Can you use a pocket-size PC as a games machine?

Bootleg Transformer not included

The PC is dead, long live the PC, etc. By which I mean ‘a big box that sits underneath your desk’ is an increasingly inaccurate definition of PC. The concept is heading off in all sorts of directions, from patently ridiculous laptops to transforming tablets to all-in-one giant touchscreens to surprisingly games-capable laptops to yes, big boxes under your desk but also small boxes on top of your desk. And, as I’m looking at today, teeny-tiny boxes that just about fit into the back pocket of your trousers or can slip behind your TV.

Can a $235/£188, 12x12x3cm box really work as a PC? And, more pertinently, can it possibly be any kind of games machine?

The box in question is a VOYO V1 Mini PC. Similar boxes from other firms are available, and I’m using this one as an example rather than the be-all and end-all of this sort of thing. Inside it contains an Intel Pentium N4200, aka an Apollo Lake – the latest iteration (and reportedly last gasp of) the Atom ultra-mobile, system-on-a-chip range that powered netbooks and, indeed, lesser versions of teeny-tiny PCs like this.

The numbers: quadcore, clockspeed that shifts between 1.1 and 2.4GHz depending on load, paired with 4GB of DDR3 and, on this model, a 128GB SSD plus bonus, confusing extra 32GB drive. (There’s also space to fit an extra laptop-sided drive of your choosing inside).

Not big numbers, but not terrible numbers either – not for £188. Doing some research while waiting for the thing to arrive, I read some claims that the N4200 performs on a par with some of the Core i3 chips that we see in cheap laptops. Though I don’t own one of those to benchmark against it, using Windows 10 on this thing certainly feels very similar to my experience of recent £300-400 laptops.

Eminently usable, in other words – lag here and there, takes noticeably longer to open applications than a mid-spec PC does, and once in a while it chokes for half a minute. Also, Task Manager invariably shows 100% CPU usage – even when it doesn’t seem troubled by it – so clearly it’s working flat out. But I used it as my work machine for a couple of days and, though I missed the comparative immediacy of my main PC’s task management, there was none of the screaming and weeping that characterised the half-year I spent using a netbook for work.

(I will note before I forget that I had to turn off Windows Defender whenever I wanted to do any significant, such as Photoshop or games, as it alone uses 30-60% of processor time near-constantly. It’s an insufferable bastard even on a ‘proper’ PC, but it really does a number on the poor wee N200. For example, with it on my Steam download speeds halved, 4K video on YouTube turned jerky, and it made the difference between Inside running pleasantly at 30 frames per second and 12 with it on. If you’re tempted by a box like this, get in the habit of turning Defender off, or replace it with some alternative anti-malware app.)

Anyway – that aside, for browsing, working and video-watching (1080p and 4K files and streams, though 4K Netflix is locked out on anything other than Intel’s latest Kaby Lake range of CPU), there’s not much to complain about, bar a little extra waiting before you get going. Though sometimes the inverse is true – it’s quicker and quieter to resume from sleep than any other PC I’ve owned. That’s systems-on-a-chip for ya, I guess – certainly, it’s pleasant to just tap the single button on the front (or keyboard if you’re using a USB one) and have it spring straight to life like a phone would.

This isn’t really our bailiwick I realise, but I have been using it as a mini-media centre on the family TV. I was one of those idiots who bought a Smart TV (albeit a discounted factory outlet one) a couple of years ago, and though it’s a decent enough screen, it was a terrible mistake in every other respect. BBC iPlayer only works 50% of the time, it doesn’t recognise half the codecs I need it to if I’m streaming a file from my main PC, the UI is polluted with nonsense streaming services that not even their creators use and there’s no way to install Amazon Prime Video on it. (I don’t really use that, but I have a Prime account because next-day childcare supplies are easier than the long trek down and up a big hill to the nearest supermarket).

Basically, the not-really-smart-at-all-is-it TV is locked into video tech from a few years back, and will only become increasingly infuriating as time progresses. Using a bluetooth keyboard and mouse to control the Voyo is a fiddlier solution than big fat buttons on a remote control, but it’s counter-balanced by the fact that this is a PC and thus I can install or update whatever I need.

