Handheld gaming has experienced a rebirth in recent years. In one sense, it’s because of the Nintendo Switch and how it redefined handhelds doubling as TV-connected consoles. In the other sense, it’s all because of phones. While the Switch and Valve’s upcoming Steam Deck are already exploring ways of taking console and PC games on the go, Qualcomm’s new dedicated mobile gaming chip, the Snapdragon G3x, is looking to do something different: evolve gaming phones into larger-screened, faster-performing, TV-connected dedicated game systems.
Think phone meets Nintendo Switch, with a dose of VR and AR compatibility thrown in.
Announced Wednesday, Qualcomm’s G3x chip is a gaming-optimized variation on its premium mobile phone chips, with Adreno GPU and Qualcomm’s Kryo CPU. Actual gaming performance specifics are still a little fuzzy, though: clock speeds and chip details weren’t provided. Qualcomm’s promising more consistent performance and higher frame rate on these processors, and emphasizing the TV output with high frame rate as an additional perk.
Qualcomm has already partnered with Razer to build a developer-focused handheld device using the chip, which will be used to spark development of software and future hardware. Which is to say, it’s not a consumer device you’ll be able to buy anytime soon.
But everyone already has a phone in their pocket. Will they pay for another dedicated gaming device? Qualcomm thinks so, especially as a larger-screened home console. Maybe not a tiny phone-like handheld, but more of a bigger-screen, game streaming-enabled type of Switch-like device.
Whether Qualcomm can make this idea succeed before others do remains to be seen, but the territory being explored seems to make a whole lot of sense. Devices like the Nintendo Switch are great, but lack the interconnected app-friendly flexibility of phones. Phones, meanwhile, often feel like they’re shoehorning ever more advanced games onto sometimes tiny screens.
“In a device like this, you’re going to have rock-solid frame rate all the way across, you can push it. And you’ll have the same user experience, no matter how long you play it,” Qualcomm’s gaming platform head Micah Knapp said in a conversation with CNET.
CNET got to try Razer’s developer kit for the platform that uses Qualcomm’s new chip. We also spoke with Qualcomm and Razer executives about the chip’s features, what devices to expect and how these handhelds are pretty different from premium Android phones.
There are vents on the top and back, and the handheld’s definitely bigger than any phone.
Razer’s developer kit isn’t small: It looks like Valve’s Steam Deck handheld PC, or the OLED Switch. It’s chunky. Vents at the top cool the gaming chip for better performance. It looks beefy, and while it’s still small compared to something like a PS5 or a gaming laptop, the Razer handheld is long. Phones connected with controller accessories like the Backbone or Razer’s own Kishi controller have a similarly long shape, but this definitely isn’t something you’d easily carry around everywhere. Phones can at least be snapped out of their game controllers.
The Razer developer kit has a full set of dual analog sticks, buttons, a D-pad, shoulder buttons and triggers. The display is a touchscreen, but you can also use button-mapping, similar to how other phone game controllers work, to map mobile games to physical button controls. The included battery on the handheld is 6,000 mAh, considerably larger than those on most phones.
The device, at least the Razer’s G3x gaming platform prototype we saw, is designed for landscape-mode gaming. While portrait-mode vertical games could be played, the controller layout assumes a TV-like widescreen layout. This is also to take advantage of cloud- and locally streaming games, something Qualcomm sees as a key use for its handhelds. Xbox Cloud Gaming, GeForce Now, Google Stadia and plenty of other options already exist for phones, tablets and laptops. Qualcomm’s betting on even more interest in gaming handhelds that can also connect to those other sources.
The Snapdragon G3x’s ability to connect to larger screens, or stream games from PCs or cloud services, looks like its biggest advantage.
Switch-like TV-connected gaming, and haptics
The built-in 6.6-inch 1080p OLED display on the developer kit runs at 120Hz, but the hardware can also play games on a 4K TV or monitor using a USB-C connection at 144 frames per second, which is what really sets it apart from phones. It’s that TV-connected proposition that makes this platform sound like an evolution of what the Nintendo Switch has been doing for years.
Even before the Switch, Nvidia’s Shield tablets also doubled as TV-connected consoles. Razer dabbled in this too, way back, with its Razer Edge gaming tablet. While Razer’s development kit looks more like a normal gaming handheld than a modular Switch, Qualcomm’s Knapp acknowledges that more modular designs could be in play for the platform, too. At the very least, it would allow for TV docks.
“We expected, during COVID, that people who played mobile games would gravitate more towards PC and consoles. But it turns out, mobile gamers just love the games that [they] play,” Knapp says. “What we saw them start to do is want to talk to their TV, to take advantage of the larger screen. This opens up a possibility for people to take their favorite mobile and streaming experiences and dock them to the TV, for sure.”
The G3x chip also supports controller haptics, which Qualcomm promises can be more advanced and game-specific than what’s available on phones. That alone could be a stand-out.
The camera sits right in the center up top, more like a laptop than a phone.
5G, Wi-Fi 6 and a different camera setup
The G3x chip supports mmWave and sub-6 variations of 5G and Wi-Fi 6E, which sounds like the hardware is optimized for playing at high speed in well-connected areas. But the G3x chip platform isn’t quite the same as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon phone chips, and doesn’t have all the same optimizations for high-end phone use. It’s not designed to take advantage of advanced cameras, according to Qualcomm’s Knapp, but the developer device does have a top-mounted 1080p camera for streaming while gaming, which is centered on the top edge so selfie angles won’t look weird.
The G3x gaming platform is designed to run Android, so handhelds could still theoretically run a lot of apps besides games. But something as big and strangely shaped as these dedicated handhelds might be would suggest that most vertically oriented phone apps would be an odd fit.
Haptic support for the controllers and triggers is built into the chip.
AR, VR capable
One of the most interesting features of this gaming chip is it will allow for VR and AR peripherals, something that no other gaming handheld currently does. Qualcomm currently powers almost all stand-alone VR headsets and AR glasses, like the Oculus Quest 2, through its processors, and the company plans to introduce a new wave of phone-connected glasses and software in 2022.
It’s not clear what types of headsets could work with the G3x chip, but it sounds similar to the types of VR and AR glasses being promised for phones. On a handheld, the possibilities get a little more interesting. This could theoretically allow handheld play while looking at a big virtual monitor on your glasses, or using a handheld device as the processing power for a future type of gaming headset-console hybrid. Maybe it would allow for currently VR-only devices like the Oculus Quest to evolve into systems that could also work with connected screen-enabled handhelds.
Price? Maybe not cheap
I asked whether these G3x devices would aim to be more affordable than premium phones, and didn’t get a clear answer.
“There’s some expectations for lower price points, but there’s some expectations for a higher price, based on the user experience,” Knapp says of how Qualcomm perceives pricing for dedicated gaming handhelds in a landscape of consoles, phones and PCs. Unsurprisingly, Knapp suggests there will be a possible spectrum as far as manufacturers are concerned: “We don’t want to limit them and what they build, and what they charge.”
High-end phones can blow past $1,000. Gaming PCs do too. Game consoles cost a lot less. How powerful Qualcomm’s gaming handhelds turn out to be, and how versatile, remains to be seen. Phones and PCs do a lot more than just gaming. But with both Sony and Microsoft not making any handheld game systems, the Nintendo Switch platform getting older, and Valve’s Steam Deck still having to prove itself, Qualcomm’s vision is another possible path towards where future mobile game consoles might evolve.