Pandora Handheld Review

We talk a lot about Indie game developers here. Until now, though, we've been talking about people who create indie games. There is a breed of indie developer with an even bigger challenge against them, though. The indie console developer, the cunning masochists who seek to make their own hardware take it upon themselves to try to achieve what it takes whole factories to produce. Yet, against all odds, these people exist, and BrainLazy has finally gotten its hands on the most recent fruits of their labors, the Pandora.

We talk a lot about Indie game developers here. Their uphill struggle, their creative solutions to tricky problems in everything from programming to marketing, and a dozen other things make successful indie developers a truly remarkable breed. Until now, though, we’ve been talking about people who create indie games. There is a breed of indie developer with an even bigger challenge against them, though. The indie console developer. Say what you will about game programming, the entry level costs are very low. The cunning masochists who seek to make their own hardware take it upon themselves to try to achieve what it takes whole factories to produce. Yet, against all odds, these people exist, and BrainLazy has finally gotten its hands on the most recent fruits of their labors, the Pandora.

If you follow DIY electronics, you are probably familiar with the Pandora. They announced the project a LONG time ago, and we placed our pre-orders more than two years ago. Since then, the group trying to bring this device to light has learned time and time again why so few people try to make their own portable hardware. There were stumbling blocks at nearly every stage of the process, from the design of the analog nubs to the manufacturing of the case, delays plagued the Pandora crew. As the release date slid further and further away, the general attitude was that these guys had bitten off more than they could chew, and the Pandora would turn out to be just another piece of vaporware. Now Pandoras are trickling out into the wild, so the question is no longer will it happen, but was it worth it? Well, let’s look at the facts.

In terms of specs, the Pandora blew its competition out of the water when it was designed. It is based on the OMAP3530, which may not hold a candle to the upcoming OMAP4430, but it was a serious monster in 2008. Since then the smart phone revolution has dumped some serious horsepower onto the market. That said, the Pandora remains a force to be reckoned with. You can find the full specs here, but they don’t tell the full story. Many cell phones will easily surpass those values, but the Pandora isn’t a phone, it is a computer. You have full access to it from the start, no jailbreaking necessary. The code it runs is native, not inside a virtual machine. Hell, it can even compile its own code! That means that every program can take advantage of full system resources, and can be optimized and tweaked to outperform less open systems running at double the speed. And if you still don’t see the sort of speed you are looking for? Overclocking it is as easy as picking a higher clock speed off of a menu. Obviously doing so carries some risk, but one look at the forums will show that plenty of testing has been done on what clock speeds offer the best boost for the least danger. Just to give you an idea of what we are talking about, our man Phawx has gotten his machine up over 1 GHz without summoning the dreaded “magic blue smoke.” Your mileage may vary. That brings you pretty close to modern portables, but running hand optimized, compiled code. The sort of possibilities that opens cannot be underestimated.

On top of all of that, this device has things that no current phone or handheld game system has. Sure, your phone might have a qwerty keyboard, but does it have a game pad? The Pandora does, along with shoulder buttons and dual analogs. Your handheld might have good game controls, but does it have a keyboard? Pandora does, and a touch screen too. If those input methods aren’t enough for you, Dual Shock3 is supported via bluetooth directly from the menu. Oh, what’s that? Your favorite input method isn’t wireless? Fine, the Pandora has a USB HOST PORT! That’s right, just about any peripheral supported by linux will work with this device.

A handheld is only as good as its games, though, right? Pandora, as a linux netbook, has got access to a wide array of emulators. This means that the potential game library includes practically everything developed for a console or computer in the last twenty years or so, excluding the most recent console generations. In my brief time with it I’ve seen everything from Atari to Playstation 1 games running, plus assorted Dos games, scumm games, and PC games that have been opensourced. It also has inherited the catalog of the GP2X, a forerunner in the open console market, via a wrapper called GINGE. That means that all of the work that went into porting things to that system is now paying dividends for the Pandora. Plus, they have an active developer community working at producing games native and unique to the system, most notably a Wario Ware-eque title called “Pandora Panic.” So regardless of your tastes, Pandora has you covered, and that holds true even if you aren’t a gamer, since it also has productivity apps like Abiword and Gnumeric (Word and Excel equivalents), as well as access to Gimp and a slew of other useful linux apps.

So now we know what sort of promise the device has, but the question remains to be answered, how well does it deliver? Well, I won’t lie. The Pandora isn’t for everyone. It is easy to use, to be sure, but it isn’t idiot proof. A linux novice might be able to get some enjoyment out of it, but to really get the full effect, you’ll need to be a bit more of a geek than a Nintendo DS would require. Everything about this device is just a little bit rough around the edges. Since they are hand assembled, no two are precisely the same. This button may be a little bit stiff on yours, that seam might be a little bit crooked on mine. After a little bit of breaking in, though, most of the physical foibles work themselves out, and a twist of as screw or an adjustment of the battery will solve lots of lingering problems. In my case, it was a little temperamental to charge, but that sorted itself out when I switched to charging on USB.

Regardless of any quirks your particular device might have, there are some aspects of the Pandora which might not appeal to you. Its size, for instance. In order to incorporate so many features, the Pandora is hefty, almost precisely the same size as the original Nintendo DS, and substantially larger than its Lite siblings. The beefy battery that allows it to honestly boast a 10 hour play time makes it pretty heavy, too. It is still absolutely portable, and fits easily in my pocket, but there are smaller, lighter options out there for people who are more interested in a sleek, feather weight device.

The included software is rock solid, and I haven’t had a program crash on me, but one of my fellow BrainLazers has experienced a hard lock or two when testing some of the more bleeding edge applications. When you have the option to decide for yourself what code you want to run, you run the risk of stumbling upon things that just aren’t ready. That’s the price of admission for an open device. Plus, since it is open source, if you have the programming chops, you can fix any problems you encounter yourself. And even if you can’t do it personally, the community is perpetually hard at work making it better, so what doesn’t work today may well work tomorrow. Case in point, an early issue we ran into was the inability to unmount SD Cards and other removable drives. A quick look at the bug tracker turned this up. One copied file and one restart later, problem solved.

When all is said and done, the Pandora is a really remarkable device. It runs well, does all it claimed to do and more. If you are a hardware geek, a software geek, or a hardcore old school gamer, you would be hard pressed to find anything on the market that will suit your needs half as well while still remaining pocket portable. This is a system that is exciting not just because of what you can play on it, but because of what you can do with it. It is as much a tool as a console. If you are willing to deal with a few bumps along the way in exchange for a fully accessible and ultra-flexible gaming system, then buy yourself a Pandora. The production is starting to ramp up, so before long the supply should catch up to the demand. You won’t regret it.

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About Decoychunk

Editor, Writer, and general Knower-Of-Words, if there is text to be read on BrainLazy, Joseph Lallo probably has his fingerprints on it. As the final third of the ownership and foundation of BrainLazy, Joseph “Jo” Lallo made a name for himself when he lost the “e” from his nickname in an arm wrestling match with a witch doctor. Residing in the arid lowlands of the American Southwest, Joseph Lallo is a small, herbivorous, rabbit-like creature with the horns of an antelope. He sleeps belly up, and his milk can be used for medicinal purposes. Joseph Lallo is also author of several books, including The Book of Deacon Series, book 1 of which is available for free here.