The $49 do-everything machine
Since the launch of the Raspberry Pi in 2012, the hobbyist community centered on low-cost, open-source, ARM-based computers has exploded dramatically. Every year, these small, hackable devices get cheaper and more powerful. In 2015, Oakland-based Next Thing Co. upped the ante by successfully Kickstarting a $9 computer it called “CHIP” to the tune of $2 million in funding. As part of its pitch, Next Thing Co. also showcased the PocketCHIP, a handheld version of the CHIP with a built-in keyboard and touchscreen display.
The PocketCHIP includes a 1GHz ARM CPU (with a Mali 400 GPU), 4GB of flash storage, 512MB of RAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a 4.3-inch touchscreen display, a primitive keyboard, and a five-hour LiPo battery. With this device now shipping to Kickstarter backers, I thought it would be helpful to take a closer look at the gadget on my trusty workbench, and document my findings in this slideshow.
Bigger than an old Game Boy
The first thing I thought of when I saw the PocketCHIP was “Game Boy,” and I think the similarity to Nintendo’s famous handheld is intentional. The height and depth of the PocketCHIP’s plastic case almost exactly matches that of the 1989 Game Boy, with only the width being off (the PocketCHIP is wider).
That brings me to an important point: “PocketCHIP” is almost a misnomer. At 6.4 x 4.4 x 1.125 inches (HxWxD), this device is almost too large to fit into any pocket I own. If I did manage to stuff it into a large pocket, I’d be afraid it would split if I sat down. In other words, it’s pretty huge compared to most modern pocket-sized devices.
Here we see the CHIP module (left) detached from the “console”—it plugs in via two double-rowed pin headers on the circuit board. The CHIP is the heart of the console—it’s the computer that makes it all possible. The CHIP itself has three ports: a Micro USB port for 5V power, a regular female USB-A host port for accessories, and a 1/8-inch combo AV phono jack that can be used for headphones or, with a special cable, to output both composite video and sound. HDMI and VGA breakout boards are available for the CHIP separately, but they won’t work with the PocketCHIP circuit board plugged in.
PocketCHIP’s smooth, angular plastic case feels fairly comfortable in your hands as you cradle it to type. Its translucent peek-a-boo nature is an enticing feature in a device that you can take apart, which you’ll see next.
In keeping with its spirit of hackability, the PocketCHIP is easy to disassemble into its constituent parts—if you ever wanted to do such a thing.
PocketCHIP is composed of five main parts: the aforementioned CHIP board, which is the same as you would buy for $9 separately; a five-hour LiPo battery; a 480x272 backlit LCD display; the plastic housing (including LCD bezel); and a white circuit board that holds it all together, which includes a keyboard (we’ll take a closer look at that in a minute).
If you’re coming from a Raspberry Pi angle, the PocketCHIP’s onboard 4GB storage is a big limitation, but it’s also a plus: With the Pi, you need a case, a power supply, an SD card, a display, a keyboard, and a mouse to get going (that often adds up quickly). PocketCHIP has everything you need built into one device, and it’s ready to go when you turn it on.
The keyboard up close
The keyboard of the PocketCHIP is as primitive and simple as they come; it consists of 56 metal dome switches—the kind you’d see beneath the plastic keys in a calculator keyboard or some old joysticks. When you push down on one of these dome-shaped pieces of metal, it flexes inward, touches a contact beneath, and completes a circuit, which registers a key press. To protect the metal domes, Next Thing Co. has covered them with a transparent self-adhesive plastic film.
The keyboard works surprisingly well for what it is (and for the price); although I’d expect the domes to wear out over time, and I would definitely not want to type out a term paper on it. The inclusion of a four-way directional control, two “start” and “select”-like buttons, and a dedicated home button at the bottom are very welcome. For $49, this kind of keyboard is definitely not a deal breaker.
The home screen
Upon turning on the PocketCHIP—or by pressing the dedicated home button on the bottom of the keyboard—you will see this handy home screen. By default, it displays six icons that launch various built-in apps, which we will go into individually in a moment.
It’s worth noting that configuring Wi-Fi (as well as adjusting brightness and sound volume) on the PocketCHIP is mercifully easy using a touchscreen interface. Shut-down and restart functions are also only a screen-tap away. At the moment, however, Bluetooth setup requires some deft command-line work.
And golly, look at all those general-purpose input/outputs (GPIO) all broken-out and nicely arranged at the top of the device (just above the display), just begging to connect motors, sensors, switches, and LEDs. The fact that you could, say, build a robot around the PocketCHIP is a big part of this device’s appeal.
