Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when you're creating mass-market electronic devices, slavishly cloning the work of others usually lands you in costly lawsuit - just ask Samsung and Apple. However, there are a multitude of hardware makers working out of China which are small enough to operate without coming under fire - the fact that their products are relatively niche and not largely retailed outside of the Far East obviously helps in this regard, too. However, in recent times we've seen more and more of these interesting devices make their way to the west, such as JXD's GamePad 2 and the GPD S7800. Almost always powered by Google's versatile Android OS and marketed at people who have no qualms about downloading ROM from the internet, these products occupy a grey area in the industry which is off-putting to some and tantalising to others.
Gamepad Digital's latest offering is no exception, and is arguably the company's most flagrant clone yet. Just one glance at the photos on this page will almost certainly make you think of the New 3DS XL, from which the GPD XD takes a sizable amount of inspiration. While the shameless copying of Nintendo's handheld will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many fans, it does offer one very obvious benefit - the GPD XD is comfortable to hold and the slim clamshell design makes it highly portable. Basically, by cheekily copying an existing design, Gamepad Digital has avoided the usual design woes which seem to plague such products.
Copying a design only gets you so far, however. Where these Chinese devices usually fall down is build quality, with poorly-constructed cases, awkward pads and stiff buttons. While the GPD XD is by no means perfect, it's certainly one of the more accomplished efforts we've seen from the Far East in a long time. First up, the unit itself feels solid and doesn't make any odd creaking sounds when gripped tightly. The dual analogue sticks are responsive and well-positioned, and the D-Pad is comfortable and responsive - if a little on the spongy side. The same can be said of the face buttons, while the clicky shoulder buttons are easy to reach but sometimes don't register repeated inputs made in quick succession. There are a few issues then, but none of them are deal-breakers, and the system stands up to what has to be the ultimate gaming test - the D-Pad is perfect for pulling off special moves in games like Street Fighter II, something which can't be said for the pads that ship on many rival devices.
When it comes to playing traditional Android games on the GPD XD, the console's built-in key mapping software really helps. Basically, any game with on-screen controls can be adapted to make use of the system's physical controls, and that makes quite a difference with certain titles. Of course, with touch-heavy games like Angry Birds you'll need to rely solely on the touch-screen, which is quite awkward to use on a device of this design.
However, it's fair to say that the vast majority of people interested in the GPD XD won't be buying it for Android games, but rather for the amazing variety of retro gaming emulators currently available on the Google Play store. Everything from the lowly Atari 2600 to the Sega Dreamcast is represented here, and the GPD XD's robust technical specifications mean that it is capable of running everything at what is close to full speed, with sound. Dreamcast emulation is especially impressive, and while Sega Saturn emulator uoYabause is pretty sluggish on this hardware, there's always the chance that it could improve as time goes on. From a Nintendo perspective, everything from the NES to the GBA and N64 is catered for here, with the latter benefitting from increased resolution which makes games look a little less blurry.
The big sticking point here is that to make the most of such emulators you'll need to brave the wilds of the internet in order to download ROMs - a procedure which is frowned upon in purely legal terms. As always, our stance goes a little like this: if a game is available via legal means - such as Nintendo's Virtual Console service - then you should make the effort to purchase it so the original content creator gets some monetary reward; failing to support such services means that publishers and platform holders are less likely to maintain them in future hardware generations. Of course, given the age of the games industry, there are many titles which are not available digitally and may never be, and emulation is the only feasible way many people can enjoy them, especially when the physical versions - sold via the second-hand market - are skyrocketing in price.
The GPD XD comes in 16, 32 and 64GB variants, and all models have a MicroSD card slot which can be used to add in more storage space. Because it's running Android (version 4.4.4, to be precise) the console is capable of running applications, such as Twitter, Facebook and much more besides. Some of these even come pre-installed out of the box, but all you need is a Google account and you have instant access to the Google Play store, where many more downloads await. The form factor of the device means it's not an ideal platform for prolonged bouts of typing, but having the ability to quickly bash out a tweet, write an email or check your Facebook timeline is neat all the same. Another welcome touch is the inclusion of a HDMI-out port, allowing you to hook the console up to a TV set. You can also use Android casting capability to stream content to compatible devices or televisions.
Putting aside the GPD XD's blatant cloning of the New 3DS XL design and the potentially dubious nature of retro emulation, there's an awful lot to like here. The console has the power to run a wide range of emulators at near-perfect levels, and the controls are - for once - arguably as good as the real thing. The pricing could give some people pause for thought - Funstock is selling the base 16GB model for £149.99 (that's about 213 Euros, or $228 US) - which makes it almost as pricey as the console on which is it so clearly based. Despite this, the system comes highly recommended if you're a keen emulation enthusiast who seeks an all-in-one handheld which goes beyond gaming with excellent app support.
Thanks to Funstock for providing the Gamepad Digital GPD XD used in this review.