‘Smach Z’ Is Like a Nintendo Switch for PC Games

If you’re familiar with the Smach Z, it’s probably because you helped fund it on Kickstarter in 2016, back when it was originally announced. A portable gaming device weighing just a fraction of a pound more than the Nintendo Switch, the Smach Z boasts an interesting value proposition, begging the question, what if you could play PC games on the go?

Prior to E3 2019, I never had the opportunity to go hands-on with the Smach Z, and now that I have, I’m sold. Should it ever get released, the system will cost $699 to start. Yes, more like a gaming laptop than a traditional dedicated gaming handheld, the Smach Z comes in multiple flavors, each of which is powered by AMD Vega 8 graphics and a 3.6GHz, 2.6-teraflop Ryzen Embedded V105B processor.

That starting price nets you a Smach Z housing 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, but without the 5-megapixel camera found on premiums configs. Meanwhile, the Smach Z Pro touts 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage and a 5-megapixel camera. And, at the top end, there is of course a $1,099 spec, complete with 16GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and presumably the same 5MP camera. By default, all models come running a custom Linux distro called Smach OS. For a $99 upcharge, however, you can get full-blown Windows 10.

One advantage it has over the Switch is a 1080p display, though in my experience you won’t be needing it. In most modern triple-A games, 1080p is overkill for the Smach Z. When I used it to play Fallout 4 on the showfloor of the Los Angelos Convention Center earlier this week, the most it could handle was Low-Medium settings at 720p. At that setting, the open world shooter ran at about 30fps, give or take a few frames.

Instead of using two thumbsticks like most controllers and handheld game consoles do, the Smach Z has one thumbstick and two clickable touchpads — one on each side. For that reason, playing games on it feels like I’m playing games on a Steam controller. It’s obvious where Smach got the idea. The execution is no better or worse than what Valve has done already.

If you don’t like the Steam controller, you won’t like the Smach Z either. If you’ve never used a Steam controller, I would find a way to get my hands on one before shelling out almost $700 on a brand new system you might not find comfortable. That said, to some degree, the company is pushing modularity for the Smach Z. The touchpads can be swapped out for additional sticks and D-pad buttons if you’re so inclined.

What you will like is that the Smach Z never gets too hot. Somehow, Smach found a way to mitigate thermal concerns, for the most part. During my brief Fallout 4 demo, heat dissipation was no more pronounced than it is on my Nintendo Switch at home. Fan noise, on the other hand, proved difficult to evaluate amid all the show floor commotion. Also unclear upon initial inspection was the method used to keep the Smach Z cool.

While the company has said that the CPU is throttled to a TDP rating of 15 watts (as opposed to the 25W ceiling of the Ryzen V105B), it seems as if the Smach Z relies on nothing more than a standard air cooler and a small vent at the top for its thermal management. In the future, we can expect a Switch-like dock accessory that allows for higher TDP. Until then, the Smach Z is equipped with DisplayPort 1.2 and USB-C for second screen output.

Smach claims that its handheld is modular on the inside as well. As Tom’s Hardware reported earlier this week, the system has two discrete motherboards, one for the processor and one for the RAM. That’s right, assuming you have the expertise — or sheer willpower — necessary to pull it off, you can remove and replace the CPU yourself. Otherwise, Smach will upgrade it for you, at an added cost.

As it stands, Smach Z is currently being manufactured, in preparation for an official release sometime before 2020.