Having put my money down to secure a Pandora I’m finally commited to the inevitable but hopefully short wait for the console to be tweaked, finalised, approved and shipped. To pass the time and feed my hunger for some open source console goodness I decided to try and get my hands on a fresh face to the community; the Dingoo A320 and produce a Dingoo A320 review.
At first glance the Dingoo A320 is just another cheap chinese MP4 player, and I suppose at heart that’s exactly what it is. But, Dingoo Digital, the A320s makers have excellently demonstrated that a cheap MP4 player doesn’t have to be a poor product.
GBAX have staked their reputation on the A320 and made it available to UK buyers with none of the hassle associated with importing and a nice 24 hour delivery time. They eat somewhat into the “cheap” factor of the Dingoo in doing so, however, with the unit priced at a high, but not entirely uncomfortable £79.99. To put things into perspective the GP2X Wiz is £129.99 and the Pandora, if you can get hold of one now, cost me just a tad over £274 very recently. They’re also selling a plain ol’ MP4 player for more than the price of the Dingoo.
Above: Various shots of the Dingoo A320. I’ve left the “screen protector” that it’s shipped with on, so edges look a bit odd.
The Dingoo A320 does still check the “cheap” box but only just, but also delivers a not-too-shabby 4gb of internal storage, a 2.8″ 320×240 LCD, a 7 hour battery life, gaming controls, TV-out and a very full compliment of emulators that may not be as optimised as they could be.
GBAX will be supporting the Dingoo A320 and are already supplying known community programmers with free consoles to promote the production of more optimised emulators. They may possibly be giving us a centralised, English resource site where Dingoo owners can keep up to speed with the latest software. This is an extremely worthwhile venture considering just how well the quick and dirty emulator ports that the Dingoo currently sports actually run. Let’s hope Dingoo Digital don’t try to further capitalise on their success penetrating the open source community and distract potential A320 owners or developers by diluting their lineup with new models.
Being of MP4-playing heritage, of quirky Chinese manufacture and coming loaded with software and emulators means there’s a lot of ground to cover with the Dingoo A320. I’ll try to keep it brief, but it’s all too easy to ramble when you’re passionate about a fresh-faced little console and eager to see its success.
Above: Various games and features of the Dingoo A320. All captured via the TV-Out.
The emulators on the Dingoo A320 are a mixed bunch, games that are “playable” are more or less so, with a few caveats and performance depending entirely on the game itself. Some emulators are less optimised than others, so if you’re a stickler for Link’s Awakening you’ll find that it performs much, much better in its Gameboy Advance incarnation than the SNES one. One of my all-time favourite titles, Golden Sun, runs fine but the sound distortion is unbearable. Advance Wars, 1 and 2, on the other hand are a pleasure to play (I’ve been playing Advance Wars 2 almost constantly over the last few days) and the Advance Wars music is annoying and irrelevant enough for it to be somewhat irritating that it plays perfectly when Golden Sun’s catchy tunes are distorted.
Still, the all-round emulation experience is absolutely fantastic considering that it’s what you get out-of-the-box. I don’t think there’s a comparable out of the box experience on the market, in fact, although the GP2X Wiz is a tough competitor. If you’re looking to play a few of your all-time GBA favourites with the odd console classic thrown in for flavour on a device that can also serve as a media player then you should look no further than the Dingoo A320.
What will really count over the next few months is just how smoothly various projects go on the Dingoo. A functional, idiot-proof and dual bootable port of Linux that’s well rounded enough to replace the Dingoo’s stock firmware seems to be the communities holy grail at the moment. I would rather see either the stock Dingoo emulators updated by Dingoo Digital themselves, or the creation of fresh, heavily optimised ports that run on the existing Dingoo Firmware. Either way, it will be a few months before we see the console utilised to its full and, hopefully, quite impressive potential. Fortunately the Dingoo’s stock emulators should be good enough to make the wait as painless as possible for those of us who can do little more than sit on the sidelines and watch the development masterminds in action.
