Fifty dollars. You could buy a lot with that. An 8BitDo SN30 Pro 2, a copy of Pikmin 1+2, or maybe even 25 Beefy Melt Buritos from Taco Bell. But maybe you’d rather play your Fire Emblem romhacks in a portable manner and save a buck while you’re at it, too. If that’s what you’re looking for, well I’ve got good news! With the coming of the holiday season comes a bunch of “Top X under X” lists, and I’m no different. I’ve compiled a list of 5 (subject to change) handhelds under $50 that may be worth a look if you don’t need a lot of power. Devices under 50 usually come with a caveat or two, but in my opinion, these are the Top 5 worth looking at in Fall 2023.
1. The M17
First up is one of the newer options on the market the M17 by… well it’s by someone. The M17 came popping up on the scene only a couple of months ago, but has quickly picked up interest from others due to its’ low price, power potential, and the general size of the thing as a whole. Powering this beige brick is a Rockchip RK3126, 256mb of ram, and an admittedly quite small 1,500mAh battery powering its 4.3 inch 480×272 display. If that sounds like an odd resolution, that’s because it matches the PSP screen exactly. Alongside matching the resolution, it unfortunately also nearly matches the quality of display on the PSP as well (specifically the 2000).
When it comes to performance and use, the stacked shoulders and dual sticks can help you climb all the way to Playstation 1 fairly easily. Past that you begin to run into less and less supported libraries when compared to earlier/easier to run systems. With the OS you’re receiving an altered version of Emuelec. A solid OS when stock, but a bit more awkward when tweaked and touched by whoever made the M17. With a little bit of work tinkering and messing with the operating system you can certainly come away with something usable, but for a beginner this may not be the best option for them. Overall, not an awful option for $35-$40, but until the Software can be adjusted you may find other options to be an easier choice. You can grab this one on Amazon as well though it does break the $50 mark coming in at closer to $70.
Not just the normal X39, rather the top of the line X39 Pro, a name that you might also see on devices that are called pro but may not be deserving of it. Like the Airpods Pro, or just about any phone that has Pro in the name. Yeah this kind of falls into that same category as well. Of today’s list this one comes in with the largest screen… barely, at 4.5 inches with a resolution of 854×480. Powering that is an ATM7051, 128mb of ram, and a 3,000 mAh battery (twice as large as the previous option on this list), As of recently, the X39 Pro came out in a couple colors including transparent purple, which makes it look a bit like a tiny Ayn Odin, though in black the button layout moreso reminds me of a PocketGo V2.
As for power and use, you can expect up to Playstation 1 performance on this device, though I wouldn’t quite say perfect. While performance may be the biggest reason for the poor compatibility, I might look at its biggest caveat that one often sees under $50; the software. The X39 Pro features an OS that one may call locked down in comparison to other choices on this list. Powkiddy’s “Linux” versus Emuelec, or something like RetroFE/Funkey OS (spoilers). This linux OS has a very basic, and slightly ugly operating system with not a lot of customization under the hood. But on the bright side what works, works quite well. Depending on where you look, you could grab this for around $40-$45, especially with Powkiddy usually offering $5 off a number of devices right away. Pretty looks, basic OS, not a bad experience. Though again, better software could make this device a much better option in the future. And just like the M17 you can grab an X39 Pro on Amazon, though this one will be closer to $60.
3. Powkiddy V90 (or Q90… or Q20)
I’m gonna cheat… just a little bit here. The Powkiddy “FC100S” family is what gets a general recommendation from me. The V90, Q90, and Q20 all use the same Allwinner FC100S chip and the same 32mb of ram. Where they differ is form factor; whether you’d like a horizontal or a clamshell, the screen size (2.4 or 2.8 inches), and the battery. The Q20 gets a 1,200mAh battery, the V90 a Swappable BL-5C 1,020mAh bat, and the Q90 a 1,500mAh (swappable) BP-4L battery. As a family tree you can see the similarities not only between these, but also the other devices that used the FC100S (specifically the Bittboy and the PocketGo). All of these devices are meant to be fairly small and easily pocketable so that you can take them with you, and in my opinion is something that they captured quite well. Alongside that they captured the custom firmware scene quite nicely.
