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Friday, May 24, 2024

Ayaneo Air Plus Review

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It's been less than a year since the launch of the Ayaneo Air, a handheld gaming PC the size of a Nintendo Switch Lite. But Ayaneo is nothing if not swift. I've spent most of the last month with its successor, the Ayaneo Air Plus. It drops the OLED screen in exchange for more options at lower prices and a top-tier configuration that provides a big boost to in-game fps. Starting at $549 for its entry-level configuration and $779 for the Ryzen 7 6800U version reviewed here, it's more of a refresh than a reinvention, but is well worth considering if size is at the top of your consideration list.

Ayaneo Air Plus – Photos

Ayaneo Air Plus – Design and Features

Hand the Ayaneo Air Plus to someone that isn’t already deep into the handheld PC world and two things are likely to happen. First, they’ll assume it’s a new Switch Lite. Then, they’ll be incredulous when you tell them, no, this tiny handheld console is actually a complete gaming PC. At only 3.5 x 9.3 inches, it’s slightly smaller than the Switch Lite but 0.4 inches thicker to accommodate its more powerful internals.

It’s close to last generation’s Air Pro but half an inch longer. That extra length allows for a larger six-inch screen. It’s crisp with a 1080p native resolution and can hit 400 nits of peak brightness. It’s vibrant with good color gamut coverage up to 120% of the sRGB color space and has good viewing angles. It looks great, but when it comes to contrast, it pales in comparison to the inky blacks of the original Air’s AMOLED screen. The Plus’s screen suffers from the same low, 1000:1 contrast as other IPS panels where blacks can sometimes appear dark grey. It’s a downgrade from OLED but is still a very good display in its own right.

Other than the screen, the rest of the external design is very similar to the original Ayaneo Air or Switch Lite. The joysticks are offset and, though short, have an adequate range of movement and resistance for accurate aiming. The ABXY buttons and D-pad both offer good tactility and don’t feel mushy. A pair of bumpers and triggers flank each shoulder, as well as a combination fingerprint reader/power button and volume rocker on the top.

The joysticks and triggers both use magnetic Hall Effect sensors and help set the Air Plus apart from competing handheld gaming PCs. Hall Effect sensors use magnetic fields rather than mechanical contacts to determine the depth and direction of a press. They’re much more durable over time and aren’t prone to stick drift like standard potentiometers, and feel smoother to engage with.

Unlike the Steam Deck, the Ayaneo Air is a full-fledged Windows 11 gaming PC, and it features multiple additional inputs to make that usable without a physical mouse and keyboard. On the right side is a large AYA button engraved with the company’s logo. Tapping it summons a quick menu with your most needed settings (like TDP, screen brightness, and volume). Holding it down launches the full AyaSpace customization suite with more advanced options.

The Ayaneo Air is a full-fledged Windows 11 gaming PC.


Alongside the AYA button is the first of three more customizable keys. Tapping it brings up the desktop, great for instantly minimizing everything and getting you back to the Start Menu. On the top, the bumpers flow naturally into two more programmable shoulder buttons. The left summons the touch keyboard with a tap and the Task Manager with a hold. The right sends Escape and Windows Task View. These can all be customized with your own actions. For even more commands, you can hold the right trigger and turn the D-pad into a four-way shortcut key. Below the D-pad are two more keys that mimic the menu buttons on an Xbox controller and are not remappable.

All of it is necessary. Without a physical keyboard and mouse like the GPD WIN 4, navigating Windows can be challenging. The display is a touchscreen, which helps a great deal, but for fine navigation, the joysticks and face buttons control the mouse cursor, page scrolling, and clicks. It takes time to learn but overall works well once you’re used to it. Even though it lacks the physical keyboard and touchpad of the WIN 4, it doesn’t feel any less usable because of it.

Each model sports the same storage and connectivity options, so you won’t need to sacrifice functionality if you opt for a cheaper model. There are two USB 4.0 (Type-C) ports on the top and bottom of the console, each supporting power delivery and compatibility with eGPUs (Ayaneo also includes two USB-C to USB-A adapted in the box for connecting peripherals). It supports WiFi 6 for high-speed wireless connectivity and Bluetooth 5.2 for low-energy peripherals and audio.

The sound system has been upgraded and now includes two front-facing speakers embedded in the bottom of the unit. They get quite loud, perfectly fine for playing games and watching videos on the go, but don’t have enough clarity to compete with a decent gaming headset or pair of earbuds. There are also two microphones. The bottom mic captures your voice while the one on top monitors your environment and cancels out external sounds.

One of the biggest changes with this generation of Ayaneo consoles is that it’s available with four different processors and at three different price points. Each tier balances power with performance and cost, tipping the scales further toward the latter with each tier. The most affordable version retails for $549 and utilizes the Ryzen 3 7320U. The next middle-tier uses the Intel i3-1215U for $599. At $649, you can upgrade to the Ryzen 5 7520U which clocks higher for better in-game frame rates. The highest tier model, which we were sent, uses the Ryzen 7 6800U, the same CPU found in the flagship Ayaneo 2, for $779. The more affordable models offer 8GB or 16GB of memory and up to 512GB of storage while the Ryzen 7 version increases those maximums to 32GB and 2TB.

It can be a little confusing to understand the differences between the models and this feels like a case of providing too many options. I wish Ayaneo had limited itself to low-performance and high-performance versions to keep it simple because right now the differences just aren’t very clear. If you can afford it, however, I would recommend opting for the Ryzen 7 6800U version because it offers excellent gaming performance on medium to high settings. If you can stretch even further, opting for the 32GB model allows the processor to allocate more system memory for graphics processing and high-res textures. Compared to the original Ayaneo Air, it’s a major leap forward.

