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Dingoo Digital A-320
A dingoo ate my baby!
 Handset: Dingoo A-320 
 Price: £69.99 
by Damien McFerran
With the recent high-profile launch of the Nintendo DSi and rumours surrounding the fearsome specifications of the PSP 2 it’s all too easy to ignore the numerous smaller hardware developments occurring on the fringe of the industry.

While the big companies battle it out for the mainstream market there are countless other firms tinkering away with niche products that can’t hope to achieve anywhere near the same commercial success but regardless of the gulf in status these machines nevertheless attract a level of attention disproportionate to their miniscule market share.

The Far East has proven to be a fertile breeding ground for these unique handhelds: we’ve already seen the GP32 and GP2X from Korea and sometime this year we’ll be enjoying the next generation of ‘PMP’ devices (that’s Personal Media Players to me and you) in the form of The Wiz and the Pandora (although admittedly the latter is more of an international venture).

In amongst this technological hullabaloo is a Chinese company called Dingoo Digital, which has pushed its own PMP console into the marketplace.

Looking like a cross between a Game Boy Micro and a Nintendo DS Lite and featuring the same guts as Gemei X760+, the A-320 is an intriguing device that's looking to carve out its own niche in what is fast becoming a very crowded arena.

First impressions of the machine are overwhelmingly positive. Although the cheap packaging does little to inspire confidence, once you free the console from its cardboard prison it doesn’t take long for you to fall in love.

Compared to the GP2X, this is a slim and lightweight little number, with a matt-finish back and a glossy front. It feels reassuringly solid and the casing is thankfully robust, not to mention mercifully ‘creak’ free.

With these cheaply-produced handhelds you usually find that corners have been cut when it comes to certain aspects of the design. With the GP2X we were lumbered with a dodgy control stick that was intended for use with in-car Sat-Nav systems, and the D-pad of the upgraded GP2X F200 wasn’t much better.

Thankfully, the A-320 doesn’t suffer from such issues because the engineers at Dingoo Digital simply took one look at the DS Lite and copied it wholesale. The D-pad and buttons are almost identical - in fact, if you place the two machines side-by-side you can clearly see that the control elements of both are exactly the same size.

The key difference is that the D-pad lies a little deeper in the casing, which can lead to issues with diagonal commands. This is only likely to cause problems when playing 2D fighting titles that require smooth movements to execute special attacks. For pretty much every other genre the pad is an absolute joy to use.

The unit is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery that offers approximately 6-8 hours of playtime, although this obviously varies depending on what task the machine is undertaking. Those of you who moaned about the GP2X’s reliance on AA power cells should find this agreeable.

Viewing videos is quite processor intensive and will result in faster battery drain, as will ramping up the CPU’s clock speed running the recently released overclocking application, which can be used to give a welcome boost in performance.

Looking at the machine purely from a hardware standpoint, it’s hard to grumble. In physical terms the A-320 is one of the best PMP devices we’ve seen come out of East Asia and the svelte form factor means that it can easily slip into your trouser pocket or coat for long journeys - something that can’t be said of the GP2X.

Sadly, a small amount of the goodwill created by the appealing design is dissipated once you actually fire up the device.

The key focus with these gaming-centric PMP consoles is almost always emulation. While the A-320 comes pre-loaded with NES, Sega Mega Drive, SNES, GBA, Neo-Geo, CPS1 and CPS2 emulators, after dabbling with them for a short time it becomes glaringly apparent that whoever ported them to the A-320 (they’re all based on existing code, you see) didn’t do so with much diligence or care.

NES emulation is the best of the lot: most games run at full speed with sound, although it should be noted that a few titles suffer from graphical glitches. SNES emulation is fairly decent, so long as you disable the sound.

It’s possible to play Sega Mega Drive games at a decent speed with audio enabled, but fast-moving sprites and backgrounds suffer from a horrendous ‘melting effect’ where horizontal scan lines become scrambled.

It’s still perfectly playable but compared to the near-faultless version of PicoDrive currently available on the GP2X it’s not exactly what we were expecting from a machine that's technically more powerful.

Arcade games (via the Neo-Geo, CPS1 and CPS2 emulators) run reasonably well, too. You have to jump through a few hoops in order to get your these larger ROMs working but being able to play Capcom’s superb Aliens Vs Predator coin-op on the move is more than worth the effort.

Sadly the machine doesn’t have extensive support for zipped ROMs, although the 4GB of internal memory - which can be expanded with MiniSD cards - should be more than enough for casual use.

Homebrew gaming is also an option and the A-320 actually comes pre-loaded with a couple of titles. Dingoo’s own 7 Days is the most interesting - it’s an award-winning Java-standard 3D adventure along the lines of Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill, but despite the neat visuals it ultimately lacks the polish commonly associated with those two series.

Judged solely on the current crop of software available for the machine, the A-320 might not seem like a worthy proposition - especially when placed alongside the GP2X.

However, it’s worth remembering that Dingoo Digital’s PMP is only months old. It has taken years for GP2X coders to get their emulators to the high standard they’re currently at, and to expect the A-320 to possess a library of perfect code from day one is naïve to say the least.

Because they receive little to no support from their creators these PMP consoles survive purely on the hard work of unpaid bedroom coders and the task of optimizing each emulator for different hardware isn’t one that can be taken lightly. It will take a few more months for these talented folks to get to grips with the A-320 and at that point you can expect things to look a little more polished.

Indeed, Craig Rothwell of www.gbax.com (the company that distributes the machine within the UK) has informed us that he’s going to be pushing the A-320 over the coming weeks. Not only will he be ensuring that any coder who wants a machine will get one, but he’s also looking to establish a dedicated A-320 resource site.

Of course the big question here is will coders that Rothwell is looking to attract even bother with the A-320 when the Wiz and Pandora are just around the corner? Time will tell, but we hope so. For the price (£69.99) it’s an amazing little device with bags of promise.

Reviewer photo
Damien McFerran 24 April 2009
With a cheap price point, attractive design and plenty of muscle under the hood, the A-320 has the potential to be a serious challenger in the competitive PMP arena; it just needs developer support to give it better software
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Specs Size4.92in x 2.17in x 0.59in
Battery3.7V 1700mAH, approx. 7 hours run time
Memory32MB & 4GB internal storage
Screen2.8" LCD, 320x240 resolution, 16M colors
SoundStereo Speakers, Headphone & TV-out w/ included cable
Controls/buttonsD-Pad, 2 shoulder, 4 face, Start & Select buttons, mic
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