Anbernic RG503
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Anbernic has adopted a somewhat strange upgrade path for its devices of late. After the success of the RG351 (which spawned the excellent RG351V), the RG300X and more recent RG552 have perhaps been a little disappointing, and fans are still waiting for a 'true' next-gen handheld from the company.

The $140 Anbernic RG503 isn't that device, and we dare say that it will displease many people as a result. However, in many ways it represents a significant step up for the company and handheld emulation devices in general; it's the first product of this type to boast an OLED panel (made by Samsung, in this case) and also packs in 5GHz Wi-Fi as well; it's also the first Anbernic handheld to be powered by the new Rockchip RK3566 processor.

Much of the criticism aimed towards the RG503 ever since it was first revealed is focused on its design. Unlike previous Anbernic devices, it sports a very 'rounded' look, almost appearing like a relic from the consumer electronics wasteland that was the 1990s. The casing is made from plastic (Anbernic has opted for metal bodywork on some of its other handhelds, but not here) and feels a little cheap, but it's still solid enough. Nothing moves or creaks when you squeeze it, which is a bonus.

The control setup will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used one of the firm's products in the past; you get an excellent D-pad, two analogue sticks and four main face buttons, with four additional shoulder buttons thrown in for good measure. The power and volume controls are located on the left and right edges respectively, while a 'Reset' button is located rather awkwardly on the bottom edge; it's far too easy to accidentally press this during use, especially as it's situated next to a 'Function' key which is used to drop into the system menu during gameplay. Two MicroSD card slots are present; one contains the OS while the other has your ROMs (which you will, of course, have sourced legally).

Because it's such a new device, custom firmware isn't available yet, so you're stuck with the default emuELEC OS. This actually does a pretty solid job of offering a clean, console-style interface; supported systems have their own section in the UI, and you can even scrape online databases to pull in cover art, screens and even video trailers. The RG503 supports consoles such as the NES, Game Boy, SNES, N64, PlayStation, Mega Drive and Nintendo DS, and performance is generally very good; the RK3566 is not only efficient, it's not as power-hungry as other SoC options. That means the 3500 mAh Li-Po battery can give over six hours of battery life, which is pretty decent.

The star of the show is almost certainly the screen, which, according to Anbernic, is the same 4.95-inch, 960×544 pixel OLED panel that was found in the original model of the PS Vita. It's bright and packs a serious punch, offering the incredible contrast OLED screens are famous for (Switch OLED Model owners will need no introduction to this, of course). The display is recessed slightly into the casing which means that dust tends to collect around the edges – we'd rather have had a display that sat flush with the case, but it's not a deal-breaker by any means. On the audio side of things, the stereo speakers are surprisingly good, with excellent volume levels and good bass.

It remains to be seen what custom firmware will do for the RG503 – it made a real difference with previous Anbernic handhelds – but out of the box, this device delivers a pleasing retro gaming experience. Sure, it's not worlds apart from what we've already seen (outside of the amazing display, of course) and doesn't quite deliver the 'next-gen' experience many fans have been hoping for (Sega Saturn emulation is possible, but it runs very poorly indeed), but it nonetheless offers a solid enough platform on which to experience classic games.

The key problem for existing Anbernic fans is that the RG503 doesn't really offer a massive step up from previous models, outside of that amazing display.

Thanks to Keep Retro for supplying the Anbernic RG503 used in this review.

This article was originally published by on Wed 4th May, 2022.