pandoras unboxed- what to look for in your arcade console
No, we’re not talking jewellery. Pandora’s Box is a home gaming console pre-loaded with retro games that comes in a crazy amount of variations.
The constant question being asked is... What is the latest version of Pandora's box?
From game count, to model number to year of release and fit-out quality.. How do you chose the best or even the right Pandora's box console for you?
Does a bigger number mean a better console?
The higher version number must mean its newer or better? a PB20 must be better than a PB18.
and 8,000 games must be better than 4,500. The more the better right?
Are you truly buying the best and latest 2020 or 2021 model? or just the best marketing pitch?
In short model numbers mean very little and when was the last time you played 1,300 games and left upset you didn't have 4,500 or even 8,000?
no one mentions that, not all games will play well on every machine, and 15 versions of each game along with a heap of non English versions isn't everyone's cup of tea.
Searching the web for information
If you've looked on the web and eBay there is a crazy amount of long ads with no mention of hardware specs or motherboard model and surprisingly a heap with no image of what the actual interface looks like..
We've reached out to endless sellers on different platforms and purchased from many as well. While there are those that know their product, the consensus is that many don't.
So what are you actually buying? A pretty box?
YouTube reviews with caution
You'll find an abundance of reviews on YouTube which can be very helpful, just make sure you cross reference and as mentioned below check and confirm the actual specs. For example how does a particular Pandora's Box console perform?
Two YouTube videos regarding the Pandora Box 12s from Chigz Tech Reviews which collectively received over 286,338 views show a 12s with 3,333 games.
Both units were rated "the best performing pandora box he had tested to date with no noticeable lag". The first review was a genuine 12S PSA-H3-H001 (A7 Quad-core) which is a mid tier performer that will show signs of lag on games like Mario Kart 64.
However the second review was a substantially faster PSA-S812-S001 (A9 12-core) which is actually an 18s/Saga. There is simply no comparing the two. Due to runout stock this was branded and unknowingly sold by many as a 12s.
So if you were to follow this review and purchase a 12s you would be underwhelmed and end up with a much slower H3 console.
Thankfully Chigz did open the case and show the boards, so IF you were checking for the board ID you would spot this, even though he did state he believed the s812 was a quad-core, opposed to an actual 12-core :-(.
While Chigz puts together a lot of nice reviews, this emphasises the amount of confusion out there by sellers, promoters and general consumers. With a crazy amount of manufacturers, assembly partners, wholesalers and re-sellers, you can see why it's crucial to check the specs, as model numbers and stickers can mean very little.
^^ PSA-H3-H001 (V1)
^^ PSA-S812-S001 (V1)
Less is more and quality over quantity applies here in spades.
Always look at and validate the actual motherboard ID, CPU and features. The last thing on your list should be game count - with the right machine you can add the specific games you want. This article will provide some history on Pandora's boxes and help you make sure you are actually getting what you think you're getting.
A quick look at the history of these Pandora boxes
Pandora’s Box was initially released by 3A Games who started by creating JAMMA compatible arcade boards that could easily upgrade old arcade machines. This easy fix or upgrade increased older arcade machines from 1 to a 60+ games machine.
Pandora box models included 2,3,4,4S,4S+,5 and 6.
The ability to support 15hz CRT CGA screens was a big selling point, and the official 3A games pandora's box 4 with JAMMA harness did just that.
However, for some reason this wasn't the case with PB5, but with many manufacturers wanting a piece of the pie, many so called PB5 and 5s version were sold that supported CRT. It turns out that the PB5 and PB5s units that supported CRT were apparently clones with the older PB4 spec and chipset.
With the introduction of widescreen, one of the noticeable differences with CRT is your display proportions (Aspect Ratio) remain as they should be, whereas with larger and widescreen monitors and TV's you will likely experience stretching and some distortion of ratio.
By now, the numbers race and customer confusion is well underway.
The official PB4 used an A13 single core, while the PB5 had the A7 quad core. The A7 processor can still be found in the Pandora's box 11s, X, X plus and PB9.
Versions 5 & 6 saw arcade and family versions released. The arcade version kept the dedicated JAMMA 28 pin connection, while the family version used a different 48 pin black socket connection. Thankfully there's a family 48 to JAMMA 28 pin converter allowing both units to be interchanged.