Here is the Linux console you see when you tap on the Terminal icon. The first thing I did when turning on my PocketCHIP (after setting up Wi-Fi) was update the apt-get repository, install SSH (why it was not included is beyond me), then log in to a remote dedicated webserver that I administer. It was nice to have that power instantly available to me via a typical Linux command-line interface.
It’s nice that several core features of the PocketCHIP can be accessed without resorting to the command line, but to do anything interesting on this gadget beyond its few built-in apps, you will have to delve into this text-based netherworld eventually. An iPad this is not. But an iPad (by default) can’t run arbitrary code, either.
A big selling-point of the PocketCHIP is that it can play thousands of free indie games straight out of the box via PICO-8, which is equal parts virtual game console, programming community, and IDE. PICO-8, as an engine, succeeds for game development novices by virtue of its self-imposed tech limitations. As a result, most PICO-8 games look very much like retro console titles. The PocketCHIP comes with many PICO-8 games preinstalled, and you can download more quickly and easily.
One note on actually playing the games: Do not expect to game intensively on the PocketCHIP’s controls. The dome switches, while configured in such a way to facilitate gameplay, leave much to be desired in terms of a control interface. It would be neat if Next Thing Co. released a more console-like attachment for the CHIP with Game Boy-like conductive rubber switches and plastic buttons (maybe some housing too). Of course, you could always hack one up yourself—just the kind of thing the Pocket CHIP was meant for. Or you could probably connect a Bluetooth gamepad with some finagling.
Modifying PICO-8 games
One of the neatest things about PICO-8 games is that you can modify them any way you like, including while you are playing the game. That means you can change the rules or simply extend an existing game in a new way. Here we see the editing screen, which you can use with the PocketCHIP’s built-in keyboard to program to your heart’s content (or plug in a USB keyboard and do it). Although I would not personally program on the handheld’s built-in keyboard, I could see a creative kid with a lot of time on their hands doing it in earnest.
When you click on the Make Music home screen icon, it loads SunVox, a multiplatform modular synthesizer with a pattern-based sequencer. It allows you to composite retro-sounding chiptune music on your PocketCHIP.
While it’s a neat idea, SunVox’s interface is, frankly, incomprehensible, and it’s frustrating to navigate using the tiny icons that you have to try to tap on (emulating a mouse). You’d have to want to make music with this thing really badly to take the time to figure it out. I’m a musician with significant sequencer experience and I don’t even want to use it. If you’re already familiar with SunVox and know what you’re doing, its inclusion here may be a plus. Otherwise, it’s definitely not a selling-point of this product.
No portable device would be complete without a quick way to take notes (or perhaps quickly hack out some C), so when you click on the Write button on the PocketCHIP’s home screen, the gadget loads up a simple, white-on-black text editor. It’s bare-bones but functional, and I think it’s a nice inclusion to the PocketCHIP suite of apps.
It’s worth noting that I skipped over showing the PocketCHIP’s built-in Help function (accessible via a home screen icon), which presents a nice illustrated introduction to using the PocketCHIP itself. It’s definitely a big plus.
Last, but not least, we have PocketCHIP’s built-in GUI-based file manager, which is accessible via the Browse Files icon on the home screen. Here, using the touchscreen as an emulated mouse, you can graphically delve into the file system lurking behind the PocketCHIP’s kindly interface. While the interface is a little awkward to navigate using touch (I did not want to use it for very long), it’s a boon for Linux command-line novices, and a handy tool for file management on the device.
A worthy gadget for starter hobbyists
When you put all the features of the PocketCHIP together, and weigh it against its currently advertised $49 price, it’s clear that Next Thing Co. has a winner on its hands. The firm hints that it may later raise the price to $69 after an introductory period, but considering its bare-bones design, I think that would be a mistake. While $69 for something like this five years ago would have been insanely cheap, computing power per-dollar, per-watt is dropping like a rock.
PocketCHIP wins big on usability: This is obviously not intended to be a consumer device for the masses, but it is still incredibly easy to use considering its hackable pedigree. To that end, this machine could form the basis of a killer middle- or high-school class on embedded systems engineering. Think of it as the ultimate “bright kid” present—a low-cost all-in-one starting point to a much wider world of creative exploration in electronics and computers. Those are powerful qualities to have in a $49 general purpose computing device that comes with no strings attached.
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