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Monday, May 27, 2024

Ayaneo 2 Review

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The next generation Ayaneo 2 is finally here and the wait has paid off. This new handheld gaming PC brings with it a brand new bezel-less screen, 1200p resolution, an AMD Ryzen 7 6800U processor for major performance improvements in games, and an ergonomic chassis for hours of comfortable play. These upgrades easily make it the best Ayaneo yet, and though it still can’t compete in price, it outperforms the Steam Deck in virtually every way. If you can afford its $1099 entry price, or $949 for the Ayaneo Geek version, it’s well worth investing in.

Ayaneo 2 – Design and Features

While much of the design remains the same as the Ayaneo Air and Ayaneo Next, the Ayaneo 2 manages to be a big refresh in many of the ways that matter most. Size-wise, it’s similar to the Ayaneo Next dimensions of 10.4 x 4.2 x 0.9 inches and a 7-inch LCD screen. It’s closer to Switch OLED territory rather than the Switch Lite like we saw with the Ayaneo Air (and was also one of its biggest selling points). The ergonomics have also been redesigned to make it more ovular and comfortable to grip.

Ayaneo 2 – Photos

Apart from the obvious changes in appearance, the other major upgrade is the completely bezel-less screen. Prior Ayaneo models and the Steam Deck each have a black border around the display that make the playable space smaller than it first seems. The Ayaneo 2 extends edge to edge with a 16:10, 1920×1200 resolution screen. Those small borders may not seem like much on paper, but the change makes the screen seem much larger and nicer to play on.

Full HD+ resolution is difficult to drive for any processor that’s splitting its duties between graphics and processing, but the Ayaneo 2 comes with the latest, most powerful all-in-one mobile processor from AMD: the Ryzen 7 6800U (though, the Ryzen 7000 series mobile CPUs seem right around the corner). It features the same eight cores and sixteen threads, but has been upgraded with faster clock speeds and the latest RDNA 2 graphics. It’s a generational leap ahead of the Ryzen 7 5800U found in the Ayaneo Next and offers better FPS at higher graphics settings.

As much as the Ayaneo 2 is a handheld gaming system, it’s also a full-fledged PC that’s available in multiple configurations. Here’s how the model I was sent was configured:

  • Display: 7-inch IPS touchscreen
  • Resolution: 1920×1200
  • CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 6800U (8-core/16-thread)
  • CPU Speed: 2.7GHz base clock, 4.7GHz boost clock
  • GPU: Integrated AMD Radeon RDNA 2
  • Memory: LPDDR5-6400
  • Storage: 1TB NVMe
  • Battery: 50.25 Whr
  • Connectivity: WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.2
  • I/O: x2 USB Type-C (top), x1 USB Type-C(bottom), audio combo jack, MicroSD expansion
  • Security: Fingerprint Scanner
  • Dimensions (LxWxD): 10.4 x 4.2 x 0.9 inches

It’s available in multiple configurations that begin at $1,099 for 16GB of memory and 512GB of NVMe storage. The top model will set you back $1,499 if you upgrade to 32GB and 2TB. And while that’s expensive, it’s worth remembering that this is essentially a gaming laptop in handheld form, and a pretty good one at that.

Ayaneo is also launching a more affordable version called the Ayaneo Geek, which begins at $949 and peaks at $1,369 with similar options. The Geek version lacks some of the features of the Ayaneo 2, like HD rumble and the bezel-less screen on the cheaper of its two models, but is a good middle-ground if all you want is the best performance per dollar. I wasn’t able to test that version for this review, so can’t speak to anything more than core specs, which are very similar between the two models.

The Ayaneo is expensive, but it offers a lot for the money. The triggers and joysticks are some of the best you’ll find on any handheld. They use Hall Effect sensors to track their movement using magnetic fields. This, in theory, should make issues like joystick drift impossible, and in practice are some of the smoothest sticks I’ve used on a portable. The joysticks are a bit shorter than what you’ll find on a full-size gamepad, but they felt better and more accurate under my thumbs than either the Next or the Air.

Controls are also augmented by a pair of gyroscopes that can track the Ayaneo 2’s movement. They come in clutch in first-person shooters where short joysticks can make lining up headshots difficult, and are a noticeable improvement from last generation. But even though they’re functional enough to get the job done, they still leave a lot to be desired compared to the Nintendo Switch or PS5’s DualSense controller.

Activated with the left trigger or bumper button, motion controls work in any game but they don’t feel especially responsive. The Ayaneo 2 appears to try to map motion controls to joystick movements so they can work in any game, but in practice it leads to jerky movements that don’t feel precise. Hopefully, this is something that can be improved with future firmware updates.

