Oh Boy! Another Gameboy Pi Kit!
There are quite a few Gameboy-styled Raspberry Pi DIY kits out there, from the more advanced DIY kits like the Pi Grrl 1 and 2, to the simple plug and play options like the Retroflag GPi, and they all have the same general form factor: A smaller sized DMG-01-style case, a 3” screen, small speaker, a D-pad, six face buttons (ABXY and Start+Select) and, depending on the kit, L and R buttons on the backside. Most ready-made kits, like the Retroflag GPi, can only fit the modest Pi Zero as its emulation hardware, and kits that can use full-sized Raspberry Pi’s, like the Pi Grrl, require a fair bit of soldering and basic DIY skills that might put off beginners from building their own Gameboy Pi handheld. And that’s where the EZ-GBZ kit from Renegade Labs comes in, offering a completely solderless DIY kit that can support either the Pi Zero, or the much more powerful Pi 3a. The EZ-GBZ kit does share some similarities with the previously mentioned kits; you get up to eight face buttons, a 3.2” IPS screen with a contrast potentiometer, rear L/R buttons, a small speaker and headphone jack, and either a 2000mah or 4000mah battery pack. Instead of a DMG-01 styled case, you get an actual reproduction DMG-01 (that’s been modified to accommodate the extra buttons), and instead of having to solder wires and figure out mounting all the PCBs yourself, you get just a base PCB with JST connectors, all of which are designed to easily slap together and fit nice and snug in the DMG-01 case with a Pi 3a connected. That’s the idea of the EZ-GBZ DIY kit, and unfortunately it’s a little less “nice and snug” and a little more “barely fits,” and the parts used are a little less “quality” and a bit more “shit.” But before we get into why, let’s take a look at what exactly you get when you order your own EZ-GBZ kit.
Included in the particular kit I received was the following:
- 1x DMG-01 Shell, modified for eight face buttons
- 1x 3.2” IPS screen (already installed in the shell)
- 1x Gorilla Glass front screen cover
- 1x Base PCB
- 1x barrel connector PCB, plus USB charging cable
- 1x L/R button PCB, plus 3D printed bracket
- 10x face buttons, 2x black, 2x classic red, 1x Start+Select and the 4 colored SNES face buttons
- 1x Empty Cartridge, plus a generic label
- 1x Speaker
- 1x rechargeable 2000mah battery, + 3D printed bracket/casing
- 3x screw kits +power switch cover (despite only needing one kit)
- 5x button spacers; 4x for the eight face buttons and 1x for the D-pad
- 1x USB passthrough cable
- 1x 16GB Micro SD card
All in all, a pretty hefty list of components! One of the first things you’ll notice with the kit is just how much stuff is packed onto this main PCB! On one side, you’ll find the connector for the screen’s ribbon cable, conductive pads for all the buttons, a JST input for the speaker, and the 2.5w amplifier for the audio. The other side hosts the GPIO header, a hardware battery indicator, a power indicator, a USB port, the volume and contrast potentiometers, a 3.5mm jack, and five JST connectors for the following: 1x for USB passthrough, 1x for the battery, 1x for the barrel jack, and 1x each for the left and right bumpers.
The next thing you’ll probably notice, depending on your kit, is how shoddy nearly all the parts in this kit are. I say depending on your kit because the shell and the PCB are both modified/soldered by hand at Renegade Labs, so it’s entirely possible you get a decent looking kit. I, however, did not. First and foremost, quite a few of the modifications made by their staff have a very unfinished look to them; the majority of the cuts in the case are quite rough and look amateurish. The 3D printed brackets are all using PLA and have no finishing done whatsoever on them, which is fine for the parts you don’t see all the time, but the bracket that holds the screen in place is also an unfinished PLA 3D print, and has a rather low quality look that’s visible all the time. And then there’s the soldering job on the PCB itself, which is okay in most places, but not so great in others with my particular product. Particularly, the speaker JST connector was barely soldered at all and came right off as I was putting the kit together for the first time. For the majority of reviewing this product, I had to live without the speaker until I finally rebuilt it for the tenth time (yes, I rebuilt this thing a lot, more on that in a moment) and soldered the speaker wires directly to the 3.5mm jack (which is where the traces for the JST connector ran to). Overall, I was not impressed with the quality of the components used, and after putting this thing together for the first time it felt jankier than any of the cheapo chinese “1045234 games in 1!!!!” handhelds you find everywhere. The game cartridge provided, which is basically used to cover up their shoddy shell customizations, was a nice touch but ultimately fails, since it slides out of the cartridge slot rather easily.
