The Pandora Review

Chapter 1. A Brief History

Several years ago, I read somewhere that a group of dedicated nerds were unhappy with currently available handheld gaming devices, and had decided to develop their own. The main focus would be on power and openness, with the device being based on the OMAP3530 from Texas Instruments, and running some version of Linux.

As soon as they started pre-sales of the device, I ordered mine.

Then several years passed by.

Last week, I finally got mine, and it’s mostly awesome! I WAS going to post a review from the actual device itself, but it won’t let me.

Chapter 2. The Hardware

The case is a very nice looking shade of matte black, and is slightly larger than a Nintendo DS. It feels a bit thick when closed, but it feels a lot slimmer when opened up. The screen is designed to be either fully open (almost 180 degrees), or fully closed. It’s possible to have it at a 90-120 degree angle when placed on a table, though.
The underside of the case is mostly taken up by the huge custom built battery, but there’s also a very tight fitting touch screen pen slot with included pen. The top lid is curved with a discrete embossed Pandora logo. You can see the status led lights even when the device is closed.
On the back of the device, there are three ports, two of which I’m not sure what they’re for, but the third one is a full sized USP port. There’s also a hole for plugging in the charger, and the L and R keys. The charger included with the device has a really short cable, causing me to knock it over the first day I had it, breaking the touch screen. The L and R keys are perfectly located, but they’re unfortunately a bit too stiff to use comfortably.
The front panel was the power switch, a headphone port, two SDHC card slots, and a volume wheel. My headphone port seems to be a bit broken as I get very silent sound with it, with occasional loud pops. Not nice. The SDHC slots work great, and so does the volume wheel.

When the device is open, the upper panel is mostly taken up by the large touch screen. It doesn’t have any glossy coating, so it appears a bit dim and washed out. There is noticable ghosting/blurring on the screen when there’s a lot of motion. It’s not as bad as the original PSP, but it’s definitely noticable. To the left and right of the screen are the speakers, which work fine.
The bottom panel is dominated by controls. There are 46 keys, a d-pad, two analogue nubs, and four gaming buttons. The keyboard is a full QWERTY keyboard with a shift key for uppercase, and an FN key to input special characters like punctuation, and to reach the F-keys.
The keys feel a bit spongy, like they used to be on old mobile phones, and when writing it’s only really possible to use your thumbs. You have to reach a bit to hit the center keys, but you quickly get used to it. In fact, after a minute or two, I was fully comfortable with they keyboard. When playing games, the spongyness of the keys are a bit annoying, and as mentioned earlier, the L and R keys are a bit too stiff.
The nubs are reeeally sensitive, and can spin around, for some reason. The spinning is a bit of a problem if you push a nub off-center, causing it to rotate instead of move. But you quickly get used to them, and they mostly work fine as long as they’re calibrated (see below).

Built in to the device is a WIFI and Blutooth chip. I haven’t tried the Blutooth yet, but the WIFI isn’t working too great. It might just be a software issue, but I can’t really tell.

Chapter 3. The Software

Installing applications on the device is dead simple, as there’s a standard packaging scheme for the device. Just place the .PND files in a special directory (/pandora/desktop) on a SDHC card, then put the card into the pandora. The OS will automatically detect the card, then put icons for the apps on the desktop. If you take out the card, the icons go away. It works GREAT. There even is an appstore like web page optimized for the pandora screen where you can download new apps. It’s a bit lacking on content at the moment, but it seems to work fine.

To control the mouse, you can either use the touch screen (which I broke the first day.. grr..), or use the nubs, with the left one controlling the pointer, and the right one acting as the mouse buttons. Push it left to left click, and right to right click. Using the nubs works great, as long as they’re calibrated right. I’ve noticed that if I play around with the nubs while the device is booting, they’re almost impossible to use, and sometimes they get uncalibrated on their own.

The device runs a customized version of Ångström linux, with an optional simple front end for quickly launching apps. The OS could use some more tweaks, as there are quite a few popup windows and dialogs that are larger than the Pandora screen (800x480 pixels), making it REALLY hard to click the “ok” button.
In general, everything feels a bit sluggish, especially when starting apps, or when there’s lots of IO. Once programs are running, the speed is fine.
When using WIFI, the os correctly finds nearby access points and asks you for a password when you select the one you need. But I entered the wrong password the first time, and it simply refused to connect, even when I entered the right password. If I set the wlan to open, it still claimed it needed a password and refused to connect. The only way to fix this appeared to be to reboot the Pandora. It now connects fine to wifi, and I’ve done some IRC chatting and surfing, but it frequently loses connection, requiring another reboot to connect again. I tried to write and blog a review of the Pandora from the Pandora itself, but the networking problems prevented this.
The web browser works like you’d expect it, but there are some minor rendering bugs, some of which make it hard to use certain websites. For example, on some page I got white text on white background.

Chapter 4. Games and Emulators

The first thing I tried to play was Quake 2. The display was far too dark, the nubs were too sensitive, and the R key (to shoot) was too stiff to use comfortably. I was disappointed.

Then I installed some emulators, and played around with a C64 and an Atari, and this is really what the Pandora was made for. Having a real keyboard and good gaming controls really made it feel like I had proper hand-held old computers to carry around. Playing 3D Construction Kit on the subway is an amazingly lovely thing! Next up, I’ll add an emulated Amiga, a computer I never had as a child. I might even give AMOS programming a try.

Of course, I also tried playing some emulated SNES games, and it mostly feels quite genuine. The gaming controls are not of Nintendo quality, but they work fine, and the games run at full speed almost all of the time, with occasional random slowdowns that cause me to fall down pits in Super Mario World. Most of the time, the experience is flawless.

There’s a community game made specifically for the Pandora called Pandora Panic. The less said about that, the better.

Chapter 5. Summary and Score

The hardware is almost perfect, but the software is buggy and ugly. I’d love to see a big company do something like the Pandora, as it’d probably be more polished. But seeing as there’s really nothing like the Pandora out there, I’m extremely happy with what I’ve got. It’s great for enthusiasts and medium to advanced computer users, but I don’t believe it’d do to well in the hands of the general public.

Best part: Crazy good battery time ..
Worst part: .. but the battery keeps draining even when turned off?
Score: 4/5

posted 13 years ago