I’m not a hardcore computer gamer. I never was, if we’re honest, but as I get older and busier I find myself with less and less time, energy, and interest to devote to gaming. Part of the problem is that I finish one or maybe two games a year, and another is that it seems like every time I turn around my Windows PC has become too obsolete to run any fairly recent releases. (My work computer runs Linux, and before anyone mentions WINE – it’s a little fanless dual-core Atom. Cheap, quiet, and quite power-efficient, yes… just not very good for cutting-edge Windows gaming.) And even if I want to play an older game, it seems like half the time I’ve got to sit around twiddling my thumbs for an hour or three first while Steam updates or Java updates, or something like that.
So, for the last year or two, most of my gaming has not been done on Windows at all, but on Android. I have an Android tablet, but I mostly use it as an e-reader, because I find it an ergonomic nightmare for gaming, and don’t like worrying about charging the dumb thing. (Also because I prefer to use a stylus with the tablet, and my cat has a compulsive desire to attack any fast-moving stylus he sees, alas.) That being said, though, I quite like a lot of things that the mobile gaming market has brought about: a steady supply of new games that don’t require bleeding-edge hardware, are well-suited to casual gaming of twenty minutes here or an hour there, and which don’t cost an arm and a leg. They also tend to be of modest size (in terms of megabytes), which is a blessing when you live in the ghetto and have snail-slow Internet access. (Bioshock Infinite would take close to a week to download from Steam, on my sloooooow ADSL line. I’m sure BI kicks butt, but I downloaded Kemco’s hilarious (and free) RPG Machine Knight – all 31MB of it – and was playing on Android in less than an hour. And Machine Knight hasn’t given me motion-sickness even once, whereas pretty much every 3D first-person game does, quite quickly, but that’s just me.)
Enter my $70 gaming rig – one of those oft-maligned Chinese “Android TV” sticks.
Specifically, I’ve settled on the MK808 (the basic MK808, not the MK808b) as my gaming computer. It’s a basic little pack-of-gum-sized computer with a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor, quad-core GPU, some flash storage, HDMI video, a couple USB ports, wifi, and 1GB of RAM. I got it from Amazon last summer, hooked it up to the spare input on one of my desktop monitors, attached a wireless mouse, and have been gaming away happily ever since. It’s running Android 4.2.2, which isn’t exactly bleeding-edge but is new enough to be well-supported. It draws about 3W of power at peak, and has been completely trouble-free in the seven months I’ve had it.
What I wanted was a reasonably powerful Android box with at least 1GB of RAM, with Google Play support and an install of a reasonably recent Android that’s not horribly crippled. Now, the MK808 isn’t perfect, by any means, but it might come closest to fitting my needs of the various widely-available devices out there. The factory firmware is stable and works well, though it’s not without its annoyances. There’s no Bluetooth support compiled in, for example, and it comes with a handful of included apps that can’t be uninstalled. But that’s true of most of these little Android sticks, and so probably ignorable. (There are third-party ROMs which correct most if not all of these annoyances, but I’ve stuck with the original factory ROM. If it’s not actually broken, don’t fix it, y’know?)
What’s also true of most of these devices, and neither ignorable nor excusable, is the lack of heatsinking. To conserve size and weight and money, those Android TV sticks that even have heatsinks at all have woefully inadequate ones – a piece of 18ga aluminum the size of a postage stamp is not a sufficiently large heatsink to dissipate 3W or more of heat in a cramped little case with mediocre ventilation. (Power consumption, and by extension dissipation, of quite a few of the ARM-based Android sticks out there can exceed 5W under load, and there are several that approach 10W.) To be fair, the intended use of these devices seems to be as media players, and under most circumstances this usage won’t generate a large amount of heat-but what kind of idiot designs a computer system to only handle a sustained 20% load?
Some games, alas, tax the CPU rather more than playing most media files does, and stories abound on the web of these things overheating. The solution is very obvious and really very simple – attach a properly-sized heatsink. What’s “properly sized”, though? Well, I’m using a 55x40x70mm copper-based heatsink with heatpipe that used to cool the GPU of an Xbox 360, and is about four times as large as the whole MK808 itself…
You might think that looks like overkill, but I’d disagree, honestly. Running benchmarks for a while, or playing a particularly CPU-intensive game that uses both cores, this heatsink gets about 30 degrees above ambient room temperature-i.e. about 120F on a summer day when it’s 90F inside. For a passively-cooled device, I’d say that’s decent, and should ensure a respectably long lifespan. I’d definitely worry if it had just a little tiny “VGA RAM” heatsink on it, though.
Mercifully, I haven’t found a lot of Android games that eat CPU cycles so badly that this becomes an issue. (How many or few Android games can even make use of multiple CPU cores is something I can’t speculate on.) Android is very much the realm of mobile games, after all, and most publishers seem to take pains to not tax CPUs and GPUs (and by extension battery life) too badly. Square Enix games seem to be a consistent exception, though – their freemium RPG Guardian Cross is a particularly egregious eater of CPU cycles, perhaps the worst that I’ve stumbled across so far.
Being the realm of mobile games is not without its pitfalls, for the would-be “desktop” Android gamer, though. Two headaches that crop up time and again are the lack of a touchscreen (no pinch to zoom, for example) and tilt sensor, and games that stupidly require these to be playable. Another headache is games that require you to use two on-screen controls simultaneously (aim or move with a virtual d-pad on the left side, say, and shoot with a virtual button on the right, for example), which is impossible to do with a mouse or trackpad, and which don’t support a game controller. I like to imagine that as Android becomes even more ubiquitous and creeps beyond the cellphone and tablet boundaries, games which absolutely force phone/tablet-centric controls on the user will become fewer and far between, but I’m probably kidding myself. Even as it stands, though, there’s already a huge, huge number of games completely playable with nothing more than a mouse.
I do have an old wireless mini-keyboard I occasionally use with the MK808, but for the most part I use a two-button wireless mouse. Left-click to select stuff, right-click to go back, and 99% of the time you’re good.
There are of course newer ARM-based Android TV boxes out there, with more CPU cores or more features, but the MK808 is more than adequate for every controllable game I’ve thrown at it, and seems likely to remain so for quite some time. (My MK808’s AnTuTu benchmark with the factory firmware is 8963 total, 1817 CPU integer, 1315 CPU float, 1491 2D graphics, and 2283 3D graphics. This is comparable to a Galaxy S2, and quite a bit better than a Droid Razr. No, not high-end hardware, but my point is it’s not needed for the vast majority of mobile, Android, games.) It’s been around a bit and is quite popular, with a lot of support in the way of third-party ROMs and forums and things like that. It also benefits in that the vast majority of the user community is centered around Android use, whereas many other ARM boards of similar popularity have their userbases split between Android and anywhere up to a half-dozen competing Linux distributions with varying degrees of stability and maturity.
The MK808 is about $50, most places online. A GPU heatsink from a first-model (“fat”) Xbox 360 is about $5 on eBay. A good wireless USB mouse will set you back $15. If you need a separate sound output, a decent USB sound card is about $10. Add in $20 in Google Play credit, and you’re probably set for the most desktop gaming fun you can have for $100 – and all on a silent, fanless computer that draws just a watt or two of power.