You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
Clockwork have created a console for the technically curious. Modular in design and highly customisable, it aims to deliver not just a handheld, but an experience; a journey of exploration and discovery. With a review unit in hand, I aim to look at this from a middling perspective; willing to tinker but not to any kind of extreme. I want something I know I can take apart whilst knowing I don’t necessarily have to, something stylish I can sit and play. Is the GameShell the console for me?
What’s in the Box?
The box itself is striking and simple. A bright shade of yellow, it stands out straight away, with the design calling back to the age of a simpler system. This box houses five individual boxes of components, as well as trays of plastic to be assembled, an array of shells for the system, and a set of stickers to make it your own. It all looks rather professional, and I wasted no time in sprawling the contents onto the table to start putting it together.
For those interested, I’ll also list the system specs here:
- Clockwork Pi development board
- SoC – Alwinner R16-J quad core Cortex A7 processor @ 1.2 GHz with Mali-400MP2 GPU
- System Memory – 512MB or 1GB (in future revision of the board)
- Storage – 1x micro SDHC slot
- Video Output / Display I/F – 18-bit RGB display interface, micro HDMI (planned in revision of the board),
- Audio Output – Via HDMI, 3.5 mm stereo audio jack
- Connectivity – 802.11 b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0
- USB – 1x micro USB port
- Expansion – 14-pin header with UART, I2C, SPI, GPIO
- Power Supply – 5V via micro USB port or 3.7V battery
- Dimensions – 70×50 mm
- Keypad board
- MCU- Microchip Atmel ATMega160p MCU
- 30-pin header with flat headers
- ISP programming connector
- I2C? interface to Clockwork Pi
- micro USB connector
- Display – 2.7″ RGB display with 320×240 @ 60 Hz
- Stereo Speaker Module
- Battery – 1,050 mAh good for 3 hours of continuous use, 100 hours standby
- Weight – 195 grams
The instructions came in the form of a step by step images with no writing. I found them relatively clear, the standout struggles really being limited to finding the right parts on the table and cutting the plastic out from the tray. Following the instructions, I put together one module at a time, as well as the optional lightbar. It took around an hour in total, including a short break for my eyes to recover from staring at small parts for too long; considering my usual incompetence with this sort of thing, it should speak wonders for the simplicity and ease of the process.
Getting each module into the shell was again a simple process of connecting everything together, and lifting it into position. The shell has grooves for each part to slot into, making the real challenge into optimal cable management, and trying not to trap any as you put the front face on. Fully assembled, the GameShell looks marvellous. Each of the red, yellow, and grey faceplates strike their own unique vibe, with the transparent back serving as a constant reminder of what you’ve put together. The main board module remains partially exposed through the shell, this giving access to a headphone port, a micro USB port for charging, and the power button. It also serves well in keeping the system better ventilated, this being the only part I noticed getting warm. The way each component is encased in a plastic shell helps not only in organising the parts internally, but in protecting the screen once assembled; the contours of the shell also assisting. I’d feel comfortable with this in my pocket or bag knowing I’ll struggle to do it harm.
The buttons are something I’ve come to love. They fit perfectly into the shell and provide satisfying feedback from being pressed. The start and select buttons feel identical to a NES controller’s, with the rubbery press allowing for a pleasant sense of variance as you hit them. The D-Pad is where opinions may differ. A flat disc sat atop four rubber buttons, it feels soft to press, and easy to catch more than one input. It’s the kind of D-Pad where you can press into the middle and have all four inputs register; it grew on me, but I can certainly understand somebody not getting on with it.
Provided with the system, the lightbar module is considered an add-on, and provides five additional buttons to be mounted to the Lego shell. Giving you access to L and R buttons, it’s a great option to have, and from what I used, felt surprisingly pleasant despite its less than comfortable look. It of course comes with the trade-off of taking away from the system’s form factor and classic look, but given the focus on customisation and the quantity of people who would want this to experience great classic games, the additional buttons are a must, as well as the flexibility provided from the Lego shell.
With the system running Linux, you’re really spoiled for choice when it comes to what you want on it. Being the less explorative kind myself, I stuck with the bundled clockworkOS. Once the system has booted up, you come to a simple menu navigable with the handheld’s D-Pad and face buttons. Coming installed with Cave Story, a port of Doom, and RetroArch, it already had enough to keep me entertained. The menu itself is also quite easy to modify and tweak to your liking. Adding new icons and skins is as simple as creating files for them and rebooting the system. Even with my limited knowledge of Linux, I managed to create shortcuts for my Pokemon games to boot them through RetroArch.
Accessing files on the handheld is only really possible through a local connection, this however made incredibly easy using the included TinyCloud app. You connect to the same network, open the app, and follow the on-screen instructions. For a Windows user like myself, I had to type \\192.168.0.34\games into explorer and I had access to my games folder. For full filesystem access to make menu changes and such, an FTP client is needed, but again this isn’t complicated. Despite hiding the micro SD card within the shell, clockwork put good effort into keeping the system accessible for those who want access to the files.
Retro games can be played three ways; either through the Retro Games menu, the shortcuts mentioned earlier, or directly through RetroArch. All of these methods launch the game using RetroArch, so the experience itself doesn’t differ, but it’s nice to have options for those not fond of RetroArch’s UI. As for the performance, the system’s capabilities are largely comparable to that of the Raspberry Pi 2B. Each of the games I tried, from Pokemon Crystal to Yoshi’s Island (SNES ver), the games stayed at a steady 60 FPS. Yoshi’s Island saw minor drops but they were infrequent to the point of not affecting the overall experience. I feel the real issue in emulation with this system comes from its screen size; some games simply don’t look right. This is evident in Super Mario World; the game feels and plays well, but it almost looks squashed on the display. To give an idea of what you might experience, I’ve included a video below playing a few different games. Overall, I am quite happy with how faster games like Mario play, but slower games like Pokemon Red or Pokemon Crystal almost feel like the screen is shuddering as it scrolls.
All in all, the system looks and feels great. To me, its greatest limitation lies beneath the shell in the battery module. Sporting a meagre 1050 mAh battery, you’re looking at three hours of continuous play—less than I get out of my Switch playing Breath of the Wild. It really is a shame, but considering the demographic for this product, it’s a problem that can be worked around by simply replacing the battery with something better. The GameShell is a system that has appeal to a lot of different audiences, and to each audience has different drawbacks. For somebody looking for some fun putting it together, then to crack on playing their retro games, the battery would be the killer. For somebody happy to replace parts and build onto the Lego case, smaller things like the micro SD being stuck inside the shell might become a pain. It’s a system that has a lot to give, and it’s one I’m happy to recommend if you can work past its faults. I had a great time putting it together, and its overall design and build quality, paired with its delightful OS will keep me using it despite its pitiful battery life.