When we initially reported on the PocketCHIP back in May we perhaps got a little carried away in comparing this cheap and cheerful Linux-based handheld with Nintendo's classic Game Boy. On paper at least the system hits many of the same notes - low price, commonly-available tech used in a new way and adorable pixel-based games - but the focus with PocketCHIP is very different. This isn't a device which is likely to sell millions of units worldwide and find itself in every major department store all over the world; PocketCHIP is unashamedly aimed at bedroom coders and tech enthusiasts and despite the initial similarities between it and Gunpei Yokoi's legendary handheld, it beats a very different drum.
A history lesson is perhaps in order before we charge headlong into the review. Before PocketCHIP there was CHIP, a Raspberry Pi-style mini computer which costs $9. CHIP is powered by a 1GHz processor, has 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage, comes with WiFi and Bluetooth for connectivity and also features a 3.5mm audio jack (which offers video-out, too) and a full-size USB port. Given how compact and powerful this little unit is, it's easy to see where the idea for a self-contained handheld variant came from. PocketCHIP takes the CHIP computer and places it inside a chunky plastic casing complete with a 4.3-inch resistive touchscreen display, full QWERTY keyboard and 3000mAh rechargeable battery - all for $69. The only thing missing is a speaker for sound; you have to rely on the aforementioned headphone socket instead. Remarkably, you can - if you so wish - detach the CHIP module and use it as normal, as the unit is entirely modular.
Despite its name, PocketCHIP is unlikely to slip elegantly into anything but a bag. It's quite a large unit - bigger even than the 1989 "brick" Game Boy - and is quite thick. It's still pretty portable, but seems to look a lot bigger in the flesh than it does in videos or photos. The plastic casing feels sturdy enough, although the bezel which surrounds the screen rattles quite a bit. At the top of the console you'll find GPIO pin breakouts for electrical projects, which we have to admit is a little more serious than we're ever likely to get with our unit. The QWERTY keyboard is protected by a thin layer of plastic (rather like a screen protector) and each key emits a rather loud click when pressed. From a purely aesthetic standpoint it's hard to label the PocketCHIP as utterly desirable, but when you consider its "thrown together" modular origins, it actually looks a lot better than it has any right to, and is sure to appeal to coders and hackers - surely its target audience.
PocketCHIP runs a full version of Linux but strips away the traditional mouse-and-keyboard interface for something a little more straightforward. The built-in tutorial does an excellent job of guiding you through the basics, and connecting to your local WiFi network is a breeze. Once you've done this you can load up PICO-8, surely the main reason any self-respecting gamer would want to own this device.
For the uninitiated, PICO-8 is a "fantasy" console, best described as a retro system which never actually made it into production. Aimed at indie developers, it sits somewhere between the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance on the technological spectrum, and is home to a wide range of clones, tributes, tech demos, ports and original games. Although it's mainly aimed at PC users, PICO-8 runs like a dream on PocketCHIP and comes pre-installed right out of the box. Given that the system is running Linux it goes without saying that emulation is also an option for gamers - 8-bit systems like the NES and Game Boy are replicated almost perfectly - but we'll focus on PICO-8 here as it's by far the most appealing element of the package.
What makes PICO-8 - and, by extension, the PocketCHIP - so unique is that you can actually code games by combining the two. PICO-8 allows you to create original software and edit existing titles, giving you the ideal excuse to test out that QWERTY keyboard. You can also use Linux to do, well, anything you can do in Linux. Linux command line is incredibly versatile and allows you to really dig deep into the device's functionality but it's almost certainly going to be too obtuse to most users - even those old enough to recall the bad old days of Microsoft DOS. It also has to be said that coding using the PocketCHIP's keyboard and resistive touchscreen isn't easy - connecting a proper keyboard or mouse via USB is a much better option. Despite the unfriendly nature of the command line interface it's amazing how quickly you pick up the basics, and even the most unsavvy of users should - with a little dedication - get the hang of the fundamentals within a day or so.
The PocketCHIP's four-button D-pad is passable, and thankfully most PICO-8 games are designed with just four directions in mind. There are some which require you to push "up" for certain actions - such as jumping in a platformer or accelerating in a driving game - and this can cause issues as it's hard to press the left or right D-pad buttons at the same time. It's also tricky (but not impossible) to hit diagonals for the same reason. While we were able to enjoy a great many games on PocketCHIP (all of which are free to download via PICO-8's online "Splore" store) there were some which were difficult to play using the PocketCHIP's native interface. There is of course the option to use USB or Bluetooth controllers, but the process of connecting these in PICO-8 is painfully difficult and goes against the whole concept of PocketCHIP being a self-contained and portable solution. Given that PocketCHIP is a modular construction it should come as no great shock to learn that a solution to these (admittedly minor) D-pad woes is just a 3D print away, but there's no denying that the "out of the box" experience could be better.
Despite its niggles, we haven't been able to put PocketCHIP down since it arrived. While our programming skills are nonexistent and we dare not venture too deep into the world of Linux command line for fear of breaking something important, this unique device certainly rekindles some of the same feelings we experienced when we first held the original Game Boy back in the early '90s. Like Nintendo's system, PocketCHIP uses cheap and readily-available tech in a new and interesting fashion, and could potentially be stepping-stone for many budding programmers and developers - the platform that gives them the tools to not only get into games development, but to create something truly special and enjoyable. If Gunpei Yokoi were still alive today, we get the feeling that he'd throughly approve of PocketCHIP.
PocketCHIP is available for pre-order now for $69.