Home > Allwinner R-Series, Debian, Hardware, Linux, Linux 4.x, Testing, Video > Review of PocketCHIP Hackable Handheld Linux Computer

Review of PocketCHIP Hackable Handheld Linux Computer

It’s not that easy to describe PocketC.H.I.P in a couple of words, as it’s so versatile. It’s a Debian based portable Linux computer with a resistive touchscreen and battery, but also a retro gaming console thanks to PICO-8, as well as a hardware development platform for IoT application with expansion header providing access to I/Os including GPIOs, I2C, SPI, UART…, and WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. Furthermore you can easily dismantle the device, in order to use the CHIP board, based on Allwinner R8 Cortex A8 processor, for a different project.

So when Next Thing asked me if I was interested in reviewing Pocket CHIP, I was pretty excited, but when I received it, I scratched my head as there are so many ways to review the item, and it works out of the box with the firmware pre-loaded inside the internal flash, so a getting starting guide would have been too short: “press the power button, and have fun”. So finally, I decided to take a few pictures of hardware, show most of the features, and then go through the different options in the user’s interface.

PocketC.H.I.P Unboxing

I’ve received the device in a black retail package plus a micro USB to USB cable for charging.

PocketCHIP_PackageThe other side of the package has a quick start guide, including a link to PocketCHIP documentation.

PocketCHIP_Quick_Start_GuideBut if you can’t wait, you can most likely jump to step 2, as the device’s battery already has some charge, at least it was the case for me.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

The QWERTY keyboard is quite standard, except the number keys are on two rows, and the arrow keys are located on the top left corner.  The display is using resistive touch, so can use both your finger or a stylus for better accurate. You’ll go through a short tutorial during the first boot. The top has through holes for the I/Os, and at first, they look to be arranged in an undulated way, but I had no problem inserting headers, so that’s just a visual effect. The hole on the top right is likely use to add a necklace, although you could use it as a huge keyring too ūüôā

PocketCHIP_PencilThe two holes on each side on the bottom can be used to keep the display straight with the left hole for pens (I also use an old USB WiFi dongle with antenna), and the right hole for pencils. I also ended up using mine as the stylus for the screen.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

The back of the device has a clear cover revealing CHIP board and the battery (11.1Wh @ 3.7V). You can completely disassemble the unit if you want, but I only pulled out the board with my little green tool. You can watch the video review at the end of this review in case you are unsure how to do.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

The top of the board has the USB port, a 3.5mm audio jack, a micro USB port, a battery connector, a 4GB NAND flash, Realtek RTL8723BS WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 LE module, AXP209 PMIC, and the expansion headers. The power button is located on the top left. Note that if you want to output to HDMI you’ll need to purchase an extra HDMI adapter. You may also have to reflash the board with a different firmware (TBC).

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

The back of the board is protected with a plastic cover tightened with a single screw, and features Allwinner R8 Cortex A8 processor @ 1 GHz, as well as 512MB Samsung DDR3 memory.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

The CHIP board is sold for $9 + reasonable shipping, and should be about twice as fast as the original Raspberry Pi Model B board CPU wise. I wrote a comparison of ultra cheap boards’ features pitting CHIP with Raspberry Pi Zero and Orange Pi One if you want to find more details.

CHIP_Pin_MarkingsI also appreciate the markings written on the side of the headers, which makes life a little easier when wiring, as you don’t need to consult the pinout diagram.

What can you do with PocketC.H.I.P?

So after going through the hardware, I’ll show some of the things you do with the pre-installed firmware. Let’s get started by pressing the power button for one or two seconds. The boot will take a little less than one minute during which you’ll be shown several boot logos, and eventually you’ll be greeted by a short tutorial.

PocketCHIP_Tour

Screen resolution: 480×272

SunVox_Music_PocketCHIP_Tour

You can browse the tour with the left and right arrow key, it’s simply explains you can use the touchscheen with your fingers or a stylus, and the various tings you can do such as playing games, making music. Once we are done with the tour, we get into the main menu with four icons: Terminal, PICO-8 games, Make Music (SunVox), Get Help, Write, and Browse Files.

