once inserted, these cables feel secure and unmoving. The mini USB on-the-go adapter is encased in a comfortable rubber and feels well constructed.
The carrying pouch has a velvet-like feel to the outside and a rough feel to the inside. While the plastic LCD screen cover has been officially described as scratch resistant, the rough interior of the pouch feels unwelcoming. The GCW logo is rough with raised edges, making it feel easy to scratch off. The carrying pouch is secured by a clear plastic bead, which when placed through a thin loop of string, acts as a means to hold the pouch closed. The bead does function but never offers a feeling of security, as the Zero can slide out almost half an inch. During the review process the Zero was stored in the pouch and nothing happened to the unit, however, it is difficult to recommend it as a serious type of protection.
Design and Impressions
The front face of the Zero has a directional pad, analog nub, start and select buttons, and 4 input buttons labeled A, B, X, and Y. To the right of the start and select buttons are two LEDs that indicate various types of activity based on color and pattern. A power slider is located on the right side of the unit. This slider is also used in conjunction with other buttons to provide useful short-cuts (boot backup kernel, restart, adjust volume, adjust brightness, etc). The top of the unit has two shoulder buttons, and the analog-out and mini HDMI ports. The placement of these ports are a welcomed addition to the Zero. It shows that GCW clearly thought about the position of these ports in comparison to the Dingoo products it spiritually expands upon. The left side of the unit has a pin-sized microphone and a cut out for a wrist strap or cell phone style charm. The bottom of the unit contains the small stereo speakers, a recessed reset button, the mini USB port, DC wall charger input, and a spring loaded microSD slot. The Zero can accept microSDHC cards, and microSDXC cards that have been reformatted before use, both of which are inserted with their contact teeth facing upwards.
The Zero feels solid and is rather lightweight. When holding it, the unit feels very comfortable and extremely well constructed. The type of finish GCW went with provides a smooth, non-slippery, gaming experience. The LCD sits under the shell and is protected by a plastic cover. The plastic cover frames the LCD with scratch resistant shielding. The LCD supports 27 levels of brightness that provide enough backlight for both indoor and outdoor gaming sessions.
The analog nub is very responsive and feels comfortable to use, while the directional pad requires a tiny bit more pressure than a 1st party controller. However, compared to the many Chinese retro-supportive clone systems that I have used, the Zero d-pad is exceptionally responsive. It picks up and interprets exactly what I am doing, including intricate movements required for shooters and sports games. Many Kickstarter unit owners have complained about the d-pad rubbing on the shell, a problem for which a tiny amount of silicone-based grease has been prescribed. The right and down inputs of the d-pad do rub on the review unit, a problem which can require more input pressure than expected. Manually shifting the d-pad back to the left alleviates most of this issue for a short time, until the d-pad repositions itself again. Both the d-pad and buttons can make a plastic-on-plastic rubbing sound when pressed the wrong way. The review unit suffers from this while pressing right on the d-pad, and only occasionally while pressing down or the A button. The produced sound is not so annoying that it distracts from the enjoyment of the system.
As with Dingoo products, the Zero incorporates a reset button. The reset button is only required if the unit experiences a software hang, as the power slider may become unresponsive. Similar to the Dingoo design, the reset button is recessed and requires a paper clip or something similar to access it.
The speakers are suitable for gaming and most multimedia enjoyment, while being loud enough to provide a good user experience. Their bottom mounted placement can cause them to become muffled depending how you choose to hold your handhelds. Users who use their pinky fingers as support may choose to utilize ear buds for a majority of gaming experiences.
Set-up and Usage
The development team has yet to implement a virtual file system. This means that the internal microSD will not simply "pop-up" for drag-n-drop file transfers, as one might expect. Connecting to the file system will require FTP, SFTP, SCP, Telnet, WIFI, SSH, or the GCW Zero Manager application. The Zero utilizes an .OPK container for its files that holds the relevant software meta data (icon, title, description, manual, and launch parameters). This container greatly simplifies set-up procedures by automatically creating links within the menu system (GMenu2x). Users familiar with OpenDingux will no longer need to fiddle with .TAR.GZ containers, manually linking executables, etc. Transferring an .OPK file to the Zero can be accomplished most easily with the GCW Zero Manager application. The v0.9.0.0 update provides features that were previously reserved for other transfer methods, such as FTP. These features include the ability create and delete directories, navigate to the home and parent directories with the click of a button, and to upload and download non .OPK files.
