Six months with the GPD Win 3: PC Gaming and its future

I was part of the Kickstarter campaign for the Win3, and have been using the Win 3 nearly every day since receiving it. I’ve written about the Win 3 in the past, as well as about my thoughts on Windows from a handheld gaming and Linux user’s perspective.

Now with six months of gaming on this device, my thoughts on it — as well as handheld console gaming as a whole — have had some time to crystallize beyond my initial reaction.

This reflection on the Win 3 includes using it in handheld mode, as well as on a 1080p TV (large), and a 720p TV (small). My Win 3 (i5 version) was at factory settings the whole time. I never bothered messing with the TDP. Windows DE was scaled up to 150 percent.

My games were either downloaded off the internet as EXE files, or the Steam Store. Those games include:

  • Catherine Classic
  • Crystar
  • Genshin Impact
  • Honkai Impact

Emulated Games include:

  • Persona 3 FES (PCSX2)
  • Sakura Wars (PCSX4)
  • Phantom Brave (PPSSPP)
  • Persona 3 Portable (PPSSPP)
  • Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core (PPSSPP)

Performance

Playing some Crystar late at night in my bed

The games I played have performed great on the Win 3. Frame rates were consistent. Controller response was good over all as well. It’s definitely not in the $2,000 to $5,000 PC build range, but it is good enough that I never felt like I was missing out playing on the Win 3. I would place it up against a PS4 any day. The system easily outpaces my Switch, which even docked, can struggle on some older titles, like Atelier Lydie & Suelle, which came out in 2017 for PS4 and Vita.

While I experiences some dropped frames and stuttering in Genshin Impact and Crystar, it was few and far between. I’m pretty sure most of these were the fault of Windows rather than a throttling or a bottleneck in the i5, since Windows is infamous for pushing and downloading updates without my say so.

Catherine Classic had some weird glitches in its cut scenes. Black lines stretched from the character models’ faces to the edge of the screen in some cut scenes. I can’t say for certain if it is the Win 3’s fault, or the fault of the PC port, but it definitely happened.

Emulated titles ran at full speed for PPSSPP and PCSX2 with no stuttering issues. FMVs in Persona 3 FES experienced some glitching — which has been reported by the developers of the emulator — but game play remained smooth.

While I left most games at their medium/default settings, I was able to crank Honkai Impact to high without losing frame rates. As expected, its performance on PC is leagues ahead of my experience on mobile, using a Nokia 2.2, which isn’t exactly a powerhouse. Of all the games I played on the Win 3, this one got the most play, and it looked great both in hand and on a larger PC monitor.

Portability

While not the lightest device in the world, I was able to use the Win 3 wherever I happened to be in my house. I enjoyed the luxury of being able to play console quality games while in bed, or walking around the kitchen waiting for the timer on the oven. Like just about every other portable console, I had to spring for the extra grip in order to make is comfortable in my hand. Without the extra grip, this device is especially uncomfortable, even when compared to the tiny joycons on the Switch.

But it isn’t quite portable enough. I’m not comfortable putting it in my pocket, and taking it to the doctor’s office, or on a road trip to visit my cousin. This is partly because of the size; it does not come close to fitting my pockets. Mostly this is due to price. Even at the discounted Kickstarter pricing, it still feels like a real risk to take the Win 3 out on the town. Most of the time I still find myself slipping my Vita in next to my phone if I want to take a game with me. While my full-size Switch isn’t much better in terms of size, given the 50% difference in price, I am definitely more willing to take it out and about, even if that means bringing an additional bag to slip it in.

What really holds the Win3 back

Resolution…

One thing I really wanted to do with the Win 3 was play PS4 remotely. Unfortunately, due to the low screen resolution, that wasn’t an option. I couldn’t even get past the install of PS Remote Play. This is a huge letdown, given the fact that even an inexpensive Android like my Moto G is capable of running PS Remote Play. Even my 11 year old Vita still does a pretty good job at Remote Play, if only for the slow Wi-Fi.

XBox Game Pass didn’t seem to have an issue with the resolution, but I wasn’t about to start a subscription to find out.

While the fault probably lies with Sony on this one, it’s not like PS Remote Play came out of nowhere. It’s been around for years. GPD should have considered this when choosing a panel for Win 3.

Windows itself…

Windows is just not great when it comes to a small screen. Sorry. That being nice. Windows is garbage on a small screen. GPD does a great job mitigating Windows through a joystick/mouse interface, but its still a pain in the butt. Using the touch screen, or reading the text in the file manager is just the worst experience you can imagine.

Size comparison.

Add on top of that updates, downloads that hamper performance and bleed battery life, forced restarts, the general jank that comes with running games as applications on Windows, and you have a experience that is still less good that the tailored interfaces of consoles from even twenty years ago.

Hopefully Steam will fix this with its Linux-based Steamdeck, running a tailor made interface for the smaller screen. Right now, no matter where you look for handheld PCs, you have to contend with Windows.

Readability…

My finger for scale. My hands aren’t exactly small, but still. I didn’t have this much trouble on my first smartphone’s 4" screen.

The text is so damn small. I experienced this in all the PC games I played. The only exception was Honkai Impact, but this probably has more to do with the fact Honkai was a mobile game first, rather than good planning on the part of the dev team. Menus and text in general are just too small to read. Genshin — which has really small text on the PS4 version too — is unreadable. Crystar and Catherine weren’t as bad, but their menus were pretty much illegible.

In Crystar there were game mechanic I simply missed out on while playing because using the menus, or reading the text was too much strain on my eyes. I ended up just skipped them menus and descriptions, and hoped for the best.

The only place I didn’t have this problem was in emulation. Maybe due to the fact that the games were designed for smaller, low fidelity screens, the text in all my PS2 and PSP titles was perfectly legible. However, where PCSX2 is concerned, the same cannot be said for the emulator interface, which is so small, even the pointer has trouble clicking on the right things.

This is not a unique phenomenon to PC games. I had the same issues playing on my Switch. It seems like developers expect everyone to be three inches away from a giant 4K TV, and that just isn’t realistic. There are still smaller TVs in service out there, and some people (my hand raised) actually use handheld mode.

I’m reminded of when HDMI first came into being back in the 2010s. When I got my 360, I was using AV cables, just like I had with my PS2. Then someone told me about HDMI, and how it would vastly improve the gaming experience. I was playing Fable 2 at the time.

While the graphics were better, the biggest difference I noticed was the text. Text actually got smaller and crisper in HDMI than in AV, which utilized a thicker, larger font. This was fine, of course. I had a larger TV at the time. But for those who were still on smaller CRTs — which were quite a few people back then — the larger font was a real blessing.

I wish developers would adopt this model, where font could scale based on resolution and screen size, or even user preference. I will take larger font any day over what we are given.

Is PC Gaming the future?

The power is there. CPUs and APUs are good enough today that we can get a good gaming experience on handheld PCs that rival last Gen consoles. While it won’t come with the high refresh rates or out of this world graphical fidelity of larger PCs, you get a console-like experience without the console drawbacks, namely: ecosystem lock in, premium prices from online stores like Nintendo, forced obsolescence within five to ten years.

But when factoring in the draw backs of readability, ergonomics, and true portability there needs to be refinements, both in the form factor and in industry practices.

If the kinks can get worked out in the next couple years, I think we’ll finally see a world where consoles can finally die, and PC gaming in this new form factor can be the main vehicle through which people experience games.

But, right now? That day is still off in the future.

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Writer, Photographer, #hashtag, Father.

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Raymond Trabulsy

Raymond Trabulsy

Writer, Photographer, #hashtag, Father.

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