PocketCHIP_Main_Menu

There are also four icons on the edges of the screen showing battery life and WiFi connectivity, setup and power options.PocketCHIP_Settings

Let’s go inside the setup options since it’s one of the first things you’ll want to do if you plan to access the Internet, as this is where you can connect to your WiFi router, and I had no problem doing so, but note that only 2.4 GHz WiFi is supported, and 5GHz access points won’t be shown. You can also adjust brightness and volume for the audio jack, since there aren’t any speakers.

If you wonder how I took the screenshot for this review, I ran the following command in the terminal which gives me five second to go to what ever menu:


but eventually I did so in an SSH sessions with:


…and found the pictures inside ~/Pictures directory despite the following error showing each time as gnome is not install:


The company latter told me they used “xfce4-screenshooter” for their screenshots, so it should be a better option.

Anyway, time to play with the command line:

PocketCHIP_Terminal

Some command to see system info first:


So the device runs Debian 8 with recent Linux kernel (4.3), the rootfs partition is 3.6GB with 3.0GB free (after installing a few apps), there’s 496MB RAM available to Linux, and the processor is indeed a single core Cortex A8 processor made by Allwinner.

Linux 4.6 will start to support lsgpio to list all GPIOs, but in the meantime, we can still check this with sysfs:


With Linux 3.4 legacy kernel, all the GPIOs would show after loading gpio-sunxi module, but since we are using a more recent kernel, the instructions have changed, and you need to export the GPIOs you want to use as explained on linux-sunxi wiki.

The other good news is that apt is working fine, so you install most of the program that work on Debian. One of the first thing I did was to install openssh-server, because while typing on the device might be fun, it’s also slow, so I found it more convenient to access it via an SSH session from my main computer with the username / password combination being both “chip” (without quotes). I also found instructions to install doom on Adafruit, so I tried it:


It worked flawlessly, and I tried the game by simply typing doom,… and success!

PocketCHIP_doomYou’ll need to connect headphone or speaker to get audio, and playing the game with the keyboard is not that easy as beside the WASD keys, you also need to the left and right keys placed just above. So it might be better to connect a USB keyboard to the USB port of CHIP board, or re-assign the keys if possible. Apart from that, the games runs perfectly smoothly.

Let’s go back to the main menu to try PICO-8 retro games, and again you’ll go through a short tour explaining how to use the app to play or edit games with your own sprites.

PICO-8_Tour

PICO-8_Tour_CelesteAfter the tour, you’ll be presented by a selection of 4 “favorites” games: Celeste, Frog Home, Hug Arena, and Tower of Archeos, but you have access to many others games too. I tried Celeste, and no problem, except I need to practice more ūüôāPICO-8_CelesteThe option to “edit this cart” will bring you to the games code, which you can edit as your wish.

PICO-8_Game_CodeThere’s also PICO-8 terminal to perform various actions such as loading files,  creating directories, and so on.

Next up the Make Music app (SunVox) will also take you through a tour first.

SunVox_Tour

After connecting headphone or speaker, you’ll be able to compose and play music on a MIDI keyboard.PocketCHIP_Sunvox

The application definitely requires a stylus – a pencil will do – especially the top menu options, and even kids’ fingers will be too big.Sunvox_Menu

The four icon in the main menu starts an help section with a scrolling bar. So much to say about this one.PocketCHIP_Help

The “Write” icon is a text edit, which turns out to be Leafpad 0.8.0.1. It could be your text editor to write Python or other languages programs, before running them in the command line.PocketCHIP_Leafpad

Finally the File Browser is the commonly used PCManFM 1.2.3, and allows to copy, delete, move, or create files or directories.

PocketCHIP_File_Manager

So I’ve gone through all options provided on the pre-loaded firmware, so it’s time to turn it off. You can click on the bottom right corner to select Shutdown, Sleep, or Reboot options, as well as “Flash firmware” to reboot into software flashing mode. You can then follow the firmware flashing instructions @ http://pcflash.getchip.com (Chrome browser required).PocketCHIP_Shutdown_OptionsIf you prefer a video review, and I’ve embedded mine below. I checkout the hardware until 3:05, before starting the device, and showing it action.

