MG Handheld Gears Up for Holiday Retail Debut

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We first introduced you to the innovative MG handheld back in March, not long after it became available for purchase. Our initial impression of the MG was that while it definitely had some room for improvement, the core concept was sound, and a number of features parent company PlayMG baked into the device’s software (especially in terms of parental controls) were nothing short of groundbreaking for the Android platform.

The MG, and the ideals of its creators, interested us enough that we even went back and touched base with the company a month later for a Q&A session with PlayMG staffer Taylor Cavanah, examining in a bit more detail where PlayMG hoped to take this unique entry in the Android ecosystem.

Now, hoping to elevate their product from Kickstarter oddity to mainstream notoriety in time for the holiday shopping season, PlayMG has made numerous improvements to the MG’s overall presentation and marketability. But will it be enough to make the MG stand out in the competitive retail arena?

The MG Concept

The whole idea behind the MG is to build a smartphone that isn’t actually a phone. The logic is simple: kids always want to play on their parent’s smartphones, but the parents (for obvious reasons) would rather they don’t. You could buy them some kind of dedicated gaming device like a Nintendo 3DS or a Sony PSP, but every parent knows that they’ll still end up going for the phone because that’s what they see the adults on all the time.

But buying a phone for your child just so they can play games is ridiculous. The off contract price of most phones is absurdly high ($600-$700 for a flagship phone), and getting a subsidized one on contract means you’ll be on the hook for monthly payments. Neither option is very good if you just want to be able to give your son or daughter their own device for playing Angry Birds on, so what to do?

Enter the MG. It looks and works just like a regular Android smartphone, but without the cellular radio or contract. Buying an MG is a one-time purchase that opens up the world of Android games and applications that are available on your smartphone or tablet. It even uses the proper Google Play Store, you don’t need to re-buy any software; you can simply setup your Gmail account on the MG and get access to all the software you’ve already purchased.

Keeping What Works

To be perfectly clear, this new edition of the MG hitting retail stores is not a hardware revision; it’s the exact same hardware that we covered at the beginning of the year, right down to the gloriously over-engineered box that caught our eye the first time we unboxed it.

Which is definitely not a bad thing.

Playing with the MG again after a few months away from it reminds you just how nice the form factor really is. The MG definitely hits the hardware goal of being a non-smartphone smartphone; it feels like a real phone, not a cheap toy. The screen is bright, the speaker is loud, and it has all the physical buttons you’d expect on a modern smartphone. The screen especially still impresses, it’s about the same size as the screen in the Galaxy Nexus, with nice color reproduction and the enviable feature of a physical brightness control on the side of the device.

Some people expressed disappointment at the of the lack of physical gaming controls on the MG when it was released (I.E. face buttons, a directional pad, etc), but if the current trend of Android games is any indication, PlayMG was right to leave them off. You really don’t miss the lack of hardware gaming controls on the MG, since so few games are even designed with them in mind. If you are really desperate for that kind of thing, you’re better off looking at something like MOGA’s line of Android controllers.

Retail Makeover

So if the hardware hasn’t changed, what has?

One of the biggest changes is simply putting the system in a more retail-friendly package. The original MG packaging, while very cool, didn’t really lend itself to the world of big-box retailers and impulse buyers. It was small, dark, and didn’t clearly convey what the MG actually was to the casual observer.

The MG's new retail packaging.

The MG’s new retail packaging.

It was the kind of packaging designed for people who knew exactly what they were getting when they bought an MG online (as that was the only way to get the system initially), but it wasn’t well suited at all for curious shoppers who may be hearing of the MG for the first time when they pick the box up off the shelf. The new MG packaging is big, bright, and does a better job of explaining why you would want to buy an MG, rather than assuming the reader already knows.

Besides the imagery, PlayMG has also made some changes to the hardware bundle itself. The MG originally shipped without a charger; the idea being that, since it used a standard Micro-USB port for charging, the families taking ownership of the hardware would already have at least one compatible charger. It’s a great idea, it cuts down on e-waste and brings the cost down for both PlayMG and the end consumer. Unfortunately, logic like that tends to fall on deaf ears when you’re dealing with the average shopper, so the new retail MG bundle comes with a generic Micro-USB charger in the box.

In addition to the charger, the bundle also includes a 16 GB microSD card, and a bit of documentation on how you can get in touch with PlayMG’s support staff if you have any questions on setting up your new system.

The new MG retail bundle.

The new MG retail bundle.

All in all, the changes made to the MG’s presentation are definitely for the best when dealing with the general public. The original MG bundle options and packaging worked great when it was simply a niche device that people were buying directly from the manufacturer, but now that it will be sharing shelf space with more traditional products, it needed to change up its image a bit.

Star Power Infusion

While a pack-in charger and flashy colors on the box are good moves for the MG’s retail viability, that’s not what the company is really banking on to push their system into the mainstream.

PlayMG has partnered with up with two young rising stars, Disney’s Olivia Holt and NBA 2012 Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving, to not only be the public faces of the MG, but to help tailor the system’s user experience to the target audience. Olivia and Kyrie are featured prominently on the MG’s box, website, and in a new line of online advertisements.

But more than that, they are even integrated into the system firmware itself. As soon as you turn on the MG, you’ll see a widget prominently displayed on the main page which takes you to a area where you can browse weekly application and game picks from the two stars, each with their own unique flavor. Kyrie’s picks tend to be sports or action games, while Olivia’s choices are generally casual games with a female spin.

Kyrie and Olivia on the MG

Kyrie and Olivia on the MG

PlayMG has deftly avoided polarizing the MG as either a male or female device by giving equal face time to both stars and their respective software choices; a safe approach with the pre-teen market the product it’s shooting for.

From Sideshow to Main Event

PlayMG is pushing hard towards a lofty goal: turning Android gaming into its own market. Any Android device can play games, but the MG is one of a very select few that was designed from the ground up for that specific purpose. The MG isn’t just an Android phone or tablet you can toss a few games on when you are bored, it’s an attempt to elevate Android gaming to the point where it’s competitive with the established gaming devices from Nintendo and Sony.

These new changes to the MG brand and presentation go a long way towards making that a reality. It’s clear that the team at PlayMG, and the hardware/software combination they’ve created, is ready, willing, and able to help start a new era in mobile gaming.

The only question now: is the public ready?

Availability

The new MG bundle is available in physical Target stores, as well as Amazon.com, and directly from the PlayMG store.


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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