And, speaking of putting it together, that’s a whole other bag of rotten potatoes. Before I go further, I’ll say that if you have any DIY experience at all, putting this thing together without instructions should be fairly easy, and should only take you 15-30 minutes max, if that. Thanks to mainly using JST connectors, and some fairly obvious labeling, as long as you have a little bit of DIY experience you should be able to figure out how to put this thing together on your own without issue in no time at all. But this kit is for DIY beginners, and as such I decided to check the instructions on how to put this thing together for those less DIY-inclined. First thing on the list of “WTF, why?” is there are NO written instructions anywhere to be found. Not in the box or on their website will you find any simply written step-by-step guide on putting this thing together, which is a big turnoff for me personally. The only instructions you will find on their site, on their “Documents” page no less, is an HOUR AND A HALF LIVE STREAM RECORDING, in 360p, that was listed in a Google Drive. Now there are several things wrong with this: the first half an hour was literally just the guy talking to chat. Had nothing to do with putting the thing together at all. Once he actually started, the guy would stop to talk to chat every few minutes or so, completely stopping work so he could read some comment or reply to an unrelated question. The guy doing the live stream also almost forgot a step, and had to be reminded before putting the whole thing together. An instructional video which would’ve taken maybe five-ten minutes tops lasted one hour and 35 minutes. The entire video is, quite frankly, unacceptable and I would strongly advise Renegade Labs to write up a quick written guide at the very least, and make a proper video showing the proper steps in a professional manner as well.
As noted above, putting it together is actually fairly simple: you place buttons and button spacers in their particular spots, connect the screen’s ribbon cable to the main PCB, plug in the speaker JST connector (y’know, if yours doesn’t break off), flip the PCB and screw it down on top of the face button spacers (making it as tight as possible!), mount the 3D printed bracket on the backside of the case for the rear buttons (using as much force as possible, so the rear buttons push out from the casing and aren’t flush), then connect up all the JST connectors, plug the Pi 3a into the GPIO header provided, and screw the thing together. Overall, an extremely easy and painless process, assuming everything fits together well for you.
Next, I’ll talk about how it really felt after putting it together for the first time (following their specific steps). To be blunt: It was jank garbage. Because a lot of the casing was modified and used some cheap 3D printed components, some things just did not fit together as intended (at least, as I hope was intended). Particularly, the 3D printed brackets for the face buttons and the rear buttons are poorly designed and just barely fit the conductive rubber button spacers, resulting in awful mushy buttons the first time I put this kit together. The rear buttons in particular were quite bad, sitting flush with the case which made them very difficult to push at all. The entire case, as well, is of rather poor quality: one corner of the screw holes to fit the two halves together was just bigger than the others, so the screws provided simply slipped through the hole and didn’t hold anything together so the case was slightly open on one corner, which likely didn’t help the rear button issues. And, because I was using a Pi 3a as the SBC, fitting everything together was extremely tight, to the point where I was quite wary of screwing down the case all the way, lest I snap any PCBs or ruin the plastic. Eventually, I ended up pulling this thing apart probably twelve times in total, slowly finagling with the way all the components and button spacers fit together, and finally got a proper, quality fit that I felt comfortable using. Two of the front buttons are still mushy and can’t be helped without some major modifications, and the rear buttons, while no longer flush, are still a pain to push. But, the main four face buttons and d-pad (which, quite frankly, are all that matter) all work quite well after the final refitting (and after pulling a laptop screw with a slightly wider head to hold that corner down in place), and they actually feel fairly usable now - but still not as good as most other kits out there. In terms of power, as noted above, the EZ-GBZ kit I received included a 3.7v 2000mah rechargeable LiPo battery, which is charged via a small barrel connector that sits on the left side of the case. There are some odd design issues with the way the EZ-GBZ handles switching off between battery and charger cable. If you plug the charger into the EZ-GBZ while it’s powered on, the whole board stops drawing power from the battery and swaps to barrel connector, which is all fine and does not interrupt use. Swapping from the barrel connector to the battery, however, causes the system to completely reboot for some reason. So if you happen to be playing your EZ-GBZ while on the charger, and want to pop into the toilet to do some hardcore business, you’re going to have to stop whatever you’re doing, save, and let it reboot after unplugging the thing. The location of the hardware battery indicator is also placed in a rather odd area, as it sits right under where the Pi 3a sits, and can’t be seen at all when a Pi 3a is installed. If you have a Pi Zero, this is visible, and shines four small red LEDs to indicate when the battery is at 100%, 75%, 50%, and 25%. Not totally exact, but good enough. There’s also a software battery indicator, which has a neat little feature that I’ll touch on in the next section.
