My favorite Android device right now is… not a phone! (But pretty close!)

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
My favorite Android device right now is… not a phone! (But pretty close!)
After previously making a blind purchase on a smartwatch with full Android on it, just to see what that's like, I ended up going on a shopping cruise, buying a whole lot of various Android devices. Note the word is "devices," not "phones."

Google's Android operating system (OS) is almost universally known as "that thing on my phone," but it's actually powering all sorts of fun tech toys – from TVs and media players, to digital cameras and gaming consoles.

And I figured it would be particularly great on a portable gaming console, something like the Nintendo Switch!

Earlier this year I already wrote about the niche, but surprisingly quickly-growing retro handhelds market when I covered SteamOS, and since then, I've become an active part of that community.

And as an Android fan who's interested particularly in mobile tech, I went on to look for the best Android-powered handheld there is… Of course, the best, in my opinion, is something thin, light, with a minimalist, clean design and a good touchscreen, running at least Android 11. And I found it – the Retroid Pocket 3.

Now, this isn't going to be a review, nor am I encouraging you to buy it; but it is a look at how cool Android can be as an actual gaming console OS. Because it really is!

The journey of buying a device out of China, from a brand you've never heard of

There's a good chance that anytime you decide to buy a niche device, it will not be available in your local retail store. It will not be available in your entire country, in fact. Or your entire continent!

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Almost exclusively, you'll be buying it from a Chinese brand you've never heard of, it'll be shipped from China, and it'll take several long weeks for it to arrive on your doorstep.

The tech enthusiasts among you who are used to buying weird and niche tech stuff already know what that's like – normal. It's not ideal, but hey – hopefully it's worth the wait, right?

If you've done your homework well enough – spoken with people who've already purchased from the brand in question and are happy, or at least read or watched user reviews, in order to know what to expect – the wait is indeed usually worth it.

And you should always do all that stuff, since the looming threat of a shopping scam is all over the internet. But, assuming you're careful, like I try to be, and you do end up getting a new Android handheld, which in my case is the Retroid Pocket 3 – here's what that's like…

This is essentially a phone without the core phone stuff – it even uses a horizontally-flipped phone display

This particular handheld is running Android 11, and has a 4.7-inch touch screen, about the size of an iPhone 13 mini. It's not the highest-resolution screen at 1334-by-750 pixels, but for its purpose of being a little retro gaming (and Android gaming, in general) machine – it makes sense.

Plus, with a screen this small, high resolutions don't make sense, and the 4000 mAh battery powering the device benefits from a display that's not too demanding, delivering some solid battery life.

Obviously what makes this device not-a-phone is the fact that it can't actually make or take phone calls, although since it does have Wi-Fi, Android and the Google Play Store, you can use it for web-based texting. You can actually and pretty much download all of your social media apps on it. It won't make much sense, since that's not the purpose of this device, but you can do it!

Unlike your average phone, this isn't just a display with volume keys and a power button. There's a lot more to press here! We have a variety of physical buttons, including triggers, thumbsticks and a D-pad. I've always wished we had modern smartphones with some low-key physical buttons, for the occasional gaming on the go, and this is quite close to my dream design.

Fun fact – actual Android phones with built-in gamepads were a thing once, but were clearly way too niche (and as I remember – way too expensive), at least at the time, to make waves. So although that trend is dead, this new trend of handhelds powered by the smartphone operating system is only now rising up.

Android gaming at its finest

So what do you do when you get a device like this? Well, set up Android, head on over to the Google Play Store and start downloading your favorite Android games and emulators, right?

Yep, from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Max Payne, through good ol' Jetpack Joyride, to my favorite DOS emulators – I was able to cram it all up inside. I even threw in a huge SD card filled with my movie library for good measure, so whenever I carry this thing with me – I'm carrying (almost) every entertainment medium from my childhood with me.

Now, whether I actually have time to play this Android console (spoiler: nope), or even the will to do so (another nope), is a different story. Just like those old iPad minis I bought recently, or that aforementioned Android-powered smartwatch, this was but a pet project. I'll probably end up customizing this device and gifting it to one of my nieces or nephews, as I recently did with a similar, but Linux-powered handheld I bought.

But for now, whenever I play around with this Android-powered gaming console, I feel very excited and happy. Like I mentioned, Android's huge library of mobile games, ports and emulators, and just generally the fact that it's so customizable and capable of almost anything – paired with those comfortable physical keys… it's a dream for 10-year-old-me.

But hey – while most of the big games, like the GTA series, have controller support from the get-go, so you just buy them and play them as you would on an Xbox or PlayStation, how would you go about playing the many, many touch-only Android games?

Well, again – Android can do almost anything, and is extremely customizable. So the company behind this device implemented a clever and simple overlay, which lets you assign each physical key to any game's on-screen controls. All it takes is a minute or two of setting things up, and there you go playing mobile games with physical keys, despite the fact that they're only designed for touchscreens!

In conclusion, pretty much any Android device I've used so far, in addition to the usual phones and tablets, has been a joy to tinker with.

Unlike Windows, which can be slow and chug on underpowered hardware, and iOS, which Apple has reserved only for itself and its own smartphones, Android is so capable, yet light. Giving the freedom for anyone to do anything with it, and allowing so many smaller companies and groups of tech enthusiasts to do more than they would've been able to otherwise.

Nowadays it's the go-to OS for any small company that can't afford to make their own one from scratch. Just customize it and you're set!

So – cheers to Android for making so many fun things possible!

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