Which – we’re here at last! – includes games. Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The N4200 includes Intel integrated graphics, but far short of even the broadly 3D-useless fare found in a full-fat Intel CPU, even though it shares the Skylake GPU’s architecture. The GPU’s called the HD Graphics 505, it runs at 750 MHz and shares system memory. Do not expect great things. In fact, if it’s a 3D game from the last two to four years, rule it out entirely unless it’s lo-fi or otherwise minimalist.

This sounds as though it’s a death knell for the Voyo/N4200 as a games machine, but no, not at all. Because the CPU itself is fairly capable, there’s a whole world of 2D games, older AAA and retro that it is totally happy with.

For example, of the 24 games in our best-of-2016 advent calendar, the Voyo can comfortably* handle the following:

INSIDE
Sorcery!
The Curious Expedition
hackmud
Darkest Dungeon
Burly Men At Sea
Owlboy
Duskers
Thumper
(Our game of the year) Devil Daggers

* By this I mean ‘at least 30 frames per second on minimum settings, but in fully 2D stuff it’s running faster and looking better than that.

It can also just about handle Civ 6 and Overwatch, depending on whether you can handle playing at 20-25 frames per second at sub-720p. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though it’s definitely not how I’d choose to play. I haven’t tried the other 3D stuff on the list yet, partly due to download sizes and partly due to a certainty that I’d be wasting my time.

However, here are some other, off-list games which fall into the Comfortably category:

Invisible Inc
Dota 2
Team Fortress 2
World of Warcraft
AM2R
FTL
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Quake
Odallus: The Dark Call
X-COM: UFO Defense
Proteus
Day Of The Tentacle Remastered
The Binding Of Isaac: Afterbirth
Kentucky Route Zero
Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga

(And depending on your personal threshold for acceptable framerates, you can get 15-20 frames out of XCOM 1, which I personally didn’t find too bad for a turn-based game. I also get between 15 and 25 on Skyrim which sometimes feels OK and other times does not. Extensive tweaking and modding may be able to get it close to 30, though).

So on and so on. As you can see, pretty much anything 2D is a dead cert, while anything 3D from the last decade or before should be OK, plus a few ringers from more recent times. No, you’re not going to play DOOM or Hitman or Dishonored 2 or even XCOM 2 on it, but this is still a PC that just about fits into a pocket yet can play many thousands of cool videogames. In a horribly, cheesy way, one might call this the IndieBox. But one most certainly should not.

The other thing I’ve been using it for is as a retro emulator, due to having recently fallen down an ‘oh god so many modern games are so long and complicated and self-regarding so 90s Nintendo games suddenly seem highly appealing after years of Ninty abstinence’ rabbit hole. RetroArch is a fine, fine application that acts as an all-in-one emulator for any console that can be successfully emulated, though is at its best for NES, SNES, Megadrive, N64 and PSX.

I haven’t bothered with the latter two as yet, but it’s been glorious on the Voyo for GBA and SNES games, hooked up to the TV with a wireless gamepad. There are all sorts of bespoke or single-platform retro boxes around these days, but you can’t beat the all-purpose nature of the PC, and I would say that both price and performance are right for this one if that’s the kind of gaming you want to do on it.

Only you get all this amazing 2D/older 3D stuff from Steam, GoG, itch etc too. I’ve used both an older (full-size) PC and a Steam Link to try and achieve similar, but either space and noise are an issue or there’s just a bit too much fiddle and compromise involved. This wee thinger fits the bill very well. Sure, you could achieve similar on a cheap laptop or a more powerful second-hand machine for similar money. But it won’t go in your back pocket or tuck behind a couple of books, will it?

There’s one major exception to my fondness for this thing, which is that it’s surprisingly noisy. Not noisy-noisy, but the fan is very noticeable and a little more high-pitched than I’d like with it whenever it’s doing anything intensive. If you’re just, say, tapping words into a CMS, it’s silent, but videos and games or loading applications into memory spool it up and, in a quiet room, it’s always there in the background.

If I had the time/patience, I might crack it open and try and fit a larger, therefore quieter fan to it. I’d stick another 4GB of RAM into it while I was there, which is possible but requires total and possibly scary disassembly. (An extra hard drive only requires taking off the bottom side, however).