Software-wise, the EZ-GBZ is better than the hardware, but not by much. The 16GB SD card that comes standard with every kit is flashed with a RetroPie build specifically modified to work with all the hardware provided in the kit, which is required to get everything working. If you lose their build, or upgrade to a higher capacity SD card, you can download their OS image on their website. Their particular build comes with a safe shutdown script already (which powers down the Raspberry Pi when you flip the switch on the top), which is quite handy, but doesn’t quite work 100% of the time, as occasionally it freezes during certain points and keeps everything powered on for quite some time before finally turning off. This can actually be “fixed” by plugging and unplugging the barrel connector from the system since, as mentioned above, this causes a reboot and completely negates the issue. Anyways, one of the first issues I faced here was actually with the USB passthrough. Now, the idea when setting up your EZ GBZ for the first time is you would use the USB port attached to the main PCB to use a USB drive to transfer ROMs/use a keyboard to setup wifi. Unfortunately, this just did not work for me. The USB port would provide power to whatever I plugged in, but no data whatsoever. I ended up having to pull the SD card out of the Pi 3a (which can be accessed without taking the thing apart from the battery tray using tweezers), and setup a wifikeyfile.txt in the boot partition so I could import the SSID/password and use SFTP to transfer games. Not a huge problem itself, but it completely negates the entire point of the external USB connector. To me it seemed more like it was put there to simply fill the game link cable connector than anything. I’d like to say this is simply an error on my kit, however I can’t confirm at the time of writing this review (which is, unfortunately, something else they don’t excel at, but I’ll get into that in a moment) whether this is a defect or intentional design. The second and most glaring issue is that, for some reason I cannot fathom, some of the emulators that come with their Retropie version just...don’t work. In my initial tests, none of the Mupen64Plus builds worked at all, and neither did PCSX-ReARMed, both simply crashing before it’d get in game. After using the RetroPie script to download and update all the usual cores and packages, I was able to get PCSX working, but N64 emulation is just seemingly impossible here. Simple games like Mario Kart 64 would crash before going in-game on most of the different Mupen64 configs, and in others it was impossible to remap controls (even, interestingly, doing it manually via config files) so I couldn’t even try and get past menus. Another issue with their build is the scrapers included with RetroPie, which simply crash the entire system for some reason, which would once again require plugging/replugging the charger to force reboot the system. There’s also some odd video options listed in the Ports section of their image, one for “default” and one for Kodi, each one rebooting the Pi and changing some settings with the screen that, to be honest, make no sense to me. The Kodi option appears to set the screen’s refresh rate to what I would guess to be 24hz, and introduces some weird input lag. The default brings it back to 60hz, and fixes the input lag. I had to contact customer support to ask why this was even a thing. I'll touch on their answer below.
