Pandora. The holy grail of handheld gaming?

Pandora is marketed as the most powerful gaming handheld on the market to date. Although it has full gaming controls, it also boasts a keyboard and runs a full Linux desktop environment meaning it can also be used as a very tiny PC of sorts. Check the specifications out below:

  • ARM® Cortex™-A8 600Mhz+ CPU running Linux
  • 430-MHz TMS320C64x+™ DSP Core
  • PowerVR SGX OpenGL 2.0 ES compliant 3D hardware
  • 800×480 4.3″ 16.7 million colours touchscreen LCD
  • Wifi 802.11b/g, Bluetooth & High Speed USB 2.0 Host
  • Dual SDHC card slots & SVideo TV output
  • Dual Analogue and Digital gaming controls
  • 43 button QWERTY and numeric keypad
  • Around 10+ Hours battery life

The machine was designed by the community at the GP32X forums, and steered in a workable direction by the OpenPandora team. The final result was this; a fully functioning computer that can do everything a computer can do, with full gaming controls and the ability to play graphically impressive games, both natively and emulated. The software is completely Open Source, meaning anyone can take any piece of its huge library of software and modify or improve it as they feel fit. This includes the Operating System!

No, the cup isn’t big – the machine is small 🙂

I am the proud owner of one of these, and I’d like to share with you some of the things I have discovered in the short time I’ve owned it.

For those that have remained blissfully ignorant to the long and painful saga that was the manufacture and shipping of the Open Pandora handheld, I’ll give you a quick run down here. If you know all about it already you might want to skip straight to my review, or if you already have one then you might want to skip the article entirely.

In 2007, Craigix announced that he and some other mods from the GP32X forums were going to attempt to design and manufacture their own handheld device. The idea was born partly out of the frustration they experienced when trying to communicate with foreign manufacturers (namely Korean company Gamepark Holdings) when suggesting ways to make their own handhelds better, and partly out of sheer enthusiasm to realise the dream of a handheld that can do everything. In September 2008 once the hardware had been finalised and manufacture was seemingly on the brink of starting, 4000 pre-order spots were opened up for those willing to take the plunge. Shipping was said to begin in December of that year. Unfortunately, 1 year passed and the project looked to be on it’s last legs. Nothing was shipped, the team had run in to hurdle after hurdle and it seemed we were no closer to receiving our precious machines than we were 12 months ago. The story of the delays is so long and unbelievable I cannot even begin to do it justice here without writing an essay, so I’ll leave it at that.

It wasn’t until February of 2010 that things started to come together, the factory in China who were supposed to be making the cases finally got the message that they actually needed to make some bloody cases, and the mass production of motherboards was underway in Texas. Words cannot explain the relief that I and the whole forum felt when the first Pandoras begun shipping to their rightful owners in May of this year.

On June 5th I was lucky enough to receive mine in the post. It came as somewhat of a surprise since I had no official shipping confirmation, just a message from Jacquelyn (Open Pandora administration) in a passing email that mine would ship soon. It was estimated that I was between 315 and 365 in the queue (out of 4000).

Since then a lot has happened. Shipping has ground to a halt due to a lack of anything to ship (a problem with some peoples analogue nubs meant the factory manufacturing them had to tweak their process, and the factory in China seem to have forgotten that they still need to make another 9000 cases to satisfy the first and soon to start 2nd batch pre-orders).  A lot of good things have happened too, though. The software repository is brimming with emulators, ports and home grown software ready to run and their is a rather positive buzz on the forums for the first time since 2009. Even though to date only ~800 Pandoras have shipped, new stuff is appearing almost every day and it is rather exciting to see.

So without further a do here is my review and first impressions of my Pandora.

The Hardware

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of manufacture, after reading some bad reviews on the forums I was a little worried – but these worries were mostly unfounded.

A problem which is probably unique to my machine is that a little bit of adhesive tape which secures the bezel to the LCD was poking out the bottom right hand side of the screen. I managed to remove most of it and poked the remaining bit back under the plastic. It’s not really noticeable anymore. A common problems noted with early Pandoras is the LCD screen bezel bulge – the plastic surrounding the screen is not completely flush at the bottom in the middle. I must admit I didn’t notice until someone else pointed it out on their unit, and though it niggled at me to begin with I soon forgot about it when I noticed the exact same problem on my Acer Aspire One and on almost every monitor in my workplace. My machine doesn’t really suffer from any other problems so I’ll crack on with the review. As far as the controls go, here’s a rundown:

Keyboard:
This was my biggest concern before receiving my machine, but actually it’s probably the best part. Though the buttons are soft plastic, they still have something of a “click” when depressed, which is nice and leaves no doubt that the key will have registered. I can type pretty quickly either with my thumbs while holding the machine, or with my fingers when it is sat on the table. All the keys register first time with little effort. Good stuff.

