PocketCHIP: hands-on with the Raspberry Pi rival

IT’S FAIRLY SAFE TO SAY that everybody loves the Raspberry Pi. How could you take against a small, cheap, limitlessly adaptable PC with such a huge community around it?

Well, we’ve always thought that the one thing arguably missing from the Raspberry Pi community is any serious endeavour to mass produce a handheld portable shell to house the Pi. There are all manner of homebrews and tutorials available, but nothing actually being built and shipped in bulk.

This is where Next Thing Co and the PocketCHIP have found a niche. Next Thing is an unashamedly Californian hipster counterpart to Raspberry Pi’s stuffy, Cambridge-based garden shed tinkering ethic that started by offering the Linux-based CHIP itself as “the world’s first $9 computer”.

It’s a ridiculously good spec for $9: a 1GHz ARM Cortex-R8 processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and easy composite video output (with VGA and HDMI as easy add-ons).

But $60 extra ($40 if you pre-ordered as we did) gets you a case, a 480×272 back-lit touchscreen, full(ish) Qwerty keyboard and the game-making tools of the PICO-8 ‘fantasy console’ Lua ANSI C environment. And this is where the real fun begins.

Make no bones about it: you’ll need a goodly amount of self-esteem to whip out the PocketCHIP on a train.

PocketCHIP with pen stand

The device is soldered and hot glued onto a day-glo pink and white pseudo-circuit board (bits of which are functional, bits of which are purely for looks), and is a Hoxtonite’s wet dream.

It looks like it’s about to fall apart any second with its top-heavy touchscreen and obvious glue smears under the plastic covering of the keys, but at the same time it screams retro cool in a knowingly shonky way. It even has holes through the base to accommodate pens and pencils as stands.

It’s not that comfortable to hold for long periods as the clicky buttons are too close together and cause severe finger cramp for gaming sessions beyond 10 minutes.

On the plus side, it all comes apart like a dream. The PocketCHIP snaps easily out of its housing, the back shell clips off and the entire insides are readily available for modding on things like speakers.

Performance and software
To be completely transparent, the CHIP unit was our second, as the first failed three out of seven Debian hardware tests and had to be binned because the WiFi wasn’t working. Next Thing’s excellent forums had quite a few comments from people experiencing similar problems.

Anyway, the company kindly sent us a replacement and it worked fine. We’d encourage anyone switching on a PocketCHIP for the first time to type ‘sudo hwtest’ into the Linux Terminal app just to check that everything is working.

PocketCHIP back - see the CHIP in there

Assuming the hardware is in working order, the device can do a whole variety of mad things. PICO-8 is a fairly powerful piece of software that lets you instantly hack community-built games that update easily into the menu through WiFi. It’s a good system whether changing graphics and sounds or venturing into the code.

We needed a stylus to make the touchscreen successfully access some of the higher menu options, though, as the raised bezel made finger touching difficult.

Dig deeper with PocketCHIP, however, and there’s some serious fun to be had. Within hours, we’d found an excellent installation tutorial for fan-favourite Doom engine mod PrBoom, which sails along on this hardware.

After a bit more fiddling, we managed to install DosBOX and, while it refuses to acknowledge a lot of keyboard symbols and is almost impossible to read at native resolution, that ‘making it work’ process is most of the fun.

Pocket Chip plays Wolfenstein 3D

Why does the PocketCHIP play a mean game of Wolfenstein 3D but stutter through the basic 2D platforming of Jazz Jackrabbit? The interesting part is in finding out and messing around with configuration files to make this highly willing but low-powered machine do your bidding.

This is where PocketCHIP wins. Raspberry Pi fans can be into anything from weather sensors to Robot Wars, but PocketCHIP’s audience seems to enjoy hacking games onto the machine that don’t belong there, or trying to cram in increasingly unlikely operating systems (MacOS 8, anyone?).

Because PocketCHIP, when you boil it down, is a toy. Of course it is. It looks ridiculous and you’ll never want to type out a full program on those horrible clicky keys.

But we’ve learned more about Linux and Debian in the past few days while being forced through its hoops than we ever thought possible, and every new Sega emulator or incredibly unlikely PC game we persuaded to work on it feels like another small victory in stupidity.

First impressions
PocketCHIP is a brilliant new way to waste a bit of time on a morning commute, and an excellent desk toy. It succeeds where Raspberry Pi has failed in creating a hardware standard for a pocket-money portable PC, and the community is only going to get bigger, cleverer and sillier as devices keep shipping.

What it isn’t, however, is any kind of Nintendo 3DS- or PSVita-style portable gaming device. Your $69 gets you what you pay for, and a tinkerer’s nature is essential.

However, as we’ve said, Next Thing’s great attitude and the growing community will help even absolute beginners dive in with both feet and start having some seriously ridiculous fun quicker than you’d imagine. µ

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