If you were a Kickstarter backer or perhaps received an old stock unit, then you may need to update your kernel before utilizing the GCW Zero Manager. Thankfully, this process is extremely simple and requires only a few steps.
After turning on your unit, navigate to the settings tab (R1/L1) and look for an icon titled "Network", if this icon does not exist then you may need to update. Updating will require access to the file system, utilizing one of the previously mentioned transfer options. Firstly, connect the Zero to your computer via the mini USB cable and allow it to install the necessary drivers. Windows XP and up are supported by the Zero, however, XP will require the manual installation of USB Ethernet drivers, where-as Windows 7 and 8 has them already built in. Once the drivers are installed, you can connect to the Zero using FTP (for example) at IP address 10.1.1.2 with username "root", and the password field left empty. Transfer the update .OPK file to "Apps/" directory and then disconnect the the Zero. If you are not already there, navigate to the applications tab and execute the "OS Update". Even if you do not wish to use the GCW Zero Manager application, updating the kernel is still highly recommended as new revisions offer better support, more hardware features, etc. After a successful kernel update, navigate to the settings tab and execute the newly available network software. It is now possible to set a random password for FTP, SFTP, Telnet, and SSH. If you do not wish to use a password, and would like to continue to login as before, then choose the option to "Allow login without password". The IP (10.1.1.2) and username (root) will remain the same.
The GCW Zero Quick-start WIKI article does a great job of covering the set-up and usage procedures. So as not to reiterate the options already collected there, this review will focus on only the GCW Zero Manager application. If you are using an Operating System other than Windows, please refer to the GCW Quick-start Guide for alternatives and instructions.
The GCW Zero Manager is a Windows application that does not require an install. Execute the "GCWZeroManager.exe" file, click on the Manage Software button, and then press "Refresh". Assuming the user has set everything up correctly, a listing of software installed on the Zero will be displayed. From here users can click on a file, and then click "Uninstall" to permanently remove software from the Zero. To install software to the Zero, click the Install Software button, then click "Add OPK", navigate to the desired software and then select it. It is possible to install multiple files at the same time, simple populate more than 1 file to the list before pressing the Install All button. The "Manage Software" list does not support automatic refreshing, if you wish to remove a recently installed file, you will need to press the Refresh button, and then navigate to the desired file. As of v0.9.0.0, users can perform functions previously reserved to other transfer methods and clients. Click on the Files button and then hover over the various icons to glimpse their function. These new functions include creating and deleting directories, a feature that is extremely important for various homebrew, and uploading into and downloading from any directory. Uploading and download will be utilized by those who manually adjust configuration files, wish to add music or other multimedia, or simply by advanced users who are familiar with the kernel and its directory structure.
The Zero can be charged either by the included AC adapter or via a powered USB port. During charging, the top LED will glow solid red in color and remain lit until the unit is fully charged. It will take approximately 2 hours for the unit to fully charge from a completely drained battery, at which point the top LED will turn off. The top LED will also turn off when the Zero is unplugged from its power source. Pushing the power-slider up and then releasing it will boot the Zero. Assuming the battery contains sufficient power, the bottom LED will glow a solid green approximately 1 second after the power-slider has been pushed. During the boot sequence, the LCD will scroll information until the graphical user interface is displayed. The supported GUI and file launcher is GMenu2x. On the top of this menu system is the navigational bar and at the bottom is an info bar. The navigational bar displays the default 3 tab menu system. The info bar displays the available storage space, a clock, and the status of the battery. If the unit is charging then a charging "plug" icon will be displayed in place of the battery icon. Navigating between tabs is accomplished by pressing either the L or R shoulder buttons. The default tabs in alphabetical order are "applications", "games", and "system". Installed .OPK files will usually populate the "applications" and "games" tabs, while firmware related software will usually populate the "settings" tab. The d-pad or analog nub is used to navigate between icons from within the currently selected tab. Pressing the A button will launch the selected software via its GMenu2x link, or confirm a selection. Pressing the B button at any point will display a brief help menu. Pressing the Select button will display a context menu (more on this below). Pressing the Start button will display the options menu. From within the options menu the user can adjust the system display Language (English, Basque, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish), toggle an option to save the last link selection on exit (ON/OFF), turn on or off Output logs, adjust the screen timeout (0-120s in 1 or 10 second increments), and show or hide the root folder from the file selection dialogs. The options menu can also be accessed by navigating to Settings > GMenu2x, highlighting it, and pressing the A button.
