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

An indie/retro/moba box in your pocket

Featured post 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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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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