Aya Neo 2021 Pro
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

Next year, the Switch will be five years old – a fact which makes the continued demand for the console all the more remarkable. Despite being powered by technology that, even back in 2017, could hardly be described as cutting-edge, the hybrid system has shifted over 90 million units worldwide and shows no signs of slowing down as we move into 2022.

Even so, Nintendo is savvy enough to know that continual hardware refreshes are a good way of maintaining momentum, and it has already iterated on the base Switch model twice (three times if you count the version with improved battery life). This year's OLED model is perhaps the most significant enhancement, bringing with it a larger, super-bright display, improved audio and superior build quality. However, the one thing that many people were hoping for is absent: more power under the hood. In terms of processing prowess, it's essentially the same deal as the 2017 original.

Depending on who you believe, we may well still see a 'Switch Pro' next year, but for the time being, the OLED Model is the best we're going to get. However, there are other portable gaming systems on the market that boast more impressive specs than the Switch, one of which is the Aya Neo.

Originally crowdfunded in 2020, the Aya Neo is a Windows-based handheld PC that runs on AMD's extremely well-reviewed Ryzen 4000 system-on-chip. This year, the system was rebooted in the form of the Aya Neo 2021 Pro, which replaces the AMD Ryzen 5 4500U chipset with the more powerful 4800U variant. The AMD Radeon GPU also gets a spec bump, packing 8 cores and a clock speed of up to 1.7GHz (compared to 6 cores in the original model and a clock speed of 1.5GHz). Now, PC hardware isn't strictly our area of expertise, so we called upon Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter to get the lowdown on this device. "It's basically an established laptop processor with AMD Vega integrated graphics, running at a very low power threshold to give reasonable battery life," he explains.

Aya Neo 2021 Pro
The 'Retro Power' design is clearly intended to appeal to gamers of a certain vintage — Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

Aya Neo 2021 Pro: The Design

The Aya Neo 2021 Pro sports a very Switch-like design, with the various buttons and sticks being in familiar places, and is a close match to Nintendo's console in terms of its overall dimensions. However, its controllers do not detach from the main unit – a key selling point for Switch – but you can play it on a TV or monitor using a dock which is sold separately. Wired connectivity and Bluetooth support allows for a wide array of optional accessories, such as controllers, mice and keyboards.

While the Aya Neo 2021 Pro shares a great many similarities with Switch from a design perspective, it's not a complete match. The controls certainly feel familiar, with all of the usual commands in the same places you'd find them on Nintendo's console – but there are a few exceptions. The four-button cluster on the left-hand side is a solid D-pad here, and it's a good one, too, even if it does feel somewhat spongy at times. Below that are four additional buttons, the function of which varies depending on what game you're playing or where you happen to be in the system's UI – these are mirrored by another four buttons on the right-hand side of the system. In this cluster, one button is 'Escape' and is handy for getting out of certain applications, while another brings up the near-essential on-screen keyboard.

On the bottom edge of the Aya Neo 2021 Pro you'll find the stereo speakers and a USB-C port, while on the top there's a massive vent for the fan – as well as two more USB-C ports, a 3.5mm headphone socket, the volume controls and the power button. There are four shoulder triggers here, too, with LT and RT being analogue in nature, while LB and RB are smaller, digital buttons. On the back, there's another massive vent for the beefy internal fan, which does a decent job of keeping things cool – however, it doesn't totally negate heat build-up, and during some games, you'll feel the rear of the Aya Neo 2021 Pro getting quite warm.

The console's 7-inch, 1280x800-pixel H-IPS screen is decent enough when compared to the LCD panel on the original Switch – however, when set alongside the OLED screen on the newer iteration, it comes off looking second-best. While the overall design of the Aya Neo 2021 Pro calls to mind the Switch, it's actually much thicker and heavier – an understandable consequence of having to cram all that cutting-edge technology into a portable frame. On the plus side, the 'Retro Power' design we're reviewing here – which is based on the original 1989 Game Boy – looks lovely.

Aya Neo 2021 Pro
Yes, you can play Halo Infinite on this thing — Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

Aya Neo 2021 Pro: The Games

While it would be foolish to suggest that the Aya Neo 2021 Pro and Switch are in direct competition with one another, they're arguably sharing the same space when it comes to many of the games they run. Valve's popular digital storefront Steam is packed with AAA content and indie titles, and this can be used to populate the Aya Neo 2021 Pro's 1TB of internal storage (other digital stores are supported, too).