PBX, PBX plus and PB9 appear to be PB5 clones - A7 chipset.
The JAMMA version of Pandora's box 6 re-introduced support for CRT screens through JAMMA for CGA at 15hz.
This made it ideal for arcade machines, even though some more demanding arcade titles still struggled.
The family version used a different connection with HDMI and VGA output that supported LCD flat screens. They were meant to support old school CGA but as mentioned this was hit and miss dependent on model and if it was a clone.
The arcade version had a pink case while the family used a see through green. The 5 came with 960 games vs 1300 games on the 6.
Below is a PB5s 1299 in 1 with a blue case with CRT support - so very likely a cloned/ rebranded PB4 or PB4s.
During the time of the Pandora 5 & 6 versions, the circulation of clones was becoming evident as was the inclusion of original 3A or clones boxes inside portable arcade stick setups. These could be connected to an existing TV or display screen, turning it into an instant arcade machine. They could also be used as a joystick with your PC or games console.
The numbers race
3A Games skipped from version 6 to DX which comes with 3000 games, of which 38 are 3D. It includes a pause, save and high score function. It also has a search feature, list games by type, recently played or by 3D which are actually newer generation versions of the game be it PSP or PSX, opposed to the 2D old school arcade version.
So by now you've probably got a hunch as to why 3A games named their newer console DX instead of 7, 9, 9D, 9H, X, X+ 11, 11s, 12, 12s, 18s, 19 and so on....
Yes, Clones. DX instead of another number helps 3A cut through the noise and differentiate, but is that enough? Clones have evolved and come a long way, and while the clone war is rampant with a lot of variations, most will play the old classic retro games to a comparable standard of the PB6 or DX - But is that enough? If you're chasing a more complete gaming experience, then the differences really start to stand out between the more advanced elite clones and the rest of the pack.
People often ask is this a genuine Pandora's Box? Unlike Nike or Apple, in today’s market 3A is clearly not the only manufacturer of these boxes. Many now classify some of these elite clones as a better option compared to the original and current Pandora's box.
The problem is, the clone’s race is flooded with variations and subsequent model numbers that makes comparing incredibly difficult.
None of these models are manufactured by 3A Games -> 7, 9, 9D, 9H, X, X+ 11, 11s, 12, 12s, 18s, 19, Saga. While these can be grouped and classified by the board and processor they use, a large amount of online listings for these gaming console sticks don’t include this information and may refer to them as pandoras box key 7, pandoras box treasure or treasure 3D.
It can get confusing real fast and you could easily think your buying the latest and greatest and end up with something else all together. The best way to try avoid this is by looking at key features and if possible compare what the main boards look like for clues. If the seller can't or won't provide this key information - walk away.
I want the games console with the most games I can get
Lets keep in mind that these are all emulation consoles, so there is a program that is loaded and in turn it runs and interprets the chosen game. For example MAME is the program used to run arcade classics. The most common versions are MAME .139 and .78. Most Pandora boxes will emulate/ play arcade classics well as the processing demand is relatively low. So if that's all you want then an 11s or anything with an A7 chip should tie you over. Remember with emulation - nothing is ever perfect.
As you start exploring other emulators that demand more powerful hardware, depending on your console you may start to notice sound clipping, page tearing, freezing, crashing or even game exit. The majority of Pandora's box consoles don't provide the ability to adjust game settings like frame skip that can reduce this impact and make a game more playable, making pandora's box selection more critical.
So back to game count.. Pandora's box consoles include games from different consoles including Arcade, Game Boy Series, SNES, PC-Engine, Megadrive, Dreamcast, N64, PSP.
Each Console and subsequently each game has different requirements.
Anyone who's ever owned an emulation console will tell you that not all games work, and for those that do they don't all work well. Lets skip forward a bit here... If you want to increase the probability of desired games playing well on your games console, then you need to seek out the best hardware - and thus lies the challenge.
The moral of this story is more is not better. If anything once you have your console, you will likely want to delete games that you don't like or don't run as well.
So what is screen tearing or Lag, whichever you prefer to call it is when the game being emulated struggles due to limited hardware or software resources and this impacts the gameplay and image motion/ smoothness.
Where are we today?
Using the below you should be able to categorise or come close to understanding where in this hierarchy a Pandora's box arcade console stands.
