A Review of the Open Pandora Handheld Gaming Thing

The box got banged up on its trip from England but the contents are in good shape.

I first ordered the Open Pandora in November of 2009 and I just got it last week. The creators of this handheld video gaming device have faced some powerful setbacks in their quest to provide a flexible portable gaming device, but the end result is worth their labors. While only the DS and PSP were its competitors when the Pandora was first proposed, it now has to compete with the iPad and Android phones and their various knockoffs. The iPhone was released in 2007. Pandora was estimated originally to be released that same year. To put that into perspective, now iPhone/iPad (and to a lesser extent Android) own the portable gaming market, in terms of dollars. I don’t care about Angry Birds or Facebook on the go, so the Pandora was a much better choice for me.

I purchased the Open Pandora for the built-in gaming controls (A d-pad, two analog nubs, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons), something that similar handheld devices lack. (These features do exist on the Sony Vita, but that has no homebrew capability or customizability. And no games.) That and the fact that it runs on a variant of Linux (1) means that I’m free to mess around with it however I wish, without built-in limitations from either the manufacturer or software developers. (Game systems are generally locked down by their manufacturers to prevent piracy but Linux systems encourage homemade applications and experimentation.) Let’s take a closer look.

The case is pretty solid and sturdy in order to protect the guts of the computer. Unlike many handhelds, I don’t feel like I could rip it in half with my bare hands. The screen looks fantastic and the case is closeable. A clamshell design is an important selling point for me since I don’t like my electronic gizmos to get their screens torn up from general use and particularly from being in the same pocket as my keys, so this is a nice touch.

The touchscreen is kind of mushy and unresponsive; closer to an ATM’s than a Nintendo DS’s. And the nubs are somewhat slippery. Sometimes the top part that I touch with my thumbs would get stuck in one direction, forcing me to rub it in a circle to make it clack back into position. If you want to use games requiring a mouse, you’re better off plugging in the smallest USB mouse you’ve got. I know it kind of defeats the purpose of having a portable gaming system, but the Open Pandora was designed for gamers and you need to find the best method of control for you.

This thing owns.

The d-pad is excellent, though; much better than the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3’s poisonously bad pads. It resembles the Super Nintendo d-pad, and that’s never a bad thing. I wish this thing had a full keyboard, but that would have made it either too large for the creators’ purposes or too prohibitively expensive to mass-produce. Instead, you have four rows of buttons and several alt keys for additional functions. Since the gaming controls do most of what I want, this isn’t a problem, but if you want to type a novel on the Open Pandora, you had best learn how to use the keyboard or bring a tiny external one.

The Open Pandora comes with two GUIs, and you can easily get more online. One is made to resemble Windows with a start menu, drag-n-drop, and all the stuff that most users are used to. However, I found myself unable to run any programs (.pnd executable files) with this, and it was kind of slow anyway, so instead of asking for help on the Open Pandora message boards, I just used the simpler GUI. The one I prefer resembles what you’d see on a smart phone: simply a list of programs and you pick one. Unfortunately, the downside is that you can only run one program at once, so you’ll have to mess with the regular GUI in order to run a music player and Firefox or a comic book viewer at the same time.

This is what you get with it: The box, the machine, a two-part AC power cable, a battery (That lasts 10+ hours, amazingly) and a manual you’re never gonna look at. Not pictured are the two SDHC cards I bought for storing stuff.

Which brings me to the reason why I bought the Open Pandora in the first place: The GUI is there to facilitate ease of use between me and my games. The system has a robust community of developers and programmers who want to make your experience as fluid as possible. The amount of emulators for old consoles is fantastic; you can run everything from the Amiga 500 to the Windows 3.1 to the Vectrex to the bloody Virtual Boy on this. And that’s just the obscure ones; you’ll probably want to play Gameboy Advance and Sega Genesis and Playstation 1 games on the Open Pandora. It does that too, and it plays them all remarkably well. The Playstation 1 emulator even has support for save states for those of you who want to cheat at Ogre Battle. And if you don’t like any of the emulators, you can program one yourself if you have the knowledge. And if not, you can request a program on their boards. In my experience, Linux nerds are some of the friendliest people on the planet and are always helpful.

There are non-emulated games available, but the selection is much more meager. Someone ported the mighty Nethack to the Open Pandora but the user interface is rather poor. The standard keyboard controls don’t work half as well when you don’t have a number pad and you’re pressing alt keys all the time for basic functions. But the functionality is there. All sorts of good first-person shooters have been ported to the Pandora to make use of the dual analog nubs: Doom, Doom 2, Ultimate Doom, Hexen, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament… even if you don’t care about playing old SNES games, the Open Pandora still has plenty to offer you.

The Open Pandora also offers wi-fi access. You can run Firefox, Midori, Pidgin, several IRC clients, and other fun online crap through your Pandora. But I don’t care about online usage with the Pandora; the non-gaming feature I was looking at was the comic book viewer. It runs fantastically; I’ve been re-reading Jeff Smith’s Bone on it and having a blast. It operates with ease and I have no complaints for the program other than that it sometimes takes ~10 seconds to load a large comic image file. But if you want a portable comic reader with your emulator/DOSBOX machine, this is a good one.

The Open Pandora is expensive and took way too long to get to me, but I forgive them because the product is so valuable to me. If you want one of your own, go to their website and hopefully they’ll get it to you faster than they did mine. They deserve your support for creating something so useful. It’s a completely open handheld device. There’s literally nothing else like it in the world.

The back of the box with my fingers for size comparison. I have tiny little girl hands, though.

(1) Linux is a highly configurable operating system, for which the source code is freely available for customization by users. This is in contrast to other commercial gaming platforms that are tightly restricted to prevent piracy and ensure vendor lock-in and forced upgrading.

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mesarphelous even though Twitter sucks.
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3 Responses to A Review of the Open Pandora Handheld Gaming Thing

  1. Strider says:

    Hmm- very interesting stuff. I’ve read a little about some of the Linux-based ‘off-brand’ consoles (one of my acquaintances is very taken with her Dingoo), but I’ve never been that interested in them myself… I’ve always kind of suspected (fairly or otherwise) that they’d end up being somewhat flaky devices, particularly given the average level of attention that UI gets in linux/open-source-based products.

    Personally, I don’t think we’re ever really going to see a viable ‘off-brand’ console that’s not backed by a major manufacturer- capturing users requires capturing developers, which is going to require pulling together a bigger initial investment in advertising/pitching to devs than I expect to see from a venture-capital loan or a Kickstarter campaign… Some specialized Android variants are likely the closest we’ll get.

    – HC

  2. UnderstandingSheep says:

    I really want this console! I am willing to pay plenty for something like this! but 600 DOLLARS?! that’s insane? I really don’t understand who they’re trying to sell this to? I have been following them for a whisle hoping they will drop the price at one point or another ar at least START dropping it! but it’s not moving? and another question. do you still use it? after a few years, do you? is it a regret now that the thrill of wanting to buy it is long gone? I really want to know!!

    • Lee says:

      Odd that you post this because I just sold mine on eBay a couple days ago. It’s a fun little device but everything it does my desktop can do better. I wouldn’t get one unless you wanted to play lots of SNES ROMs while riding the bus or something.

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