Opening the Box: Open Pandora Review


Hacker’s Paradise

If there is one thing that I’ve learned during my time with the Pandora, it’s that this has got to be the ultimate device for the Linux hacker or tinkerer. The well designed hardware combined with the extreme freedom offered by the software essentially gives the user a blank canvas: if you can think about it, you can probably do it.

Just browsing through the available software for the Pandora will give you some idea of how the more technically minded users have embraced the device. Taking a look at the “System Info” application shows a tool that is absolutely dripping with technical details that only the most hardcore could appreciate, and any “game system” that offers the Arduino environment as a downloadable add-on is obviously catering to a hacker crowd.

Any device that reports its battery level to 5 decimal places is OK in my book.
Any device that reports its battery level to 5 decimal places is OK in my book.

Little touches like a highly capable recovery function built into the hardware for restoring and updating the Pandora’s operating system, and the fact that even in the simplified UI a terminal is only a button press away, speak volumes on the mentality of the developers and users of the Pandora.

While anyone could pick up and play the Pandora, the true target audience is obviously the more technically inclined who appreciate all the flexibility and capability the Pandora offers. But there is no question the Pandora walks a fine line; too technical and it will put off the casual user, but make it too simplified, and the advanced get bored.

In my opinion, the Pandora navigates that precarious position with respectable results. While it isn’t exactly a perfect blend, it’s obvious that special care was taken at every phase of the Pandora’s design and implementation not to scare away the mass market for the sake of the relatively small number of users who aren’t happy with the norm.

A Difficult Question

I made a special point to take the Pandora out with me in public as much as I could, because I wanted to get an idea of public perception and also test more mundane logistics like battery life. The main lesson I learned from this was that, wherever the Pandora goes, it draws attention to itself. Everyone wants to hold it and play a few games on it. They all want to know who makes it, and where to get one. But more than anything, everyone asks one simple, but very difficult to answer question:

But…what IS it?

It’s a fair enough question, but one I still don’t fully know how to answer. When people see you playing a game on it, they (naturally) assume it to be some kind of a game device. After all, it does have full gaming controls right on the front. A few people even asked me if it was some new model of the Nintendo DS, especially when I pulled out the stylus.

But is it really a game system? No, I don’t think so. It’s certainly capable of playing games, and in fact, is very good at it. But so are a lot of other things. I’m uncomfortable with putting the label of “game” on it, if nothing else, because it subconsciously brings the idea of “toy” along with it.

So does that mean it’s a computer? Well, sure, by the technical definition of the term. But I wouldn’t say it’s the kind of thing anyone would sit down at for extended periods of time. You can browse the web on it, write code, run network diagnostics, basically anything you can do on a regular Linux box…but you have to do it on a screen which is considerably below (in both size and resolution) modern smartphone displays. Even with the advantage of the proper QWERTY keyboard, it’s still far from an ideal work experience.


Writing this, I have to admit to myself that, even now, I don’t truly know what to make of the Open Pandora. I can’t decide if it’s a legitimate gaming system, or if it’s a subnotebook computer that has analog and digital gaming controls grafted onto it.

But there is one thing I am very sure of, I love this thing.

I had high hopes to begin with, as the very idea of the community coming together and developing a device based on their collective experiences with previous generations of hardware perfectly defines the spirit of the open source movement. It’s proof positive that open source works, and not just in the literal sense with software, but also as an ideal and way of life.

But getting my hands on it was even more rewarding than I expected, the Pandora is easily one of the most incredible products of open development I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know where to start when it came time to start writing this review, as there was just so much ground to cover.

If anything negative could be said about the Pandora, it’s this: the price. At $609 for the 1 GHz version, the Pandora is admittedly a very pricey gadget. Without the economies of scale that the big boys enjoy, the Pandora is stuck at a considerably higher sticker price than what the casual gamer is willing to spend; and frankly, I couldn’t blame them.

For pure gaming, there are many cheaper options out there, and I couldn’t seriously suggest anyone buy a device for $600+ if they just wanted to play emulated SNES games.

But on the same token, if your goal is simply to play a few emulated games, the Pandora probably isn’t what you’re looking for. This is a device for the player heavily invested in the homebrew and indie game scenes, or the hacker who lives for the challenge of turning every piece of electronics he sees into a Linux box.

In other words, the Pandora isn’t for the masses, it’s for the individualist. Nobody needs a Pandora, but there is absolutely a group of people who would consider this device a must-have at any price.

Once again, huge thanks to Mark Linkhorst for making this review possible. Mark trusted us with his Open Pandora for an unreasonably long time with no questions asked, and we are very grateful for the opportunity.

About 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: .