It wouldn’t be a proper handheld without the usual assortment of face buttons, D-pad, and bumpers, and the Ayaneo 2 has buttons to spare. The ABXY buttons feel snappy and have good tactility. The D-pad uses a cross instead of separate buttons, which isn’t the best for fighting games, but manages to work quite well for retro platformers like Super Meat Boy.

There are also View and Menu buttons that mimic an Xbox controller, as well as a dedicated button to call up the Aya Space app and a customizable “=” button for your own commands. Next to the bumpers are two more customizable buttons. They take a page out of the Razer Wolverine V2 Chroma’s book and provide instant access to additional customizable commands. If that weren’t enough, holding the right bumper and trigger together also turns the D-pad into a four-way shortcut key for additional windows commands.

That seems like a lot, but each plays an important role in making the Ayaneo 2 a completely usable personal computer. Unlike the Steam Deck, the Ayaneo 2 runs Windows like any other gaming PC. It’s not a mobile version either. This is Windows 11 Home Edition, designed around mouse and keyboard, not gamepad interaction. Those custom keys allow you to call up an onscreen keyboard and perform quick actions like showing the desktop, pressing Escape, or showing the mouse cursor.

Outside of games, the joysticks act as a mouse cursor to support touch controls for when you need more accuracy. Mouse movement was alright before but has been fine-tuned on the Ayaneo 2 and feels much more accurate. I would still recommend plugging in a mouse and keyboard if you plan to use it as a normal computer (which is completely possible with a docking station to connect a full size gaming monitor), but with a little practice, is completely usable.

The changes to the Ayaneo 2’s design make it feel better to hold and use compared to the Ayaneo Next. The more rounded design feels more comfortable in the hand. The face has now been completely covered in high-quality glass. One of my criticisms of the Next was that its screen felt plasticky and wasn’t smooth to slide my finger across. The new surface is a big improvement that also looks better, at the expense of a bit of additional glare and reflectiveness.

The fingerprint reader (which is also the power and sleep button) has been moved to the left side and is easier to access with the new chassis design. Waking the console from Sleep and logging in is fast, fluid, and natural. Just be careful not to press that power button by mistake when reaching for the precariously close custom button.

The screen is worth a second look and, if you’re like me, makes the Ayaneo 2 worth picking up over the cheaper Ayaneo Geek. The bezel-less design really does make the screen feel bigger and more immersive. The old bezels always felt like a bit of a cheat: the screen looks big but is then just cropped in. The new edge-to-edge design is much nicer and is worth paying extra for.

At 400 nits of peak brightness, the screen is bright and vibrant. Direct sunlight can still wash it out, but playing outside is possible, adding to its portability. It’s not an OLED screen like the Air, but its LCD screen still offers great colors and about as good of contrast as you can expect from an IPS panel.

We’ll explore this more in the Performance section, but the screen can also be run at lower resolutions to increase performance. At 1200p, 60 FPS is typically only possible with lightweight indies, older games, or low settings on newer games. Setting the resolution to 800p or 720p provides an instant performance jump and games still look great. Oddly, Aya Space only has an option for 720p and reintroduces black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, but Windows and most games allow you to set 800p manually for the complete full-screen experience.

The Ayaneo 2 comes with a decent pair of speakers. Like most handhelds, they sound a bit thin but are perfectly usable at medium volumes. Any handheld device is going to struggle to sound good at high volume, but the Ayaneo 2 is very playable at about 80% or lower. I would recommend plugging in a gaming headset, but if you’d rather not, it comes with built in microphones for team chat.

The first time I played with it, I was surprised to find that the system vibrates with big audio cues. Ayaneo has incorporated haptic sound feedback, which is a cool touch. These haptics are separate from the system’s HD rumble, too – which, incidentally, the company says are the same as the ones used in the Nintendo Switch. It’s not a game changing effect, but a neat little touch that sets the Ayaneo 2 apart from anything the company has done before.

Battery capacity has been increased from last generation, jumping from 47 Whr on the Next (38 Whr on the Air Pro) to 50.25 Whr. As is always the case with handheld gaming PCs, how that translates to battery life depends entirely on how you use it. The system comes with multiple power (TDP) settings ranging from an 11 watt PowerSaving (sic) mode to a 22 watt Game mode, as well as a Pro slider that can be adjusted from three watts to a whopping “better have your power brick” 33 watt setting. Higher power settings return better FPS but drain the battery more quickly. At 15 watts, the system can run for 2-6 hours depending on how demanding the game is, but at 33 watts, it will drain in less than an hour.

That level of power generates a lot of heat but the system does a good job of blowing it out the back and top of the system. At higher TDPs, the fans ramp up and become as noisy as a mid-tier gaming laptop. It’s not quiet, but isn’t as obnoxious as some of the high-end gaming laptops I’ve tested over the years. On Balanced mode, the fans are still audible but more restrained. Most of the hot air also comes out of the top, away from your hands, which is a nice touch.