At the moment the emulators have a minimal compliment of essential options and features, including Frameskip, the ability to turn sound off if necessary, multiple save states and a few more. Most of the current dissatisfaction with these emulators stems from unrealistically high expectations, remember that the Dingoo is a tossed-together console made by a company in China that nobody has ever heard of and sold at a bargain price. The Dingoo, also, has no real competition with the GP2X Wiz lacking a TV-out and the A320s decidedly lower price tag. And, yes, the TV-out will work when you’re emulating your favourite games, and isn’t half bad, but the TV-out cable is short and doesn’t seem to like you moving the unit around when you’re using it.
Above: Original Advance Wars vs Emulated On The Dingoo A320.
Aptly following on from my thoughts on the emulators, the Dingoo A320 controls are astonishingly good but the absense of a volume control is quite frustrating. There are six face buttons; start, select, y, x, a and b. These all have a very good travel and tactile response which I dare say feels a damned sight better than the buttons on, for example, a PS3 controller. They are accompanied by the D-Pad upon which some rolling of your thumb can more-or-less painlessly achieve diagonals. The D-Pad is slightly mushy compared to that of the Nintendo DS which actually lets you feel when you’ve hit the two microswitches required for a diagonal, but it’s definitely not bad for most things. Avid fighter fans will be disappointed to hear that it wont lend itself to their beloved classics as effectively as it could have, but a cheap stick-on D-Pad solution detailed over at Dingoo Scene could be its saving grace.
The shoulder buttons are a weird affair, unlike those on most other console controllers and handhelds they have a very pronounced tactile feedback and very little travel. They are, in fact, almost identical to the start and select buttons on the face of the unit. At first they’re a little strange but I find myself actually quite liking them, although being less fond of the audiable click that they produce when pressed.
I’m disappointed at the headphone socket placement, but simultaneously also appreciate its necessity and kick myself for not having an L-shaped adaptor to make things a little more comfortable. The headphone socket is appropriately placed on the side of the unit which becomes the top when you tuck your Dingoo A320 into a slip case and/or a pocket. There’s really no other suitable place for it, meaning you’ve got to get used to keeping a loose grip on the console when you’re gaming with ‘phones attached.
The TV-out comes from the bottom of the unit. Some will argue that it would be much better placed on the top, and I would probably be one of them. But it’s not a huge problem where it is. The short-ish AV cable means you practically have to have your nose pressed against the TV to play, anyway, and finding a long enough replacement solves both of these problems.
The USB port is also on the bottom, again this could have been better placed on the top should we, for example, wish to try and use the Dingoo as an intelligent little Pandora game controller. But I can’t really complain otherwise.
The presence of a Mini SD slot in place of full-sized SD or even Micro SD is quite frustrating. I had the same problem with the Nokia N810. I have never owned a Micro SD card which, considering my tenure as a gadget journalist, means that most other potential A320 purchasers will not simply be able to dig one out of a drawer either. Any Micro SD -> Mini SD adaptors I might have had at some point have also disappeared into the gadget kipple. Where’s the SD love? Are Mini SD cards favoured in China? The Dingoo A320 is touted as supporting up to an 8GB Mini SD card, giving you 12gb in total… you can try larger at your own risk, but there shouldn’t be any reason for it not to work.
The speakers have weird little metal grilles which are a strange diversion from the typical drilled holes you would expect to find in most products. It’s almost like they are trying to be a high-quality touch, but the grilles are ever so slightly irregular and clearly cheaply made. The speakers serve their purpose and are more than loud enough for headphone free video viewing and game playing The sound quality through headphones is stellar, the Dingoo manages to drive my Roland RH300 monitor headphones to an impressive level of volume. Although not quite on loudness par with the iPhone it’s certainly as good in terms of audio quality.
You can simply toss a DVD rip on the Dingoo A320 and be reasonably sure that it will play, and play well. I’ve found the Dingoo indespensible as a baby pacifier. Sticking a movie or cartoon on the screen and placing it upon the table at a restaurant, for example, gives us some invaluable peace and quiet.
I’m still quite confused when it comes to the video playback controls, this may be in part because I couldn’t be bothered to read the, possibly Chinglish, instruction manual and also because I’m used to the no-brainer operation of video playback on Apple products.
Video will also play back via TV-out, which is nice if you have absolutely no alternative or simply want to pocket a movie or two to take to a friends house. The rather short length of the TV-out cable would suggest that this is more what was intended, rather than using it for games.
