Back in February 2016 I backed the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus console on Indiegogo. It’s what I’d always wanted – a hand-held ZX Spectrum!
I’ve listened to some people since asking why anyone would want a hand-held Spectrum when you can emulate the system on any desktop machine, or cheaply own the original hardware for an authentic experience. I’d call myself a casual retro-gamer, someone with limited time to sit down at a desk, let alone loading something from a C90! I also often find myself on a plane or train, or in a hotel room away from home for business, so the idea of conveniently playing my old Spectrum games – straight from my pocket – appeals greatly. And hey, 4,766 other backers on Indiegogo agree…or used to!
This article isn’t a swipe at the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus campaign, but my purchase of the Blaze Tab Plus was motivated by the lack of the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus console materialising on the original delivery date and the subsequent months that I’ve waited. Before I contributed to the campaign I had looked at systems such as the JXD S7800B but the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus felt like a more convenient plug and play solution for me with no need to ‘mess around’ with my unit to get games to work. Also, I wanted the Sinclair name to live on in new hardware iterations.
When the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus finally arrives (and I believe it will, eventually) it probably will be a more dedicated solution for the Spectrum, but in the time waiting I’ve more fully researched other emulation gaming tablets and realised that the effort in turning them in to a Spectrum and playing games is not as great as I thought, plus they also have the advantage of easily switching to an Amiga, NES, and so on, should the mood take you.
WHY THE BLAZE TAB?
I arrived at the decision of the Blaze Tab Plus without too much research on the subject due to limited time. I was looking to spend around £100 on something that had the form of a PSP, with the hardware to run at least a Spectrum and preferably a number of number consoles and systems which I never owned at the time and fancied dipping in to.
The Blaze Tab Plus is available from Funstock and positioned as the successor to the JXD S7800B, a system which I’d read good things about over the years. It’s priced at £99.99 which is exactly on the price point that I wanted. Other units I looked in to were more expensive without offering much in the way of specs that would appear to make a difference for retro gaming.
Funstock list the full technical specs of the device on their website, but the basics that I wanted from the machine were…
- Android 4.4.4 Operating system
- USB connection to Mac/PC
- HDMI output to TV
Contrary to the measurements on the Funstock website, it actually measures approx…
- Length: 9.5 inches
- Height: 4.5 inches
- Depth: 0.5-0.75 inches
With a screen size of approx…
- Length: 6 inches
- Height: 3.5 inches
It’s certainly not pocket-sized. My iPhone Plus is sometimes a tight fit in my jeans and this is about 50% larger than that, so it’s going to be more likely transported in a bag than a pocket. But the advantage of the larger size is that the screen is nice and big.
OUT THE BOX
The box simply contains…
- Blaze Tab Plus
- USB cable
- Instruction booklet (pretty basic)
First impressions of picking up the system are good! It has a fairly nice, unassuming design, something that could be mistaken for a tablet at several paces with very low-profile buttons and thumb-sticks.
The unit doesn’t feel expensive to hold, tap it and it sounds like a hollow plastic shell. It also doesn’t look expensive up close. It’s not an item of design beauty like an iPhone. But then, it’s not expensive! And it certainly doesn’t look bad by any means.
It feels good in the hand, and although the plastic isn’t solid it doesn’t twist or creak when you grip it tightly. Buttons are well placed around the unit with the d-pad, thumb-sticks and X, Y, A, B buttons all feeling good under your fingers. Only the volume, select and start buttons feel sticky to press down, but that doesn’t matter as they’re not the gaming buttons. I wouldn’t like to push the thumb-sticks too hard as they feel susceptible to breaking if waggled too forcibly. Shoulder buttons are perhaps a little tricky to get at as the unit is much larger than a PSP, but I did manage to get at them.
There are slots along the top for HDMI connection to a TV, a headphone jack, micro SD slot, and USB connection to a charger or a desktop machine.
TURNING IT ON
Turning on the machine I was pleased with the screen quality. It’s bright and vibrant and in fact I have it turned down to 50% brightness to save the battery and it still doesn’t feel dull. The viewing angle is also excellent and it can be clearly seen at an extreme angle.
