If you want to play video games on the go, you have a lot of options in handheld consoles. You could purchase one of the many models made by major manufacturers over the years, build your own Raspberry Pi-based RetroPie portable, or try one of the handful of Arduino handheld kits on the market. But if you want a balance of build quality, capability, and hackability, then the ClockworkPi GameShell is an option worth considering, and we got one to review.
Despite “Pi” being in the name, the ClockworkPi GameShell isn’t based on or related to the Raspberry Pi. Instead it runs on a completely custom and open-source development board called the ClockworkPi CPI Mainboard (v3.1). That is powered by a quad-core Arm Cortex-A7 32-bit CPU capable of clock speeds up to 1GHz, a Mali GPU, and 1GB of DDR3 RAM. The mainboard has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, and includes a MicroSD card slot, a micro HDMI output, USB ports for charging, and GPIO pins.
The mainboard, along with the other components that make up the GameShell kit, is housed in an injection-molded plastic enclosure. Each component is its own module, and the various modules are connected by a minimal amount of wires. All of those modules are then, in turn, housed within the main injection-molded enclosure, which is roughly the size and shape of an original Nintendo Game Boy. The modular nature of the GameShell means the electronic components are well-protected, and also easily swappable.
The ClockworkPi mainboard, and therefore the GameShell, runs the custom Clockwork OS. That’s based on Debian 9 ARMhf and the Linux mainline Kernel 4.1x. It can run a number of game engines and emulator front ends, including RetroArch, PICO-8, LOVE2D, PyGame, Phaser.io, and Libretro. That means you have a lot of options for playing both classic ROMs and new games that are being developed by the enthusiast community.
Assembling the ClockworkPi GameShell kit is a quick and easy process. From opening the box to powering up the handheld, the entire build took me less than an hour. All of the components are packaged well, and are manufactured to a high quality. With the exception of a small amount of trimming on the injection-molded parts, everything just snapped together with ease. Each module having its own enclosure also helps you feel confident that you’re not going to break anything.
In my testing, I found the ClockworkPi GameShell to be quick and responsive. It’s running Linux, so the operating system is endlessly customizable. But the stock setup works nicely, and comes pre-installed with a handful of video game emulators and handy tools. For example, there is a built-in SSH file transfer tool for sending games to the GameShell over WiFi. Playing Pokémon Emerald Version through the included Game Boy Advance emulator was smooth and painless, and the game seemed to run flawlessly.
The ClockworkPi GameShell isn’t perfect, though. I had two complaints during my testing. The first is that the buttons are membrane-style, and are a bit mushy. They certainly weren’t bad enough to ruin the gaming experience, but they could be improved with mechanical buttons. The second is that the battery life isn’t stellar — just over three hours in my testing playing Pokémon with the power management set to balanced and the screen on medium brightness.
Fortunately, because the ClockworkPi GameShell is specifically designed to be hackable, you can address both of those issues. It would be simple enough to swap out the battery for a larger model, especially if you have a 3D-printer you can use to print new enclosures. The keypad, which is built on an Arduino-compatible ATmega168P, would also be easy enough to replace with a mechanical model. And that’s the real selling point of the GameShell — you can modify it however you like.
Through the Grand Opening Sale, you can get a ClockworkPi GameShell kit for $159.00 (20% of the retail price). Kits are available with white, yellow, or red faceplates. The kit includes everything you need to assemble a fully-functional GameShell, and should ship within 15 business days.