A few years ago, if you wanted to buy a handheld under 50 dollars, you were likely looking at e-waste, a famiclone (more e-waste), or a knock-off GBA that you were sure was the real deal. Spoilers: It was not. But as we come to a close on 2023 you can genuinely get a lot more for you money. We already have an article on handhelds under 50 that you should definitely check out. But if you want to get into the weeds, we’re going to be looking at two great choices for this price; the Powkiddy X39 Pro, and the Boyhom M17.
And before we get into it, the X39 Pro and the M17 were purchased by me, and all the opinions are my own.
I want to breeze through this quickly because at under $50 you’re likely not too fussed by specs but would rather know about the emulation, which these both do up to PS1 fairly well.
The Powkiddy X39 Pro features a 4.5 inch 854 x 480 IPS screen, an ATM7051 processor, and 128mb of RAM, all of which is kept alive by a 3,000mAh battery.
Meanwhile the M17 has a slightly small non-OCA laminated 4.3 inch screen at a lower 480×272 resolution. It’s Rockchip RK3126C and 256mb of RAM are both powered by a much smaller 1,500mAh battery. This will come into play later.
Though as always, specs aren’t what make the full experience.
Size and Ergonomics
When it comes to size and ergonomics, both devices are acceptable, being small candybar-style handhelds that are about the same size as a Retroid Pocket 3+. Though the RP3+ is wider, and thinner than both. But all are dwarfed by the under $50 e-waste; the XY-09 which is larger than all three in every dimension.
In terms of ergonomics, the thicker M17 and its stacked shoulders make it nice to hold and give your fingers a good place to rest. The plastic on it has just enough grip to let you keep it in place, and in the end it’s not a bad experience even with the low d-pad.
The X39 Pro on the other hand has inline buttons which keep your hands in one place for the most part. The transparent plastic is less grippy than the M17, and in my usage has made it a bit harder to use the d-pad. Though personally, I wouldn’t use that d-pad too much anyway (more on that later), and in that case it makes the X39 Pro more comfortable to use as my thumb falls onto the stick just a little bit better.
M17 – 181 grams
X39 Pro – 186 grams
XY-09 – 214 grams
RP3+ – 237 grams
Between size, thickness, and weight, I would really give the edge on ergonomics to the X39 Pro. It’s just the right size for my average hands, but ergonomic opinions are very subjective and your mileage may vary.
Controls and Screen
When it comes to the controls and screen, it’s almost a no-brainer. The X39 Pro has a larger, higher resolution, laminated panel that in general is just brighter and easier to view when compared to the M17. But what isn’t as obvious are the controls. The X39 Pro has inline shoulders, one non-click Switch stick, a d-pad and face buttons. The M17 meanwhile, trades inline for stacked shoulders, and adds a second non-clickable stick.
In use? The sticks are identical, I prefer the inline shoulders as the M17 personally reminds me of the X55, which still hurts to think about. The face buttons are stiffer on the M17, which I like, though the X39 Pro’s slightly mushier buttons are still a decent experience. And as an extra note, compared to just about every other handheld, the M17 has its ABXY buttons swapped, so A is on the bottom (Xbox style) instead of the right. It’s an odd choice, but it’s not too big of a deal, and some people prefer it.
What isn’t fine are the d-pads. The X39 Pro has a nice sized d-pad, but mine is incredibly light. It takes little effort to press it in, and there’s not much travel either. The M17 has nice membranes, and the stiffer feel, but the d-pad is oddly narrow for my fat thumbs. This in turn makes it feel a bit harsh on the edges. I personally haven’t used the d-pad much on either device thanks to these issues.
Control-wise, I would give the edge to the X39 Pro again, but if you like stiffer buttons or loud shoulders, the M17 is the way.