That custom firmware came from the fact that these devices had an advantage. Being run on the same chip as those aforementioned bittboy products these projects can run MiyooCFW. An OS that, while originally built for the Bittboy devices, was eventually brought over to Powkiddy handhelds and has been there to help keep these devices alive into the end of 2023. The firmware is nice! The caveat comes from performance. For these you shouldn’t expect too much over Gameboy Advance or some Super Nintendo. Lower-end systems will run fine, but after that you run into much more stuttering. But the lower power also facilitates their lower prices. Anywhere from $30-$40 depending on the store that you find them from. Personally, I’d pick the V90, but all three will provide a decent experience worth checking out.
4. Powkiddy Q36
The Powkiddy Q36 is a pint-sized powerhouse that was originally released all the way back in December of 2021. Around this time we were getting devices like the Retroid Pocket 2+, the Anbernic RG552, and the Analogue Pocket (announcement). All of which were much larger, and more expensive devices in comparison to the Q36. But just like a few of the other devices from the time (namely the RP2+), the Q36 still holds a place here for its value even almost two years later. Powered by an Allwinner V3s with its 64mb of ram, the Q36 powers up to Playstation 1 on it’s 1.54-inch 240×240 square display. And of course with a 1,000mAh battery powering that all.
While the diminutive size might not be to everyone’s liking, one thing that would be is the software experience. Powered by RetroFE, the Q36 takes its OS design straight from the Funkey S (a $75 device) and uses it entirely to its’ advantage. Funkey’s Skin for RetroFE makes it a simple to use, easy on the eyes OS that lets you get to the games that you want quick and easy. Being on a small device, the horizontal form factor makes it at least a little bit easier to hold and use. But if you can get past the small size and square aspect ratio screen, the Powkiddy Q36 is a joy to get at $50 and will happily carry you through all the Sonic Advance 2 that you could ever want… or probably something like Super Mario Land which ends up much closer to that square aspect ratio of all of these smaller devices. Unlike previous options, the Q36 is currently not available on Amazon, though you can’t go wrong ordering direct from Powkiddy on Aliexpress.
5. The R35S
And last but not least is the R35S made by… well actually I’m not too sure (yeah I made this joke already). Right off the bat if you know handhelds you’d say “HEY WAIT THIS IS A POWKIDDY RGB20S”. And you would be half right. The R35S is a clone of the RGB20S, but somehow cheaper than the original as well. This means it features the age-old RK3326, 1gb of ram, a 640×480 3.5-inch screen that honestly looks quite nice. And of course powering all of it is a 3500mAh battery to boot. Now if that was it, one might say to just get the RGB20S, but that’s not all. The R35S not only comes in cheaper than its original at around $50, but also has better software support than it. At least… in a way. Compared to the 20S, the R35S actually receives a spot on the ArkOS Page and changelog. While it isn’t as supported as other devices on that list, its acknowledgement certainly says better about it than other devices.
As for the handheld itself; the switch sticks work well, the d-pad and the face buttons feel fine (even though they’re a bit too low in my opinion) and the shoulder buttons are nice to use to boot! Even if they are way louder than the RGB20S’s shoulders. Performance wise you’ll get up to Playstation 1 just fine, albeit not 100%. Overall though, with more official ArkOS support the R35S is a great handheld experience to be had. The only downside being this one doesn’t come with any tiger stickers… sad.
And with that we’ve finished my choices for handhelds under $50 that may be worth a look. With the end of 2023 coming soon, we’re seeing a lot more high-end options hit the market. From the Odin 2, to the Pimax Portal handhelds are shooting well into the hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a big enough fish. But sometimes it’s important to take a step back and appreciate the budget devices in our lives. These aren’t the cream of the crop, and they won’t play Playstation 2 at 8K. But even with their flaws, these devices can provide a nice starting experience to the market for those getting their toes into the experience. Hopefully there’s something here you or someone you know would like, and a new handheld can find its rightful home… as long as you don’t spend a few bucks more over $50 to get something more powerful.
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