Hands-on with the Caanoo handheld videogame system

I’m a huge retro videogame fan…I play all the new games and consoles but always go back to my childhood games from the 80s. Every time I get a new gadget or computer, usually the first thing I do is see what emulators can run on it. This has also lead to me re-buying the same games over and over again as they become legitimately available for a new device.

This passion for retrogaming even led to me building my own arcade cabinet (on my Westend balcony) so that I could relive these games in all their glory, complete with dual joysticks, 12 pushbuttons and a working coin slot – yes, I made my friends pay to play. The cabinet contained a PC running MAME – the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. This is a cross platform emulator that can run over 5000 arcade classics from the 70s to just a few years ago.

The Arcade

Eventually, I had a living room full of arcade cabinets running pretty much everything. I’ve since scaled back to just one machine but am considering converting it to a mini-MAME cabinet.

Retrocactus Arcade Cabinet

I recently posted about a MAME emulator for jailbroken iPhones. It works quite well for emulating games. Unfortunately, the controls leave a lot to be desired. Touch interfaces just don’t work well with retro games that were played with a joystick, a paddle or a trackball. This is possibly one of the reasons why I really don’t do a lot of gaming on my iOS devices…I’m old school like that.

Then one day, I stumbled across the Caanoo handheld gaming device from Game Park Holdings in Korea. It came out last fall and is the followup to a number of previous devices from GPH that are considered open source alternatives to the Nintendo and Sony handheld gaming devices.

Caanoo handheld

Here was a handheld device that was dedicated to emulating my favorite games and it also had a few other tricks from the modern era that made it a pretty compelling gadget that I ordered almost immediately. I did first check out how well MAME ran on it and there are tons of videos on Youtube demonstrating this.

The main features that interested me were:

  • completely opensource – the device runs on a Linux variant and is apparently very hackable
  • true analog joystick and proper game buttons
  • robust developer community creating all kinds of software and games for it (there is even a true app/game store)
  • a touch screen that works with your fingers or the included stylus
  • stereo sound – although the speakers are located in a strange place
  • vibration – which has varying support in games and has an intensity control to dial it up or down
  • wifi support – not built in but available using a small & inexpensive dongle
  • G Sensor – their version of an accelerometer that can allow the handheld to be used to control the games (tilt for steering controls for example – works quite well even with MAME)
  • uses SD cards (up to 32gb) for storage
  • drag and drop app installs
  • decent battery life (rated for 7 hours, realworld seems to be about 5)
  • TV out support (via a proprietary cable that is not included)
  • a USB port for adding a second player using a USB joystick or gamepad
  • you can rotate the screen for some of the vertical games and the controls are laid out in such a way that it’s actually very playable vertically and comfortable to hold – I couldn’t imagine doing that with a GBA or DS
  • it’s also an open media player (music/movies/ebooks/etc – in just about any format) – not something I really care about or need thanks to my iPad but a nice bonus nonetheless
  • an empty, Caanoo branded 4gb SD card came in the box…despite no mention of it anywhere

It pretty much seems to be the perfect retro gaming handheld at the moment and it is about half the cost of the new Nintendo 3DS.

The back of the unit…note the curious location of the speakers (right were you place your hands):
Caanoo handheld

The animated menu system is pretty basic and boots quickly to help you get to your games quickly:
Caanoo handheld

The emulators – pretty much every console or computer I ever owned (including my beloved Vectrex) and a few I didn’t:
Caanoo handheld

Atari 2600 running Keystone Kapers:
Caanoo handheld

The MAME menu:
Caanoo handheld

MAME running Gauntlet:
Caanoo handheld

A video from the Caanoo’s maker, that highlights the features of the console:

A great starting point for all the emulators for the Caanoo is OpenHandhelds.org where you’ll find a ton of different console, computer and arcade game emulators to download. PDRoms is also another good spot to check out the Caanoo section.

For obvious reasons, you’ll have to look elsewhere for the rom files needed to run the emulators but chances are if you’re interested in retro gaming at all, you’ll know where to look.

A few things I didn’t like about the Caanoo:

  • touchscreen gets very smudgy…I’ve been spoiled by Apple’s protective coatings
  • the only way to charge the unit is using a proprietary USB cable – let’s hope I don’t lose it
  • the power light on the left side is pretty large and unnecessary
  • the app store and product registration requires Windows to work. No official Mac support but you can easily populate the SD card on a Mac with games, emulators and roms and just pop it into the Caanoo with no trouble
  • wifi not built in & requires a dongle that sticks out of the bottom of the unit – not a huge deal since I’d rarely use it but if a friend does pick up one of these, we could play head to head over wifi

Other than those few items, I really have no complaints about the Caanoo. It works better than I imagined at running pretty much every game I’ve thrown at it at near perfect speeds. I’m still impressed that hardware of this caliber and quality is available so inexpensively (~$150) and that the community is as big as it is. I also considered the Dingoo (really? who comes up with these names?) but it’s a bit older and has a little less power than the Caanoo (336mhz vs 533mhz) although it’s nearly half the price ($~80) so it may be an option if you want to check out these kinds of handhelds on the cheap.

I ordered my Caanoo from Think Geek but it’s available online from a number of places including eBay.

One Comment

  1. Those were the days. I love playing Oldschool Games than the new platforms now.

    Vancouver Photographer

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