The Ayaneo 2 supports WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2, just like last time, but it now offers an additional USB Type-C port for connecting peripherals. There are now two USB Type-C ports on the top and a third on the bottom, any of which can be used for charging or connectivity. It also features a MicroSD card slot for expandable storage. Finally, there’s an audio combo jack for a wired headset and a volume rocker.

Ayaneo 2 – Software

Like most gaming handhelds, the Ayaneo 2 comes with an integral piece of customization software called Aya Space. Inside this software, you can launch games, customize the programmable buttons, configure the joysticks, triggers, and face buttons, and update the firmware for its different components. The software doubles as a launcher and will scan your system for any apps or games it’s compatible with. Launching them from within Aya Space is also required if you want to take advantage of FSR, but is otherwise optional.

This software is largely the same as last time, except that Aya has added the ability to download and run different applets. These are hard to decipher as many are in Chinese, but one provides a performance overlay so you can monitor your FPS and other system details in game. How you go about using these applications is poorly explained at this point, but the company has done a good job of rolling out updates to make it easier to understand and more reliable overall.

Ayaneo 2 – Software

With that said, there’s still room for growth and, if the past is any indication, you should expect it to change over time. In just the short window I had the console for review, I had to update the software three times for performance updates. That’s good because there are still quirks that you have to know ahead of time or are likely to leave you puzzled. Changing gamepad settings, for example, requires you to hold the confirmation button instead of press it, which left me wondering for far too long why none of my changes were taking effect. That has since been updated.

The full-screen program can be accessed by holding the Aya Space button, but tapping it brings up a quick menu to change settings on the fly. If the customizable buttons weren’t enough, the menu provides an additional selection of shortcuts for things like starting FSR or calling up the on-screen keyboard. The quick menu is also where you’ll adjust key settings like TDP, brightness, sound, and fan speed. The quick menu alone is worth keeping Aya Space installed for. Otherwise, even adjusting brightness involves digging around in Windows menus.

Ayaneo 2 – Performance

What really matters most for any new generation of gaming console is how it performs in games, so I put the Ayaneo 2 through a gamut of tests across its Balanced and Game power presets. To top things off, I set it to its maximum 33-watt power limit to see what it could do unchained. The results were nothing short of impressive compared against the Steam Deck and last generation’s Ayaneo Next.

But before we get there, how does it actually feel to use? The Ayaneo team has done a great job of reworking the design to make it their best-feeling Ayaneo handheld to date. Everything from the buttons to the triggers and joysticks felt fine-tuned and satisfying under my fingers. More importantly, they felt accurate and more like a full-fledged gamepad than anything Ayaneo has done before.

I’m not sure if it’s the joysticks themselves or just the new shape of the console impacting how I’m using them, but I’ve never felt as precise with a handheld as I do with the Ayaneo 2. I had to do a side by side with the Ayaneo Next to make sure the joysticks weren’t taller. They’re not, but for the first-time ever, I felt as accurate with the Ayaneo as I do on the Xbox, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Some of that has to do with games running at higher frame rates and being more responsive, but I also have to give credit to the second gyroscope finally making motion aiming a usable enhancement to joystick control. To be clear, they’re still jerky and left and right motion still isn’t balanced; it doesn’t compare to the motion aiming of the Nintendo Switch. But the motion control that is present offers enough range to intuitively tilt and fine tune headshots without actively thinking about it. Hopefully, Ayaneo will continue releasing updates to improve its functionality further.

The experience of using it as a PC is also much improved from the Ayaneo Next and Air. The mouse cursor is more accurate and touch controls feel more precise. The new glass screen felt better to tap and slide my fingers across. Ayaneo has done a good job of smoothing out the user experience, which is no small feat on an operating system designed around having a full mouse and keyboard.

When it comes to performance, the new Ryzen 7 6800U and DDR5 memory make for a killer combination. It’s important to note that performance scales with TDP, which also impacts battery life. Lower TDPs will make for longer play sessions before needing to plug in, but if you don’t mind carrying the small GaN charger with you, cranking things up to 22 or 33 watts pays dividends in performance.

Ayaneo 2 – Synthetic Benchmarks

Note: Our prior handheld reviews tested in their Game Mode TDP settings. For this review, I went deeper into the performance across TDPs for the Ayaneo 2. The figures for prior consoles will remain the same, but the scaling of the Ayaneo 2 will demonstrate how much additional performance it can offer as you adjust power settings.

