A while ago, Ploylab sent me a portable Pandora Box, namely called the Pandora 3D Clamshell. You can take a look at that article here.
At the time, I was really impressed with how different it was from a standard Pandora Box, namely because it came with a built-in 10” HD screen. Whilst it played games well and had fairly good image quality, I was a little disappointed by the overall package.
Cosmetically, it was a little rough around the edges and wasn’t the best looking games machine I had used. I also criticised the lack of games on offer and, more importantly, the lack of emulators, such as the Sega Mega Drive. The Clamshell did have the Games Market within the menu system, where you can download thousands upon thousands of additional games.
Unfortunately, the Clamshell did not have built-in Wi-Fi, so it was impossible to access the Games Market. It just felt sort of rushed and unfinished, as well as being quite heavy, so the use of ‘portability’ was used lightly. However, in its own right, the Pandora Box 3D Clamshell was something different and worth buying, if only to own one to go towards your collection of retro gaming devices.
That was almost six months ago, so fast forward to the present day and Ploylab have released another version of the Pandora Box 3D clamshell. Only this time it’s called the Pandora Box 36S Pro.
And, oh boy, Ploylab have certainly done a better job with the 36S…..well, almost!!
Cosmetically, this really can hold the title of being portable. The 36S is so much lighter than the Clamshell. Weighing in at 4.6kg compared to the Clamshell’s 6kg, I noticed the weight difference straightaway.
When you first see the 36S, it looks like a small, black briefcase. It has a holding clasp to keep it secure, and when not in use, you can screw the stick into the front of it so you don’t lose it. Whist this isn’t ideal (it would have been better if there had been a small, secure compartment), it does the job in keeping the stick safe.
This time round, the overall look of the case is much better designed, and it looks like more thought has gone into it. It also looks much better put together than the Clamshell.
Around the back you get the usual ports that you would expect to find on this particular type of device. You have the DC in socket. You will receive a charging brick, which unfortunately, I had a few issues with at the time of testing and writing the review; the cable that plugged into the brick itself was too loose, and I kept losing power. However, Ploylab are in the process of providing me with another. You also get an HDMI out port so that you can connect the 36S to an external TV, if you so wish. Next, you have a 3.5mm headphone socket, volume switch (the sound is fairly standard and is loud enough), settings button (I will come to that later) and 2 USB ports to which you can connect the included controller for multiplayer.
Open the lid on the 36S and you are greeted to a 14” HD screen that runs at 1280*720. Whilst this may not be a full 1080P display, the image quality is nonetheless very good. Compared to the Clamshell, it just looks so much better, and the design is a massive upgrade, in my opinion.
Control-wise, you get the usual Sanwa clones. They aren’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t have that nice, clicky feel to them when you press them or move the stick. However, they do the job well and are responsive enough.
You also get two switches; one allows you to have multi-coloured LEDs light up the facia, which looks really good, and the second switch is for power on/off. However, it doesn’t stop there. You also get a power display gauge, which the Clamshell also had but didn’t really do anything. However, this time around, it actually shows you how much power you have left. Yes, that’s right, the 36S is truly portable, and once charged, you can disconnect it from the mains and freely walk around with it, play it outside, use it whilst in bed, etc.
This, for me, is a complete game-changer and knocks the socks off the 3D Clamshell. One word of warning though, do not attempt to play the 36S whilst plugged into the mains as the power brick will become quite hot, and you risk damaging the machine. The 36S is a pure portable gaming device in every way.
I did want to tell you how long I got from a full charge; however, there is a slight issue at the moment that Ploylab are looking into sorting. There is a red LED constantly lit, even when switched off. This is supposed to show you that there is still charge available; however, I found that this depleted the battery without use in eight days.
This really is not a feature that you need, especially as it is a detriment to the user’s experience. The battery indicator is available to show that the 36S has power, so I have no idea why Ploylab would have an ‘always on LED’ eating at the battery, even when not in use.
Ploylab are going to address this issue, so just bear this in mind short-term if you decide to buy the 36S. What I would say is that this small issue is the only negative aspect that springs to mind and should not put you off from purchasing the 36S.
The 36S is using an upgraded Pandora Box 28s Pro with a 12-core processor (4-core CPU + 8-core GPU), CPU is an ARM Cortex A9 quad-core 2.0G, GPU is a Mali 450MP8, with 1G RAM & 2G flash memory. The version Ploylab sent me had built-in Wi-Fi and came with around 10,000 games already installed.
Whilst spec-wise it does seem to be a fairly standard approach, it does work remarkably well. However, it will still struggle to play some graphically intensive games, such as God of War on PSP. However, I did attempt to play one of my favourite games on the Dreamcast, Under Defeat, which does struggle on many handhelds; however, it worked well, with only a slight amount of slowdown when heavy explosions occurred on-screen.
Anther bonus for me was the fact that you do get a controller included, which you can plug into the USB port. I did this quite a few times as a message will pop up on-screen with some games, warning you that a controller is required.
The 36S can literally play emulators up to Dreamcast/PlayStation 1, as well as some PSP titles. It plays Mame, Final Burn, Mega Drive, etc. flawlessly. I did find a number of artifacts when playing Super Mario 64 on the N64, but this did not prevent the game from running.
Press the settings button on the rear of the 36S and you are taken to a sub-menu screen, which allows you to change the usual settings, many of which will be familiar to you if you have used a Pandora Box in the past.
This also includes the Games Market, which thankfully, you do have access to this time around. This gives you access to almost 20,000 games for all of the included systems. Whilst the Games Market is not perfect (some games can take an age to download), it does offer a great way to try many games without the need or hassle of having to connect the 36S to a PC.
I have spent quite a few hours playing the 36S, and I can honestly say that my experience, other than the power draining LED, has been nothing but positive. The portability of the 36S is by far head and shoulders above the 3D Clamshell. It’s just great to pick it up, sit down anywhere in the house, and switch it on, not having to worry too much about it being connected to the mains. And the image quality is excellent with good viewing angles.
Even with the LED issue, you will still get a great amount of gaming out of the 36S before you will need to re-charge it. My advice would be to just charge it after you have played it for a few hours so that it’s ready to go when you next want to use it.
The Pandora Box 36S is not cheap. At $299, it may be a little too much to pay for some; however, there is a slightly cheaper version without Wi-Fi, but in my opinion, this is the best portable gaming machine of this type out there, and for true retro gaming collectors, this really has to be a must buy.