Sound from the stereo speakers is good too, with both reproduction quality and volume levels being decent. The placement of the speakers could perhaps be somewhere higher up on the machine to avoid being muffled by your palms, but mine didn’t obscure the speakers at any point so it looks like placement has been considered.
The touch-screen is adequate, but I found myself tapping menu selections a couple of times sometimes as if I had missed the virtual button by a few millimetres. If you use an iPhone regularly you’ll certainly feel the difference. I found myself using a combination of screen taps, swipes and selection via the d-pad and X, Y, A, B buttons. But really, this is a minor note as no retro games I plan to play make use of a touch-screen!
TURNING THE BLADE TAB PLUS IN TO A SPECTRUM
I’m not familiar with the Android operating system, so as a novice this is the bit I was dreading – I expected hours of messing around to get a ZX Spectrum up and running on the machine. In reality, I was playing Renegade within about five minutes!
First I went to the Setting menu and connected to my Wi-Fi network. Then I went to the Application menu and selected the Google Play Store and typed in Unreal Speccy Portable, downloaded and installed it. Now to get some games!
I use World of Spectrum for my ZX Spectrum roms, but Google will give you a number of sources. I chose a number of .tap files for my favourite games and downloaded them to my MacBook Pro desktop.
Next I installed Android File Installer on my MacBook Pro and connected the Blaze Tab Plus to the Mac with the supplied cable. I don’t remember whether I need to pair the two devices, but if I did, I went to the Setting menu on the Blaze Tab Plus, selected Advanced Setting and clicked the More… option (below Wi-Fi and Data usage), that gave me an option for Tethering & portable hotspot which I clicked to get to USB tethering.
The Android File Installer on my MacBook Pro automatically listed dirs on the Blaze Tab Plus and enabled me to simply drag and drop files on to the device. It was not immediately obvious to me where to copy files on the device as there were a few dirs that had similar names. Either way, it doesn’t really matter as you just need to navigate to them in the emulator.
I suppose I could have downloaded the roms directly to the Blaze Tab Plus using the device’s internet browser, but I prefer to store my library of roms to my MacBook Pro and copy them as required.
The Unreal Speccy Portable emulator on the Blaze Tab Plus opens without much explanation of what to do next, but a swipe down on the screen reveals some icons at the top of the screen*. In the top right there are four icons that are fairly self-explanatory, so I clicked the one that looked like a file directory, then the far left File option to navigate to the roms on the device (you can also use the four built-in internet links on this menu to navigate to on-line roms with no need for any of the above steps other than installing the emulator, but I prefer having my own set of roms and being able to choose which version of a rom to use). It took a bit of clicking back and forth to find where I put them on the device, but eventually there they were. Now the moment of truth, would the games just plug and play?…
Well, kind of, yes! Renegade loaded instantly in 128k mode which was a good start and I quickly learned that I had to tap the screen to reveal a temporary virtual keyboard for the Spectrum and then tap the key relating to the control system I wanted to use, in this case “4” for Kempston. The game then began and amazingly I could use the d-pad or thumb-stick to control my character and the A button to punch! A number of hours then passed!
I’m not yet fully familiar with the Blaze Tab Plus, nor the Unreal Speccy Portable emulator, so sometimes I find myself initially unable to control my on-screen character in a game, or unable to find a menu to tinker with the control options. But there are only so many combinations, so eventually I figure it out and off I go! * It is particularly the file menu that I lose every so often and find myself tapping all the virtual menus trying to find it again.
As you might expect, the Blaze Tab Plus has no problems running a ZX Spectrum! And thanks to the size and quality of the screen, you can see individual pixels clearly for those games where pixel-perfect maneuverers are required. I was absolutely over-joyed that within five minutes I was playing one of my favourite Spectrum games again and I feel like a vast catalogue of games have been opened up to me again!