A cursory glance shows there's a lot of crossover with the Switch eShop; DOOM Eternal, Witcher 3, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Firewatch, Ace Attorney Trilogy, Hades, Stardew Valley, Subnautica, Hollow Knight, FIFA 22, Apex Legends… the list is almost endless, and we've not touched upon the many titles which aren't on Switch, such as Forza Horizon 5, Cyberpunk 2077, Resident Evil Village, Devil May Cry V, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Halo Infinite and countless others.

Steam is one of the most popular digital storefronts in the world, and a massive boon with a device like the Aya Neo 2021 Pro – it's also worth mentioning that Game Pass members can download many of the same titles available on Steam as part of their subscription, and Xbox Cloud Gaming is also supported – but the big catch is that you obviously don't get the games that most people buy a Switch for: those made by Nintendo itself. That means no Zelda: Breath of the Wild, no Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, no Metroid Dread and no Animal Crossing: New Horizons (unless, of course, you feel like being very naughty indeed, which we wouldn't condone for a second).

Speaking of naughtiness, it goes without saying that the Aya Neo 2021 Pro is an emulation powerhouse. It's powerful enough to emulate consoles up to and including the PlayStation 2, and, via the versatile RetroArch application, offers a vibrant and deeply customisable platform for experiencing old games.

Aya Neo 2021 Pro
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

What's The Aya Neo Like To Actually Use?

While there's a degree of crossover when comparing the Aya Neo 2021 Pro and the Switch, things are very, very different when it comes to the user experience and interface. Switch has a streamlined and easy-to-parse UI which makes everything smooth and hassle-free (even if it lacks folders at the time of writing), but the Aya Neo 2021 Pro is a more unwieldy, complex beast; Windows 10 (which the unit ships with) is tricky to interact with and navigate using just the touch screen, and while there's a 'tablet' mode baked into the OS, it's still more complicated and fiddly than the Switch's UI. The company behind the system has at least attempted to make it more friendly by including the 'Aya Space' application, which presents a gaming-focused UI that pulls together all of your installed games and allows you to easily tinker with settings such as throttling (or unleashing) the full power of the Ryzen hardware, or altering the speed of the internal fan.

Link the Aya Neo 2021 Pro to an external monitor via USB-C and you have a reasonably powerful desktop computer

Of course, with the increased complexity that a Windows-based handheld offers comes massively expanded opportunity for customisation, and because it's a PC, you can connect a mouse and keyboard and use it like one. That makes the Aya Neo 2021 Pro an incredibly enticing prospect to people who want a device that covers gaming, media and PC-related functions. Link the Aya Neo 2021 Pro to an external monitor via USB-C and you have a reasonably powerful desktop computer, which means you can use it for all kinds of things – word processing, photo editing, media consumption and (as we've already mentioned) emulation.

The Aya Neo 2021 Pro is surprisingly quick to boot, with only a few seconds separating you from a complete switch-off system to the full desktop. The internal fan isn't as loud as you might expect, although the default 'wild' setting is incredibly annoying, as it makes the fan fluctuate to the point where we were genuinely concerned that there might be a fault with it. Toggled to the 'Saving' mode in the Aya Space application, it's less erratic and only really gets noisy when the system is doing some real heavy-lifting in terms of processing.

So, what's it like to play on a handheld that's capable of running the critically-maligned Cyberpunk 2077? Performance is actually surprisingly good, although it's worth noting that when running in-game benchmark tests, many titles suggest the 'medium' or 'low' graphical settings to keep things ticking along smoothly. This isn't much of an issue when you're playing on a 1280x800 pixel screen, but you do miss out on some of the more eye-catching effects, such as shadows, advanced light and (of course) ray-tracing. Even so, we were impressed with how well a title with a reputation like Cyberpunk 2077's runs on a device the size of a Switch, and even Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite were smooth and playable (again, largely due to the visuals being toned down). None of these titles hit a smooth 60fps, though – 30fps is the best you can reasonably hope for.

While the Switch itself can hardly boast the most impressive staying power, it effortlessly outperforms the Aya Neo 2021 Pro in terms of stamina

The massive catch here is that despite packing three 4100mAh batteries, the Aya Neo 2021 Pro's stamina is disappointing. While the manufacturer advertises between 5 and 6 hours of play under certain settings, we found that a wildly optimistic figure, especially when playing anything even remotely demanding. The more realistic estimate, also given by the manufacturer, is "up to 140 minutes for demanding AAA gaming", which matches up with our own real-world experience of using the system; two hours is about the best you can hope for when playing relatively recent games. Granted, you can tone down the power when playing less-demanding games, but it's clear that while the Switch itself can hardly boast the most impressive staying power, it effortlessly outperforms the Aya Neo 2021 Pro in terms of stamina.

