Update: A custom update is now available which solves many of the issues mentioned in this review. It smooths out the visuals, making them look less distorted (but sadly not pixel-sharp), and adds in better menu icons.
There's a thriving market for emulator-based handhelds these days, with factories in China pumping out new systems on what feels like a monthly basis. However, while most of these machines conform to the same basic design language, the designers of the PocketGo S30 have modelled it on the iconic SNES controller – taking a leaf out of 8BitDo's book.
We were lucky enough to get a sample of this device and can say right now that it's one of the best we've seen from a construction point of view. The build quality is excellent (so good, in fact, that some have speculated that GWOWO, the company which designs some of 8BitDo's products, is responsible) and it's really comfortable to use. The buttons are also excellent, while the D-Pad is precise and responsive. Considering how many of these low-cost Chinese handhelds cut corners when it comes to manufacturing, the $59.99 PocketGo S30 comes as a pleasant surprise. The 2600 mAh battery offers around 4 to 5 hours of stamina, and there's USB-C port for charging – oh, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
When it comes to running games, however, normal service is resumed. Although it's packing the highly capable AllWinner A33 chipset (the same one which powers the NES Classic, no less), the PocketGo S30 isn't anywhere near as neatly optimised and runs a selection of homebrew emulators under a basic, unified OS.
Performance is ever-so-slightly patchy, with audio issues occurring in several of the games we tested. Rather more annoying is the fact that, by default, many of the emulators stretch the image to fill the 3.5″ 480×320 IPS screen, which results in ugly, distorted visuals. While some of the emulators allow you to remove this awful full-screen scaling, the distortion remains regardless, which suggests the system's OS isn't properly optimising the emulators for the console's display (the main UI looks fine, it should be noted).
The speaker is a little weedy, too, and this only makes the already-ropey audio emulation sound even worse. Also, because each emulator is coded by a different team, each has totally different settings menus, accessed by tapping the power button. Confusingly, some emulators – like the Neo Geo Pocket Color and WonderSwan ones – don't have settings menus, so pressing power drops you back to the main menu.
It's a shame, because the PocketGo S30 supports a wide range of formats, including pretty much every Nintendo console prior to the N64 (which is apparently also coming, once the developers have fiddled with the emulator sufficiently), and the unit even runs Dreamcast, PlayStation and PSP games (with wildly varying degrees of success, it should be noted). While the drag-and-drop nature of the PocketGo S30's file structure is pleasing – adding ROMs is simply a case of inserting the console's MicroSD card into your PC or Mac and copying the files into the correct folders – it ultimately means little unless you're comfortable playing games with horribly distorted visuals.
There's the chance that the OS can be updated to allow for better control over how the image is scaled, but until then, the PocketGo S30 merely ranks as a well-designed piece of hardware which is sadly let down by a pretty simple flaw (oh, and the fact that it resides in the same shady middle-ground that all emulation devices do).
If you're still interested, check out this excellent video rundown by MadLittlePixel: