Opening the Box: Open Pandora Review

pandora_feat

There are a lot of really cool open source devices out there, and we’ve always tried to cover as many of them as possible here at The Powerbase through our articles and hands-on reviews. But there has always been one particular piece of hardware that we’ve wanted to cover, one device that really sums up in our mind the concept of community development: the Open Pandora.

Thanks to Mark Linkhorst of Ithic.com, we were recently able to put in some serious time with the latest version of the device to see first hand how this completely community developed mobile device turned out.

Origins

The story of the Pandora really starts over a decade ago, in 2001, with the release of the Game Park GP32.

When it was released, the GP32 was nothing short of a revolution. A handheld game system built not to run commercial games (though a few were available), but instead, run homebrew games, emulators, and anything else the community could come up with. Supported by a freely available SDK, it let anyone with the hardware and some programming knowledge put out their own game.

It’s difficult to imagine today, but in 2001, there was simply no precedent for an individual being able to develop a game for distribution on an actual game console (that didn’t rely on some aftermarket hardware like a flashcart, at least). In a world before self-publishing marketplaces like the Google Play Store, getting your software on a piece of consumer electronics could only be done as a licensed developer.

The GP32 was an instant hit with the emulation and homebrew development crowds, and it wasn’t long before Game Park started planning a successor to it. After meeting with GP32 developers and distributors to nail down the specifics of the hardware and marketing, Game Park released the GP2X in 2005.

While undeniably an improvement over the GP32 all around, the GP2X featured two particularly important features: it had a touch screen, and it ran a Linux operating system.

The improved input allowed by the touch screen combined with the ability to port existing Linux software to the GP2X revealed a whole new world of possibilities. Suddenly, a game system didn’t have to be just a game system, there were practical applications that could be run on the device.

Creating Pandora

The GP32 and GP2X proved two very important things: that there was a market for game devices which didn’t have commercial game support in the traditional sense, and that, if given the proper hardware and software, the community could come up with new uses for said devices outside of their original design scope.

With these ideas in mind, a group of GP32 and GP2X developers and distributors came up with the ambitious idea of designing and building what they (and the community) believed would be the ultimate handheld gaming device. Powered by open source software and combining the best elements of gaming devices and mobile computers, their new device would be designed and built as a group effort; everyone in the community could have a say as to what features and capabilities would make their way into the final build.

After years of planning and development, and despite the doubts of more than a few critics, the Pandora finally became a reality in 2010. Since then it has gone through a few hardware revisions, and is currently readily available from a number of online retailers specializing in homebrew gaming and emulation.

Hardware Specifications

Open Pandora “1 GHz Edition

  • SoC: Texas Instruments DM3730
  • CPU: ARM Cortex-A8 @ 1 GHz
  • GPUPowerVR SGX530 @ 200 MHz
  • RAM:  512 MB DDR-333 SDRAM @ 200 MHz
  • Display: 800 x 480 4.3 inch LCD
  • Battery: 4200 mAh LiPo
  • Storage: 512 MB Internal NAND, up to 128 GB External SDXC
  • Wireless: 802.11 b/g WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0
  • I/O: USB 2.0, UART, TV Out (Composite and S-Video)

Aesthetics

To address the most obvious point first, the Pandora isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing device ever put into production.

Pandora top view

Pandora top view

The outside of the Pandora somehow manages to be about as plain as can be, despite being festooned with so many ports, switches, and dials, that any casual consumer would be absolutely terrified of it.

Across the front of the Pandora you have the hold and power button, a standard 3.5mm headset connector, dual SDXC (maximum of 128 GB each) slots, and a volume dial.

Front View

Front View

Around the back of the Pandora, there’s a USB OTG port, a proprietary I/O port (which doubles as a TV-Out port), a full size USB 2.0 port, and the connector for the AC/DC adapter.

Rear View

Rear View

But that’s nothing compared to the inside. Upon opening the Pandora you’re immediately taken aback by just how many buttons there really are on it. The system has the standard face buttons, shoulder buttons. and directional pad for gaming, as well as dual analog “nubs” (like the Sony PSP). But undoubtedly the real star of the show is the full QWERTY keyboard (complete with number and function keys).

Pandora Revealed

Pandora Revealed

All of this combines to make a mobile device that looks like absolutely nothing else on the market. Taking the Pandora out in public is guaranteeing that strangers will stop you and ask about what it is and what it’s capable of. Many casual observers recognize it is a game system of some type, and ask if it’s a new Nintendo or Sony device. Others see the keyboard and touch screen and understand it’s as much mobile computer as it is gaming hardware.

But no matter what, they all want to hold it and play around with it a bit. If nothing else, the Pandora definitely makes an impression.

Feel

Aesthetics aside, the first thing you’ll notice when you hold the Pandora is that it’s incredibly heavy for its size. In fact, the Pandora weighs in at just a few grams shy of the Nexus 7 tablet, which is pretty amazing when you consider their vastly different form factors and capabilities. That’s not to say that the Pandora is so heavy that it’s difficult to use, but it certainly comes as a shock to anyone used to the modern construction of smartphones and even rival game systems (the Pandora is nearly twice the weight of the Nintendo 3DS, for example).

Pandora and the similarly sized Nintendo DSi

Pandora and the similarly sized Nintendo DSi

After you get over the weight, your next feeling is how surprisingly comfortable the Pandora is to hold and operate. Seeing it in pictures, it’s hard to imagine that the combination of full QWERTY keyboard and gaming controls could possibly work well together, but in practice it’s exceptionally natural to hold the Pandora. The analog nubs are in the perfect position for your thumbs, and it’s easy to shift your thumbs down a bit and get access to the keyboard.

There’s absolutely no problem switching between text entry and gameplay, and there’s no need to put the Pandora down on a flat surface to properly use the keyboard (a fear I had before using it).

One thing which I was initially annoyed with was the rather odd convex shape of each key on the Pandora. At first, they reminded me a bit of the face buttons on the Microsoft Xbox controller, which struck me as a poor choice for a keyboard. But after using it for awhile, I’ve found the shape actually seems to help your fingertips find the relatively small keys as you slide over the board. You probably won’t be touch typing on the Pandora, but the key’s individual shape does actually help differentiate them without having to look down all the time.

Pandora's keyboard, it grows on you.

Pandora’s keyboard, it grows on you.

User Interface

When you first setup the Pandora you will have the option of using a standard XFCE desktop, or what is called the “MiniMenu”. No matter which option you chose, the software will all work the same, it’s just a matter of how you navigate everything.

Pandora's MiniMenu

Pandora’s MiniMenu

Those looking to use the Pandora as a portable computer will likely want to stick with the traditional (and excellent) XFCE, but those who want to primarily game on the Pandora will feel more at home with MiniMenu, which offers a more traditional game console experience.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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