Nearly everything else, however, worked pretty much as expected. As I’m using the Pi 3a instead of a Pi Zero, you get the full quad core 1.4ghz ARM SoC as a normal Pi, so emulating anything from the Playstation 1 era and below is easily done full speed, with only certain platforms like Dreamcast being a bit iffy in terms of performance. In terms of battery life, the advertised time on Renegade Lab’s site was one to two hours, depending on your usage, and I actually managed to get 2.5 hours total while playing PS1 games in my tests, which is quite impressive. Renegade Labs does offer a 4000mah battery, if you want another couple of hours of playtime, but the battery port (without the 3D printed bracket) is big enough that you could probably snag a 5000mah or even 6000mah LiPo battery from Aliexpress or eBay and get a pretty big chunk of play time there, plus if you use the Pi Zero instead of the Pi 3a you can snag just over 4 hours of playtime with the same 2000mah battery, which is quite nice. What’s not nice, however, is the recharge time, which took anywhere from 4-5 hours while the device was off (exact measurements unknown, since I simply couldn’t see the hardware indicator with the Pi 3a installed). This may simply vary depending on your USB power adapter, but I was using the adapter that came with my phone and pushes 5v/2a, which should be more than enough for a faster charge time. As noted previously, there is a software battery indicator that will always display in the top right corner of the screen which is fairly handy, but far from exact. At two hours, the battery indicator was still showing the battery as being half charged with the Pi 3a, but after about 10 minutes I was given a rather handy (but annoying) warning that took up the entire screen for about 10-15 seconds telling me the battery was low, and was going to power down soon. About another 5-10 minutes after, the thing once again displayed a full screen warning with a 1 minute countdown timer before completely powering down the system, which was an interesting screen as it told me to save my progress...but wouldn’t go away so I could actually save my progress, and just shutdown. An interesting method, but a flawed one.
And, finally, there’s Renegade Labs’ customer support, which gets a full fat 0/10 from me. The first problem came with just receiving the unit. When you first order your own EZ-GBZ kit, you have to check a box stating that you understand that the kits will take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to process and ship from the date you order, which is fine. They modify the devices themselves, and generally only do small batches at once so this huge lead time is understandable. After about 6 weeks, I heard nothing from Renegade Labs and ended up contacting their support to check for updates and got a response three days later that the order was delayed due to some manufacturing issues with the PCB, and that it’d take about 2 weeks for them to get new PCBs in. Ok, shit happens and there’s nothing they can do about that, so I’ll wait. Another 2 weeks go by, and I heard nothing from their support about my order status, so I sent another email. No response. Sent another message a week after that one, and didn’t receive a response until a full week later, where I was told some of their parts didn’t get sent to them, and their battery order was “stuck in customs” and it’d ship in another week or two. All things that should have probably, y’know, been told to your customers once this happened. And, once again, I heard nothing about my order until I sent another email three weeks later, where I was finally told that my order was being shipped out to me “in their next batch” and would be shipped by the end of the next week, which is when I ended up receiving my unit. But that’s not the end, because the day after I received my unit I submitted another support ticket, informing them of my speaker connector and USB passthrough issue and asking some clarifying questions so I could provide a bit more info for this review. Finally, after 20 days I received a response from their support, being told my ticket "slipped through the notification system," which is unacceptable for any business. I can now confirm that, yes, my USB passthrough is probably faulty, yes their PCBs were slightly defective in regards to my speaker connector, and the Kodi video mode is used because the main driver they use for video mode has compatibility issues with their screen, whereas an older one works fine.
And that kind of sums up my experience with Renegade Labs’ EZ-GBZ kit, which all in all is a bad one. When properly put together, I will say the EZ-GBZ is an ok device to use, assuming you get a properly made kit, and can spend the time getting everything put together just right. But from the janky workmanship to terrible instructions, shoddy software to their abysmal customer support, Renegade Labs falls short basically everywhere with this kit, and I can’t in good faith recommend you buy one, especially when it’s priced at $77 for the base options alone.
|What We Liked . . . Good "in-between" DIY kit for those looking to get into DIY electronics Use of Pi 3a allows the emulation of many consoles in a tiny package||What We Didn't Like . . . Poor build quality Poor quality control Very unprofessional customer support Overall janky construction, even at best|
out of 10
Overall, the EZ GBZ DIY kit from Renegade Labs is best summed up in one word: jank. If you happen to get a kit that manages to fit together well, that doesn't break, and doesn't have any weird software issues, it could make for a pretty good Raspberry Pi handheld. But, if every kit is as awful as the one I received, it's probably best to either spend your money elsewhere, or abandon the case and design your own using their parts.