No matter what number a Pandora's box is advertised, as mentioned always look at and confirm the specs. As a base check, if the listing doesn't state it has game list filtering (All, Category, Recent, Search) or Save and Load game progress then its either 11s spec or older.
Pandora X and X plus along with PB 12 images below from eBay listings are PB 11s spec.
Be it local or international, beware of incomplete listings and images showing features not listed. It might also be a good idea to buy from those who know about the products they are selling... Do your research as having to return an item can be costly and very time consuming.
Capcom Home Arcade stick console
This lil beauty has been popping up in mainstream retail outlets ranging from target to Kogan and everything in between.
While it has premium controls, given the game count and price we've placed this as our entry level unit.
Priced between AUD$199 to $299, it includes Sanwa JLF-TP-8YT joysticks and Sanwa OBSF buttons along with the below 16 classic titles;
- 1944: The Loop Master
- Alien vs. Predator
- Armored Warriors
- Capcom Sports Club
- Captain Commando
- Cyberbots: Full Metal Madness
- Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors
- Eco Fighters
- Final Fight
- Ghouls'n Ghosts
- Giga Wing
- Mega Man: The Power Battle
- Street Fighter™ II: Hyper Fighting
- Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo
Video output is 1080P and emulation software used is RetroArch on a Linux base with 4GB NAND. This blast from the past makes a serious visual statement and comes in at 74cm x 22cm x 11cm.
The 11s is the latest entry console with a Quad-core Cortex-A7 1.2GHz; GPU Mali 400MP2A7 processor and 3399 games that plays all the classics. It has a small amount of 3D titles but not its strong point. It has no save state, so it can't store your high score, save game progress or load previous position. The console does include search, pause and exit features. The 11s also known as the plus or key 7 treasure comes in a varied game count including 1299, 2167, 2706, 3000, 3009 and 3399. The Pandora's box 11s stores its games on a 32GB micro SD card. if you're looking to occasionally play old school classics like Galaga, Moon Patrol, Space Invaders, Pac-Man and so on then this unit will do the job.
12 also branded as the 12s, X Plus and Saga 13 XIII, as expected is the next step up with a slightly higher spec Quad-core H3 1.5GHz; GPU Mali 450MP2 with anything from 3188 to 3333 games of which around 70 are 3D and has Wi-Fi as an option. This gives you access to the game store where you can access more titles. In addition it introduces game list filtering and save state which allows you to store high scores, save game progress and load previously saved games. it plays the basics well and while it is capable of playing some of the more demanding games, on some like Mario Kart you may notice sound chopping and frame skipping. While there's still lots of fun to be had, it really depends on each individual's requirements.
Motherboard identifier: PSA-H3MM-002
The 9D also know as Pandora Games 3D is very similar to the 18s/ Saga and shares the same spec ARM Cortex A9 Quad-core processor and 2GB RAM.
While the 9D GME GB3000 is distinguishable by its blue mother board, the key differences between it and the 18s are;
1. Video output is lower at 1280 x 720P
2. While the games are still stored on the micro SD card, with onboard NAND, the operating system is stored on the motherboard itself
Having the operating system on the motherboard means it can’t be updated and should anything go wrong the board is toast.
That said some won't notice the game play difference on the 9D compared to the better mix found with the 18s/ Saga.
Motherboard identifier: GJ.GME.GB3000.REV1.2
With a 12-core ARM cortex A9, 4 core CPU+8 core GPU 2.0GHz; Mali 450MP8, the 18s 3D model comes loaded with all the features and grunt to handle the included 4500 old school and newer 160 3D games. This unit is smoother and faster with video output of 1920x1080P that will ensure a maximum arcade experience. While you may in fact be happy with a 11s, 12s or older board - the 18s is currently the king of the mountain.
As this machine supports larger SD cards like the Saga EX2, in true pandora box tradition, it comes with more games including 8,000 and 10,000. The 8,000 includes an extra 40 3D titles meaning better graphics versions from either PSP or PS1.
The King of Arcade will play more demanding games like Mortak Kombat, Tekken, Mario Kart 64, and Initial D smoothly and with ease.
That said, the Pandora DX is a decent unit and for what it’s worth remains the original. For those chasing the best arcade experience, the DX has been losing out with many either avoiding it or upgrading away from it.