I also wish it had built-in WiFI and Bluetooth – there’s an adaptor for the former included, but you’ll need to supply the latter yourself, and if you have both that’s two of its three USB ports gone.

That aside, it’s hard to argue with. It’s cute, its blantantly Mac Mini-aping style is pleasant to behold and yeah, it’s totally a usable Windows 10 PC. For £100 it would be a no-brainer, for £150 it’d still feel OK as a secondary PC/media centre/indie-retro games console – or even for a box you can sling in your pocket/bag and take it round your mate’s to play Dota or League of Legends.

For £190 though, it’s moving beyond random indulgence and into ‘need to really rationalise this purchase’ territory, although I should mention that it does come with Windows 10 pre-installed, which sweetens the deal. But yeah, currently just slightly too expensive to feel comfortable as a suck-it-and-see purchase.

There will be more boxes like this, perhaps some that much cheaper, and on the other side of the scale Intel are putting their new full-fat Kaby Lake CPUs into teeny PCs, which will cost more but be more capable.

This type of PC is here to stay, I think. And with PC gaming such a broad church now, they’re going to make for lovely mini-consoles.

The Voyo 1 Mini PC was supplied to us for review by Gearbest, where it is currently available for $235/£188.

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34 Comments

  1. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    This space will get really interesting when Intel’s newer Iris Pro/Iris Plus integrated GPUs get cheap enough to start using there, as it sounds like the main thing holding it back is a lack of decent 3D performance, and Iris is supposed to be “good enough” for a lot of non-FPS 3D gaming in ways that the older integrated GPUs just are not. That day is still a ways off, though.

    • carewolf says:

      Intel will never integrate those in their discount offerings. So they will only get cheap used.

    • rochrist says:

      The Intel NUCNUC5i7RYH is a better bet for this stuff. I7 3.2 gHz, up to 16GB of memory, Iris Graphics 6100. The barebones box is around $440.

      • Optimaximal says:

        With a NUC you need to add your own storage and Operating System, so slap a further £150-200/equivalent on top.

      • carewolf says:

        Well, it has an ultrabook processor instead of a netbook processor, so that is something, but still crap. Just get a i5 version, paying for i7 in the ultrabook line is a ripoff. If you want a real i7, get a mobile or desktop CPU.

  2. mattevansc3 says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing how Windows 10 on ARM and its x86/64 emulation pans out.

    The performance will likely be lower but significantly cheaper and cooler than these current mini PC boxes.

  3. bfar says:

    For around £150 and a few hand me downs from my main desktop, I built a media PC about the size of a shoebox that can house a full size GPU and handles some serious gaming duty. Ok, it isn’t going to fit in anyone’s pocket, but with a good TV cabinet it’s no big deal.

  4. kwyjibo says:

    If you have problems because you bought a wank smart TV that is no longer updated, just get a Chromecast.

    • Carra says:

      I bought a chromecast for €40. It allows me to view youtube and netflix on my tv.

      And also bought a raspberri pi for about €50 and installed Kodi on it. That allows me to watch most file formats I find, even some that the smart tv fails to play.

      • sonofsanta says:

        Or get BubbleUPnP from the Play store for £3 and it can transcode to the Chromecast on the fly. I gather you can even install the server component on your PC and stream straight from there to save faffing about with cables and file copies to your phone.

      • dahools says:

        Could have just installed Kodi on your phone and cast it to the chromecast the same way you were probably casting youtube/netflix

  5. HoboDragon says:

    With the hype of 4k/VR gaming (which according to Steam survey is still only around 1%-ish) everything has to be so fancy. Well, of course, if you want to play latest AAA graphic games such as Tomb Raider or Witcher 3 in 1080p at very high to ultra-super-duper-max then you need expensive hard-ware. Still it seems a lot is a sales-pitch by companies, and the people who test stuff on a regular basis, of course they will notice the difference.
    But let’s be honest – as average user, if you have an “ok PC” and you play say Witcher 3 in medium to high at around 30-40 fps without, or very few, hick-ups and don’t have the direct comparison, you won’t notice the difference.
    I recently built on office PC from scratch parts, old PSU, a 7950, external harddisc. Bought a cheap mobo and an i3, plus SSD as boot media and 16 GB memory (I didn’t save on the latter 2), and voila, I can play any “simple” game at max settings at 60 fps, I can play Wicher 3 or Dark-Souls III at satisfying settings and fps, so I am good with that.
    The i3 has an Iris chip built in which also works fine for the majority of smaller titles (ok, not Witcher 3, but anyway).
    And as media-PC, currently, I have a ras.Pi2 and works fine with hdmi streaming from my NAS. So again, alot of the fancy hardware for the average Joe is just a sales-thing from the hardware producers.

