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Super-powered Android gaming consoles are on the way, but do we need them?
At its annual Tech Summit in December 2021, Qualcomm teased a new chipset destined for handheld gaming devices. Dubbed the Snapdragon G3x, it promises an impressive set of features — including native display output, support for active cooling, and updateable GPU drivers. We also got a glimpse at a Razer-made developer kit with high-end specifications like a 10-bit HDR display and mmWave 5G.
Qualcomm didn’t offer a concrete launch window for consumer devices sporting the Snapdragon G3x. That’s not too surprising, though — the G3x is unlike other Snapdragon SoCs that already have an established market. However, this novelty also prompts some skepticism. After all, the new Snapdragon chip is heading into a very competitive market and the company needs a solid plan to ensure its success.
Snapdragon G3x: What is it?
So far, Qualcomm has stayed extremely tight-lipped regarding the exact CPU and GPU core configuration in the Snapdragon G3x. However, the company did tell us that the new chipset is based on internals from the Snapdragon 8-series.
Rumors of a high-end Qualcomm SoC for gaming handhelds have also existed for a while now. In March this year, former XDA-Developers editor-in-chief Mishaal Rahman said he was tipped off about a “Nintendo Switch-like” Qualcomm reference device bearing the model number GRD8350P. He speculated that the chipset could be based on the Snapdragon 888 — given the latter’s part number is SM8350. Fast forward to Qualcomm’s 2021 Snapdragon Tech Summit, and it turned out that Razer’s developer kit was the mystery GRD8350P device all along.
Leaks indicate the Snapdragon G3x is based on Qualcomm's last-generation flagship smartphone SoC.
Using a previous-gen SoC as a starting point isn’t totally off-base for Qualcomm. Its Snapdragon 8cx series changed very little between its first two generations and its first laptop chip, the Snapdragon 850, was a marginally beefed-up mobile-class Snapdragon 845. Either way, this move would help keep costs low. That said, we also don’t know how closely the Snapdragon G3x resembles the Snapdragon 888. Given the emphasis on gaming, Qualcomm could include a newer or tweaked Adreno GPU in the Snapdragon G3x, while keeping the older SoC’s CPU cores. Still, even if it uses the last-generation Adreno 660 GPU, it will likely outpace existing smartphone SoCs thanks to the potential for better cooling and more power from the larger form factor.
Can Qualcomm break the handheld Android gaming console curse?
Based on the limited information we have today, Qualcomm looks like it hopes to brute force its way into a new market with cutting-edge specifications rather than a rock-bottom price. However, it’s not the first company to attempt this strategy.
In 2013, graphics hardware manufacturer NVIDIA threw all of its weight behind the Shield gaming brand and its Tegra line of SoCs. The company ported a handful of decorated games like Half-Life 2 and Portal to Android, exclusively for the Tegra chipset. It could even stream games from your gaming PC directly to the handheld. The Shield TV line would go on to cement its place as the best Android TV device on the market for enthusiasts, yet, as we know today, the Shield Portable and Tablet both faded into obscurity, despite the impressive hardware on offer at the time.
Did you know: You could once buy NVIDIA-powered smartphones
So why does Qualcomm think it has figured out the industry today? Well, the company points out that gaming on the go has never been more popular and the industry is now worth $100 billion. Hardware manufacturers seem to think there’s potential too — just look at all of the gaming phones we’ve seen over the past couple of years alone. The list includes notable gaming branded handsets like the ASUS ROG Phone 5 and Lenovo Legion Duel 2.
Despite these positive trends, however, Android-based gaming handhelds haven’t returned to the mainstream yet. And considering the direction Qualcomm is heading with the G3x, I personally don’t think a lot of people will be tempted to pick up a dedicated Android console anytime soon either. Here are a few reasons why.
High-end performance comes at a cost
The first hurdle a handheld Android gaming console needs to overcome is pricing. While nobody except Qualcomm and its partners can offer accurate component-level pricing, there’s probably a reason why most Android handhelds we’ve seen so far tend to use older flagship SoCs or lower-end options. Newer chips are simply easier to obtain and significantly cheaper than anything based on current-gen technology.
Take the Odin, for example — a handheld gaming handheld from Shenzhen-based startup, Ayn. With a starting price of approximately $240, the device is certainly reasonably priced for the Snapdragon 845 chipset and other specifications on offer. That said, the Odin is Ayn’s first-ever product so it may be priced aggressively to embellish the brand’s reputation. It was also a crowdfunded, limited-run endeavor, which is hardly representative of a mass-market product.
GPD, another Chinese manufacturer that’s known for its portable Windows devices, also experiments with Android-based gaming consoles from time to time. However, prices have slowly crept up over the years here. The GPD Win XP (pictured above) sells for roughly $350, and only features a mid-range MediaTek Helio G95 SoC.
Most Android handhelds in the past have used older flagship SoCs or lower-end options, in a likely bid to meet their aggressive price points.
So how much would a top-end Snapdragon-based Android gaming console cost? Well, with the G3x supposedly packing flagship CPU and GPU cores, it likely won’t come cheap. It’s easy to speculate that even the most inexpensive devices will cost as much as existing options — at least $300.
At the other end of the spectrum, we could also get premium offerings with specifications like in Razer’s developer kit. However, considering the additional cost of features like mmWave 5G connectivity and a 10-bit HDR display, it’s hard to imagine a price tag below $500, if not much higher.
