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Review: Cheaper, Android-powered alternative to 3DS, PS Vita

If you're into mobile gaming, the Archos GamePad deserves your attention.

I love video games. We're talking real love here, the kind that can only exist between a grown man and a D-Pad.

Unfortunately, playing games on my PC just doesn't work for me. I'm at my desk all day - coding or writing - and when I get a moment of leisure time... I'd prefer to not be sitting in that exact same spot. And sitting in front of my TV usually doesn't work out either. I have a toddler, and that can make spending some time with a PS3 (etc.) a real challenge.

So mobile gaming it is!

But what system to use? 3DS PS Vita? Both are pretty cool systems, but I want something...different. Something more flexible. More open. I want a system I can easily load up with emulators and MMO's alike.

Enter the Android-powered Archos GamePad.

The GamePad is a pretty typical 7-inch Android tablet, with physical gaming controls bolted on to the sides. And it is glorious. It has, in a very short period of time, become my current favorite video game console (portable or otherwise). Here are the details.

The Guts

The system is powered by a dual-core 1.6 GHz processor. It’s not the fastest in the 7-inch tablet world, but not the slowest either. It also has a 4-core Mali GPU, 1 GB of RAM and 8 GB of built-in storage. Luckily, you can also use a microSD card to beef up the internal storage beyond that, rather paltry, 8 GB.

The screen itself, at 1024x600, is also not exactly top of the line. For comparison, the Nexus 7 has a resolution of 1280x800. Is that a huge difference? No, but it is noticeable. Likewise, the display angles on the GamePad are not quite as good as the Nexus 7 – which means you really need to be looking at the screen straight on to get the best experience. Which isn't really a problem, considering you will be holding this in front of you, after all. But it is worth mentioning.

The battery is...not great, but OK. When playing a demanding game (such as Dead Space), the system gets maybe three continuous hours of play time tops. As a comparison, I got around four hours of play time on the Nexus 7 with the same game. Big difference? No. And it’s not a deal-breaker (as I don't ever get to play for four hours in a single stretch), but is also worth a mention.

The Buttons

Being as this is a game console, the buttons are critical. And, in this area, the GamePad exceeded my expectations.

On the left of the screen you have a standard D-Pad, an analog stick (that is a true analog stick), an extra button (L2), and a Select button.

On the right of the screen you have four buttons (the standard ABXY configuration), another analog stick, another extra button (R2), and a Start button.

Then, on the top, you've got two shoulder buttons (R1 and L1).

What this rather large assortment of buttons, D-Pad and analog sticks means is that you can play just about any type of game you can imagine: retro games, dual-stick shooters, anything.And the buttons themselves are quite “Clicky.” You get a deep, satisfying, “click” when pressing them. Very old-school.

The Software

Now, many games are able to use these glorious game controls right out of the box. But what about all of those game that use on-screen buttons?

Luckily, Archos has built in a simple little app (which is always accessible by tapping the game controller icon on the bottom of the screen) that brings up an overlay that allows you to map your physical buttons to the virtual, on-screen buttons. It is ingenious. Have a little on-screen analog “circle” (the kind so many games use for moving around)? Just drag one of the sticks to that on-screen location, re-size it to match, and hit “Play” to return to the game. Now the physical stick will work on a game that never even needed to be updated to work with it.

Other than this cool little tool, the GamePad is running a pretty vanilla version of Android 4.1.1, which is completely acceptable. It's nice that there's not a bunch of extra fluff installed.

Overall

I love this rig. Love it.

Battery life and screen resolution are the only real draw-backs. And they're small ones.

Emulators play wonderfully well, as do native games (including the more graphically intensive shooters such as Modern Combat 4and Dead Space). In fact, I find that I can quickly obliterate any opponent that is stuck using just the touchscreen controls.

Vendetta Online (a space MMO) also plays amazingly well thanks to the dual-analog sticks. And Minecraft? Yeah, it plays great.

Another big benefit: You likely already have a small collection of Android games that you've picked up for your phone (or tablet). The GamePad gives them new life. And any new games you pick up? Good odds they'll play on whatever Android device you buy next, as well.

There are other Android-powered portable gaming devices out there. But the GamePad is the one I settled on. The price point, button configuration and button-mapping tool made it a no-brainer for me. It hasn't replaced my Nexus 7 as my “go-to mobile machine.” But for games? It can't be beat.

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