  6. guynolan says:

    I recently received a meegopad t08 from China, which only set me back €106. It’s similarly specced to the box in the article but not much bigger than a cigarette box. Similar to the Intel compute stick, it plugs straight into a hdmi port. I’m very impressed with it for what it is. I plugged it into a little chinese projector and had system shock 2, deus ex etc running at 1080p down scaled to the projectors native resolution of 800×400. Considering I bought it just as a retro machine to play old pc games from my teens it’s done the job admirably. There’s some good youtube videos on how to squeeze the most out of integrated graphics, and once it was all configured I could run anything up to around doom 3 in 1080p. If you dropped that to 720p you’d probably cope fine with half life 2 and others from around that era. I was skeptical because there’s barely any info or reviews of the t08 online but it’s worked out really well so far

  7. Premium User Badge

    alison says:

    I don’t think I have ever read a hardware article on RPS, and tbh I only skimmed this one too. But I should comment because I have been a “low spec” gamer for a long, long time. Back in 2002-ish I gave up on traditional desktop computers and since then have always gamed on SFF PCs.

    First was the Mini-ITX. Back then the only manufacturer was VIA, and their CPU wasn’t even Intel. It was the laughing stock of computers, but it ran Deus Ex and Counter-Strike acceptably.

    Later I moved to the Alienware 11″ laptop, back when they still cared about making smallish computers. But in the smartphone era that got too big too, so I moved to a Lenovo Miix 11″ tablet. I am still using that tablet today, along with an Alienware Alpha in the corner of the room bought solely for the purpose of Steam streaming to the tablet.

    I can barely grasp how anyone would buy a “big” computer for gaming these days. The Alienware Alpha has a laptop NVidia chip that is several years old, but I can still play (via streaming) the latest games in 1080p in high or ridiculous graphics settings. When I was playing games direct from the tablet I could still happily play 3D games from several years ago in 720p or 800×600. Occasionally it was jerky (which is why I bought the Alpha), but the ergonomics balanced that out. I play everything in my bed, lying on my stomach. Sitting at a desk to play computer games seems like a weird thing people only did… well, 15 years ago before laptops got gud.

    Anywho. Point is. If you want portable gaming and you don’t mind low res on last-gen games, just get a tablet. And 1080p will work fine on adventures and other 2D games. But if you desperately want to play games on your television (who the fuck owns a television in the 21st century!?), then just get an Alienware Alpha. Or put a real computer in your closet and attach a stick of chewing gum with wifi to your television, because Steam streaming rocks all ass.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Steam home streaming used to work great for me, then I updated Ubuntu on the target laptop and now it hard-locks after about 5 minutes every time.

      • Chuckaluphagus says:

        Buggy driver in the recent update, maybe? I use Steam in-home streaming myself, from a Windows host to both a laptop and desktop running Ubuntu 16.04, and I don’t have any stability issues at all.

        Is the crash at five minutes something you can produce in other circumstances?

        (Also, clearly this isn’t a support forum, so I’d suggest hitting up the Ubuntu forums for help if you haven’t already.)

      • Premium User Badge

        alison says:

        Are you on the Steam client beta? I don’t run Linux at home, but I do recall some Linux-specific updates on several of the beta releases over the past few weeks.

    • Marclev says:

      “I can barely grasp how anyone would buy a “big” computer for gaming these days. ”

      Because it’s the most cost effective way of doing it. You have an initial outlay once, and then all you do is incrementally upgrade one or two components once every few years. The last time I upgraded my “big” computer was plugging a new graphics card in about 2 years ago, and before that a new CPU about 5 years ago. It still runs all the latest games at their highest settings in 1080p. It’d probably struggle with 4k, but seeing as I haven’t got, nor have any intention to buy, a 4k screen that’s irrelevant to me.