The biggest reason for this improvement isn’t just the shift to a more powerful processor. Ayaneo has also raised the power limit to a full 28 watts, 87% higher than the Air and 55% higher than the Air Pro. The increase lends a big boost to in-game fps, putting it close to the full-size Ayaneo 2.

More power demands a larger battery, and the Air Plus delivers with a battery capacity of 46.2 watt hours. That’s nearly 22% more than the Air Pro, 15% larger than the Steam Deck, and only 8% smaller than the Ayaneo 2. It also supports 65-watt PD fast charging with the included power brick and is compatible with other 65-watt PD chargers if you want to keep one spare.

Battery life is hard to put an estimate on with any PC gaming handheld. It varies wildly depending on your TDP setting and the games you’re playing. At the 28-watt TDP setting, playing Dead Island 2, I was able to stay unplugged for roughly an hour and 20 minutes. Playing Super Meat Boy at 12 watts, however, netted me closer to three hours. Balancing power with performance is always a per-game consideration, but if you’re planning to be away for two hours or more, I’d pack the charger just to be safe.

Ayaneo Air Plus – Software

The Ayaneo Air Plus uses the AyaSpace software suite for all of its configuration options and even as a game launcher. It's the same suite the company has used since our first review for the Ayaneo Next, though we're several updates on and the software is more stable and well-explained than it was even during our last visit.

AyaSpace is broken into three main sections. The first has to do with top-level configuration. It includes all of the settings for the quick launch menu but with expanded options. It's where you'll set which shortcuts appear in the quick launch menu and also where you can set custom TDPs.

Ayaneo Air Plus – Software

The second screen houses your game library. You'll need to scan the system for new installs, but once you do, you can launch games directly from this screen. It might seem counterintuitive to do so when using something like Steam Big Picture mode is a natural choice, but if you want to take advantage of Fidelity FX Super Resolution (FSR) in games that don't natively support it, you'll need to use it. If you don't need FSR, this screen is entirely optional.

The final section houses more customization options, access to applets, and your screenshots. It's here where you'll be able to access the Master Controller settings to dial in your joysticks and face buttons, enable the gyroscope for motion aiming, adjust deadzones, and more.

The applet section is also important, though is currently very poorly localized. Enough appears in English to get a general idea of which app is which, and I was able to make sense of most of the options, but it took a fair amount of guessing and trial and error. There are several applets currently available for download. The most important of which help control the fan and can intelligently scale the TDP, so it's worth taking the time to see what kind of advanced controls may be available to you.

Ayaneo Air Plus – Performance

The Ayaneo Air Plus offers impressive performance for its small size. It goes toe to toe with the $1099 Ayaneo 2, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given that it shares the same Ryzen 6800U chip. Likewise, pitted against the similarly priced GPD WIN 4, the results are very close.

For our testing, we compare handheld gaming PCs similar to how we test gaming laptops. Using a set roster of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, we run each through multiple passes, averaging the results. Games are set to ultra/highest settings. Ray tracing is enabled where available, as is Fidelity FX Super Resolution set to Balanced Mode. We set the Air Plus to its highest TDP setting, 28 watts, to allow the processor to run at full speed and deliver the best possible results.

Beginning with synthetic benchmarks, the Air Plus comes in last. This was initially concerning since all of the handhelds in the comparison above use (minus the Steam Deck which is included as a baseline) the same Ryzen 7 6800U. The difference, however, likely comes down to the amount of memory, as our Air Plus sample only included 16GB of DDR5 DRAM while the others had 32GB.

Moving into actual games, the results we find fall much more in line with what you would expect, with all three 6800U systems delivering similar results. At Ultra settings, 1080p gaming remains very difficult even, though becomes much more playable with reduced settings. If you want all of the eye-candy, however, 1080p is still out of reach and a full-sized laptop may be a better choice.

At 720p, things flip and we find ourselves much closer to playable frame rates at Ultra settings. In cases where FSR is available, simply flipping from Balanced to Performance mode is enough to tip it above 30 fps, which is what we consider the lowest playable frame rate. As with 1080p, the results remain very close.

We do see some differences, like in Total War: Warhammer 3, Borderlands 3, and Cyberpunk 2077. It’s difficult to say whether these are related to potential cooling (the system peaked at 80C, so thermal throttling shouldn’t be a major issue), VRAM differences related to our sample having 16GB versus 32GB on the others, or potential BIOS or optimization tweaks the manufacturer may have applied. It is very much a game-by-game situation, as the Air Plus pulls ahead elsewhere, as we see with Hitman 3.

The best experience almost always comes from tweaking individual settings per game. We know by now that the Ryzen 7 6800U is a capable APU for handheld PCs and that once again proves true with the Air Plus. While there will inevitably be games that are difficult to get above 30 fps, especially as the system ages, I was able to get a wide array running well enough to enjoy, including A Plague Tale: Requiem.

Ayaneo also deserves kudos for consistently making its handhelds some of the most comfortable to actually play. The grips feel good in the hand and position your fingers well to use the controls. The Air line-up is small and could easily feel awkward to use, but for the most part, it really doesn’t. The only exception is switching between the joystick and the D-pad, which can sometimes be a squeeze. Overall, though, the Air Plus is a very easy console to play over long stretches.

Verdict

The Ayaneo Air Plus offers impressive gaming performance, but the market has gotten more competitive since the Air Pro was released, and with the ROG Ally up for pre-order at $699, $779 doesn’t seem quite as affordable as it used to be (especially with the lack of an OLED screen). What sets it apart, and may just justify choosing it over the competition, is its portability and the reassuring and pleasing nature of its Hall Effect joysticks and triggers. For gamers that want something compact without sacrificing performance, it could be great, but for most gamers, its higher price and reduced performance are important drawbacks.

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