Playdate Model Shot - Hero

Teardown: Panic Playdate console

Image credit: Playdate

The Raspberry Pi of gaming?

You might have seen a back-up smartphone battery that appears to double as a GameBoy clone. Naughty. The Playdate from software house Panic is not one of those, despite first appearances. It is something a little bit more interesting. With a launch price of $179 (£129), it needs to be.

For ‘fun’, Panic is instead seeking to introduce a new open-system gaming platform. Users will be able to sideload their own games and offer them for wider distribution. To do that, a developer kit for Windows, MacOS and Linux is also being released.

The main attraction will be an official release of two new games every month, included in the price, alongside a dozen that are to be bundled on the handheld console at launch.

Panic has said that, by adopting this approach, it wants Playdate to encourage game creation by women, LGBTx and other minorities that are under-represented in the gaming developer community.

In terms of general inclusiveness, the specifications are deliberately basic. The games play on a 1-bit screen with 400x240pi dimensions at 173ppi resolution using the same black-and-white technology as e-ink (with pixels holding their form in a way that reduces power consumption). The engine room is a 180MHz SoC from STMicroelectronics, leveraging the Arm Cortex-M7 core. Total storage is 4GB of flash memory. Supported programming languages are our old friend C and Lua, which is known for being lightweight and easy-to-use.

Wi-Fi is present to allow the gamer to download new titles. There is also Bluetooth, so that the Playdate can be docked in a charging station peripheral that doubles as a stereo speaker (price TBA), and will also support a radio app (there are a mono speaker and a USB-C charging board built-in). There is a standard 3.5mm headphone socket.

Meanwhile, reflecting Panic’s ‘fun’ approach, the most interesting feature is a handcrank on the side that works as an extra controller on some of the titles. It does not act as an emergency charger but instead allows you to control motion (e.g. backwards, forwards, run, walk) rather than stabbing the D-pad or buttons.

The business model is interesting, and in some respects the Playdate feels like a gaming-dedicated play on the Raspberry Pi, providing opportunities for young (and not-so-young) innovators to get some entry-level coding experience in what will always be a hot sector – and put their screen time to more profitable use.

As befits that kind of objective, the design is straightforward yet still compact. It was undertaken for Panic by Swedish consumer electronics group Teenage Engineering, best known for its synthesisers as used by artists such as Beck, Depeche Mode and Jean-Michel Jarre.

An iFixit teardown found a very tightly packed motherboard. The crank includes a cylindrical magnet that triggers a Hall-effect sensor to dictate response.

“One thing this crank won’t do? Drift,” notes iFixit. “There’s no wiper or spring or sensor surface to wear out. The design is simplicity itself. You might even say there’s... no cranky-panky.”

The designers also made space for a small MEMS microphone. The battery is rated at 2.74Wh, much smaller than for a smartphone, but several power-efficient features have been included.

The main quibbles were that the high-traffic USB-C port is soldered in place, that all the controls have been aggregated on a single flex circuit, and that the display is glued down such that replacing it will probably involve replacing the entire front panel. The iFixit repairability score for the Playdate is 6 out of 10.

The console is still at the pre-order stage; the idea has been welcomed even though the quality of the games on board remains unknown. On that vital point, Panic has partnered with some well-known developers. These include Bennett Foddy (QWOP), who has created ‘Zipper’ for the console, while Chuhai Labs (Carve Snowboarding for the highly specified Oculus VR platorm) is providing ‘Whitewater Wipeout’ – titles that make you think the handcrank is going to get some use from day one.

For now, the games’ full content does remain secret – and Panic will not be saying when each, beyond the initial 12, will make their specific debuts; each is meant to be a surprise. They will be the primary benchmark for Playdate’s future. But if the console can also create a new group of developers from outside where talent usually emerges in the gaming world, that will be more than just fun.

Panic Playdate key components 

Exploded view

1. Rear panel

2. Front panel and display

3. Midframe and flex circuit

4. Speaker

5. Handcrank

6. Handcrank socket

7. Motherboard

8. A-B buttons

9. Battery

10. D-pad

Playdate games console teardown 1 - inline

Image credit: iFixit / E&T

An X-ray of the Playdate layout

Playdate games console teardown 2 - inline

Image credit: iFixit / E&T

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