When you boot the two devices you start off with very different OS experiences. The M17 provides a blocky loading bar into Emuelec. Meanwhile, the X39 provides a “Welcome” on a Blue and red background before arriving to whatever Linux system they’ve put on it. The M17 has the better looking OS by far. Emuelec has a clean look and is quite easy to navigate and find your systems in. Meanwhile the X39 Pro is Blue, Red and Gold. It’s a blocky interface that I found a bit annoying to dig through at first. But I would describe it as “passable”.
When it comes to settings in Stock firmware I say: “What settings?” The X39 Pro kept me locked out of everything as I couldn’t even access a settings menu from the home screen. The M17 DOES have a setting menu, for language and backlight. Neither have many options, but the M17 at least wins out in that.
The M17 has custom options. SpectralElec, Ruka, and Batocera all give the M17 a much better experience when compared to stock, especially in the gaming department. The X39 Pro? It has none of that. Software wise the M17 wins hands down and I don’t think it’s all that close.
For comparison’s sake I’m going to stick to using the stock firmware on both devices as some might never change from it on the M17 and the X39 doesn’t offer many options.
What you expect to work for these devices works well on each. The X39 Pro only has 10 systems included and for the most part all seem to work well. Gameboy Advance did fine with Sonic Advance 2. NES, Genesis, Gameboy all played well. I even had a decent time with Final Burn Alpha. One important thing to note though is that while Playstation and SNES are mostly fine, you may come across a few stutters; particularly in more demanding games on either system, or in some cases you won’t have enough controls. Sorry Ape escape fans. Though, if your goal is to play something simple, you won’t have too much issue. I personally put a lot of time into the Buster Brothers Collection on both.
The M17 has more systems available on it, which also means more consoles that can have issues. My opinion on up to PS1 and SNES remains the same with the M17, and in this case, you have a lot more options within this system. However once you try out Nintendo 64, or PSP you start to run into way more stuttering. Everything else on the M17 features a similar performance level to that of the X39 Pro, so at the very least that shouldn’t deter you in either direction.
So while you have the option to play more powerful games and systems when compared to the X39, I wouldn’t really recommend it. Well, unless you’d like to do a lot of heavy tinkering. After applying the custom firmware to the M17, or just digging through config files on the SD card to make changes.
And while both have similar performance, they also have similar issues with the screens. On stock firmware, both the M17 and the X39 stretch their content to fill the screen. In cases like GBA where it’s 3:2 it isn’t the biggest deal. However with Gameboy or Gameboy Color you’re stretching that screen way further than it should be.
If you want to fix that issue, custom firmware on the M17 would be the way once it’s up to snuff. However in stock settings, neither do very well in this regards. Performance overall would be a draw to me.
There’s no easy way to say this so; the M17 battery life is bad. At 1,500 mAh, the battery is only rated for around 2 and a half hours. If you’re doing lightweight games, sure, but the more powerful the system, the worse my battery got. This is genuinely my least favorite part of the device. The X39 Pro on the other hand gets decent lifespan. I’d say twice as much as the M17, but doubling bad really only gives you decent.
When it comes down to it, the under $50 price range is going to be a game of gives and takes. Get a better screen, give a decent operating system. Get better controls? Give up a decent screen. If you value decent build quality, decent ergonomics, and firmware options- it’s easy to recommend the M17. However, if you prefer nicer looks, a better screen and no faffing about? If you’re fine with a stretched screen the X39 Pro might be your better choice.When it comes down to it. I would purchase the X39 as the Battery life on the M17 is currently what kills it as a good use device for me. If there was a mod to make it bigger, I’d be going that route.
And of course the elephant in the room: “WhAT if I HAvE MoRE thAN FiFty DoLLarS?”. Well you have more options. At about $50-$60 you can grab a RG35XX, Miyoo Mini+ or even an RG351P if you know where to look. Anywhere past that and I question why you made it this far in the article (but thanks love you <3). I don’t think you’d be too upset with either choice for under $50. Just- set expectations early. And if you don’t enjoy the horizontals, there are always other options under $50.
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