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The first thing you'll notice about the Nomad is that it is strangely shaped. The left side of the Nomad is taller than the right side when the unit is set flat on a table. The left side is also slightly concave, whereas the right side is slightly convex. The top of the Nomad slants slightly down toward the right side. The Nomad has a 3.5" color LCD display that, in terms of screen quality, is on par with other color LCD screens of the mid 90's. Like the Game Gear's LCD, the Nomad LCD is washed out and can get extremely blurry when playing high speed games like Sonic the Hedgehog. Overall, the quality of the screen is quite poor.
On the front of the console is a traditional non-analog directional pad, 6 action buttons (A, B, C, X, Y and Z), a Start button and a Mode button. These buttons function the same way as the buttons on a Sega Genesis 6-button controller. Above the action buttons is a red "Low Battery" light that blinks when the console is low on batteries. On the left side under the d-pad is a single speaker.
On the top of the Nomad, just above the action buttons, is an AV out mini-din style plug. This plug uses the same AV cables as the Genesis model 2 and 3, and the 32X. The Nomad is capable of outputting sound and video to a television while the Nomad itself is used like a traditional controller to play games.
On the top of the Nomad above the d-pad are the power button, which slides left and right to turn the console on or off, and the DC input jack which can be used in conjunction with a Sega DC adapter model number MK-2103. The MK-2103 is the same DC adapter used on the Genesis model 2.
On the bottom of the Nomad, just under the Start and Mode buttons is a 9-pin controller port which can be used to hook up a second controller for 2-player games. This can be used when the Nomad is being used as a portable as well as when it's being played through a TV. Next to the player 2 control port is a dial for adjusting the brightness of the LCD screen.
Also on the bottom of the Nomad is a 1/8" TRS headphone jack and a volume adjustment dial. Like on the Game Gear, plugging in headphones mutes the speaker on the Nomad, and the volume dial adjusts the volume for both the headphones as well as the speaker, depending on which one is currently in use.
Looking at the rear of the Nomad, you'll see that there is no built-in battery compartments like there are on the Sega Game Gear. There is also no internal rechargeable battery like on newer handhelds (namely the PSP and Nintendo 3DS). Because Sega required the full form factor of the Nomad to squeeze in what is essentially an entire Genesis model 2 and LCD screen, there was no room left for batteries. Instead, Sega opted for an external removable battery pack that held six, 1.5V AA batteries.
These battery packs are somewhat hard to find today, and are rather expensive. A Nomad will typically cost you no more than $60-$90 depending on the condition, but the removable battery packs typically sell for around $30 by themselves. I imagine most battery packs were either lost or broken by the original owners, as not only were they fairly flimsy, but play time on the Nomad on a fresh set of AA batteries is only around a half an hour.
The Nomad is essentially a fully functioning Sega Genesis model 2 crammed in to handheld form factor. The hardware platform for the Nomad was primarily driven by Sega of America, using the Japanese Sega Mega Jet as the base platform. The Mega Jet was a portable Sega Genesis released only in Japan. Unlike the Nomad, the Mega Jet did not have an LCD screen, which meant that players must attach it to a TV or monitor in order to play games. The Mega Jet was primarily used on airplane flights and in hotels, although they were also available for sale on the consumer market. The Mega Jet is fairly rare to find today, and is highly collectable and thus expensive.
Since it runs Genesis hardware, the Nomad features a Motorola 68000 CPU running at 7.67Mhz, as well as a Zilog Z80 coprocessor running at 3.58Mhz. The integrated LCD display is a CSTN LCD which runs at 320x224 resolution. As previously mentioned, the quality of the LCD is typical mid-90's, so it is quite poor.
Theoretically, the Sega 32X should be compatible with the Sega Nomad. Physically, the 32X is not able to be plugged in to the Nomad due to its odd shape. Even if the cartridge well on the Nomad was deep enough for the 32X to fit, the 32X would then block the AV Out port on the top of the Nomad, which would be required for it to work with the 32X.
It is widely reported that Sega originally intended for the Nomad to have a touch-screen display to allow for the creation of Nomad-only games which utilized the touch screen. Touch screens were prohibitively expensive in the mid-90's though, and this idea was scrapped.
Reception of the Nomad
When the Nomad was released, it received a lot of praise from game magazines for its features. The ability for the console to connect to a TV, support a second player, and the fact that it was compatible with the huge library of 16-bit Genesis carts were all firsts. Although the press and reviewers loved it, the flaws were numerous.
Two of the most repeated criticisms of the Game Gear was always its large size and horrendous battery life. The Nomad was worse on both counts. It's physically larger than a Game Gear, much thicker, and with the battery pack add-on attached, which is required to play the unit without being tethered to an outlet is even thicker still. The 30 minute battery life meant that you'd be spending around $5 per hour of play just on batteries for the Nomad, chewing through 12 AA's every 60 minutes. The path most gamers chose was to simply play the console plugged in, since batteries were so expensive.
In practice, the Nomad is extremely unpractical at home or on the go. If you were going to play a honking handheld that must be plugged in to the wall, all the while looking at a 3.5" blurry LCD screen, it made more sense just to save your $190 and play games on a TV with a Genesis.
The timing of the console's release was also quite poor. In 1995, the 16-bit era was dying. One month before the Nomad was released, the PlayStation was released. You might think that comparing a handheld to a PlayStation is apples to oranges, but pretend you're a gamer in 1995. The 32-bit CD-based era is finally here, and you're deciding what to spend your money on. You could choose a Nomad for $189 MSRP, or a PlayStation for $299 MSRP.
Collectability and Final Thoughts
Although the Nomad was a poor choice for Sega at the time, and the hardware itself wasn't that great - especially regarding portability and battery life - the Nomad is still a fun collectable. The console itself isn't too expensive, and they are relatively easy to find online. Loose units can be had for anywhere from $60-$90 depending on condition. For those wanting complete, in the box examples that price will skyrocket to somewhere around $400-$600 from what I've been seeing recently. Sealed examples will easily fetch $1500+.
I don't mean to paint the Nomad in an entirely negative light. In practice, even collectors probably won't play their Nomads much. I've spent much more time playing my Coleco Sonic portable than my Nomad will probably ever be played. Still, the Nomad had a lot of firsts, and has some features that haven't been replicated on any other handheld to this day. Some good, some bad.
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Vintage Console Spotlight
The Sega Mark III was only released in Japan. It is Sega's third major console release after the SG-1000 and the SG-1000 Mark II. The console would later see a re-incarnation as the Sega Master System. In this article I explore the Mark III hardware.