"It's not really surprising that battery life is poor," Leadbetter says when presented with this data, but adds that any machine promising this kind of power is going to be hamstrung when it comes to battery life. "I'm not expecting that much more from Valve's upcoming Steam Deck. It has a 40Whr battery and the main chip gobbles up to 15Whr so once screen and storage are added to that, that'll be around 20Whr from a 40Whr battery – which equals two hours. That's why they're talking about 30fps caps and what-not in the marketing materials to lower power consumption and extend battery life."

Aya Neo 2021 Pro
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

What Can The Aya Neo Tell Us About A 'Switch Pro'?

As we've already discussed, the Aya Neo isn't likely to challenge the Switch in terms of pure sales figures, and is clearly aimed at a much more niche sector of the market – but that doesn't mean it can't tell us some important things about what a future Switch revision could entail.

For example, it's clear that, despite being a bit long in the tooth now, the Nvidia Tegra X1 chipset that powers the Switch was the right tech for the job back in 2017. Its mobile-focused nature has enabled Nintendo to create a platform that is lightweight, not too power-hungry and – when treated correctly – can deliver impressive visual results. In fact, one of the things that struck us most of all during our time with the Aya Neo 2021 Pro is that, for the most part, many of the games are visually comparable to their Switch counterparts. Sure, titles like Witcher 3 and DOOM Eternal look better, but there's perhaps not the gulf one would expect when you consider the relative power of the silicon inside each system – especially when the Aya Neo 2021 Pro costs around $1200 compared to the Switch's more modest $300 price tag ($200 for the Switch Lite). That fact alone will put it way out of reach for most casual players, let alone hardcore console gamers.

The balancing act struck by Nintendo is all about fine-tuning that ratio between power and stamina – something the creators of the Aya Neo 2021 Pro have arguably ignored in order to provide as much processing grunt as possible. While it offers incredible power on tap and effectively delivers a PC-style experience in the palm of your hand, that comes at a massive cost in terms of battery life; two hours simply isn't going to be enough for a lot of players.

Aya Neo 2021 Pro
The 'Aya Space' app attempts to make the UX a little more console-like and straightforward — Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

The biggest draw of a system like the Aya Neo 2021 Pro isn't necessarily the raw power it provides, but the fact that it offers portable access to Steam, which is packed to bursting point with games. This does, of course, place the system in direct competition with the upcoming Steam Deck, which is also powered by AMD silicon and has the same resolution display. The catch? It's around half the price of the Aya Neo 2021 Pro, which will most likely mean that it will cannibalise sales when it eventually arrives in early 2022 – and that's before we even take into account the fact that the portable gaming PC landscape is already quite crowded, what with the GPD Win 3, Win MAX 2021 and ONEXPLAYER all available. "I would expect Steam Deck to be a fair bit better, as it is using a more modern AMD CPU core (albeit with four cores), more efficient RDNA 2 architecture and a remarkably wide memory interface – key to getting the most out of integrated graphics," says Leadbetter.

Nintendo is very much focused on offering a mass-market product that appeals to the widest possible audience at the most agreeable price

Of course, it's unlikely that the company behind the Aya Neo 2021 Pro expects its machine to have anything more than a niche following, and a successful crowdfunding campaign shows there's an audience for this kind of device – even when alternatives like the Switch and Steam Deck exist. Nintendo – despite offering a machine that covers much of the same ground in terms of software – is almost certain to chart its own course with the Switch Pro, or Switch 2 – whichever comes first.

Its relationship with Nvidia has been incredibly profitable for both parties, and it's unlikely that Nintendo would consider switching allegiances to another chipmaker unless the benefits were overwhelmingly obvious (Qualcomm may well try its hardest to tempt Nintendo and others with its recently-announced Snapdragon G3x developer kit, however). It's also worth noting that Nintendo is very much focused on offering a mass-market product that appeals to the widest possible audience at the most agreeable price, which rules out any bold move into a technological arms race; the Kyoto firm hasn't played that particular game since it opted to base the Wii on previous-gen technology.

While it's tempting to hold up the Aya Neo 2021 Pro – and, indeed, the Steam Deck – as possible blueprints for a future Switch hardware refresh, Nintendo has always done things its own way. "Comparisons to the new Switch are going to be tricky," says Leadbetter. "They're very different. I think – as always – people hoping for a cutting-edge, super high-end Nintendo handheld will be disappointed, but if we are getting a generational leap in performance and some form of DLSS AI upscaling as rumours suggest, it should still be very impressive."

The Aya Neo 2021 Pro unit used in this feature was supplied by the manufacturer.