PocketCHIP Hardware Review - The perfect handheld retrogaming device?

Back in May last year, NextThingCo were making headlines with their kickstarter for a $9 computer called CHIP. Similar to a Raspberry Pi A+ but with added features and cheaper to boot. What was overlooked by most was one of the extra backer reward tiers of an add on peripheral called PocketCHIP. The campaign hinted at PocketCHIP's potential but it wasn't until the announcement that it would be launched with Pico-8 that its true vocation was made obvious. To be the ultimate accessible retrogaming handheld computer. Read on to find out if it is.

Firstly the important stuff... NextThingCo sent us a review unit from the kickstarter backer reward batch and as such it's still very much a beta/pre-order level product and the pre-installed software is still distinctly in development, and we'll revisit the review once a more complete out of the box experience has been launched.

What PocketCHIP Is

PocketCHIP is a screen and keyboard attachment for a CHIP SBC (Single Board Computer) that was designed to look like a prop from an 80's sci-fi movie, featuring:

  • Handheld, single PCB form factor with a module slot for CHIP SBC
  • Full Debial Jessie (ARM) linux with simplified App style UI
  • 4.3" 480x272 screen
  • Clicky foil dome keyboard
  • 802.11b/g/n wifi
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 1GHz Allwinner R8 ARM CPU
  • Mali 400 GPU
  • 512 Mb RAM
  • 4Gb on-board storage
  • 3000MAh (approx 5 hrs of screen on run time)
  • 1 USB port
  • 1 USB-OTG port
  • Exposed GPIO ports
  • hidden prototyping area
  • Perfect for commandline junkies, tinkerers and projects

What it isn't

  • A Finished, polished product
  • A Windows compatible computer
  • An HD gaming experience or replacement for a 3DS
  • An actual real-life embodiment of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (though it is pretty close)

Out of the Box

When you first get the PocketCHIP out of its box, you're confronted with PocketCHIP in large friendly letters as the boot up screen which then takes you into a first-run tour of the device. You have a home screen with 6 icons for pre-installed applications of Documentation (a local copy of the PocketCHIP web manual), a text editor, a file browser, a linux command shell terminal, Sun Vox music editor and Pico-8. A quick flick into settings and you can pick a wireless network and get going. For most other tasks you'll have to foray into the terminal, which then instantly makes you feel like Elliot or Darlene out of Mr Robot...
(click any image for large slideshow)
The box front
YAY! I want to open FUN NOW!
Size comparison with some familiar objects
Some of pCHIP's friends

Onboarding welcome tutorial

Home Screen
Pico-8 tutorial

As it's still early days and the software image isn't fully baked yet, as is, if you're expecting a device that you can just open up and play then you only have two applications available: Sun Vox and Pico-8.
Sun Vox is quite frankly baffling and intimidating to a music creation luddite like myself (even one who has farted about with everything from med on Amiga through Propellerheads Reason and Fl Studio) so I'm just going to quietly ignore that one as it certainly has its fans.

Which just leaves Pico-8. IRN has covered Pico-8 extensively in the past, so I'll not repeat myself but recommend you read those fine articles. However I will add that since those articles, the P8 community has exploded and there is lots of amazing stuff coming out with this easily the best demoscene style cart produced so far, by none other than Amiga music and scener veteran 4mat:

As I predicted in my launch announcement of  pocketChip and Pico-8, this seems to be a match made in geek heaven. The CHIP build of P8 starts in 'Splore' mode which is a searchable browser for pulling p8 carts straight off the lexaloffle forum, neatly sidestepping all that tedious mucking about with manually downloading cart files from the forum and then putting them into the correct folder on the device. All very slick. Annoyingly, the shipped version doesn't play my cracktro cart from my original review of Pico-8. The only slight downside is that the clicky keyboard sometimes takes a bit too much force to activate with not too much feel on the surface for the location of individual buttons, which can prevent fluid gameplay, but there is a workaround and I'll come back to that later.

So that just about wraps it up for the pocketCHIP. $69 for a hand held Pico-8 player and music composer...

Well no. To only use pocketCHIP as it comes, as if it's some sort of appliance, is to do it a great disservice, and if that's how you'd intend to use it then it's probably not a device for you. While the NTC guys have planned great things for the CHIP ecosystem to make it more consumer friendly, the true nature and intended target for this bit of kit is makers and hackers. The sort of people who have Raspberry Pi's that aren't collecting dust in a drawer or just running a vanilla install of Kodi.

Made for tinkerers and hackers

As it is, to get the best out of pocketCHIP you need to get your hands dirty with the scariest of the six main icons - The terminal, and get involved in the community by participating in the forum. While NTC work on adding the next lot of features to the CHIP system, the community is hard at work in doing it quicker!

While the home screen can only host a rigid six application icons with no way to edit them [easily] community member Marshmallow has already forked the official home screen and built an alternative which has the ability to add more pages of apps, change the background, add a login password and a clock amongst other minor tweaks. This is only made possible because everything about CHIP, PocketCHIP and the software running on them has been open sourced. NTC's github page is stuffed full of source code, schematics and 3D STL files freely available to inspect, fork and remix to your hearts content. And the community has done that in spades! Remember that issue surrounding the keypad and fluid gaming? well someone took the 3D file for the screen bezel and remixed it to add a D-Pad and uploaded it to thingiverse for 3D printing. I printed one at my makerspace and lo and behold it fits like a glove and improves the feel massively making diagonal presses easy as they should be.

look at that lovely D-Pad! go on, loooook!

