Opening the Box: Open Pandora Review

pandora_feat

Centralized Software

One of the biggest problems with previous devices like the GP32 was the simple act of getting software installed onto them; which was both a logistical and technical issue.

As these devices largely predated the explosion of WiFi, you had to either pull the storage card out of them and put it into a dedicated reader, or connect the handheld up to the computer via USB. This was a slow and annoying process, and meant that the user had to be really interested in a piece of software before they would bother installing it.

But more problematic then the tedious method of copying files to the console was the simple act of getting said files to begin with. While there were a few sites that aimed to catalog all of the software available for them, some games or applications would always slip through the cracks. You had to keep your nose buried in dedicated forums and news sites to make sure you had the latest and greatest software.

Thankfully, the Pandora offers a much more modern approach to software management. Thanks to its built in WiFi, the Pandora is able to directly get on the Internet and check for new software from a central repository, just like traditional desktop Linux.

The exceptionally well-done PNDManager lets the user page through the different categories of software and sort via different metrics, as well as gracefully handle updates and uninstalls. PNDManager is wonderfully tailored to the Pandora hardware (down to easily identifiable onscreen icons for button assignments), and represents perhaps the most professional piece of non-game piece of software designed exclusively for it.

Browsing development applications in PNDManager

Browsing development applications in PNDManager

I especially like the amount of detail you can see about individual applications, down to screenshots, user ratings, and comments left for each application.

Application details in PNDManager

Application details in PNDManager

Gaming on Pandora

As a gaming device, the Pandora has an incredible amount of content to offer. In the emulator department, it can handle running games from any home video game console right up to the Dreamcast, and there are emulators available for essentially every major portable system ever released (with the exception of the current generation, 3DS and PS Vita).

In most cases, the emulators are very well tailored to the Pandora’s hardware and software environment, offering up themed launchers and proper use of the device’s physical controls right out of the box. This gives the system a more cohesive feel; it’s less like a device that can run a bunch of emulators, and more like a game system which just so happens to be able to play every game from your childhood.

Launcher for SNES emulator

SNES9x Launcher

Not to say it’s perfect. N64 seems like a tall order for the Pandora, with many games simply running too slow to be playable. This does vary greatly from game to game, but a quick spot check of the most popular N64 titles was not terribly promising. That said, PlayStation emulation was quite impressive. So your satisfaction level is likely to depend on which side of the fence you were on during that era of the console wars.

If consoles where never your thing, a number of classic PC games have also been made available for the Pandora in various forms. Some games have had their source code opened up, or its been long enough that the community has managed to develop a ground-up open source replacement for the game’s engine, while still others are spiritual clones of popular games (featuring similar gameplay and graphics, but not the same).

The standbys like DOOM, Quake, Descent, and Rise of the Triad are all here, as well as open source titles such as Battle for Wesnoth and OpenTTD. I was even pleasantly surprised by a few titles getting the Pandora treatment, such as Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space.

Emulators and PC games are all well and good, but the Pandora also has a whole suite of games that were actually developed specifically for it. These games tend to show off the Pandora’s hardware better than the rest of the software, as the games make better use of features such as the dual analog hubs and face buttons than some of the other software does. It’s a very simple case of native software performing better than software which was never designed with a device like the Pandora in mind.

A particularly stand-out example is Super Geometry Dust, which as the name implies, is a mashup of Super Stardust HD and Geometry Wars. In this fast-paced action game, players control a spacecraft that is in orbit around a sphere, destroying wave after wave of enemy craft and asteroids. Super Geometry Dust is the sort of game that anyone can jump right into, but will find very difficult to put back down. With vivid and fast paced visuals, exceptionally tight controls tailored to the Pandora’s dual analog nubs, and awesome original soundtrack, it’s easily one of the best ways to show off the Pandora to the curious observer.

Super Geometry Dust

Super Geometry Dust

Beyond Gaming

The more time I spent with the Pandora, the more one thing became abundantly clear: while the system is certainly more than capable of being an excellent gaming device, it would be a crime to call it simply a “game system”. Any modern smartphone or tablet is able to push out respectable 3D graphics and offers enough input options to make at least some type of games a natural fit, but nobody would label the Nexus 7 as a gaming device.

In the same vein, dismissing the Pandora as a mere gaming device ignores the very real practical applications it has. With its full keyboard and suite of connectivity options, the Pandora can function just as well as a mobile development and productivity tool. With a full compliment of compilers and editors available (including support for the Arduino microcontroller), as well as standby productivity tools such as LibreOffice, GIMP, and Audacity, the Pandora is ready for work and play.

Of course, some tasks are a bit better suited than others. There are builds of both Chromium and Firefox available for the Pandora, but it’s hard to imagine anyone willingly using the device for browsing the web; even last year’s Android devices would run circles around it, and very likely have a higher resolution display. On the other hand, the Pandora’s full keyboard and (essentially) stock Linux environment make it very well suited to mobile development and remote management, tasks which you would stumble awkwardly through on even the latest and greatest smartphones.

Then there is the ability to connect USB devices directly to the Pandora, a trick precious few mobile devices can replicate. This alone makes the Pandora a very compelling device for a multitude of tasks. Some people who I showed the Pandora to immediately thought of security penetration testing, utilizing the system’s USB capability to connect high performance wireless adapters or jack into an wired network with a USB to Ethernet interface. While the Pandora might not have the raw processing power of other options, it does seem like it could be an interesting DIY competitor to commercial offerings like the Pwn Pad.


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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