We’ll start with a little talk about a pretty niche market, which is probably much bigger than you might think…
I’ve immersed myself in the wonderful (and sometimes frustrating) world of “retro” handhelds, which are mobile gaming devices coming out of China, more than ever before.
Their popularity has indeed grown over the past five or six years, as people my age, growing up with the Nintendo Entertainment System, SEGA Genesis, the GameBoy, and GameGear, started looking for ways to experience those good old early mobile gaming days. . again.
To replay some of the early 90’s games, especially made for portable systems. But, using modern technology, as in the early 90s handhelds were often fat, chewed through batteries like crazy, and had terrible screens with poor viewing angles. Sometimes no backlighting at all.
So small startups and companies that you may not have heard of, such as GPD, Anbernic, Miyoo and others, have recently managed to make quite a 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 made – what else? – handheld devices, capable of playing homebrew games as well as any of your own, personal, hopefully legally extracted cartridge game files (aka ROMs).
Supported games of the new “retro” handhelds normally start with the Atari 2600, all the way up to the PlayStation 1 library.
So those small Chinese companies have had a nice few years of uninterrupted handheld releases – bringing them in different form factors, with different operating systems (OS), for the tech-savvy retro gamers among us. There are actually enough.
Those operating systems would usually be light versions of Linux, although we’ve been seeing Windows-powered “retro” handhelds lately, with one in particular I’m excited about – the Anbernic Win600 – coming very soon.
The Anbernic Win600 will be a budget handheld with a touchscreen and Windows on board.
But early this year, a giant company released a product that really shook up their world, and made me think differently about tablet gaming, and how what that company did could change tablet gaming for the better. As long as someone develops the right tablet…
We’ll talk about that eventually, but first let’s talk about tablet gaming as it is now. More specifically, the operating systems that power those tablets, and why each of the usual suspects isn’t what I’d consider good. In any case, not fit for a perfect next-generation gaming tablet experience in 2022.
It’s not iPadOS, because your iPad mainly only has mobile games
The perfect gaming tablet I’ve envisioned, after studying the current gaming handheld market, wouldn’t be an iPad. Don’t get me wrong, the iPad has tons of great mobile games, and there’s the Apple Arcade. It’s basically a Netflix for mobile games, a subscription service that lets you play hundreds of them, without ads.
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 as 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-consuming mobile games) aren’t that much to count on on the iPad. So it’s not a perfect, dedicated gaming tablet. We can do better…
It’s not Android, though Android can run a lot more games than iPadOS if you’re willing to get your hands dirty
Android offers pretty much the same extensive library of mobile games as iPadOS, and mostly the same console game ports mentioned earlier.
But it also has a huge, extensive library of emulators, which Apple doesn’t allow in its own app store.
So retro gamers are more than likely to buy an Android tablet instead of an iPad since the former has the kind of apps that can play pretty much all console games from the 90s and early 2000s in the form of ROMs.
But the legal situation surrounding ROMs is complicated. Technically, if you own a physical cartridge game and use the ROM to emulate it on your Android tablet, nothing says it’s illegal. The problem is, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to suspect that most people take a different, absolutely 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, because that’s Android again
We’ll just plow through those two, because they’re both just Android with a makeover. And more often than not, performance wise a bit too weak to handle the top tier of even some mobile games, let alone real console or PC class.
For retro games – of course they work too, but we’re long past that. We’re now looking for the kind of gaming tablet that can play both, plus legit triple-A games.
So what about a desktop operating system? That can pretty much play any games ever made, right? Well, maybe, but…
It’s not Windows, because it’s bloated and the tablet experience (and performance, for the most part) is iffy at best
Microsoft Surface Tablet PCs
Microsoft’s Surface tablets, while cool in concept and very usable if you’re patient, are indeed quite disappointing in performance. Unless you spend over a thousand dollars.
And even then, you probably won’t hook up your favorite gamepad and fire up Doom: Eternal or Cyberpunk 2077 to enjoy smooth triple-A gaming on the go.
I have my own personal complaints with Windows 11 and 10, as they feel very bloated when you just want to use them as an operating system for games.
There are so many unnecessary tasks running in the background, so much telemetry stuff, constant (and I really mean it) updates, malware scans, and who knows what else.
Windows is the perfect operating system for games, because it really does play everything, but maybe not perfectly on a tablet. What if we had a more optimized, scaled down operating system for games instead? One that took full advantage of the hardware and didn’t burden it with unnecessary processes… And you could legally buy and play games, including well-optimized games.
Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, Valve released exactly this in early 2022.
It’s Linux… SteamOS in particular – we need that now on a tablet!
The Steam Deck, with SteamOS
You may or may not have heard of SteamOS, but it did make big waves in the world of mobile gaming. Valve, the company behind the popular 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 can think of it as a tablet with a built-in gamepad.
But they don’t have to, because hopefully someone (perhaps Valve) will put their operating system, the aforementioned SteamOS, which is Linux-based, public and open source, on a tablet.
SteamOS screenshot shows how it’s all about the games and already looks touch-friendly
With SteamOS on a fairly powerful tablet, we would have legal and easy access to Steam’s immense library of retro game ports, early 2000s game ports, and modern triple-A console and PC games.
An operating system, backed by a goliath from a gaming distributor like Valve, but mostly open source and public, is exactly what would make a tablet perfect for gaming. A huge library, but no bloating, no complications and no Google or Microsoft snooping on all your data.
Just pair a gamepad or use touchscreen controls and you can play whatever you want on the go. Now all we need is Valve or some other company to figure out a way to turn SteamOS into a fairly powerful x86 tablet (as opposed to the ARM chip-based tablets that normally only run mobile apps).
It is neither impossible nor far-fetched. People were requesting it online long before I even started imagining how cool that would be for tablet fans, and gamers in particular.
In short, now we wait with our hopes.
What do you think, is a tablet with SteamOS a cool idea that you would support? Or do you imagine tablet gaming in a different way, i.e. always locked to a smaller number of mobile apps? Or maybe you want a very powerful tablet with Windows 11 instead? Share your thoughts in the comments below!