The Zero utilizes short-cut key functions for a variety of important features. While most users will simply use them to adjust the volume or screen brightness, they can also perform such tasks as booting a backup version of the kernel. There exists short-cut key function for both the on and off power states. In accordance with the GCW Zero Quick-start Guide, both sets of options have been compiled below.
When the Zero is powered off:
- Holding the X button and the power-slider UP will boot the backup kernel, if present
- Holding the Y button and the power-slider UP will boot the backup rootfs, if present
- Holding both the X and Y buttons, and the power-slider UP will boot both the backup kernel and rootfs, if present
- Holding the Select button and the power-slider UP will boot into USB mode
The powered-off short-cut key functions can be utilized while turning on the Zero. The USB mode is for flashing purposes as it allows for raw access into the units memory. This mode is intended for recovery purposes only and should not be confused with firmware updates. Pressing the recessed reset button, found on the bottom of the unit, will exit USB mode.
When the Zero is powered on:
- Holding the power-slider UP for 3 seconds will safely shut off the Zero
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing the Start and Select buttons will safely reboot the Zero
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing UP on the d-pad will increase the volume by 1 increment (0-32). Holding the d-pad will increase the volume in multiple increments
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing DOWN on the d-pad will decrease the volume by 1 increment (0-32). Holding the d-pad will decrease the volume in multiple increments
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing RIGHT on the d-pad will increase the LCD brightness by 1 increment (1-27). Holding the d-pad will increase the brightness in multiple increments
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing LEFT on the d-pad will decrease the LCD brightness by 1 increment (1-27). Holding the d-pad will decrease the brightness in multiple increments
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing the B button will toggle the mouse input mode. In this mode the A and B buttons will act as left and right mouse clicks
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing the Y button will take a screenshot. Screenshots are stored in the "local/home/screenshots" directory
- Holding the power-slider UP, and pressing the Select button will terminate the foreground application, losing all unsaved information
- Pushing the power-slider DOWN will lock all input buttons. This is a per-program option that may be ignored entirely.
The Zero can be safely shut down by accessing the Power Off application from within the settings tab. The Zero can be rebooted by selecting the Reboot application from within the same tab. The volume can be adjusted before booting software by utilizing the Sound Mixer application from within the settings tab. Terminating foreground applications is a quick way to exit a program but at the risk of losing all unsaved data. Each software title may incorporate their own exit routine, and it is advisable to explore their individual menu systems before making use of the terminate short-cut key function.
Those who have not experienced OpenDingux may be unfamiliar with the context menu and its intended purpose. The .OPK container simplifies the need for this menu, rendering it obsolete in most circumstances. However, those who wish to experiment with compatible Dingux legacy software and decompressed .OPK files will need to manually link these files into the menu system. Reasons for decompressing an .OPK may include such things as sprite hacks or the inclusion of additional WAD files. After these changes are made, the .OPK should be moved to the Zero as a folder. In order to launch the software, the executable must be linked and placed into a category. The context menu also provides a level of organization as tabbed pages can be created and named at will. This makes it possible to build a tab for First Person Shooters or one for personal favorites, thus greatly expanding upon the default organizational setup.
Decompressing an .OPK file can be accomplished with an application such a 7z. Once the file has been decompressed it can be uploaded anywhere on the Zero. For organizational purposes, I recommend the "local/home" directory. As this directory is most often used by hombrew, you will become familiar with it rather quickly. Navigate to the desired tab and press the Select button, and the context menu will reveal itself. Select the first option which is "add link in ", navigate to your decompressed .OPK folder, and only the executable should be visible. Select it and press the A button, the context menu will close and the linked game will appear in alphabetical order. It can now be navigated to, highlighted and then launched, in the same way as compressed .OPK files. Highlighting the linked software and pressing the Select button will reveal a more advanced context menu. From this menu you can additionally edit your link (Title, Description, Icon, Manual, etc), and delete the new link, thus removing the .OPK folder from the current tab.
