A New Way to Play: MG Handheld Review

mg

We first told you about the MG back in September of 2012, when it was in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign attempting to raise a staggering $950,000. Perhaps they were inspired by the historic success of the OUYA just a few weeks prior, hoping to repeat that system’s incredible funding level on the same $950,000 goal. Unfortunately, the MG fell far short of its lofty goals, failing before it even reached $50,000.

But owing to the professionalism of the team behind it, and community interest in a low-cost vanilla Android Ice Cream Sandwich handheld gaming system, the MG beat the odds and was able to launch on-time.

Now, 6 months after its disappointing Kickstarter showing, we go hands-on with the MG in its finished form and see if it lives up to expectations. Was the MG a case of the Kickstarter community dropping the ball, or did it deserve to slip through the cracks?

MG Concept

The MG hopes to fill an unquestionable void in the current Android ecosystem. While there are no shortage of Android tablets and smartphones, some increasingly formidable gaming machines, Android hasn’t really had its alternative to Apple’s iPod Touch; a device which gamers (or the parents of gamers) can purchase off-contract for a reasonable price.

Anyone who likes the software available for iOS, but doesn’t want to spend the money on an iPhone (purchase price, plus recurring monthly charges) can pick up an iPod Touch and get access to all the same software. It’s an important entry-level device, which allows anyone to get into the iOS software ecosystem without signing 2 years of their life away.

While there have been a few Android media players and the like, they were all either too expensive or of such low quality and standing in the community that nobody took them seriously. Since it didn’t appear that Google themselves would be answering the call with a “Nexus Touch” type device, the niche of a non-phone smartphone was left more or less unfulfilled.

Enter the MG, an Android device that aims to be the best and cheapest way to get in on the games available in the Google Play Store. What’s even more, the MG advertises itself as the best option for parents who want to give their children their own Android device; as its built in parental monitoring and control functions allows monitoring the activity of children in ways that are simply not available on other devices.

Now that the MG is shipping from its own site and popular online retailers like Amazon, has Android finally gotten its alternative to the iPod Touch? Or will we have to keep waiting?

Packaging

Alright, usually I wouldn’t even bother mentioning something like this, but the packaging the MG comes in is just really well done. I can’t help but wonder how much of the cost of each unit just goes into the box the thing ships in.

When you open the box you’ll notice a little black ribbon, and when you pull on it, the MG itself and its assorted pieces of documentation come sliding out on these little articulated shelves. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in retail packaging. It’s a really cool effect, and definitely gives the first opening of the system a “Wow” factor.

MS's transforming box

MG’s transforming box

The piece of the box that holds the prepaid debit card (which, it turns out, is not actually a real card) flips open to reveal a number of high quality inserts that describe the MG hardware, give you some tips on how to get started, and generally get you up to speed on what the MG is and how it works. This is where you’ll also find the included 8GB MicroSD card, complete with its own plastic case. It seems like it would be cheaper to just ship the MG with the card inserted, saving the extra packaging and documentation for the card itself. I’ve certainly purchased smartphones that shipped with the card installed, so I’m not sure why the MG should be any different. Perhaps this will come farther down the line as a cost saving measure.

Even the instructions look good.

Even the instructions look good.

Where’s The Plug?

Speaking of cost saving measures, the MG is rather interesting in that it doesn’t actually include a charger. The designers assume (fairly) that the purchaser likely has multiple Micro-USB chargers at home, and decided not to waste money and materials including one. Not only does this save both the manufacturer and purchaser some money, it’s also better for the environment: why manufacture more hardware that will just end up as waste?

I have to admit, I like the idea of a world where all of our devices are charged by the same connector, and we don’t need to get yet another power adapter every time we buy a new device. Whether or not the mass market is ready for that day, I won’t hazard to guess. It’s certainly a rather bold move to sell a device like this without a charger, even if it makes perfect sense.

It’s perhaps for that reason the MG is also offered in a slightly more expensive “bundle”, which includes a standard Micro-USB charger and rubberized protective case. Given that the MG is likely to live a rather rough life, it’s probably not a bad idea to get the case at the very least, even if you don’t need another charger.

