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"Analogue Pocket"

Posted: 21 February, 2022

It’s not finished. That’s the first thing to note about the Pocket. The OS is rudimentary, but it’s a living project. Anything I write here should be taken in that context.

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Analogue have made a name for themselves selling high-end, FPGA emulations of classic consoles — The Megadrive and SNES in particular — that are immaculately presented and pitched in a way, oxygen-free-cable-buying audiophiles would expect.

When the Pocket was first announced in 2019 it peaked my interest as an “all-in-one”, so I put the money down for the basic package, sans any adaptors, and then completely forgot about it. Until December, when I was told mine was about to be shipped!

Hardware

So first things first; yes, the screen is as good as they claim. It’s super high-resolution, pin-sharp, and as bright as the sun. As you’d expect. Modern displays are a marvel.

It’s designed with a 1.11:1 ratio for the Gameboy/GB Colour/Game Gear, and once the LCD emulation is turned on, does a great job of presenting games with the original grid pattern characteristics of the time. Except, you know, you can actually see the screen without a light and magnifying glass attached…

That said, the current screen blending options don’t come close to matching the smear of an original Gameboy when scrolling. That may be for the best, but I’d like a much more aggressive option here. The colour palettes are nice, and work well, but Tetris isn’t Tetris without that smudge.

The console is roughly the same height and width as an original Gameboy, but not as deep. Sorta like a big Gameboy Colour. And, like a Gameboy Colour, it’s not particularly comfortable to hold for long periods of time. Well, unless you’re a kid... I’m not, and even though I have tiny hands, an hour or so of play has my fingers aching because the device is too thin. I know that sounds fussy, but I’ve been rocking a GPi and original Gameboy during lockdown, that I can play for hours, and they're more comfortable because there’s more grab hold of.

I opted for the black model. It looks good in the flesh but the plastic isn’t perfect. I was a little disappointed in the materials given its positioned at the very high-end. The overlap at the join feels sharp, and the plastic has slight discolouration spots. (Moulding artefacts?) When compared to ZX Spectrum Next, which was absolutely perfect from every single angle, the Pocket is lower quality. Not much. But a bit.

The device is a nice weight, a little heavier than expected, but the heft is reassuring and it’s completely solid in the hand. No creaks, squeaks, or flex.

The cartridge port at the rear is compromised by the need to support adaptors. Rather than enveloping the majority of the cart, like the original Gameboy, it covers roughly half a centimetre. I’ve been using an Everdrive GB X7 for Gameboy ROMs, and it can be knocked out of the device far too easily. Even during play. The Everdrive GBA, being shorter, feels a bit more secure, but it’s still not great. You wouldn’t want this rattling around in a messenger bag.

The D-Pad and face-buttons are extremely high quality, they feel great and make a nice sound, but the two “shoulder” buttons, at the rear of the device, are spongey and imprecise. I love Streetfighter Alpha on the GBA, but I’ve found it a bit harder to play on the Pocket, which is a shame.

I wasn’t expecting much on the audio side — it’s impossible to get a great sound out of tiny speakers — but it’s maybe not as good as it could be. Gameboy and GBC games sound OK, but GBA games suffer from an audible hiss. Like the noise floor is elevated, or the sample bit depth is too low... I don’t know if this is a problem with the original platform, the fact I’m running off an Everdrive, or if the pocket is doing something stupid. It’s likely that I’ve just never noticed how bad GBA audio is up to now.

There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, advertised as a feature, that would let me confirm if I’m hearing things, but you know, it’s 2022, and I’m way past the point of carrying wired headphones in my bag. Bluetooth would have been nice, you know?

I don’t have a dock, so I’ve not tried hooking it up to my TV.

I’ve also not timed the battery life, but I can say that it’s more than adequate. I’ve had multiple extended play sessions between re-charges, and being able to charge through USB-C means I don’t need to pack a specific cable. Shame the headphone options weren’t as forward looking.

Software

There’re big plans for the Pocket’s OS but right now it’s fairly rudimentary. Depending what mode it’s in — GB/GBC/GBA etc. — you can change colour palettes, display mode, sharpness, saturation and blending, and, er, that’s about it.

But Nano Loop is included, and that’s excellent.

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The Pocket is, by far, the best way to play GB/GBC games that I’ve ever experienced. The screen can be setup to be chef’s kiss with a couple of tweaks to the settings, and unlike the GPi, there’s absolutely no discernible lag, frame drop, or jitter. The Pocket plays a perfect representation of these games, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience of going back through old favourites I've not seen in decades.

The GBA is less of a slam-dunk due to the aspect ratio of the screen, and the shoulder buttons. Yes, the games look better on the Pocket, far better, but I don’t think I’ll be putting my Micro away.

If the Pocket could only play games from Nintendo platforms then it’d be hard to recommend it. I’d say it was seriously over-priced. But, there’re adaptors planned for Neo Geo Pocket Colour, PC Engine and Atari Lynx — the first two have incredibly game libraries — and I have no doubt that the Pocket will make them sing. Can you imagine playing a Lynx game for more than 30 minutes without changing batteries? Or having Every. Single. PC Engine game in your pocket? What a time to be alive.

But obviously, being made by Analogue, the adaptors don't come cheap, which pushes the overall price of a fully loaded Pocket to extremely high levels.

Personally, I’ve no regrets at being an early adopter as the financial outlay's been split over multiple years. If you're considering buying Pocket right now, then bear in mind that it's not quite everything that it's hyped up to be. Yet.

Even in its unfinished state it's the best way to play a large number of games, from some of my favourite platforms. My Pocket’s going to be travelling with me for a very long time to come.