There are also full key keyboard covers being made, with 2 different designs as it currently stands on thingiverse. NTC are also fostering direct modding and hacking of the device, publishing easy to do mods on their blog such as adding an amplifier and speaker or adding a GPS receiver or even making a POKÉMON tracker 

I only did this for research purposes... Honest! 

Okay so it's not a one trick pony. Will it run Crysis?

Err... no
At the end of the day it's still only about as powerful as an original Raspberry Pi, it's never going to be able to play high end recent games. It has a fairly decent GPU in the form of a Mali400 (same as was in a Samsung Galaxy S2) but like the early days of the Pi, the drivers for the GPU have yet to appear. This, coupled with the quite low screen resolution (480x272)  means that a whole swathe of software is either impossible, or very tricky to get running.

What will it play?

That's not to say the situation is dire for retrogamers though. Quite the opposite in fact as many emulators and dosbox games run very well indeed! Especially anything that had a native resolution of 320x240 as that fits into the 272 pixel height perfectly and covers pretty much anything pre-2000. Here's a small selection of what I and others on the main user forum have had running. many are installable through the standard Debian Jessie repo (via apt-get)

The old stalwart SCUMMVM works wonderfully (once you've worked out the incantation to force the GUI launcher into mini mode (It's "scummvm -g1x" btw) and as long as the games originally ran in 320x240/200 which covers most lucasarts games up to around 1998 - Yes Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island 1&2 will run fine!

Zelda Minish Cap on GBA

Mednafen is an emulator for various platforms including many 8 and 16-bit consoles  and with a bit of tweaking (ok... a lot) runs fine with a variety of SNES titles playing well. Something I have yet to try is 3D printing a Poculus CHIP visor and using the to play Virtual Boy games in stereoscopic vision!

Picodrive emulates Sega Genesis/megadrive Sega CD and 32x at 60 fps but again you have to build it from the source code as detailed in these instructions

Yeah I used this one again... do ya wanna fight about it?
Doom - well as Doom runs on everything from oscilloscopes to MP3 players, and is a standard for anyone bring up a retrogaming platform, it's safe to say that yes, it does run, and run well, with the prboom port of the engine. Even some of the other Doom engined games can be persuaded to run with a different choice of engine - for instance Chocolate Doom for Heretic and Hexen. The biggest obstacle being the minimum resolution of 640x480 but some tweaking will soon sort that out.

Dos Box runs well for things that haven't had a native port and lots of shareware titles are easily available and many games on GOG.com are in fact pre-packaged DosBox games.

Not so useful at default settings...

That's better... oh and what's that? hmmm teasers.
VICE Commodore 8-bit computer emulation - out of the box VICE is configured to run at a resolution bigger than the pocketCHIP resolution but again, can be configured down to fit in the tight confines of the screen as it's still larger than the native C64/128 and needs a little tweaking to play nicely.

Rick Dangerous has a native reverse engineered port in the form of XRick. It needs to be manually installed or compiled from source but runs perfectly so you get fed up of the "WAAAAAH!" from multiple endless deaths all all over again.

The ultimate test... AMIGAAAAAAAA!

Amiga is a platform that's always a stretch to emulate on lesser devices and like the original Pi, the grunt of the chip is right on that cusp. So far a build of UAE4ARM has been done and the the early results are promising though the audio is on the choppy side, but this may be an underlying issue with UAE4ARM and it being targeted at the stronger RPi 2 so who knows...

Descent has a tricky install route, made even harder by the fact that the game is no longer available for sale from gog.com but if you have the original install media the it's possible to work through the tutorial to get it running.

Text Adventures like infocom ones such as the Zork series and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy are well served with Frotz for Z-machine games, and Adventure (along with dozens of others) in the debian repo


pocket Chip in its natural habitat... a hackerspace
Chilling out with a nixie clock running off a PiZero
Is the PocketCHIP for everyone? Absolutely not. In it's current state you have to put in a lot of work to do anything other than play Pico-8 games (however having a standalone Pico-8 player is almost worth the asking price alone!), and even pairing a bluetooth keyboard or controller requires some heavy terminal-fu and this level of involvement won't be to everyone's taste. But for people with a hackster.io account, visit a local hacker/makerspace, like 3D printing things and making stuff from instructables, then PocketCHIP is definitely for you, and if the murmurs on the forum are anything to go by, NTC have some awesome plans lined up including drivers for the GPU and a proper appstore style installer for things, both of which will go a long way to easing the user experience. The guys behind CHIP are very enthusiastic about their product and this shows in every video, interview, blog post and interaction on the user forum.

There's a frood who knows where his towel is

In short I love it and you'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands and can't wait to see what NTC have in store and what the community comes up with next.

PocketCHIP is available for pre-order for $69 from getchip.com


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