If you're looking for a faster machine with smoother game play across the board, the A9 chipset be it an 18s, Saga s812 or *"9D GB3000" with a 12 core processor (quad core CPU + 8 core GPU) is the way to go. With its lower price point and chipset, this setup delivers more bang for buck, making it an easy decision for many.
*As mentioned previously, marketing vs actual can be very different. We've seen Pandora box 9 & 9D listed with A7 processor making it entry level. Always confirm the board spec.
After much testing and research our choice is the 18s Saga as it has the fastest and most efficient software and hardware setup. In addition having the operating system on the SD card provides most flexibility with updates, jailbreak and should anything go wrong in most cases we simply replace the micro SD card.
Electro Arcade 18s retro arcade machines come with updated firmware and features including the ability to add games easier to pandora box arcade and change the aspect ratio. Your picture ratio won't look stretched on the larger screen and more inline with the original arcades.
Early 2021 we started noticing the s812-004 which is a shorter board with the power and P1/P2 sockets removed. While most use the 48-PIN connector to do the same along with the rear facing power jack, we will miss the onboard 3-PIN power connector.
Motherboard identifier: PSA-S812-004
This is the now older s812-001 with the additional connectors and longer board. Same chipset and performance. The black cable with mini board is the WiFi receiver. This test unit solidified our position - we are not fans of the WiFi model as it expires, is unreliable and hard to find what you want. There are better alternatives that will save you time and hair.
Motherboard identifier: PSA-S812-S001
and just to spice things up here is the same 18s saga v1 using a black PCB board with a square heat sink.
Pandora's EX2 6800/ 8000 in 1
The EX performance is inline with the 18s/Saga/3D as it uses the same s812 chipset.
While it is a newer 2 board setup, performance wise it delivers the same as the existing 18s saga.
Key difference being the move to passive cooling which reduces noise, power usage and clearance issues. The Operating System has been moved to onboard instead of sitting on the SD card with the games - we prefer it on the SD card as makes it easier to upgrade the software and performance on our machines.
WARNING: as always check the board and confirm with the seller as we have noticed the exact same 6800 in 1 and 8000 in 1 listings with single board setup which is a 12s PSA-H3MM-002. This is a slower board. Pic for reference shown below.
The unit comes with 6800 games on a 64GB card or 8000 games on a 128GB card. More games will give you more diversity but as expected more games also means more duplicates. The large game count does mean the menu takes slightly longer to load, navigate and ofcourse some more effort in finding that one title ;-). Thankfully the s812 machines all have a search and favourites function.
We have found that the EX also comes with 4800 games on a 32GB card. Due to the smaller card you'll find that in order to get the impressive big game count :-) the included games have to also be a smaller size. So expect to miss out on the larger file size more complex or detailed PS1 games here.
The EX uses a split board with the same 48PIN family connector you'll see on most Pandora's boxes.
In addition to what you expect on a Pandora's box arcade, the EX has a;
- LAN port
- Digital audio out so you can use an optical audio cable to push sound to your TV, amp or other supported devices
- 2 more USB ports (4 in total). Unfortunately the test unit still needed a USB hub to connect more than 1 gamepad
- Passive cooling instead of the active cooling heatsink fan seen on previous models
Gamepad compatibility on Pandora boxes can be hit an miss, however this newer EX2 version is meant to play nicer with more gamepads.
HDMI output is 720P and unlike the 18s/Saga it has onboard NAN which stores the operating system instead of having it on the micro SD card.
Motherboard identifier: S812-WJ-025
and the below is the 12s, 13 XIII imposter being sold as a Saga EX2 which it clearly is not - BE CAREFUL! Whats your preference? a fast machine with less games or a slow machine with too many games? Another reason to not buy based on games. Expect the below board to struggle with many of the included titles.
The DX power plant is a Quad-core Cortex A7 1.5GHz with Mali 450MP2 and 2GB DD3 RAM. Graphics output is via HDMI or VGA while resolution is the same as H3 12s at 720P. It includes a save state, so you can save and load game progress along with saving of your high scores.
Keeping with tradition it comes in Arcade with Jamma connection seen below or Family edition which has the 48PIN black plug you usually see on Pandora boxes.
While the spec has improved from the previous Pandora's box 6, the DX looks to sit somewhere around the 12s spec wise, which puts it way below the leading pack.
For this reason it struggles with faster games and as mentioned sadly many upgrade away from it to the faster 18s, Saga, 9D powered consoles.