The Zero can be better organized by customizing tab names or by completely adding new tabs. To add a custom tab, press the Select button, navigate to "Add section" and then press the A button. An onscreen keyboard will provide a means for naming your new tab, simply press OK to create the tab. Custom tabs can be removed, along with all software links, by navigating to "Delete section". It is possible to rename any custom or default tabs by navigating to "Rename section". Utilizing these methods will make the Zero feel more user friendly and provide a means to better organize applications, games, emulation, and homebrew.
The homebrew selection currently contains games from a variety of genres, including puzzle, platforming, and role playing games. Many of the officially hosted software titles provided enjoyable experiences. Honorable mentions include SuperTux, Puzzletube, Mazezam, Stringrolled, Vectoroids, and Powder. These titles were relatively well polished, did not cause any hardware hangs, and were fun to play across multiple gaming sessions. Most notably among the homebrew game selections was Unnamed Monkey Game, by Artur Rojek, Andreas Bjerkeholt, Thorin Hopkins, and Daniel Kvarfordt. This retro platformer has the feel of a published Game Boy game, right down to the graphics, music, and level design. It should come preinstalled on the Zero, and if it does not then be sure to make it one of your first installs. Ported homebrew not yet officially hosted by GCW, yet worth additional honorable mentions, include Ghouls-n-Ghosts Remix, Griel's Quest for the Sangraal, and L'Abbaye des Morts. Fans of retro games, specifically those of the ZX Spectrum, should be sure to install L'Abbaye des Morts. This game is an incredibly challenging and fun platformer that features both retro and modern graphic modes.
The current grouping of officially-hosted directly-ported engines includes a wonderful selection of retro experiences. Games such as Dink Smallwood (RPG), Duke Nukem 3D (FPS), and Flashback: The Quest for Identity (platformer) have all been made available. While not yet officially hosted, directly-ported engines for such titles as Doom, Quake 2, Ultima 7 (Exult), and Cave Story have also been released. The engines which were tested for this review ran without issue, and felt right at home on the Zero. Some of the engines may require extra files or the creation of specific directories, making them a little less user friendly than homebrew .OPK files. However, not one single engine caused any serious set-up headaches thanks to included readme files and support from the amazing Zero community.
Emulation for the Zero includes many retro consoles, handhelds, and computer systems. Among these releases are emulators for the NES, SNES, Game Boy, GBA, Master System, Game Gear, Sega Genesis (CD/32x), Atari 2600, Neo Geo, and the Amstrad CPC. There exist a proof-of-concept Dreamcast emulator and a PS1 emulator, both of which help to show the probable boundaries of the Zero hardware. Emulators are rather simple to setup, and most offered a built-in file browser. There is much conversation and debate among the Zero community in regards to the proper placement of ROMs and other emulation files. While a few specific directories have been mentioned, the “data/local/” and “data/” directories were among the most common. All emulation related files used for this review were hosted in “data/local/ROMs/” subdirectories and performed without issue. It should be noted that on occasion the manual manipulation of directories caused erratic behavior and the deletion of individual configuration files was required. Becoming familiar with the directory structure, Dingux-related files, etc, via the GCW Zero Manager or an FTP application is an important step towards proper usage.
Performance-wise, both officially hosted and unofficially released software offerings were well adjusted to the Zero hardware. The current development community is extremely active and working hard to update the library of released software. Everything from homebrew to emulation was a treat to play and performed without serious issue. However, a few words of caution should be written about Dingux legacy software. The Zero uses hard-float calculations and updated rootfs libraries. While some Dingux legacy software will continue to function, it is not recommended to run such software on the GCW Zero kernel. Legacy (A320) binaries were not designed with the Zero in mind and may cause unexpected issues. Make use of these legacy software offerings at your own risk.
The Zero incorporates a WIFI chip, which offers support for both online and local multiplayer. While a second Zero owner was unavailable for local multiplayer testing, online multiplayer was experimented upon for this review. A few rounds of Doom were enjoyed with other players who quickly made it their mission to flex their superiority and knowledge of the multiplayer maps. These gaming sessions were fun, entertaining, and ran free of issue. Thanks to the directly-ported PC game engines, Zero owners may challenge not only other Zero owners but also PC gamers, providing for a wonderful variety of online experiences and gaming options.
