Updated: September 16, 2013
Hopefully, you remember my escapade with Pandora, which was given to me by the company's CEO for evaluation. In the first installment, we discussed mostly the look & feel and the amazing hardware of the test unit. In the second, we focused on the Xfce build and the modded Android port. So far so good, with some points for improvement.
And here's the final part in the trilogy. Today, we will discuss the most important aspect of the Pandora micro-computer, gaming. Indeed, this little box has been designed with gamers in mind, and its power fuses into a wealth of games, available both in the standard Linux and Android flavors, plus a whole bunch of emulators.
If you recall, I had a problem flashing my Pandora box in the past. No matter what I did, booting from the SD card was simply not doable. After a brief consultation with Michael, where he suggested I use dedicated formatting tools to prepare the SD card for flashing, I tried again, this time using fdisk and GParted as my tools of choice. Lo and behold, it worked!
My Pandora now boots with firmware version 1.55. The notable things about the flashing process is that your initial user setup will be erased, so you will have to recreate your user, choose your password and alike. Your application settings will not be touched, because they are stored on your separate SD card. Another new item is that you can now choose where to allow automatic logins or be prompted for password before choosing the system environment. Dandy.
However, the latest firmware does not bring that many improvements in the overall behavior of the unit. The Wireless connectivity still remains somewhat slow, although it feels a bit faster than it was in the past. However, faster does not mean smooth, and you will still suffer from a choppy playback on streamed videos, further compounded by the small screen resolution. The volume icon buglet has also survived the flashing.
After using Pandora for a while, I can definitely vouch for its robust quality of build and the extra-long battery life. Yes, it does give you more than ten hours of actual usage, no myths, no idle boasts there. Moreover, even when left aside for a quite a while, the battery hardly drains, so you just pick up where you left, and it feels like you always have more juice. This is the BlueMotion equivalent, realized in software. In the standby mode, Pandora lasts about a week. Again, an awesome feat of chemistry and optimization.
Finally, the stuff you've been all waiting for. Well, in order to test the colorful collection of games provided by Michael, I fired Pandora in its MiniMenu mode, which is controlled by the gaming pads and nubs, a classic nod to what the device is all about.
Please note the MiniMenu is not all about gaming. You can use it instead of the standard desktop, and simply browse through all categories, and use the available applications and tools, just like you normally would. Then, you can also reveal hidden categories, if they exist, change the skin, configure the menu, manage custom applications, scan for new software, which you may have added onto the SD card, cache previews, run a terminal console, quit, shutdown, and suchlike. Quite a bit really.
The categories come with a lot of stuff, and you only begin to appreciate the wealth and color of the offering when you use the MiniMenu, because you don't get the same effect when everything is stacked into a single list on a small screen inside Xfce. Overall, the layout is good, but some of the text showing program names and versions can get all scrunched together, and you do not get previews for every single item listed.
But enough about that. Let's focus on the games, the bread and butter and summer wine of Pandora. The collection is simply vast. You get a bit of everything, including the latest open-source games, as well as ports of abandoned DOS software, and games from other, non-PC platforms. Most titles come with a screenshot preview, which is nice.
So what do we have here? Well, one of the first games I tried was Battle For Wesnoth, which I have reviewed in my very first gaming compilation for Linux. It's a dandy title, and it's quite easy playing it on Pandora.
Then, I tried OpenTTD, and it also worked well, although it is a bit hard following all of your transportation on such a small screen, so your eyes can get tired after a while. Next, would you believe it, I tested Little Big Adventure, a sweet relic from olden days! Bloody awesome. Duke Nuke, well, this one was a bit tough playing, because the controls were just too sensitive, or alternatively, me big noob.
Next, I tried ZOD Engine and Cannonball, plus Gravity, where you are supposed to fly this 2D spaceship, while fighting both gravity and inertia. So damn difficult I quit after about only five minutes. And so gently, with the wild curiosity of a six-year-old, I continued exploring, bringing back memories and creating some new ones.
Several hours later, I was feeling rather cramped and dizzy. Some of the games run really well on Pandora. They are simply in design, airy and bright, and you can fully control them using the gaming controls, and since Pandora is light and compact, you can game as you go. Other titles required the use of the mouse pointer, and that's not very comfortable, because you need to hunch over, squint hard, and tense your fingers and shoulders. However, overall, the experience was quite exciting.
Now, the official site will tease you with some real monsters. Quake, Descent, Max Payne, GTA 3, and many others. Absolutely crazy. And do not forget to check this rather cool Youtube video, which demonstrates the amazing gaming repertoire.
Not all was golden, though. At some point during each of my screenshot sessions, the capture software would stop working, after several hundred images, it seems. I do not know why this is, and if the screenshot utility might not be sensitive to the frequent changes of the graphical environment, or the liberal use of the Pandora button. But I was forced to recreate things all over, and the fun is never quite the same like the first time you do it.
One of those Tetris-like games, where you stack candy and such literally made the entire thing freeze, and I had to cold boot it. Several other games failed to launch, like Nyan Cat, while others were not really controllable, despite the plethora of piniatas, I mean game controls. And as I have mentioned earlier, the Wireless speed remains flaky, although it has slightly improved since firmware 1.52.
The gaming side of Pandora is its strongest side, by far. This is where the micro-computer really shines. The Android build is more of a tech demo, the Xfce desktop is nice, but not well suited for the small screen. On the other hands, the games pack is done with care, and the MiniMenu lets you exercise fun in the best manner possible. Now, most importantly, you can add more, as you please.
While I was absolutely thrilled to see Duke Nukem, LBA and OpenTTD on this box, there are some things that need to be taken into account for the next generation of Pandora. We have touched upon them in the previous two reviews, too, but here's a summary, plus suggestions, flavored with the latest, highly pleasant gaming experience.
Pandora needs a bigger screen and a much higher screen resolution. This will make the desktop session easier to use, help avoid some of the quirks where programs and websites simply do not fit and some of the buttons are hidden, and also reduce the strain on the eyes. An extra one or two inches diagonally would be stellar. The networking also needs fixing. Other than that, the other details are fairly secondary. Some extra polish and tweaks, nothing major, the usual crop for any product and operating system.
I will continue fiddling with Pandora, so we may yet have additional, unannounced sequels, and in the end, all given and taken and subtracted, I think the product is well worth its price. But that does not mean it's perfect, and there's definitely room for improvement. Hardware first, the presentation layer next, and we can probably ditch the Android, or maybe switch to it completely, who knows, but both are not needed. I would prefer a full desktop, but that means 1280 x 720 pixels at least, if not more. Finally, some grades. The gaming aspect of Pandora deserves around 8.5/10. Which brings the total device grade to something like 7.5 or 8.0, out of 10, that is. Well, that's exactly what the missing points are, one for the screen, one for the Wireless, and half a notch for everything else. That would be all.