So here is 2018. It’s a kind of middle ground for Linux handhelds. After all, the concept of Linux handhelds preceded the advent of smartphones and since then there is probably less of a need for the general public – iOS and Android already seem to answer the needs of most users so far. In fact, it has clearly become a niche market, with only smaller companies operating in it. But the good news is, there are several efforts underway to get there, in several directions. There are several categories we can split them in. Note that in this article we will remain at relatively high level (and refrain from comparing every single spec under the radar) as this is meant to be an overview.
Gaming Handhelds using Linux have been a thing for a long time by now. While we could expand our list, the most promising ones that should be available sometimes in the near future are the following.
The DragonBox Pyra: it is getting closer – for those who are not aware, it’s a supercharged version of the Open Pandora, with numerous improvements both in performance and hardware design. It features both gaming controls and a full keyboard so that it can be used in many ways (both in emulators as well as typical computing tasks including coding). It’s been under development for years, and it’s taking quite a while, yet in 2018 or 2019 it may finally come out. There is only a few people attached to the project so that explains why they are slower to reach the market compared to companies like GPD.
Above Pyra is a render by Erico (active user in the OpenPandora boards)
Its hardware is ARM-based (Texas Instrument OMAP5), relies on a 720p screen, and it is likely to be relatively obsolete by the time of its release, but its strength is that it has a modular design that should enable SoC upgrades down the road, and features many extensions ports in a very compact design. On top of that, the development is happening pretty much in the open, with good communication and good involvement with the interested parties. Anybody familiar with the Open Pandora community will also know that the software support should be pretty good down the road (the Open Pandora still gets ports of modern software as we speak in 2018, despite being almost 10 years old design wise!). OS-wise, it will run Debian (probably not mainline though), while it’s very likely we will see community ports of many other distributions, just like what happened on the Pandora. There are potential areas of friction like actual software support at launch, availability of 3D drivers (since there are no mature open drivers for the PowerVR GPU), and a potentially high price point. On the other hand, it’s going to be really unique in its category, so those interested may not be so price sensitive in the first place.
Smach Z: It was initially thought as a portable Steam Machine, back when the project started years ago. While this company has never delivered any hardware so far, this design is more focused towards gaming and it has no keyboard. It emulates the design of the Steam Controller with haptic controls for more flexibility. Its screen is going to be 1080p resolution, which is a curious choice for the size of this thing.
It’s still very unclear at this stage by what time it will be released as the project team has already missed several milestones since the start of their crowdfunding campaign. They have recently disclosed that they will use an AMD chip (Ryzen/Vega V1605B) which will bring full compatibility with x86 games (i.e. the world of PC gaming).
It will be released with SteamOS or Windows10, and should be relatively powerful and capable, hardware-wise, but it may quite large (it needs a fan for cooling and a high capacity battery) and it’s not clear how long you will be able to play with it continuously. You can also expect a fairly high price point, while no clear details have been communicated yet. The tentative ones are between 629 USD and 809 USD depending on the options you get with it.
GPD Win 2: While there is apparently no official support for Linux on the GPD Win2, folks with prototypes have already shown it was apparently trivial to install and run Ubuntu on it with pretty much full hardware support (except pads). It features relatively powerful hardware for its size (Core m3-7Y30 with integrated HD Graphics 615, 8GB of RAM) and a 720p screen just like the Pyra.
The GPD Win 1 could also run a modified version of Arch Linux (not mainline, since it needed numerous patches for wifi, touch screen and controls), so we can expect the same to be possible with the GPD Win 2. While it should be a decent machine for PC gaming on the go (apparently capable of running Overwatch on low settings at a very decent framerate), you should not have expect it to be really usable for typical computing tasks. If it is anything like the GPD Win 1, the keyboard is likely to be sub-par, for example. For those who are interested in Intel-based hardware equipped with keyboard, it may be the only option though. Actual retail price is said to be around 899 USD, and should be available for purchase around May 2018.
GPD Pocket: GPD has been pretty active in recent history and the GPD Pocket is a new type of device that can be best described as a micro-laptop. Imagine something like a Macbook, shrink it to your palm’s size and you have an idea of how tiny it is. It has absolutely no gaming controls and no trackpad either, using a nub for the user to move the mouse around (as well as a touch screen). This is not for thumb-typing however and it made to be used just like a regular laptop despite its smaller form factor. It has very few expansion ports and limited memory, but it is a cool alternative for folks who are just interested to do some work on the go.
Note that the keyboard layout is far from ideal, and the lack of trackpad makes it somewhat awkward to use for long periods of time. It would be great to see a better designed version of the same concept, if sales figures were good enough for GPD to continue supporting it. In terms of OS, you can get it to run Windows or Ubuntu (officially) and GPD has published the diff of their changes made to the distribution. You can already find it online at about 510 USD while the official list price is rather in the 700s.
Gemini: The spiritual successor of the Psion portable computers is almost there. It will run either Android or Linux, while the flavor of Linux is not yet confirmed. It should be very compact and have a great mechanical keyboard that you can use pretty much like a laptop one. There is absolutely no mouse controls so you have to use your fingers to emulate clicks on screen. This is fine if you use Android, but for the Linux version it still remains to be seen how comfortable this will be. It features a very high resolution screen (2160×1080 for 6 inches) so don’t expect any serious gaming on this unit with such high pixel density.
It’s ARM-based as well, and while the official release date is not 100% confirmed it looks like they are shipping some first units to backers as soon as Q1 2018, with a broader release in November 2018.
My take on all this
I have somewhat mixed feelings about where these devices go. First, I am really glad to see a lot more activity and official support of Linux on more and more hardware, because more choice means more competition and likely better options altogether for several types of users. However, I am quite concerned with the overall trend to make such devices more and more premium, price-wise. The original Pandora could be had (if you were lucky to get one) at less than 500 USD, but most of the newer devices are likely hitting way above and closer to 1000 USD while at the same time the hardware has become more and more commoditized, thanks to the advent of smartphones. On one hand we can get relatively powerful ARM boards like the Raspberry Pi or Odroid boards for less than 100 USD, but having fully packaged machines with screen, controls and keyboards which are somewhat custom made for each of these machines make them really expensive in the end. On top of that, most of them do not have replaceable parts, and cannot be upgraded easily. This comes with the form factor, but I rather like what Dragonbox is doing there with having as many parts user-replaceable, including the battery and the screen. On the same level, official Linux distribution support remains a question mark beyond release. Will GPD for example update its Ubuntu image to 18.04 in April this year? What will be Gemini’s policy on that matter? Solid software support is as important as hardware design and we need to also compare such machines under that lens when they come out. In any case I would strongly advise any potential buyer to be extremely careful when it comes to pre-orders. Many have been burnt before by such practices (as in, no delivery of actual hardware in the end) so do not invest any money you are not ready to lose. Better wait until it’s actually available, no matter how “attractive” early birds deal look like.