Whilst it’s certainly no iPod the Dingoo A320 is a surprisingly good audio player. The 3.5mm audio port, which is awkwardly placed for gaming, is in just the right spot for slipping the console into a pocket with headphones connected. The hold button means you wont mash buttons whilst its in your pocket and intefere with your audio playback. Again, like the video playback I found the controls somewhat awkward only this time I couldn’t find a way to scan through tracks. However, a quick consult of the manual reveals it’s actually all rather simple, with a press and hold on the left or right arrow serving to fast forward or rewind.
On the subject of the manual, the English isn’t really all that bad and all of the controls are explained clearly.
If you’re into FM Radio you’ll be pleased to know that the Dingoo A320 comes with a tuner which you can either auto-tune or use to manually scan frequencies. As you might notice in the video above, the automatic scanning didn’t leave me with a very accurate set of stations. A second try seemed to fix this, the Dingoo also has 3 signal strength settings for radio, but they don’t seem to have much of an impact.
If you really like your radio, you’ll appreciate the recording functionality the Dingoo offers. The PRS, however, would probably not. You seem to have to have background playing enabled in the radio settings, but you can then record radio to your hearts content and play it back in the “record” menu option.
One quirk of background playing is that there doesn’t seem to be a way of shutting the radio up without going into the menu and turning background play off again. This is a minor annoyance for me, but if you use the radio and record a lot it could frustrate you.
What about ebooks? Well the Dingoo includes not only a text reader but some quite quirky text-to-speech which you can hear a snippet of in the video above. I’ll leave the video to do the explanation, but suffice to say you’re probably not going to be making much use of this particular feature… outside of creating mild amusement.
The Dingoo A320 comes with a TV-out cable, which is a pretty standard composite affair that you’d use with a digital camera, iPod or other device with A/V out. Somehow I don’t seem to have anything to hand with such a standard A/V out, I’m pretty sure alternate (longer) cables will work, but you may have to experiment somewhat swapping the Left or Right audio connector into your video input.
Alongside the TV-out cable, come a little iPhone-esque mains socket to USB adaptor which doesn’t have a UK converter. No matter, the Dingoo A320 can be charged from any USB port you might have to hand. There’s also, of course, a USB cable.
Finally, a set of earphones round off the trio and are handy if you don’t have any better ones, but certainly not something to get excited about. I’ve not touched them, and have no plans to. I don’t get on well with earphones.
The fact there’s a community around the Dingoo A320 at all is indicative of its potential and place in the hearts of many avid homebrewers. Its killer feature set, out-of-the-box emulation, compact size, excellent controls and affordable price have made it accessible and desirable to new and existing enthusiasts alike.
As I’ve mentioned, a vast amount of buzz seems to be centered around bringing a viable Linux OS to the Dingoo, however there are new firmwares, an overclocking application and more to be had in the mean time. Dingoo linux has already seen ScummVM and a quick and dirty Snes9x port.
Overall the Dingoo is a cracking buy. If you’ve got £100 to spare and are looking for oodles of lovely classic portable gaming, video playing, music, radio and more then you can pick up a Dingoo A320 with money left over for one of those obscure Mini SD jobbies. I have to say, the Dingoo is worth it for the excellent Advance Wars 1 & 2 emulation (even though I have these for my GBA SP/DS) with a long battery life and baby-pacifying video playback thrown in for good measure.
With any luck, the development ball for the Dingoo A320 will start rolling soon and I can make coverage of it a permenant fixture at Gadgetoid, quenching some of that pent-up thirst for the Pandora.
Update: The Dingoo A320 can now dual boot linux without needing to be tethered to a computer thanks to the efforts of Booboo.
Update: I got the opportunity to test a MicroSD to MiniSD adaptor from MobileFun. It worked with the Lexar 8gb MicroSD card, adapting it up to fit the Dingoo. If you’ve got any MicroSD cards knocking about that only came with full-sized SD adaptors, then I highly recommend picking up a MicroSD to MiniSD adaptor. It’ll save you a lot of fiddling with the silly, esoteric MiniSD format which is prone to pulling out of full-sized SD adaptors, leaving them stuck in the slot.