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.
I’ve received the device in a black retail package plus a micro USB to USB cable for charging.
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 🙂
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are also four icons on the edges of the screen showing battery life and WiFi connectivity, setup and power options.
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:
gnome-screenshot -d 5
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:
** Message: Unable to use GNOME Shell's builtin screenshot interface, resorting to fallback X11.
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:
Some command to see system info first:
chip@chip:~$ cat /etc/issue
Debian GNU/Linux 8 \n \l
chip@chip:~$ uname -a
Linux chip 4.3.0-ntc #1 SMP Wed May 11 21:57:30 UTC 2016 armv7l GNU/Linux
chip@chip:~$ df -h
Filesystem Size Used Avail Use% Mounted on
udev 10M 0 10M 0% /dev
tmpfs 100M 6.6M 93M 7% /run
ubi0:rootfs 3.6G 606M 3.0G 17% /
tmpfs 249M 0 249M 0% /dev/shm
tmpfs 5.0M 4.0K 5.0M 1% /run/lock
tmpfs 249M 0 249M 0% /sys/fs/cgroup
tmpfs 50M 0 50M 0% /run/user/1000
chip@chip:~$ free -h
total used free shared buffers cached
Mem: 496M 185M 310M 7.7M 0B 84M
-/+ buffers/cache: 101M 394M
Swap: 0B 0B 0B
chip@chip:~$ cat /proc/cpuinfo
processor : 0
model name : ARMv7 Processor rev 2 (v7l)
BogoMIPS : 100.24
Features : half thumb fastmult vfp edsp neon vfpv3 tls vfpd32
CPU implementer : 0x41
CPU architecture: 7
CPU variant : 0x3
CPU part : 0xc08
CPU revision : 2
Hardware : Allwinner sun4i/sun5i Families
Revision : 0000
Serial : 16254212050232bc
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:
ls -l /sys/class/gpio/
--w------- 1 root root 4096 Jun 25 05:37 export
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 0 Jun 25 07:47 gpiochip0 -> ../../devices/platform/soc@01c00000/1c20800.pinctrl/gpio/gpiochip0
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 0 Jun 25 07:47 gpiochip408 -> ../../devices/platform/soc@01c00000/1c2b400.i2c/i2c-2/2-0038/gpio/gpiochip408
--w------- 1 root root 4096 Jun 25 05:37 unexport
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:
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install prboom
sudo apt-get install doom-wad-shareware
It worked flawlessly, and I tried the game by simply typing doom,… and success!
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.
Next up the Make Music app (SunVox) will also take you through a tour first.
After connecting headphone or speaker, you’ll be able to compose and play music on a MIDI keyboard.
The application definitely requires a stylus – a pencil will do – especially the top menu options, and even kids’ fingers will be too big.
The four icon in the main menu starts an help section with a scrolling bar. So much to say about this one.
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.
Finally the File Browser is the commonly used PCManFM 1.2.3, and allows to copy, delete, move, or create files or directories.
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).
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.
Jean-Luc started CNX Software in 2010 as a part-time endeavor, before quitting his job as a software engineering manager, and starting to write daily news, and reviews full time later in 2011.
15 Replies to “Review of PocketCHIP Hackable Handheld Linux Computer”
Great review! How do the keys feel – do they have any physical feedback?
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
You can feel when you press the buttons just like on a keyboard, and there’s a small clicky sound too.
I understood that a few years ago it was important, but now it does not really matter. Not 100% sure though.
Cool it has an AXP209 like tablets, so you will be able to make the board sleep:
Raspberries can’t do that!
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.
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).
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)
“undulated” through holes for the I/Os use locking footprint. It keeps headers in place while soldering without altering the drill size.
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.
“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
Instructions to install Chromium, and change the icon in the main menu -> http://imgur.com/gallery/J8Tqo
how to buy this pc
It’s explained at the end of the review -> https://getchip.com/pages/pocketchip
I can’t wait to get mine!