Coming from Anbernic, the makers of the excellent RG350 and RG351 line of retro gaming handhelds as well as of the upcoming (potentially) SteamOS-based handheld, is the RG503 handheld. In addition to packing a new hardware design coming from this particular company, what sets this RK3566 chip-equipped retro handheld apart is its 4.95” OLED display, which is the same one found on the PS Vita PCH-1000 model. This feature also makes the RG503 the first retro handheld to sport an OLED screen and we’ll take a look at what it offers here.
Starting at $150 at the time of writing, you’ll find the following items out of the box:
- RG503 Console
- USB charging cable
- Screen protector
- User manual
As for the specs, you can find them below:
With the RG503, Anbernic has made some interesting changes to the hardware design. Unlike its previous handhelds which adopted a sleek, rectangular form factor, the RG503 bears an almost trapezoid-shape with rounded corners. While this might look odd at first, it actually works well for a device of this size. It sits well in the palms and the curved back with a slight handgrip bump (also a new addition) adds to the comfort. The integrated grips also bear a new, textured finish that provides a better grasp and overall feel while in use.
Another new feature is with the shoulder buttons. These are still adjacent but the L2 and R2 buttons are raised above the level of the L1/R1 buttons. Given the size of the device, this is a good choice as it helps to better reach the innermost L2/R2 keys with more ease. However, stacked shoulder buttons would still be better for this device, given its size; and is a direction that the company should consider.
Also new is the recessed screen of the device. While I’m not particularly a fan as I prefer flushed displays, having the screen recessed does add a game-y or even nostalgic retro appeal to the system. This appeal is fuelled by the chunky bezels, especially at the lower side under the screen, which I’m also not a fan of and would rather have a slimmer device with less prominent bezel.
Since Anbernic seems keen to adopt new designs for its larger-sized handhelds, it should also consider engineering them with an asymmetric layout. This is because such a layout would be more ergonomic as these newer devices can emulate more recent consoles like the Dreamcast, N64 or PSP where the use of an analogue stick is integral to the gameplay. This is in contrast to the RG350 or RG351 lines which best emulated systems that mostly focused on D-pad input (think SNES, Sega Mega Drive and GBA) and the analogue sticks were nice-to-haves. As consoles where an analogue stick actually form part of the gameplay experience can be well emulated on newer and more powerful handhelds, a more ergonomic layout would be required. Hence, adopting an asymmetric, Xbox controller-like design would work better going forwards.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the experience is bad altogether with the RG503. As its emulation caps at systems like the N64, Dreamcast and PSP, twin-stick controls aren’t really a thing and many titles will still use the D-pad to control characters. What’s occasionally cumbersome is that the shoulder buttons, especially on the left side, will need some reach if you’re simultaneously using the left analogue stick.
That said, the RG503 bears Anbernic’s traditional quality hardware. While it’s still a plastic shell, it feels nice to the touch and the membrane under the face buttons deliver a satisfying tactile feedback. I was also positively surprised at how lightweight the RG503 is considering its size. At around 235g, it might be one of the lightest gaming handhelds of this dimension; making it an easy choice to take during your travels/commute as you can easily game up to 6 hours on it.
Anbernic’s choice for the PS Vita’s OLED panel is also spot on for a retro handheld. Colours are vibrant, offering a better contrast and viewing angles. Moreover, the OLED delivers true black levels and this is particularly handy when emulators insert black bezels to adjust to the aspect ratio. Retro games don’t look any better on a dedicated emulation handheld and it’s a joy to see games of yesteryear on this display.
Not everything is all roses with the hardware however. The positioning of the function button (at the bottom) feels off as it is relatively hard to reach, especially given that it often requires a combination of button presses to pull up the emulator menu. Having it on the face of the device and mapped with the required button combination would have made for a better design.
Of note, the A/B/X/Y button openings on the shell might be a tad too tight for the buttons themselves. In my unit, the latter were shedding the coat of paint on the sides after some minor use. While it’s not totally a deal breaker, it’s an aesthetic inconvenience that I hope the company takes into consideration.
On the software side of things, the RG503 runs on the Linux-based EmuElec OS and packs the RetroArch frontend. It functions in a similar way to previous Anbernic devices, with one microSD dedicated to the OS and another microSD used to add your ROMs to.
And, as usual, the stock OS is not the best out there and delivers a UI that is serviceable at best. But that’s because it’s developed by Rockchip, the manufacturer of the RK3566 CPU found in this device. Anbernic is first and foremost a hardware manufacturer and this is apparent. Luckily they partner with software developers for custom firmwares and these are coming up shortly. But ideally, they’d have their own software developers to rely on for that.
When it comes to gaming, the RK3566 chip handles older systems like PS1, SNES and NES just fine. Given that this CPU is more powerful than that included in the RG350 or RG351 handhelds, you can think of emulating more powerful consoles with it. The RG503 can indeed handle systems like N64, Dreamcast and PSP fairly well, although performance might depend on the game being emulated. There might be some sporadic framerate drops and stuttering audio but games are well playable.
PSP emulation at 2x resolution is a real treat to the eyes and feels appropriate for this handheld. With no frame skipping, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII would run smoothly at 30fps and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker also runs at the capped 20fps.
Dreamcast titles also fared well when I tested Skies of Arcadia and Crazy Taxi, which ran at 30fps and 60fps respectively. Moreover, by tweaking the settings, you might get better performance for specific titles if you spend more time fiddling with the settings.
A noticeable issue is with the N64 emulator. While titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Banjo-Kazooie run at 55-60fps, there are audio stutters which seem to be related to physical input. The stutters would subside when pressing a face button. Hopefully this can be addressed in a future update.
With its built-in WiFi, the RG503 is also capable of streaming PC games via Moonlight. This can be an attractive option for those who don’t want to spend $300+ on one of those handheld gaming PCs. The OLED panel on the RG503 will deliver a visually compelling experience.
As the RG503 has just been released, at this time, I’d say, like I have been for most if not all retro handhelds upon release, to wait before a purchase until custom firmwares is out. The OS is traditionally, if not notoriously, rough around the edges this early in launch but eventually gets better with CFW. Anbernic has a dedicated community of developers working on delivering compelling software that inevitably enhances the overall experience of the device.
However, what the device will look like when (or if) custom firmware remains to be seen but given the company’s track record, there’s a good chance that CFW will deliver a more compelling experience than what is already on offer now. Hence the reason for an impression piece rather than a full review. It seems to be always better to wait for community support with these devices, and while not ideal (you’d want the company to offer an all-round product from the get-go), it is usually worth the wait (there might be a price drop and better UI/UX by then).
Even if the 1GB of RAM in this device might be limiting in case of some homebrew games or certain ports, if done right, a CFW-equipped RG503 might very well be a contender for those looking for an upgrade for the RG350/RG351. So a full review will come a bit later when this device’s potential has been more fleshed out and a better recommendation (or not) can be shared.
But if you’d like to tinker with the software yourself and experience your favourite retro games on the gorgeous OLED panel, you could consider getting the Anbernic RG503. As always, there might be cheaper alternatives but Anbernic’s devices bear quality hardware and the RG503 is no different. One could also argue that you could get a PS Vita instead and that’s a fair point. But dedicated retro handhelds are a niche market and not everyone will be enticed by such a device from the get go, but some will. Having options is always welcome and if the prospect of retro gaming on an OLED display with the bonus of streaming PC games, the RG503 might be yet for you.
Anbernic RG503 Official AliExpress Link