Asking if these missing features take away from the experience, especially after reading this review, should result in a resounding “no”! The Zero supports a great variety of homebrew, and retro emulation, interpreters and directly-ported game engines. These software offerings provide an ability to play thousands of available gaming experiences that run free of serious issue. Sure it would be nice to control games with the G-sensor, feel feedback from the rumble motor, or play our favorite radio stations, but these things are not required of a gaming system. Features such as analog and HDMI TV-out will help the Zero to leap towards a console categorization, which will enhance the playability of retro games that require a keyboard or mouse, yet they really are not needed, only wanted. So while the Zero is not yet worthy of the title of “spiritual successor”, it can reach this goal through its technological means and with the support of its active development community.
Dingoo Digital was a difficult team to reach, following a few minor firmware updates, the team disappeared and stopped supporting their system. If a community of talented developers had not embraced the system, the A320 could have easily faded into oblivion, taking with it the dream that inspired the Zero. Unlike Dingoo Digital, those involved with the Zero have been extremely easy to reach. Developers and porters idle on an official IRC channel (/server irc.freenode.net /join #GCW) and moderate the official “unofficial” Dingoonity forums. If you have a question, concern, comment or bug report, help from a developer or an experienced user is only a post away. This level of community support is reminiscent of the glorious golden age of the A320 and speaks greatly of this system and its newly formed community.
One of the most critical debates to form around the Zero has been from Kickstarter backers who would have you believe that this system is not worth its asking price. They reference delays and hardware issues while not grasping a full understanding of what it means to buy into a start-up company. What it all boils down to the difficulty of manufacturing, setting-up, testing, and shipping more than 1,600 units with the help of only a handful of volunteers. I will not disagree that Justin Barwick may have taken on more than he was ready for, but to fault him personally for issues out of his control is ludicrous. The Kickstarter page is sure to be a place most users will begin to research the system, and they may be quickly turned off by the flood of negative comments by those who have not yet received their unit. It is the attempt of this paragraph to remind you that a majority of these users have not yet used, touched, or experienced the Zero. They have written it off based on delays and frustration geared towards the CEO. Be reminded that opinions should be formed from actual experiences and not generated from the words of others.
If one were to inquire about the faults of the system, unfortunately they would extend past the missing features. The directional pad and buttons have a tendency to rub on the sides of the shell. This rubbing not only causes an annoying sound but can result in the hardware completely missing an input. The official solution is to lubricate the edges of these areas with silicone-based grease. The mechanical designer behind the Zero, simply known as gmay3, has a different solution. This person is busy prototyping replacement parts which should alleviate these problems entirely. The new directional pad, shoulder buttons, and face buttons, are smaller in dimension and currently reported to alleviate these issues. Those that make their purchases from ThinkGeek should receive an updated unit that already incorporates a new directional pad, although different from those being designed by gmay3. The argument for these issues does not go unnoticed, it is not without foundation, and can be understood by all. Perhaps those who experience such problems should be reminded that they bought into a device that did not promise perfection. Yes, it can be upsetting when things do not work correctly, and those who have issue could be reminded of the Dingoo systems. The A320 had a horribly non-responsive directional pad; some units were unable to process the simplest of inputs. The A330 had cheap plastic parts, while more responsive, felt “mushy” and uncomfortable to use. The Gemei Tech A330 finally solved the input design issues, yet lacked software support, ports, and updates. The Zero is striving towards something better and GCW does not hide the imperfections. They have publically acknowledged the input button faults and are working towards solving them completely. It is understandable that most will not be satisfied with their slow progress, having bought into a concept they deemed free of issue. The point of these comments is not to provide a platform for debate, as they are to acknowledge the issues and remark upon their insignificance. During testing the review unit did require harder input presses than expected. During testing the review unit did make annoying plastic-upon-plastic rubbing sounds. However, this did not take away from the overall enjoyment of the software and their intended experiences. Perhaps not all games will be fully enjoyable, and if you are buying a system like the Zero for a handful of specific experiences then you would be advised to conduct proper research before making your purchase.
