Portable PC Smach Z

E3 2018: Hands-on With Portable PC Smach Z

Imagine if the Nintendo Switch were a PC. No, I don’t mean having Smash Bros on PC (dare to dream!), but that you could take your PC library to work, play at your desk during lunch, then go home and play it on the TV. That’s the concept behind Smach Z (pronounced with the “Ch” sound, not as “Smash”). While nearly everything that could go wrong with my demo happened, I did get a bit of a feel for the system, and it may be good for certain PC gamers. CPO and Co-founder Antonio De La Torre, along with PR representative Agne Vitkute, did their best to show me the Smach’s good side, but I was sadly left wanting more.

 

Rough Water

For those who haven’t heard of the Smach, it’s a basically a portable PC funded via both Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. While it was supposed to have launched already, a manufacturer left the team high and dry. While a later launch has actually helped the team make a better internal system that’s more up to date and capable of playing Fortnite on the go, it also means the team has a less finished product. What I saw today was the shell emulating a laptop so I could get a feel for the weight, which was certainly acceptable for a portable PC gaming machine. However, technical issues prevented it from running anything. The controls were far from ideal as well, but it’s highly customizable, a phrase you’ll hear often. While I’m leery of trying to make PCs controller-esque Gameboys (I hate doing “PC work” like emails on a tiny screen without a physical mouse and keyboard), I do get the appeal, especially with the Nintendo Switch formula in mind.

 

This is why the team also had the Smach Z running on a TV, though sadly out of its plastic shell. What the team had on hand was sadly falling apart, literally, and I was told a better casing would be on display at GamesCom in August. The un-shelled Smach certainly could run games in a Switch-like manner, though several of us seemed to have issues with the Steam controller the team brought to the demo, which also required custom controller profiles similar to what the Smach itself needs.

Ignoring the fact that I couldn’t experience a working Smach in a more finished model, what really stood out was how much work it takes to play your games. I don’t just mean wrestling with the issues we had with the device but also needing a copy of the OS you want to use, needing the storage space for the games you want, having to mod it like an actual PC to keep it up to date, and all the controller profiles were exhausting. Granted, I don’t build my own PCs from scratch, so maybe I’m outside of the target audience, but I’m also certainly not a core console fan.

As a PC fan, mouse and keyboard are a must. It’s why I feel like Steam Machines haven’t taken off, and relying on that for the controller feels like a mistake. Having a touchscreen does aid the Smach a bit, but it still feels unwieldy to me in mobile form. I also (clearly) type a lot, so perhaps a Fortnite or Skyrim PC player could better appreciate the device.

Smooth Sailing

Not all I saw was bad. Fornite ran fairly well on the TV. Someone who came in before me, who was used to the controls, managed to come in second place with the device. That means something to me. I was able to see how the game reacted to several members on screen fighting at once, a core part of the MMO experience, and the Smach held fast. There were some odd moments in the beginning when another game may or may not have been downloading on Steam in the background, but it got fixed fast.

While customization and modding aren’t my thing, it’s a big deal for a lot of PC gamers. While the team will occasionally upgrade the basic unit being sold to the public (and will upgrade yours if you send it back to them), the ability to customize the Smach yourself is something I can appreciate from a distance. The fear of losing my laptop to age is real, and the Smach is not cheap. It really is like having a small PC, but if that’s what you want, that’s exactly what you can pay for.

 

Marketing Concerns

Again, what I saw wasn’t finished. Everything is up in the air. Assuming the shell’s GamesCom iteration holds and the technical difficulties I saw don’t pop up, the Smach Z could be advertised as the PC Switch. The problem is that, like a PC, it’s a big investment. It’s clearly not going to attract the console crowd. The team feels certain their product won’t be another Nvidia Shield, claiming the open library fixes the Shield’s games issue, but the drastic increase of the cost limits the audience to people of a certain economic class. Perhaps those people are also the ones into modding their computers and switching in and out components, in which case, I wonder if the Smach would be better as a customizable shell that players could build on, rather than a complete machine.

Clearly, there’s an audience as it was crowdfunded, but Ouya was also crowdfunded (and cheaper) while still becoming a commercial flop. At the very least, the Smach’s customization options ensure that a smart, skilled buyer should theoretically get exactly what they pay for and be able to use the device for years to come, which certainly gives it an advantage over its other crowdfunded predecessors.

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