• PocketCHIP handheld Linux computer
  • Photo of PocketCHIP disassembled
  • C.H.I.P. single board computer
February 10, 2017 AUTHOR: Donald Bell CATEGORIES: Tools Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

PocketCHIP $69 Handheld Computer Review

The Oakland-based startup Next Thing Co. made a splash in 2015 when they announced a $9 single-board Linux computer called C.H.I.P. Like the Raspberry Pi, C.H.I.P. is a Linux computer designed for DIY projects and education — only significantly less expensive. And while the price made an impression on me at the time, I wasn’t yet into Raspberry Pi enough to even be tempted by a competitor. That is, until I saw PocketCHIP.

Next Thing Co. is clever enough to sell an accessory called PocketCHIP that transforms the credit card-sized board into a thoroughly unique, fully functional handheld computer. The PocketCHIP’s $69 price includes both the CHIP board and the portable handheld computer hardware that it simply slots right into.

PocketCHIP & PICO-8

The PocketCHIP’s offbeat, retro design, integrated keyboard and touch screen, built-in Wi-Fi, and rechargeable battery are already enough to any gadget-lover weak in the knees. But for me, the final straw is the inclusion of an adorable and addictive DIY video game program called PICO-8. Upon booting up the PocketCHIP, the PICO-8 icon is front and center. With a few taps, you’re given a brief walkthrough introduction to the software and then thrust into the world of it’s star game, Celeste.

Now, I could write a whole separate post on PICO-8, and I probably should because the software is available for Mac, PC, and Raspberry Pi as well. It’s a terrific lure for kids and teens (and grown men like me) to get into game design, coding, and a whole community of creative digital expression. But let me just say that if the PocketCHIP were nothing more than a $69 handheld console for PICO-8 — that’s enough for me.

But there is more to it. The PocketCHIP is a full Linux computer, without apology. You get a Terminal for executing commands. You can sudu apt-get all you want, install programs, and customize code to your heart’s content.

Photo of PocketCHIP disassembled
The PocketCHIP can be completely disassembled and reassembled without tools. Photo by Donald Bell.

Self-Service is a Feature

As a practical example of tweaking code, I had to type in a few commands to allow the CHIP’s USB port to be used with my external game controller. The included buttons for moving my PICO-8 characters around is fine, but not quite as great as the Xbox-style USB controller I had handy. By default, plugging my controller in had no effect. But after tweaking the code by entering sudo adduser chip input in Terminal, my USB took to peripheral input like a champ.

Do I wish there was an onscreen UI checkbox that could have made that happen? Initially yeah, but the more I dig into the world of Linux the more I’m developing the somewhat masochistic reflex to look to the internet for community solutions that allow me to code my way out of problems. It provides me with a certain level of self-reliance and confidence that with enough effort I can solve my own problems. And I think that’s the real takeaway you hope someone will have when they dig into DIY computer platforms like this.

I expect I’ll be passing the PocketCHIP down to my son soon, and with any luck he’ll find the same mix of challenge and reward from it.

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