Anbernic RG353PS
Image: Jim Gray / Time Extension

Anbernic won't stop releasing new handhelds. By the end of this article, the company will almost certainly have announced a new handheld that makes the subject of this review, the RG353PS, redundant. The breakneck pace at which the firm churns out products is often dizzying, but at least it means we have plenty of choices when it comes to portable emulation.

Like a half-dozen devices before that, the RG353PS is powered by an RK3566 chipset - something that might lead some people to write it off without a second glance. It also doesn't help that this is effectively a cheaper variant of an existing model, the RG353P.

So, is it worth a look? Well, today, we’re going to explore whether this device holds a unique place in the sub-$100 section of the handheld market. Buckle up!

Anbernic RG353PS Review: Design

Like the Anbernic 353P and the PocketGo S30 before that, the Anbernic RG353PS’s design inspiration is obvious. However, unlike those two handhelds, Anbernic did not feel the need to release a North American Super Nintendo-inspired colourway. What makes the decision even more confusing is that the 353PS shares a shell design (and pretty much everything else) with the 353P, which does come in the classic 'grey and purple' American players would expect in that form factor. To be sure, the colours Anbernic chose are pretty attractive (especially the Game Boy version), but the option would have cost them nothing and would have been a welcome choice for many.

The body of the device is large, significantly larger than a Super Nintendo controller and closer in size to a thicker Retroid Pocket 3. Additionally, it has flared triggers that make it even less pocketable than it looks. What it lacks in pocketability, though, it mostly makes up for in ergonomics. With the exception of the awkwardly placed analog sticks, the device is comfortable to hold, and all the controls feel naturally placed and easily accessible. The analog sticks are recessed and feel very nice, but their placement is so low on the device that you can really only use one at a time, and even then, not for long periods.

The D-pad is classic Anbernic – which is to say it's mushy, but not too mushy, and fairly precise. If you've used an Anbernic device before, you'll likely know exactly what we're talking about. The triggers are stacked, and while they’re not analog, they feel good and are easy to press. To the sides of the display, we have start and select buttons, which feel great, and clicky power and function buttons that sit flush with the case and are unobtrusive.

In terms of I/O, we have two USB-C ports on the top and sandwiched between those is a mini-HDMI port for connecting to your TV (more on this later). On the bottom of the device, we have downward-facing stereo speakers, two SD card slots (one for the firmware and one for ROMs) and a headphone jack. On the front is the screen, a gorgeous 3.5” display with a 640x480 display. Contrary to what the gigantic Game Boy-inspired bezel around the screen says, this is not a dot-matrix display, but instead a nicely saturated and well-balanced LCD panel.

Anbernic RG353PS Review: User Experience

The RG353PS features Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 1GB of RAM. It has no usable internal storage, and as such, it runs its firmware off of the first SD card. As is tradition, it ships with Anbernic's forked build of Batocera. In the past, we'd urge prospective buyers to flash a better alternative, such as ArkOS or JelOS, but Anbernic has come a long way in terms of the out-of-box software experience, and the 353PS is no exception.

On the first boot, the user is greeted with the familiar Emulation Station UI (due to the reduced RAM, there is no option to boot into Android). This should be familiar to many folks, but for the uninitiated, Emulation Station is a frontend for gaming-focused Linux-based operating systems that organizes your ROM files into a gorgeous and media-rich library. Most systems are powered by Retroarch cores, but some use standalone emulators to achieve better performance.

In our testing, all systems were pre-configured correctly with the most popular cores, common aspect ratios and other settings already in place. Systems up to PlayStation 1 are going to work without any issues, with some PlayStation games even upscaling to 2x nicely. Past that, we start to run into similar issues to the 3326 chips of yesteryear. Nintendo 64 is a mostly fluid experience thanks to a solid standalone emulator, but there will be some games that present issues, like Perfect Dark and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Dreamcast performs admirably, with the majority of games being at least playable, if not perfect. Nintendo DS also runs quite well, but is awkward to play with a single, touchless display.

Once we get into Saturn and PSP territory, things start to fall apart slightly. Saturn is a famously tricky system to emulate, and a few years ago, the idea of a budget handheld playing Saturn was a pipe dream. Now, thanks to stronger chips and more efficient emulation, we're happy to report that Saturn is mostly playable. There will be dropped frames in most games, and you can’t do any upscaling, but the majority of games will be playable. For under $100, that is nothing to shake a stick at. PSP has a similar success rate, but it should be noted that due to the wider aspect ratio of the PSP screen, games will be letterboxed. This means that even if they run perfectly, the playing area will be squished between black bars when playing in handheld mode.

Speaking of which, the HDMI output performs exceptionally well out of the box. Output is set to 720p, and Emulation Station adapts perfectly to the larger display. Games all seemed to display at their correct aspect ratios. too, which means older systems will have some black columns on each side of the screen, but systems like PSP will now fill the whole display.

Additionally, you can use that second USB-C port for a controller, making this a surprisingly robust and affordable emulation option for couch play. The only issue we had after testing a handful of games was that Sega Saturn seemed to crash the handheld when plugged into HDMI. We should note that we have not seen this mentioned elsewhere, and it could very well have been an isolated issue.

Anbernic RG353PS Review: Conclusion

The Anbernic 353PS is a well-rounded but unexceptional handheld in a sea of handhelds (largely populated by Anbernic). But, is it worth the cost? And if so, who should buy it?

The 353PS starts at $94.99 for the standard model (an SD card loaded with games will cost extra). That price point puts it in competition with handhelds like the Retroid Pocket 2+/3, the Powkiddy RK2023, and this device’s vertical cousin, the RG353VS. Compared with those handhelds, it’s actually more compelling than its modest specs let on. When compared with the Retroid Pocket 2+, it has better analog sticks, support for custom Linux firmware and doesn’t require the user to fuss with Android setup. Compare it to the RK2023, and it's basically a better device in every regard, only losing points on the pocketability front.

It's only when compared to the handhelds in the next price bracket do things start looking bad for the 353PS. While the Retroid Pocket 3 comes in at about $20 more than the 353PS, it uses what appear to be aftermarket iPhone displays and has a beefier chipset. Buyers will need to deal with Android’s unintuitive setup process, but in return, they gain support for more efficient emulators (including some Gamecube and PS2), streaming apps like Steam Link, and features noticeably absent in the 353PS like touchscreen and internal storage. For the same price, they can get the 353PS’s bigger brother, the 353P. Virtually identical in every other way, the 353P adds an additional gigabyte of RAM, touchscreen, internal storage and support for Android 11.

This brings us back to the RG353PS. For $95, you could do a lot worse. Anbernic packed a lot into the 353PS, and for once, there are no glaring issues or omissions (we won’t count touchscreen against them, as the Linux firmware used on these handhelds does not support it universally). It comes in unique and attractive colourways and includes a sleek, branded Anbernic case.

If you are looking for something vaguely reminiscent under $100 that plays all of your 16-bit games and a whole bunch of 32-bit stuff, this and its vertical counterpart (the aforementioned RG353VS) will do the trick. However, if you are willing to spend slightly more, you can get a major upgrade in the fully-featured 353P or the older Retroid Pocket 3. Or, you can head over to Anbernic’s website, hit refresh a few times and wait for them to put out another handheld. It's only a matter of time, after all.

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