Opening the box: The story of the Pandora (so far)

We lift the lid on the most powerful handheld ever

Opening the box: The story of the Pandora (so far)
iPhone + N-Gage + DS ...

Open source handhelds have been with us for a while now. Those of you with a decent memory will recall the excellent GP2X from Korean manufacturer Gamepark Holdings, a device capable of performing numerous different functions, the most appealing of which is the ability to emulate several retro gaming platforms such as the Mega Drive, NES and PC Engine. Owning such a machine is like having an entire video game collection in your pocket.

Sadly, production of the GP2X has now ceased, and this has understandly led many fans to ponder what machine they should consider next. With this in mind, we spoke to Craig Rothwell, the official UK distributor of the GP2X (and its upcoming successor, The Wiz) about why he's helping to produce what will arguably be the biggest rival to these machines: the Pandora.

Pocket Gamer: Can you explain how the Pandora came about?

Craig Rothwell: Well, almost all of the open devices of this nature come from Asia and they are not made by gamers or people who are into the computer scene; they are seen as a cash cow to sell to wacky westerners. The problem here is that the attention to detail is poor.

We liked the GP2X and the GP32 but they had their faults; poor controls, strange internal design decisions and the manufacturers not really understanding what people would want to use them for. As a distributor it was frustrating. The culture barrier was hard to get past; what seems like sensible and needed design decisions here in the UK seemed crazy to people in Korea. We reached a deadlock. There was no question about it, if we wanted a fantastic and unique open source machine we would have to go it alone. Thus the crazy adventure started.

We hired a company in China to help us design the PCB and this turned out to be about as bad as our relations with the Koreans. The same problems cropped up – they were just too used to designing generic media players or game systems. They could not get their heads around the Pandora idea and kept trying to change things. But this time we were not for turning, and we sacked them!

So after $20,000 we were back where we started and starting to think maybe the days of the ZX Spectrum and making things here in the UK were dead. Every firm we contacted in the UK either wanted tens of thousands of pounds to even consider the possibility of speaking to us, or thought we were mad.

Then, out of the blue, Texas Instruments emailed us saying they had been watching the project and were interested in having us use their new OMAP3 chip. This was really cutting edge stuff, far more advanced than anything we had expected to be able to get our hands on, and at the same time they put us in touch with a chap called Michael in Canada who was trying to make a small games console himself.

The match was perfect, Michael was a PCB designer without a distributor or investment and were were distributors and coders with money but without a PCB designer. So we got to work quickly.

How many people are involved with the project and what are their backgrounds?

There are about seven in all. Most of us are in our 20s or early 30s. We all have backgrounds in programming, design or marketing. We are all gamers and grew up with the Spectrum, C64 and Amiga scenes.

How have you enabled the current GP2X community to get involved with the design of the machine?

Late year we started asking them what they would like in their dream handheld and to give us their designs. We got thousands of replies – the original thread on the forum is hundreds of pages long and a very nice bit of history. Using these suggestions we tweaked our original design and added various internal things such as Bluetooth, analogue joysticks, microphone, extra solder pads for hackers and a bigger battery.

'Pure' gamers may question the inclusion of a keyboard on a handheld. What brought on this decision?

This was decided from the beginning as the software on handheld devices was getting so advanced it would be foolish not to include a keyboard. We are Amiga fans and understand that emulation of classic computer systems would be incomplete without it – not to mention surfing the web is so much nicer with real keys. You won't have to use any messy onscreen keyboards with the Pandora, you will be able to run things like Open Office, Firefox and PC emulators with ease, or even run a complete programming environment.

So how powerful will the Pandora be?

It is, without doubt, the most powerful portable games system ever and at the time of writing the most powerful mini computer, too. It has openGL 2.0 3D hardware, a 600-900Mhz CPU, media coprocessors, an 800x480 LCD and 128MB of RAM. The killer app with the hardware is that it is using an ARM Cortex A8 CPU, meaning astonishing battery life – over ten hours – which blows away similar mini PCs based on the old x86 chipsets. You will be able to play games like Quake III with ease and at the cutting edge even Doom III (if the engine goes open source soon, of course).

In terms of emulation, what kind of performance can we expect from the machine – what is the most advanced console/computer it can emulate at this stage, for instance?

Good PC emulation, most 32-bit consoles, Amiga 1200+ and all the usual suspects. Emulating something like the Sega Dreamcast would be pushing the hardware to the limits.

Aside from emulation and gaming in general, presumably you're envisaging other uses for the Pandora?

A complete desktop environment is already up and running – Ubuntu will run on the Pandora. This really is a PC the size of a Nintendo DS.

Do you think the machine could be a potential rival to the numerous 'Netbook' mini-laptops that are flooding the market at the moment?

Yes, and it has the advantage of a sensational battery life. We will be pushing to over take those other devices in 2009 in terms of functionality. After all, how many of them have complete game controls, a keyboard and an active programming community of tens of thousands of people?

When can we expect to see units on sale and can you confirm the price point for the UK?

They will be shipping before Christmas and the price in the UK is £199.99 (inc VAT) which is way under the cost and way over the specs of similar 'Mini PCs' which are mostly running a sluggish Windows Vista.

When will people be able to place pre-orders for the Pandora and what kind of numbers are you producing the unit in to begin with?

At the end of September via The first production run is 3,000 units which we hope will sell out before they ship.

Assuming the initial production run is a success, then, what are your future plans for the machine?

We will invest in trying to make the software as good as it can possibly be. Having the open source community behind us will mean someone is always improving something 24 hours a day. We want to reward programmers and plan to hold many competitions and give our regular prizes for their work.

The best thing about the machine of this nature – the owners and the huge scene – will produce thousands of pieces of software for the Pandora, whatever happens.

How does the recent announcement of Gamepark Holdings' Wiz affect the status of the Pandora? Will you be distributing both on your site?

The more open source machines, the better – they are the future. The Eee PC has already shown then a machine running Linux can sell as well as – or even better than – a machine running Windows. Open source is the future, there is an ever increasing demand for such machines and manufacturers are now becoming aware of the fact you don't have to run Windows anymore – the internet is the future and it does not need Microsoft.

Our thanks to Craig for his time. You can bet your mint copy of Radiant Silvergun we'll be keeping a close eye on Pandora so click 'Track It!' for forthcoming updates on this promising platform.

Damien  McFerran
Damien McFerran
Damien's mum hoped he would grow out of playing silly video games and gain respectable employment. Perhaps become a teacher or a scientist, that kind of thing. Needless to say she now weeps openly whenever anyone asks how her son's getting on these days.