Starting things off with synthetics, our best point of comparison with the Steam Deck is the Ayaneo 2’s Balanced Mode, which runs at an identical 15 watts to Valve’s console. The Ayaneo 2 beats the Steam Deck, Next, and Air Pro in every test except for 3DMark Fire Strike, which falls within the margin of error. Taken as a whole batch, it performs on average 30% better than the Steam Deck and 23% higher than the Ayaneo Next at the same TDP.

Turning things up to Game Mode (22 watts), a more appropriate setting for benchmarking, and things change considerably. On that setting the Ayaneo bumps that lead to 56% higher than the Steam Deck and 51% higher than the Next. Turning on Pro Mode (33 watts) takes that to 70% and 65%. It’s a massive lead.

Moving onto our roster of gaming benchmarks and Unigine Heaven (for easier viewing on the graphs), we see how the Ayaneo compares in its Balanced Mode. Note that we test our games on their highest settings, which isn’t realistic for what you should actually expect on a device without a dedicated GPU. It provides a good point of comparison between consoles, however, and gives a good indication of what might be possible if you’re willing to scale down settings.

Playing portably, this is the most likely mode most gamers will use until they become familiar with individual game performance at different TDPs. Here we can see that the Ayaneo 2 performs an average of 19% better at 800p, with the single outlier being Borderlands 3 which performs much better on the Steam Deck. Against the Next, the uplift is even higher at 41% better FPS.

At 1200p, the Ayaneo 2 isn’t able to deliver a solid 30 FPS at these settings. It’s not realistic to play these games at such a high resolution on ultra settings, but since there is almost no visual difference dropping to 800p or using AMD’s FSR to upscale, it makes far more sense to leave this resolution for indie games and retro titles.

In Game Mode, the results get even more impressive. At 800p, all of the games in our test roster except for Metro Exodus are playable above 30 FPS, which is very impressive. Metro, too, becomes playable simply by turning down shadows and anti-aliasing options, and leaving ray tracing to full-sized gaming PCs.

Comparing the models, the Ayaneo 2 performs an average of 38% faster than the Steam Deck. Against the Ayaneo Next, it comes in a whopping 60% faster on average.

In Pro Mode, you’re sacrificing battery life for maximum performance. It’s the land of diminishing returns, but if you don’t mind plugging into a wall outlet, it is also where you’ll find the best performance. Here, we can see 800p ultra settings gaming is possible among several of the games tested. Here, the Ayaneo 2 wipes the floor with every other portable handheld gaming PC we’ve tested. The lead over the Steam Deck comes in at 49% and a jaw dropping 79% faster than the Ayaneo Next.

Our stable of comparative test games is slim, but I really wanted to see what the Ayaneo 2 could do at its ideal setting. Since there isn’t much benefit to gaming at 1200p, I kept things locked at 800p. I also set the console to its 22 watt Game preset since the FPS benefits going to 33 watts diminish and take a heavy toll on battery life. Here’s how it performed in a wider selection of games and the settings I tested them on.

The results are clear: the Ayaneo 2 is fully capable of playing modern games above low settings at playable frame rates. Often, I had to tease out the settings that worked best to balance FPS with TDP, but for the above tests, I kept things as simple as possible. The hardest game to run was A Plague Tale: Requiem, but with custom settings, it’s possible to achieve a steady 30+ FPS above low settings too. This is just an incredible little machine.

Since many gamers will be deciding between the Steam Deck and Ayaneo 2, the above charts highlight exactly how gaming performance breaks down between the two consoles. Given the huge price difference between the entry-level Steam Deck and Ayaneo 2, it’s only fitting that the more expensive console should perform better.

Is it worth another $600? Probably not for most gamers, but it brings enough to the table that it’s certainly worth considering paying extra for. On a base level, it feels much better to use. The joysticks, triggers, and buttons are all much better than the Deck. It’s also much smaller. In comparison, Valve’s console feels like a brick.

Even more importantly, the Ayaneo 2 doesn’t have any of the compatibility issues that the Steam Deck has. As a native Windows machine, every game and piece of software that works on a normal gaming PC will run on it. The Steam Deck runs Linux, and even with Valve’s Proton compatibility layer, isn’t compatible with every game. That same quality makes it a much better fit to actually replace a full-fledged gaming PC when used with a dock.

Verdict

There’s no beating the Steam Deck in price, and if you’re on a budget, that’s still our go-to recommendation. But when it comes to performance, there’s no competition: the Ayaneo 2 is an absolute powerhouse. You can leave it on a lower TDP that is on par with the Steam Deck and see modest improvements, or you can turn it up into its performance modes or plug in with a custom TDP and see it race ahead in an inspiring display of gaming prowess. The Ayaneo 2 is expensive (the Ayaneo Geek a bit less so) but if you can afford it, they’re astounding little machines.

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