There are of course games that don’t lend themselves to the device. I installed Rebel Star 2 as it’s one of my all-time favourite Spectrum games, and then realised that it’s played entirely on the keyboard! I suppose it’s technically possible to play the game by tapping the screen to reveal the virtual keyboard, though really I’d say that keyboard is good only for selecting options on the game menu screens. Additionally, it’s probably possible to play with a Blue Tooth keyboard, but then if you’re going to do that you may as well have a Spectrum emulator running on your laptop. Really, in my opinion the best games played on the device are those that were played with a joystick.
After playing several Spectrum games I decided to try out some more emulators.
The Blaze Tab Plus comes pre-installed with emulators for Arcade, Nintendo 64, Super Famicom (Super Nintendo), Dreamcast and Playstation 1. There are also a small selection of roms for each. It appears also to be installed with a PSP emulator, but no roms that were obvious on the device.
I tried each of the emulators with a pre-installed rom and they all seemed to be pre-configured to the controls of the device. Each game takes some clicking to figure out which buttons do what, but I didn’t come across any that didn’t pick up the controls. It was plug and play!
Using the same system for adding roms to the ZX Spectrum emulator, I used Emuparadise to find more roms for the pre-installed emulators, found the dirs where the current roms were stored and copied them over. As you would hope, they then show up in the list of games for that emulator and off you go! It was that simple.
In the same way as I added the ZX Spectrum emulator to the device, I also added an Amiga and Game Boy Advance emulator. Both required a little more work than the Spectrum emulator. The Amiga emulator, Uae4all2, required a kickstart rom which I got using Amiga Forever Essentials. And then it required a little learning on how to use it which I did using a good YouTube video. But it was absolutely worth the small effort and soon I was playing Turrican again after a twenty year absence! Likewise, the Game Boy Advance emulator required a small amount of work to make it functional, but something that even a novice like me can tackle.
The Game Boy Advance emulator was the first where I found that I had to use the built-in keymapper to control my character. A swipe up on the screen reveals a number of icons along the bottom of the screen, one of which looks like a joypad. Tap it and you can then drag each of the on-screen buttons to align with the virtual controls of the emulator and then press the save option to lock them. This is more fiddly than just loading a game and playing, but it works!
The device also comes with the Happy Chick app on one of the menu screens which gives quick access to a vast range of roms for the pre-installed emulators and others. I had a look at it and did successfully download a game but was a bit hesitant to use the app as it felt a bit shady, and I couldn’t really tell where it was saving the roms. It was so simple to add my own emulators and roms that I’ll stick to that method, but it’s there if your fine with using Happy Chick.
STORAGE AND BATTERY
The device tells me it has internal storage of 8GB, and after installing a few emulators and a handful of roms I have 1.73GB remaining. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that a single disk Amiga game is no more than about 850k, that’s going to be about 2,000 games before I run out of space! I should in fact be able to fit the entire ZX Spectrum library of about 22,000 games on to the internal memory without running out of space! But for a fiver I can happy expand that space to 64GB! So one way or another, space is not really an issue!
I was surprised that the battery drained as quickly as it did as I played. It’s a large device, and sounds quite empty inside so it’s a shame that more of the internal space hasn’t been devoted to a longer lasting battery. I have read other user reviews that give the battery a four hour continuous usage. I have not yet tested it to the point of running flat myself but will do that and time it; to try and save battery life, I am turning off Wi-Fi while playing games, keeping screen brightness down to about 50% and closing all other apps. Either way, while four hours is not all that long, it’s long enough for several commuter trips, a long train journey or a European flight. It should charge via the USB point on a plane like an iPhone, so I will test that next time I’m on a long-haul.
I bought the Blaze Tab Plus entirely as a retro gaming device. I don’t know how well it handles newer Android games, nor what it’s like for playing movies and TV on Netflix.
As a portable retro gaming device I can’t speak more highly of the Blaze Tab Plus!
You should expect to put a tiny bit of time and effort in to the device to get the most from it, but I stress that the effort really is quite minimal and the pay-back is a device with potentially thousands of games and as many retro systems as you can for the Android operating system.