Guest columnist Rob Reilly checks out Next Thing’s PocketChip, a pocket-sized Debian based all-in-one computer, in this hands-on first look.
Is that a Debian all-in-one PC in your Pocket?
by Rob Reilly
From Chip to PocketChip
Next Thing Chip
(click to enlarge)
I’ve experimented with Next Thing’s Chip SBC, connected to a big screen TV via its composite video output, and controlled with a wireless keyboard/mousepad, for about a month now. It’s a nice little full-featured Linux machine that runs LibreOffice and other desktop applications reasonably well.
The Chip sports a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 based Allwinner R8 processor, accompanied by 512MB of RAM and 4GB of eMMC flash. The board’s built-in WiFi is convenient, and its $9 cost is easy on the wallet.
Recently, my editor sent me a companion NextThing product: the PocketChip, which sells for $69. The device takes the Chip single-board computer and puts it into a hand-held plastic package with a 4.5-inch, 480 x 272-pixel color touchscreen display, along with a very clicky QWERTY keyboard that’s built into the PocketChip’s mainboard.
PocketChip front, edge, and rear views
(click image to enlarge)
Along the top of the mainboard are a row of solder pads that break out the GPIO pins of the processor. There’s also an internal 5-hour Li-Po battery, which is safely charged via the PocketChip’s micro-USB connector. A single standard USB connector and audio/video port are conveniently accessible at the top back of the device. All these real-world connectors are implemented directly by the PocketChip’s built-in Chip SBC.
The PocketChip’s internal Chip SBC is held in place by being plugged into a pair of 40-pin headers on the back of the PocketChip’s mainboard. The ergonomics are fine for thumb typing, and a cutout on the back helps you get a good grip with your middle fingers.
Overall, it’s a durable and well-designed product that’s definitely hacker friendly.
Pressing and holding the HOME button at the bottom of the keyboard powers up the PocketChip. It takes about 30 seconds to boot into its homescreen. Keep in mind that Linux resides directly in on-board flash storage, and is not dependent on a micro-SD card like a Raspberry Pi. The standard homescreen menu includes icons for launching a terminal, PICO games, Make Music, Get Help, the Write text editor, and a file browser.
PocketChip’s graphical homescreen
(click image to enlarge)
Battery and WiFi status indicators are on the upper left and right, respectively. At the bottom left is a reboot/shutdown icon, and at the lower right is a configuration button that brings up the settings including WiFi configuration, screen brightness, and audio volume sliders. Hitting the arrow on the left takes you back to the main desktop screen.
Applications are easy to use, by just touching an icon. Inside an application, you can get back to the main desktop screen by tapping the power button once.
The keyboard takes some patience and practice to use. To speed up testing, I plugged in my Logitech K400r wireless keyboard/mousepad and it worked great without any issue.
I’m not much of a gamer or musician, so you’ll have to look at other reviews to get the low down on those two PocketChip topics. On the other hand, the Linux command line is second nature to me so if you’re comfortable using it, you’ll be right at home on the PocketChip.
Using Debian from the command line
(click images to enlarge)
New applications are easily added using apt-get. I used it to install LibreOffice, mplayer, and guvcview.
LibreOffice works fine on the PocketChip, although as you’d guess, it’s fairly limited. I typed text into a regular document, although it would be much easier to use a USB keyboard along with a regular-sized monitor. You should know, however, that you can’t use the PocketChip’s touchscreen when it’s hooked up to an external monitor, since it uses a special kernel to get its touchscreen display working. According to a few forum posts I saw, that situation may change in the future, allowing the use of a big screen and its built-in LCD at same time.
I was also able to pull up some of my conference slides in LibreOffice Impress, and display them on the PocketChip’s LCD screen. Perhaps, using the device for impromptu pitches makes sense. Graphics were crisp and the colors were correct.
Mplayer also worked well on the PocketChip. I plugged in a set of earbuds and loaded one of my Dr. Torq Steampunk promo videos, via scp from my Asus Linux notebook. The video played fine, including the scratchy sepia-toned title sequence, as well as the individual pictures of my conference badge and other devices. The short music track on the video also played through the earbuds without problems.
I also tried using the guvcview application on the PocketChip. I’ve used this program on my Raspberry Pi Steampunk presentation machine, to show small parts up on the presentation screen. It takes input from a modified Web cam. In this case, the Web cam was plugged into the USB port on the PocketChip. As you’d expect, the live image on the little LCD screen has a noticeable delay of about a quarter of a second. You could possibly use a camera on a stick to look down into a pipe or into a hole in a wall. I was thinking that I might use the camera, along with LibreOffice slides for my tech talks, until I realized that there isn’t any video output while using the LCD screen, just yet. I’ll probably revisit this in the future.
If you stick with command line programs and desktop programs that don’t take up a lot of screen real estate or a large number of windows, the PocketChip makes a pretty good portable computer. Just plug in a wireless keyboard if you need to type a lot.
I’m thinking about loading the Arduino IDE and the Processing language onto the PocketChip and using it as a quick way set up Arduino and ESP8266 devices. We’ll see how that goes.
Lastly, the PocketChip does, in fact, fit in the large front pocket of cargo pants.
|Rob “drtorq” Reilly is an independent consultant, writer, and speaker specializing in physical computing, hardware hacking, Linux/Free/Open Source hardware/software, tech media, and the DIY/Maker movement. He provides a variety of engineering, business, and special project services to individual clients and companies, has written hundreds of feature-length articles for top-tier tech media, and has presented tech talks at OSCON and other industry venues. You can find him on the web at drtorq.com.|