MG Hardware

After you open and close the box a few times to play around with it, the first thing you notice when you actually pick up to the MG is how light it is, and that the shape is really very comfortable to hold. We’ve gotten used to Android devices that are more or less bricks of varying thicknesses, so to have something with a curved back that lends itself to being held in landscape mode is a very nice departure from most other devices on the market. The MG definitely feels like a device you can hold for extended periods of time.

The MG Handheld

The MG Handheld

In general, the MG has a pretty standard Android handset control layout, though I do really like the addition of a button to control the backlight. Anyone who has used handheld systems from the likes of Sony and Nintendo will know that controlling the screen brightness is an option that is put right in the user’s face, and the MG is no different. A small button on the bottom of the MG allows you to cycle through preset brightness levels without ever having to touch the screen itself. This might not seem like a big deal, but it goes to show how the MG team really designed the hardware from a gamer’s perspective.

Of course, there are some that will complain about the MG not having physical game controls. The hardcore gamers out there would love a device like this with a directional pad and a few physical buttons, but the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Android games are specifically designed not to require physical controls, and therefore support for devices that actually have them is hit or miss at best. Anyone who’s used Sony’s Xperia Play will tell you that, despite the initial promise of having a handset with those kind of controls built right in, the device is absolutely crippled by lack of software support. Perhaps 1 in 10 games actually make proper use of the physical input devices.

But perhaps more to the point, the MG isn’t shooting for the hardcore gamer; there are already handhelds from the big players that have the hardcore market locked up. The MG is aiming for the casual market, and let’s be completely honest here, the younger market. While there is absolutely nothing that would keep an adult from owning and enjoying an MG, everything from the system’s parental control features to its promotional images show the device is firmly aimed at the pre-teen market.

Performance Benchmarks

Along that same line of logic, it should be said that the MG is by no means a powerhouse. Just as it doesn’t have the hardware controls that a hardcore player of, say, Grand Theft Auto would demand, neither does it have the raw horsepower to do those sort of games much justice. The MG is more suited to the lower requirements of casual 2D games than the big 3D blockbusters which have started to make their way into the Play Store.

Not to say the MG is incapable of playing 3D games. I put in a few rounds of the graphically intensive Anomaly Warzone Earth, and the device even ships with a copy of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, but the games are obviously scaled back on this hardware compared to running on something with high-end specs like the Nexus 7.

Running the extremely intensive “Epic Citadel” tech demo from Epic Games, the MG was only able to muster an average FPS of 13.8, even at the lowest possible video settings.

No-So-Epic Citadel

No-So-Epic Citadel

Similarly, the popular AnTuTu benchmarking tool gives the MG a rather unsavory score of just 2796, putting it below even the 2 year old Samsung Galaxy S.

AnTuTu MG Benchmark

AnTuTu MG Benchmark

Now, I don’t want to beat the MG up too badly here. It certainly falls below current (or even older) smartphones in terms of raw power, but that is certainly not unexpected. Consider how much those phones cost, even when subsidized on a 2 year contract, and then compare that to the no-contract price of the MG. Bringing the purchase price of the MG to the point that a kid can ask for it for his or her birthday with minimal sticker shock on the part of their parents meant scaling back on some aspects of the product, and raw power was the most logical place to take the hit.

For a device like the MG, it’s better to have a large high-quality screen and be durable than beating other devices on a benchmark.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • http://profiles.google.com/neotechni Techni Myoko

    “Perhaps 1 in 10 games actually make proper use of the physical input devices.”

    Games that dont support xperia play’s hardware controls can usually have support added via the game keyboard app

    • http://profiles.google.com/neotechni Techni Myoko

      Also, that parental control system is fascinating.
      PCS on previous systems were a joke compared to this. On them, the kid knew more about it than the parents, and could easily bypass it if they spent 2 minutes on google or playing with the settings. This brings it to a whole new level where it’s actually useful.

      • FCS

        The FCS is probably the best part of the MG. I wonder if they will bring it to other Android devices, maybe charge a monthly fee.
        They could make money on the service, as well as sales of their own hardware.

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