Michael Mrozek, also known as Evil Dragon (ED on the board) is the CEO of DragonBox and the current project leader for the upcoming DragonBox Pyra, a new device expected to replace the Open Pandora. He was at the recent RMLL in Montpellier (5-11 July 2014), France and gave a talk about the Pandora and the Pyra. Since it covers many of the latest aspects of the design, it’s a recommended watch if you have not had the chance to follow up on all developments recently.
Without further due here’s the video below. I have summarized some of the key points he mentioned in his talk below as well, if you don’t feel like sitting through a one hour video. Reading or watching, it’s up to you.
ED first started with the Open consoles movement to introduce where the Pandora came from. The Pandora was mainly designed as a gaming machine but ended up being used for more serious applications as well since it could run a full Linux environment while the previous machines could not. He briefly mentioned the issues with the production, delays, parts (supposed to be released in 2008, but actually released in 2010), and talked about 2011’s Craig attempt to kill the community because of his greed. The production then moved to Germany in 2011 thanks to community investors who could save the project. It’s better to have local supply partners so you can meet up with them when needed.
So far, over 7000 units have been delivered, but the Pandora is reaching its end of life in 2014 – since most parts cannot be sourced anymore. There were some recent software developments (people doing stuff no one had never imagined with the device), such as 3D printing or using your Pandora as a controller for another device. The Pandora also benefited from a standard hardware design, meaning that programs could be optimized for it, even though there are three Pandora models. In that sense it’s similar the console world.
However there are limitations as to what the current hardware can do. Firefox (especially in its recent incarnation) is kind of slow. There is no HDMI port as it was kind of new when the Pandora was being designed. The keyboard is not back-lit so you cannot see it well in the dark. The screen resolution may be an issue for certain applications where some windows are larger than the screen. The case quality was so-so. The closed sourced drivers caused some issues with newer applications and needed work-arounds…
That’s what the Pyra is trying to address.
It will have an internal microSD port, as well as 8, 16 or 32 GB of internal storage. This is not fixed yet, since it depends on the pricing of memory in the next year. The CPU, an OMAP5 is expected to be about 8 times faster than current Pandora and should remove some of the current limitations. It will have a standard HDMI port, so that you can connect it to a TV or a monitor and have a full HD environment. A docking station is planned to make it easy to connect to a larger screen without additional steps. It will feature a back-lit keyboard and a 5 inches screen. The screen is not full HD, because such a high resolution is not necessary and uses too much CPU power for almost no real gain. It’s not clear whether the screen technology will be IPS or TFT since several options are being assessed currently. The touchscreen technology will be resistive only (you will however be able to do pinching and zooming with it), since it’s better to have very accurate pointer positioning when you use a full desktop environment. The case itself will be designed in Europe with a better expected quality and finish.
The unit will have 2 standard sized USB ports this time, one combining an eSATA port as well to attach external hard disk. There will also be a MicroUSB OTG port and a MicroUSB debug port, that you can register as a serial device on your PC. This can be used for kernel debugging.
Since most of the production is happening in Europe, there is a faster turnaround for design changes. The Pyra will still need closed source drivers, but the kernel part of the drivers is open though and would not prevent kernel updates. Intel chips would be great to get to open source drivers, however Intel chips need their own bios and that makes it a lot more complicated, so it’s not viable at this stage. The keymat will be made of transparent material (so that it can be back-lit), and it will feel much better than the current Pandora keymat, in between a laptop and a mobile keyboard feel. Because of the screen size increase, speakers have been moved down to the base of the unit. Speakers’ quality is massively improved, they should behave a lot better than the Pandora ones.
The Pyra will have more storage space as we have seen, and therefore it will be able to host a full Debian ARM distro (hard float) with optimized packages. There will be repositories on top of Debian for special Pyra related software. In the prototype there is currently no hardware acceleration, so moving windows around is still very slow (X uses 70% of CPU from htop evaluation), but that will be fixed down the road. A compatibility layer to run existing Pandora PNDs is planned to allow for the PND system to be kept. The Pyra is expected to have OpenGL support (not just OpenGLES) from the start through the inclusion of the glshim library. In terms of controls, there was a strong request for more face buttons so the new machine will now feature 6 front facing buttons on top of 4 shoulder buttons. There were many decisions taken from the community inputs to create a better design. The community has also been helpful for example to help find a keymat suplier and the final one selected was recommended by Community members. A new battery is also being considered to further increase the usage duration from a single charge.
In terms of hardware, the Pyra will be composed of three parts:
- A PCB for controllers
- A separate board for the display
- A smaller PCB for the CPU/SOC
The PCB with all the needed controllers will be a 2 layers board if possible – this would reduce the cost of manufacturing. This PCB is already finished but is still being optimized.
The display board will be a separate one to drive the LCD only. The idea is that if the LCD is not available anymore, we can change that separately. This board will be placed in the lid behind the display.
And the smaller PCB for CPU/SOC will be a replaceable CPU board with small connectors. That CPU PCB is not finished yet, while its size and location is already determined. You can see a prototype below.
There are 3 reasons to feature a separate CPU/SOC PCB. First, the PCB production is made easier if its size is smaller. You can produce more in one go which drives down costs. Second, nowadays with the Pandora if your CPU does not work on the final PCB, you have to throw the whole PCB, including valid components. That’s like throwing 170 euros away every time. With a replaceable CPU you can avoid that waste. Thirdly, since the CPU board is replaceable, it makes if easy to do device upgrades and replace the current CPU with a new, faster one of there are alternatives out there. Since the Pyra team will be opening all schematics, people can create new development boards by themselves if they are so inclined.
The selling price is unknown at this stage. Preorders will only be available when everything is ready. Otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster, just like what happened in the early days of the Pandora. While the price is to be determined, it’s likely to be around 500 euros, which is about the same price or slightly cheaper than mobile phones out there (ED said the Pyra would probably cost about 300 euros to manufacture, but large mobile phone manufacturers can make hardware for much less, like 100 euros per unit). The first batch of Pyras will be available exclusively in the Dragonbox shop from Germany (while they can ship everywhere). There will be distributors for other countries with the Pyra, just like for the Pandora. At least 1000 units need to be preordered for the production to start, but that should not be a major issue seeing the current size of the community. Recently, there were many issues with Kickstarter funded projects so it’s not certain the Pyra will use that platform.
In terms of availability, 2015 is very likely year for shipping the first units, but it’s hard to say until everything is completely finished.
ED did a few demos at the end on the development board, but it’s hard to see on the video.
- Demo of a full desktop with KDE, full HD, booting from microSD card.
- Emulators running at the same time, together with LibreOffice
I am also preparing a long article about the current design of the Pyra, where I will go in more details into many of the aspects mentioned in this talk.