      “Sitting at a desk to play computer games seems like a weird thing people only did… well, 15 years ago before laptops got gud.”

      Well, yes if you only play casual games on a tablet or with a controller in your living rooms. Anything beyond that, i.e. requiring a keyboard is pretty damn uncomfortable if you’re not sitting at a desk.

      And laptops are damn expensive and even then don’t match the performance of a mid-range desktop PC, so unless you’re short on space make no sense at all unless you’re actually going to be travelling with them.

      “But if you desperately want to play games on your television (who the fuck owns a television in the 21st century!?),”

      Errr, most people that live in something bigger than a bedsit??

    • fish99 says:

      Some people want a quality experience.

  8. guynolan says:

    Oh yeah and it has integrated wifi and bluetooth

  9. Sevarrius says:

    Not gonna lie, you had me sold at “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines”
    But on a serious note I am constantly amazed by how much computer technology has progressed in such a short space of time and in particular how miniaturised it’s become, thanks in large part to the mobile phone sector.

    I love living in the future.

  10. piphil says:

    Did you try any over network streaming?

    I have an older mini-PC (Gigabyte uBrix) based on a several-generations-old i3. I run Kodi on it, but it’s pretty much useless for games. It’s hobbled by the lack of decrete graphics card.

    It does have 8 GB RAM, an SSD, and most importantly a gigabit network port though. And this allows me to run Steam In-Home Streaming. Which I’ve been consistently impressed with. Frankly, with a strong enough signal, it’ll run on wifi – I use my HP Stream netbook/mini laptop for this with slower games.

    OK, it blocks up your gaming PC, but if this isn’t an issue, streaming in general – I think NVIDIA has a similar tech – makes these little machines into genuine gaming systems.

  11. fray_bentos says:

    Lest we forget; you can buy a PS4 for the same price, which can run the Witcher 3 with medium settings and high textures at 900p upscaled to 1080p with SSAO.

  12. satan says:

    I’m very happy with the massive case I have at the moment, all the cables neat and tidy, with good airflow and aftermarket cooling to keep the temps as low as possible, because I live in such a hot climate.

  13. Beefsurgeon says:

    I recently purchased as Raspberry Pi for emulation. $60 for everything except controllers, and I was up and running with RetroArch in minutes.

    Retro PC gaming via DOSBox is also possible on the Pi, but I haven’t tried it yet.

    Overall, the Pi seems like the most cost-effective way for PC gamers to dip their toes in the living room.

  14. thedosbox says:

    If you’re tempted by a box like this, get in the habit of turning Defender off, or replace it with some alternative anti-malware app.

    Replacing Defender will make things worse. Third-party apps have lots more bells and whistles that take up more processor time. Some of their additions also reduce your security:

    link to pcworld.com

  15. racccoon says:

    not for another 5 years as most are shit box’s

  16. Ack says:

    Alot of the CPU usage etc sounds like the usual stuff you get with a new windows 10 install. It likes to update itself and use all your resources to do so. Probably need to leave it over night and set it to automatically restart when needed. This even happened with a fast gaming laptop I recently bought.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    While I’ve not tried one for actual gaming, I’m finding the Raspberry Pi to be a lovely media center for streaming stuff from my PC. Kodi even recognises my aging telly’s remote, meaning I can control the Pi via that.
    And I’ve just bought the Pi 3 with the intention of using it variously as a game and Mumble server.
    Being able to change the thing’s functionality in a matter of seconds by swapping out the SD card is fab.

  18. Premium User Badge

    boundless08 says:

    I will never forgive you for not buying this in “Tyrant Gold”. Royal Blue? Puh-lease!

  19. Pinga says:

    The real question is: Can you use a pocket-size PC to run Crysis?

  20. guynolan says:

    @pinga: yeah probably. At the lowest resolution with everything set to low. If someone wants to gift me a steam key I’ll let you know.

  21. sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

    Black Convoy!
    Awesome repaint of an awesome figure.

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