Simply put, budget emulation handhelds used to suck – A lot. Just a few short years ago, e-waste ruled the space, and more capable devices came with a hefty price increase. The tech internals continue to strive forward, but sometimes it’s nice to pause and realize just how far we’ve come.

Budget producers like Powkiddy, and the new clone kings of Game Console (Consoie for the purists) are creating some fun and interesting devices that can provide near limitless hours of entertainment at a very reasonable cost entry point. Are they the best out there? No, not by a long shot, but dammit they have personality. They are the Shaq shoes of the handheld space. Available so everyone has a chance to chase their handheld dreams. So, come along as we take a look at the new firmware made just for the frugal among us.

A New Firmware

Enter ArkOS – R3XS, a firmware for the island of misfit toys to truly call their own. This fork is designed to optimize performance on the RK3326 and supports the R33S, R35S, R36s (check out our deals page to score one for $39 right now!), and even Powkiddy RGB30. You can find download and install instructions for your device on the developer Github. Make sure to take note of the information about using a two-SD card setup if you’re interested in that option. As there are a few extra steps to be mindful of during the process. There were releases that worked in the past on these devices, but this release is meant just for them.

Ark 3XS on the R33S

ArkOS R3XS on the R33S

If you’ve used ArkOS in the past on these or other handhelds, there won’t be a great deal of immediate difference apparent. This is all about optimization, and after spending some time with the Firmware on both the R33s and R36S, I can say that this is my preferred experience on these devices. Plus, the promise of custom GIF intro splash screens is too awesome to ignore. You should make sure to note when downloading that the R33S has its own separate image from the other devices, and they are not interchangeable between something like the R33s and R36S.

ArkOS R3XS on the R33S

ArkOS R3XS on the R33S

After the initial flashing process, the user needs only insert the card back into the device, let it do its thing, and then add your own ROMs, or borrow back from the library that shipped with the device. I find that one 64 gig card is mostly enough for what I want to be playing on these devices at any given time, and leaves plenty of space for ports and the like. The systems will of course support larger cards should you feel you need complete libraries across the board. The firmware ties itself to the EmulationStation experience that we all know and love.

Animaniacs running on ArkOS 3XS

Animaniacs running on ArkOS R3XS

Sure, these aren’t the best devices on the market, but for a low cost of entry, they can still provide untold hours of entertainment. I find myself drawn to the outliers. I find their quirks and imperfections to be charming. They aren’t perfect, but dammit they try, and they deserve a custom firmware too! It’s great to see development for these devices that are likely to find a large user base, even if they aren’t the apex predators on the handheld food chain. Try the firmware on your own misfit toys and see how great they can be!

Purchase the R36S from AliExpress for less than $40.

If you have any questions or issues with the firmware, you can ask a question of the devs or community in the RetroHandhelds Discord

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