The CX is 3A Games revision of the DX and released late 2020. The Pandora box CX is a 2800 in 1 and runs a Quad-core Cortex A7 1.5GHz with Mali 450MP2 and 2GB DD3 RAM with 16GB micro SD storage. Graphics output is via HDMI or VGA while resolution is the same as H3 12s/13 at 720P. It includes a save state, so you can save and load game progress along with saving of your high scores. Yes almost an exact copy and paste from the DX spec. The board is a new L shaped approach with a few more onboard connections that most wont use and a passive heat sink on the CPU as there's no room for fan cooling.
Not sure why 3A games released the CX as spec wise, sadly it looks exactly the same as the DX. Wicked Gamer mentioned it has better gamepad support as worked with an XBox 360 controller, looks like that's as good as it gets. Fingers crossed 3A have something better in the works.
There is meant to be a new pandoras box in final stages of development. We hope to hear more about this in July 2021.
We are hopeful that 3A games can finally release a console that can compete with the leading clones and that they can address the games issue.
While a Pandoras box delivers great fun, the sheer amount of games means a non-curated list of titles, and a very average game store experience with badly translated titles. There is definitely room for improvement and we hope this is the turning point.
What other consoles play retro games well?
There are many out there that can, but a much shorter list of those that do it well.
The newest Super Console X3 Max+ an android TV box that uses the same emulator as the Anbernic and varied gamepad controller options from wired to wireless and stores out of the way.
If you're wanting to use a Raspberry PI 3 or 4 or even a PC then x-arcade stick will help provide that real arcade feel.
So back to Pandora's....
Wi-Fi models and Games store
If the Pandora's box you're looking at has Wi-Fi its likely at minimum a H3 processor placing it in the mid tier range. The S812 and GB3000 also come with Wi-Fi as an option - as mentioned these are faster spec boards.
The Wi-Fi models allow you to connect to your network and access the Games store located on the web.
While this gives you access to a claimed 15,000+ titles, as it’s free to access, here are the conditions;
- Amount of games you can download is restricted - up to 500 however this includes failed downloads and connections
- Connecting and download speed varies so can be hit and miss
- Title names are often translated incorrectly, so finding the game or version you want can be a challenge
- You are restricted by how much free space you have on your memory card located in your Pandora's box
- The plus is you can add games relatively easy
A box is a box right? Whats in a Case..
Large case, small case, plastic case, all metal case, wooden case, single case, split case, acrylic top?
Once you've found the motherboard you want, then you'll need to decided on you're playing style and case you'd like.
The most common cases I've come across are either all steel or a steel case with acrylic top. The occasional base is made of wood or a thick plastic compound.
While the steel sheet base with acrylic top is very sturdy and allows for an LED strip option that lights up the panel, depending on the look you are after a solid steel case is also a great option. These two options are available in a single console where P1 and P2 are connected or on our preferred split consoles which provides P1 and P2 with their own console and preference on how they sit and play.
Steel case split consoles with acrylic top
Joystick and button quality
The majority of Pandora's boxes come with the standard buttons. While there is room for improvement, for most they do the job.
If you're looking for improvement the first stop should be joystick followed by buttons. Zippy is a definate improvement at a good price. Sanwa joystick and buttons are arcade quality made in Japan. Keeping with Chinese tradition, Sanwa copies are still a decent update at a more affordable price.
Having used original and copies of the Sanwa joysticks and buttons, the experience is good. The low profile means they should fit into most cabinets including the mobile consoles that pack away.
You can also look at Zippy or Happ, however not having used Happ, you would need to check on fitment suitability.
Depending on who or where you buy from along with quantity and shipping fees/duration costs on these items will vary.
Here is some kind of indication to get you started.
An original Sanwa JLF-TP-8YT sells for around USD $25 each.
Sanwa joystick copies with 1 set of buttons go for around USD $15.
Happ single joystick and buttons can be had for USD $26
Zippy joystick with 1 set of buttons are roughly USD $16
Just like the joysticks, make sure the buttons you are looking at have the right barrel width - barrel that fits in hole, not the top lip! button depth is also critical as some of the screw on ones are quite long and you need to allow for the leaf switch if they are external - why the Sanwa OBSF buttons or copies are a good idea as they are short, clip in and easy to install in most scenarios.