Gaming Controls:
The D Pad is awesome, couldn’t wish for an easier to use or more tactile one at all. It reminds me somewhat of the D Pad found on the Sega Saturn. The ABXY buttons, great – they click and feel solid. Analog nubs are also nice, both of mine are silky smooth and feel good. My niggles with the nubs are that they dont spring back exactly in to the middle when let go of, and that they spin around when pushed from the edge. They’re OK to use in the OS, took a bit of getting used to and require calibrating on every boot. Calibrating just entails pushing each nub in every direction once, takes 5 seconds. The worst part of the gaming controls is the shoulder buttons. They depress only a millimetre or so and click when pushed in a similar way to the Dingoo shoulders. Unfortunately using them requires a conscious effort to click and while not bad, they could have been better. No problems with any buttons not registering or anything like that.

Touchscreen:
Really nice, crisp and clear. Could be brighter perhaps but no complaints from me. Viewing angles are awesome from every angle, and ghosting is not bad. Very receptive to the stylus with only a light tap needed to register. The stylus tip could do with some smoothing out, it feels a little scratchy.

Hinge:
Meh, I don’t like the hinge much. It is not very rigid unless it is locked, but it only locks when opened 180 degrees. the 5-10 degrees before it locks are not very secure, the hinge tries to pull the screen into the locked position. I’ll get used to it, but it’s annoying. Wish they’d used a hinge like the DS with 2 locking positions – but according to MWeston (in charge of designing the motherboard) the mechanism is patented by Nintendo. The OpenPandora team even contacted Nintendo to ask if they could buy a few thousand of the hinges from them, but the request fell on deaf ears.

Other bits:
The volume control is an analogue wheel and I love it. It is recessed just enough so that it won’t turn when the Pandora is in your pocket, but it’s easy to reach when you want to change the volume. The volume doesnt go as loud as a DS but it’s OK. The speakers are clear and crisp sounding, but lack any bass for obvious reasons. SD slots are easy to use and the cards click nicely when inserted. They sit almost completely flush to the front of the case. Power switch works fine too, no complaints. As far as connectibility goes, I’ve tried a few things plugged into the USB port including a keyboard and mouse via a non-branded USB hub, various card readers, memory sticks and a humping monkey and they all work straight away with no faffing about. Excellent.

The Software

Operating System:
Booting time is around 40 seconds or so, but it is said that this will decrease to ~15-20 seconds with some optimisation. The desktop style OS looks smart and for someone who has never used Linux before it feels very familiar and is easy to use. It is not very finger friendly, so the stylus or nubs are needed to navigate around. Unfortunately the OS is very rough around the edges at the moment and I have succeeded in making it crash numerous times. I have no doubt that everything will be ironed out in good time. A few hotfixes have already been released to fix some bugs, and more updates are in the works all the time. The minimal “PMP Style” menu is a working alternative if you’re not keen on the full desktop type view, I have to admit though that I don’t use it as I find it limiting and not very easy on the eye either. I would think it will become greatly improved in the future, just as the full desktop OS will.

The minimal OS, and the full desktop OS home screens.

Emulators:
This is a tough one to write because as soon as I have done writing the information will be out of date, such is the speed of the updates on the emulator front. Everything up to and including SNES and Mega Drive is working pretty much perfectly at the default clock speed of 500MHZ. Even the special chip SNES games work to some degree with some overclocking. The exception is Game Boy Advance which is currently only an unoptimised build of Visual Boy Advance and is very patchy. GBA is one of my most wanted emulators but I will wait until somebody ports gpSP before I look in to that. N64 was a machine that was not promised would work on Pandora when we pre-ordered, but there are already have a few games working next to flawlessly including Super Mario 64. Playstation emulation is better still, with many games running at full speed without glitches. Here are the compatibility lists for these 2 machines, for your perusal.

PSX4Pandora Compatibility list
Mupen64Plus Compatibility list

Games:
There are a wealth of games already ported including classics such as OpenTyrian and Quake III, but you can see these in the software repo that I linked to earlier on in the review. Suffice to say most things listed in this section work flawlessly and there is something for everyone here.

Other Bits:
It would be daft of me to review any of the other software bits, since they are updated so regularly that my info is almost immediately out of date. This is a good thing! Exciting times lie ahead for Pandora owners!

You may be interested in the following links.

Official OpenPandora web site
Official OpenPandora forum
Unofficial blog
The official software repo

And finally, here is a video of me (and my rather impatient brother) unboxing the thing.

One Reply to “Pandora. The holy grail of handheld gaming?”

  1. Can you map the buttons to different controls based on the emulator? I noticed that if you wanna play something like the Super NIntendo, the buttons are in awkward positions… Or does it actually just map the buttons based on position.

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