See also: The best handheld consoles
Needless to say, these prices are already dangerously close to formidable rivals like the Steam Deck and Nintendo Switch. An Android-based handheld with the Snapdragon G3x would have to offer something unique to keep up with those devices at the same price, let alone a higher one.
Hardware and relative pricing is far from the only problem that holds back the potential of a dedicated gaming handheld running Android, however.
An ecosystem problem, not a hardware one
In 2021, a leak revealed that Lenovo was planning to launch an Android-based gaming handheld, but changed its mind at the last minute. While pricing was not revealed, we asked our readers if they had any interest in buying the device. While 43% of respondents said their decision would depend on Lenovo’s pricing, a staggering 40% expressed no interest in the Android-based gaming handheld whatsoever.
It’s not hard to see where the hesitation and skepticism come from. The vast majority of Android games today don’t even have proper controller support, let alone emerging features like high refresh rate support and advanced haptics.
Take Genshin Impact, for instance. It’s currently one of the most graphically demanding titles on mobile and has a loyal fan base — earning its developers $2 billion in a single year. Despite that, the Android version of the game is the only one that doesn’t support physical controllers. The iOS version, meanwhile, was updated to work with controllers over a year ago.
The vast majority of mobile games don't support external controllers or emerging hardware features. Many don't even make it to Android.
Genshin isn’t an isolated case study either. There’s also the long list of console and PC indie titles that made their way to competing mobile platforms, but not Android. Some noteworthy high-quality games that never made it to Android include Bastion, The Binding of Isaac, Hyper Light Drifter, and Sunless Sea. Even Civilization VI, a high-profile release, had an iOS version two years before an Android one came along. The vast majority of games on Android platforms are intended for casual play, not a super-powered handheld console.
In fact, some large game studios and developers have long shared unanimous hesitation when it comes to supporting Android, often quoting lackluster sales figures and potential piracy risks as key reasons. Google’s own poor efforts to grow Android gaming via the Play Store also may play a factor. Even after UI overhauls, the Googe Play Store’s gaming section remains a confusing mess. The delta in care and quality between initiatives like Google Play Pass and Apple Arcade is staggering. Here’s hoping the recent move to bring Google Play Games to Windows PCs is part of a broader refocus on Android gaming from the Big G.
Qualcomm can’t do much to fix some of the more deep-rooted issues on its own, however. These ecosystem concerns will play a factor for consumers before pulling the trigger on a dedicated Android gaming console. With premium experiences so few and far in between, is there enough demand for an Android-based handheld with flagship specifications?
Silver linings: Cloud gaming and emulation
Qualcomm knows that many Android games aren’t particularly well optimized for controllers at the moment, so it emphasized the ability to map physical controls to touch inputs on the Razer developer kit. It’s a stop-gap solution, of course, but should work for the vast majority of games.
Furthermore, the company says there’s always cloud gaming as a fallback if you run out of Android games. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Streaming and Google’s Stadia are among the many services that let you stream console and PC games to virtually any device.
However, cloud streaming negates the need for processing power in the first place. You don’t need the flagship-grade Adreno GPU that Qualcomm is supposedly including with the G3x, nor do you need a power-hungry SoC with active cooling. All in all, it’s an appealing use case, but the hardware has to be priced competitively for it to make sense.
The G3x could draw the attention of emulation enthusiasts and early adopters of cloud gaming services like Stadia.
That said, there is one use-case that will benefit immensely from Qualcomm’s push for high-end internals: emulation. Thanks to Android’s open nature, you can emulate a myriad of gaming platforms on mobile, including the PSP, Wii, and many more classic consoles. Even better, a new PS2 emulator for Android was unveiled just a couple of weeks ago. While I’m personally excited about emulating older games on a compact handheld, it’s something that will only really appeal to a fraction of the mobile gaming population and won’t determine the success of any potential G3x-powered consoles.
A recipe for success exists, but can manufacturers commit?
Based on the developer kit announcement, Qualcomm is taking the “build it and they will come” approach with the G3x. At this point, however, it’s unclear who can step up to the challenge of building a truly successful and profitable Android handheld.
That said, Qualcomm already managed to conquer a formidable industry once with virtual reality. The Quest 2, undeniably the most popular VR headset outside of the console market, uses the Snapdragon XR2 chipset. To this day, virtually no other consumer headset uses the Snapdragon XR2. Besides the lack of competition, though, the Quest 2’s success can also be attributed to its competitive price tag and vast ecosystem. The Meta-owned Oculus previously stumbled on both counts — with the Oculus Go’s lackluster app library and the original Oculus Quest’s high price tag.
Qualcomm likely hopes to recreate the Snapdragon XR2's success story in the handheld gaming space.
Meta (formerly Facebook Inc.) could perhaps afford to subsidize the Quest 2 because it gets a portion of app sale revenue after the device’s initial sale. However, devices that rely solely on the Play Store’s distribution model do not offer manufacturers a similar opportunity. Still, it’s an interesting strategy that could make Android-based gaming handhelds wildly successful, if any company is brave enough to attempt building a whole new library from scratch. In fact, that’s probably why Qualcomm and Razer made such a big deal about the developer kit.
In summary, then, Qualcomm and its hardware alone will likely not be able to make handheld Android gaming consoles handhelds a breakout success. However, manufacturers willing to experiment and invest in an ecosystem could still find a willing customer base compared to OEMs looking to sell just another generic Android device.