Panic Playdate vs. Analogue Pocket: Indie Gaming Handhelds Compared
Two hard-to-find retro handhelds aren't Nintendo Switch or Steam Deck replacements, but they each have their own appeal.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
The Pocket, which first went on sale last fall, is a completely revamped take on the classic Game Boy and actually plays retro Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance cartridges. (It's not made or officially endorsed by Nintendo.) With adapters, it also plays Sega Game Gear and other retro handheld titles.
The Panic Playdate, which has just started shipping to those who preordered it, is a crank-enabled handheld with a black-and-white screen that plays its own unique games, 24 of which will get beamed to the system over a period of 12 weeks in a unique subscription model.
I've reviewed both and love them both. These are definitely niche gaming handhelds compared to a Switch (or your smartphone or an iPad), but the spirit is hopefully a direction more gaming devices will explore in the future.
They're priced differently ($220 for the Analogue Pocket, $179 for the Panic Playdate), and they are also designed for vastly different purposes. But does either one make sense to preorder over a Switch or a Steam Deck? Let's break down the differences and similarities.
The Pocket assumes you have retro cartridges; the Playdate comes with games
The Pocket's biggest draw is that it plays classic carts via a sharp color screen and with a rechargeable battery and USB-C port. You do need to BYOGames, though: It doesn't play emulations, although you can sideload indie games, which means plugging it into a computer and installing new software.
The Playdate, meanwhile, includes 24 games to start. But you don't get them right away: Instead, these get delivered two a week in a unique "season" format. Others can be sideloaded, too.
The Pocket is largely offline; the Playdate has Wi-Fi
To install OS updates and extra indie games, the Pocket needs to load data onto a microSD card from a computer and then sideload it into the Pocket later: It doesn't have Wi-Fi. However, the Playdate has Wi-Fi and can download games and OS updates right from the device.
The Pocket is backlit; the Playdate isn't
The Analogue Pocket's sharp color screen is brilliantly bright, and very crisp. The Panic Playdate's black and white screen also looks vivid, but has no backlighting at all: you'll need to keep a light on nearby, like an old-school Game Boy.
The Playdate is a lot smaller
The Analogue Pocket, at 3.46 by 5.86 by 0.86 inches (88 by 149 by 22 millimeters), is smaller than an original Game Boy but too big for most pants pockets. The Playdate, meanwhile, is teeny-tiny and very pocketable at roughly 3 by 3 by 0.4 inches (76 by 74 by 9 mm).
Both make the Switch (4 by 9.4 by 1.1 inches; 102 by 239 by 28.7 mm) seem huge by comparison.
Both have USB-C charging
The Pocket and Playdate both recharge via USB-C and can last hours at a time. FYI: They both have headphone jacks, too.
Pocket and Playdate allow mirroring to bigger screens
The Analogue Pocket has a separate dock that connects to TVs and can play games via controllers. The Playdate has a mirroring tool for playing games on a large PC monitor. Either way, there are some methods for playing offscreen.
Both can play indie games
There's a large and fascinating community of indie games you can download from places like itch.io, where developers are already making unofficial games for both handhelds. Panic Playdate games can be uploaded to Panic's account site, where they're beamed to the Playdate. Pocket games need to be loaded onto a microSD card and sideloaded into the device. It's well worth exploring what's out there on both systems. So far, I've found a bunch of fun games for each.
Watch this: Analogue Pocket brought all my old Game Boy games back to life
Also both: You can make your own indie games
Panic has a browser-based game development kit called Pulp, which was made to create Playdate games easily. Analogue works with a program called GB Studio that also encourages indie game development.
You probably can't buy either until 2023
And now the really unfortunate part. Both the Pocket and Playdate are backordered until 2023 at the moment. Anyone who preordered early may get one sooner, but both look like they'll be in short supply for a long while. Hopefully supplies will improve, but it's sad news for two great handhelds, and it means the Nintendo Switch is probably your best handheld gaming bet in 2022.
The Panic Playdate is tiny, yellow, has a nonbacklit black-and-white screen, and plays its own unique indie games, 24 of which come included with the purchase price. Games are controlled with buttons, a D-pad, and a wacky turning crank that's used in multiple games to good effect. The Playdate's adorable and weird, very experimental-feeling, and we have no idea what future games will arrive. But it's destined to be a collector's item for handheld and indie game lovers.
For anyone with a pile of old Game Boy games, the Analogue Pocket is a Game Boy revival dream come true. The Pocket plays Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance cartridges, and other retro handheld games like Sega Game Gear with separately sold adapters. A sharp color screen and a battery with USB-C recharging mean games play and look fantastic. A separately sold dock can play games on a TV screen, too.