Another subject of debate has been the choice of hardware used with the Zero. Those involved in these discussions often point towards more advanced systems capable of running Android based emulation past the PS1 generation. The Zero was never designed to be the next generation of retro-emulation supportive handhelds. This is a point that needs drilling home to those that can not see through to its design. The Zero is a Dingux-based system which offers hardware the Dingoo community desired for years. Once considered a Dingoo system, it becomes clear what the Zero is and its intended purposes are. Comparing it to anything other than a Dingoo handheld becomes inappropriate.
In regards to design, the Zero is extremely comfortable to hold, is rather light weight, and large enough to prevent hand cramping after long gaming sessions. The directional pad feels properly placed and the analog nub is very sensitive and works wonderfully with all supported software. The positioning of the various ports clearly shows that GCW put some thought into the design of the system, by placing the output ports (analog, HDMI) on the top of the unit and import ports (miniUSB, DC, microSD) on the bottom. The shell is large enough to provide adequate surface area for gaming while never making an input feel out of reach. As the start button has more usage with emulation and retro experiences than the select button, and it would have been nice if their positioning had been reversed. Depending on how the Zero is held, the bottom mounted speakers may become muffled. It is for this reason that front mounted stereo speakers would have been a welcomed addition. While the black shell can not be commented upon, the white shell does allow for light bleed. The LEDs glow a bright red and green through the shell and also backlight the edge of the Select and Start buttons.
The major fear Dingoo users had was the inability to fix a broken system. The community eventually responded with multiple versions of an unbricking tool. Dingux is a kernel that can demand a learning curve. Simply diving into its directories and making changes at-will can render the system useless. Thankfully, the Zero has been designed in such a way that it is virtually brick proof. In the event of a kernel failure with the inability to run the backup install, the system can be reflashed with relative ease by a moderately experienced computer user.
The gaming community has just left an era of unparalleled hacking that resulted in homebrew, emulation and retro experiences being delivered to both our handhelds and consoles with relative ease. Most of those reading this conclusion will have at least 1 system capable of performing the same experiences and begin to question why they should buy another. The first worthy point to be made is that the Zero is actively developed for. Homebrew, emulation, interpreters, and directly-ported engines are continually being developed and enhanced for the system, unlike most of our 1st party handhelds which have lost the interest of their former developers. A second worthy point is that the build of Dingux utilized by the Zero is continually being adjusted for better system performance, with features such as triple buffering being only weeks away. Finally a 3rd worthy point, geared more towards Dingoo system owners who have been waiting for the next evolution of their beloved handhelds, the Zero is the system many wish Dingoo Digital had released all those years ago. It incorporates features which enhance the experience without feeling overly gimmicky. The Zero may only not be for everyone, but is sure to appeal to retro gamers and handheld collectors looking for a new reason to play their ageing backlog. The experiences generated from this review have been positive and entertaining, and they make it very easy to recommend the Zero to all interested parties.
This review was written for GBAtemp.net ONLY. The article and included photos are the property of Another World. Research was conducted using Dingoonity, the GCW Zero WIKI article, and by discussing hardware and software with the GCW CEO, developers, support staff, and community.
Thank you Justin Barwick for keeping in contact with me after all these years. I greatly appreciated having the opportunity to work with you and to write this review.
Thank you Surkow for helping me from the beginning and for providing lots of useful information.
Thank you Zear, Nebuleon, JohnnyonFlame, Harteex, and Qbertaddict for providing useful information and tools which made this review possible.
Thank you Vatoloco for additional testing, trading notes, and fun conversations.
Thank you Rents for providing things that allowed this review to happen.
Thank you Miss Em for offering conversation that kept me happily distracted while I wrote.
A very special thanks to Mega Ran for providing the theme music for this review.
An awkward thanks to Ice-Storm, you know what you did wrong! Your doubts only pushed me harder to crush you with this review.
If you see this review on any other site please let me know via a Private Message to Another World.
Follow me on Twitter: @AW_GBAtemp for news, info, rants, and general gaming fun.
- Comfortable form factor
- Excellent input port placement
- Accurate analog nub
- LCD geared to lower-resolution retro games
- microSD support
- Dingux support
- Easy to set-up and use
- Includes all required cables
- Comes preinstalled with games and applications
- Strong community support
- Development team is extremely approachable
- Extremely well documented
- Bottom mounted speakers can get muffled by fingers
- Sticky directional pad and buttons
- No Dingux legacy back-catalog support (without a recompile)