I’ve been dipping into the wonderful (and sometimes frustrating) world of “retro” handhelds, which are mobile gaming devices pouring out of China, more so now than ever before.
Their popularity has indeed grown over the last five or six years, as people my age, who grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System, SEGA Genesis, the GameBoy and GameGear, started looking for ways to experience those good, old, early mobile gaming times again.
To replay some of the early 90s games made for portable systems in particular. But, using modern technology, since handhelds in the early 90s were often chunky, chewed through batteries like crazy, and had terrible displays with poor viewing angles. Sometimes not even a backlight.
So small startups and companies you may have never heard of, such as GPD, Anbernic, Miyoo and others, have recently managed to make quite the name for themselves in the retro handheld gaming crowds.
The Anbernic RG351M shown here is the first ‘retro handheld’ I bought. It gets the job done; will play your old games.
They’ve been making – what else? – handheld devices, capable of playing both homebrew games, and all of your own, personal, hopefully legally extracted cartridge game files (a.k.a. ROMs).
Supported games by the new “retro” handhelds normally start with the Atari 2600, all the way up to the PlayStation 1’s library.
So, those small Chinese companies have had a nice few years of uninterrupted handheld releases – making them in different form factors, running various operating systems (OS), for the tech-savvy retro gamers among us. Who are actually plenty.
Those OS’ would usually be light versions of Linux, although lately we’ve been seeing Windows-powered “retro” handhelds too, with one in particular that I’m excited about – the Anbernic Win600 – coming very soon.
The Anbernic Win600 is going to be a budget handheld with a touchscreen and Windows on board.
But early this year, a giant corporation released a product that really shook up their world, and has made me think differently about tablet gaming, and how what that company did could change tablet gaming for the better. If only someone develops the right tablet…
We’ll talk about all that more in the end, but first, let’s discuss tablet gaming as it is right now. More particularly, the operating systems powering those tablets, and why each one of the usual suspects is not what I would consider right. At least not right for a perfect, next-generation gaming tablet experience in 2022.
It’s not iPadOS, because your iPad predominantly has mobile games only
The perfect gaming tablet that I envision, after studying the current gaming handhelds market, would not be an iPad.Don’t get me wrong, the iPad has countless great mobile games, plus there’s the Apple Arcade. It’s basically a Netflix for mobile games, a subscription service that lets you play hundreds of those, ad-free.
The iPad also has some solid console game ports from companies like Rockstar and Square Enix. I recently wrote about the fun you can have with just a gamepad and an iPad. It can bring you back to the PlayStation 1 and 2 days, since you have games like the Grand Theft Auto series, Max Payne, Castlevania and Final Fantasy.
But the problem is, such “real” games (meaning console-quality games, not time-killer mobile ones) are not that many to count on the iPad. So a perfect, dedicated gaming tablet it is not. We can have better…
It’s not Android, although Android can run way more games than iPadOS if you’re willing to get your hands dirty
Android offers pretty much the same vast library of mobile games as iPadOS, and mostly the same console game ports mentioned earlier.
But, it also has a huge, vast library of emulators, which Apple does not allow on its own app store.
So retro gamers are plenty inclined to buy an Android tablet, rather than an iPad, since the former has the kind of apps that can play pretty much all 90s and early 2000s console games in the form of ROMs.
But, the legal situation surrounding ROMs is complicated. Technically, if you own a physical cartridge game and use its ROM to emulate it on your Android tablet – nothing says that this is illegal. The problem is, I think it’s very reasonable to suspect that most people go about a different, definitely illegal route.
So let’s keep looking for a legal way to play both retro and modern games on a tablet, without the limitations of mobile operating systems.
It’s not Chrome OS or Amazon’s Fire OS, since those are Android again
We’ll just plow through those two, since they’re both just Android with a makeover. And, more often than not, a bit too weak performance-wise to handle the upper tier of even some mobile games, let alone actual console or PC-class ones.
For retro games – sure, they work too, but we’re well past that. We’re now looking for the kind of gaming tablet that can play both all of those, plus legitimate triple-A games.
So what about a desktop operating system? That can play pretty much any games ever made, right? Well, perhaps, but…
It’s not Windows, because it’s bloated and the tablet experience (and performance, usually) is iffy at best
Microsoft Surface tablet PCs
Microsoft’s Surface tablets, although cool in concept, and very usable if you’re patient, are indeed pretty underwhelming performance-wise. Well, unless you shell out well over a thousand bucks.
And even then you probably won’t be pairing your favorite gamepad and booting up Doom: Eternal or Cyberpunk 2077 to enjoy some smooth triple-A gaming on the go.
I have my own personal gripes with Windows 11, and 10, since they feel very, very bloated if you just want to use them as gaming operating systems.
There are so many unnecessary tasks running in the background, so many telemetry things going on, constant (and I really mean that) updates, malware scans and who knows what else.
Windows is the perfect gaming operating system, since it really does play anything, but perhaps not perfect on a tablet. What if we had a more optimized, cut-down, just-for-games operating system instead? One that took full advantage of the hardware and didn’t tax it with unnecessary processes… And you could buy and play games legally, well optimized games too.
Well, like I mentioned in the beginning, Valve released exactly this in early 2022.
It’s Linux… SteamOS in particular – we need that on a tablet right now!
The Steam Deck, running SteamOS
You may or may not have heard of SteamOS, but it did make significant waves in the world of mobile gaming. Valve, the company behind the hit game series Half-Life, Portal, Dota 2, and game distribution network Steam, recently released a device called the Steam Deck.
The Steam Deck is basically a handheld PC with a touchscreen, so alternatively, we could view it as a tablet with a built-in gamepad.
But we don’t have to, since hopefully someone (maybe Valve) will take its operating system, the aforementioned SteamOS, which is Linux-based, public and open source, and put it on a tablet.
SteamOS screenshot showing how it’s all about the games, and is already looking touch-friendly
With SteamOS on a reasonably powerful tablet, we’d have access to Steam’s immense library of both retro game ports, early 2000s game ports and modern triple-A console and PC games, legally and conveniently.
An operating system, backed by a goliath of a gaming distributor like Valve, yet mostly open source and public, is exactly what would make a tablet perfect for gaming. A huge library, yet no bloat, no complications and no Google or Microsoft snooping on all of your data.
Just pair a gamepad or use touchscreen controls and you’re off playing anything you want on the go. Now all we need is either Valve or another company to figure out a way to adopt SteamOS into a reasonably powerful x86 tablet (as opposed to the ARM chip-based tablets that normally run just mobile apps).
It’s not impossible, nor far-fetched. People have already been requesting it online, long before I also began envisioning how cool that would be for tablet fans, and gamers in particular.
Basically, now we wait with our hopes up.
What do you think, is a tablet running SteamOS a cool idea you’d get behind? Or do you envision tablet gaming in a different way, either always locked on a smaller number of mobile apps? Or alternatively, perhaps you’d like a very powerful tablet that’s running Windows 11 instead? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!