So overall, PocketC.H.I.P is a fun device to use, and should be particularly interesting for kids, as they can play games, compose music, and learn about Linux, programming and/or hardware hacking with this inexpensive all-in-one device. PocketC.H.I.P is currently available for pre-order for $49 + shipping for a limited time, after which it will sell for $69.

  1. blu
    June 25th, 2016 at 17:21 | #1

    Great review! How do the keys feel – do they have any physical feedback?

  2. TC
    June 25th, 2016 at 17:26 | #2

    mh you should always charge the battery first and let it fully discharge before charging again for the first 3 cycles
    otherwise it may never get full capacity

  3. June 25th, 2016 at 17:36 | #3

    @blu
    You can feel when you press the buttons just like on a keyboard, and there’s a small clicky sound too.

  4. June 25th, 2016 at 17:48 | #4

    @TC
    I understood that a few years ago it was important, but now it does not really matter. Not 100% sure though.

  5. June 25th, 2016 at 17:51 | #5

    Cool it has an AXP209 like tablets, so you will be able to make the board sleep:

    http://linux-sunxi.org/AXP209

    Raspberries can’t do that!

  6. Theguyuk
    June 25th, 2016 at 19:12 | #6

    Devices like this make me wonder if the next step for Android tablets is either a built in gpio or use a clone Arduino via USB for gpio and ability to dual boot to another OS.

    The other option is a merge between Android tablet and Android TV box. Android tablet that has HDMI out, can use a remote, dual USB but most important can run off the mains in Android TV mode with tablet screen off, while also charging battery for when in tablet mode use.

    It is alright casting video from phone or tablet but your battery still goes flat.

  7. GilJ
    June 25th, 2016 at 22:09 | #7

    @TC
    To prolong lithium-based batteries life avoid full discharge and full charge. Only do a full charge once in a while for periodic calibration if the system using the battery has a fuel gauge circuit (http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/how_to_prolong_lithium_based_batteries).

  8. TC
    June 25th, 2016 at 22:48 | #8

    @cnxsoft
    from what i read, the memory-effect of NiX is no more,
    but that “burnin” of factory fresh batteries still apply
    (at least every device i got says that in the manual)

  9. DurandA
    June 26th, 2016 at 01:03 | #9

    @cnxsoft
    “undulated” through holes for the I/Os use locking footprint. It keeps headers in place while soldering without altering the drill size.

  10. June 26th, 2016 at 06:13 | #10

    TC :
    @cnxsoft
    from what i read, the memory-effect of NiX is no more,
    but that ‚Äúburnin‚ÄĚ of factory fresh batteries still apply
    (at least every device i got says that in the manual)

    The memory effect isn’t an issue with Lithium ion cells.

    If you are using devices with lithium ion batteries that advise you to do a burn-in ritual, then either their technical writers have no contact with engineering and are just reusing ancient copy, or the “fuel-guage” chip needs a few full cycles to refine its calibration.

    If it is the latter, then skipping the ritual isn’t going to cause permenant decreased capacity, it just might take longer (and a few full cycles) before it is accurately calibrated. Without calibration, a proper battery charging/management system is still going to accurately detect “full” and “empty,” it will just have trouble with estimates in between.

  11. data
    June 26th, 2016 at 17:03 | #11

    Theguyuk
    “The other option is a merge between Android tablet and Android TV box. Android tablet that has HDMI out, can use a remote, dual USB but most important can run off the mains in Android TV mode with tablet screen off, while also charging battery for when in tablet mode use.”
    great and easy to achieve idea of a nice feature for android tablets : tv wallsocket mode bypassing battery

  12. June 26th, 2016 at 19:47 | #12

    Instructions to install Chromium, and change the icon in the main menu -> http://imgur.com/gallery/J8Tqo

  13. August 9th, 2016 at 04:55 | #13

    how to buy this pc

  14. August 9th, 2016 at 10:41 | #14

    @Yaqoob
    It’s explained at the end of the review -> https://getchip.com/pages/pocketchip

  15. September 9th, 2016 at 06:53 | #15

    I can’t wait to get mine!

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