Updated: May 18, 2013
Welcome, Willkommen, Bienvenue! To the second article in my Pandora series. As you recall, several weeks back, I received a test unit from Michael Mrozek, of the world's smallest, most-powerful gaming micro-computer. In the first installment, we talked most about initial impressions, the look & feel, specifications, and a brief taste of the variety of its capabilities, technologies and interfaces.
Now, we will dig deeper. In this article, I will focus on firmware refresh of the test unit, trying to bring the system to a newer edition, as well as dabble in the ins and outs of the Xfce desktop environment. I will leave the gaming-oriented MiniMenu and the Android mod for the third and last part in this would-be trilogy. Follow me.
Reading online, the procedure does not seem that complicated. You need to download the zipper archive and extract it to a FAT32-formatted SD card. Then, insert the card into the left slot on Pandora, hit the R button and reset the unit, which should bring a boot menu. There, you need to select the external device as the boot media and proceed with the upgrade.
Well, that sounds fairly simple. But for me, the experiment did not really work. The boot menu would come up, but the option 'boot from SD1' was nowhere to be seen in the presented menu. I had the option to use older kernels, continue with the default boot and suchlike, but no ability to reflash the unit. This is quite unfortunate, I must admit, mostly because I was hoping to be able to complete a suggested step without any issues, even if the actual technical benefits under the hood might not be immediately apparent to the user.
I will follow up on this with the Pandora's team, but the reality is, on my own, using only the available Wiki information, this small computer refused to perform a firmware upgrade. The system remains at version 1.52.
The standard desktop is fairly sleek, despite its modest equity. You have a stylish wallpaper, several useful icons, and a chunky bottom panel with a number of interesting applets. To conserve power, Pandora boots with USB, Bluetooth and Wireless disabled, but you can toggle these on. In my case, both Wireless connectivity to encrypted routers, as well as the use of external USB devices worked just fine.
When it comes to configurations, you have a fair degree of freedom here. You can easily change the running frequency of your CPU, toggle various TV modes or control your peripherals, all under a single, convenient button.
When it comes to software, Pandora packs a lot. A handsome lot. There's a standard, full menu there, rich with programs of all sorts, with the documentation, emulators and games section listing the largest collections. Almost overwhelming really.
Apart from its small size, Pandora is a proper desktop in every sense of the way. You get a colorful assortment of applications. For example, you have Firefox 19, Abiword, SMPlayer, even a full LibreOffice suite! And it runs really well. The one downside is that most programs are designed with bigger screens and higher resolutions in mind.
Listing the full collection would be just too boring, and you can do it on your own. But you will find pretty much everything and anything. Games wise, you have Battle For Wesnoth, Freeciv, LinCity, OpenTTD, Warzone, and that's just the Strategy section. But we will discuss games in the followup article.
Due to legal restrictions, Pandora does not ship with too many codecs. However, you can easily obtain the missing stuff by downloading and installing the Community Codec Pack. The download is available on the firmware wiki page. As to how it's done, we will discuss in a moment.
My test unit did come with some extras, so I cannot vouch the same experience on your end. I tried playing Youtube clips, a 720p AVI file of the Big Buck Bunny movie, as well as an odd MP3 file. I have to admit the adventure did not go too well.
Flash wise, Youtube videos would load and stutter, without any sound. Network bandwidth was also extremely slow for some reason, which could explain it. I must blame Pandora, because no other computing device in my home exhibits this. In the end, I was unable to enjoy the marvels of modern technology called Flash.
When trying to play an .avi file from an external device, Pandora complained that it did not have any program that could open the file, but you've seen the SMPlayer just earlier. Drag and drop solved this. The playback was weird. On a fully maximized screen, Pandora displayed the video just fine, although the framerate would slow down when taking screenshot, a problem somewhat similar to what I've seen on my Samsung Galaxy tablet.
However, when minimized, the player would emit sound but the image would be just a square of bright green. Taking screenshots of the player with the video in full mode also resulted in ugly images. Please note the video looks fabulous in fullscreen, but not in the screenshot.
MP3 files would not play when double-clicking on them, but the drag and drop trick worked as before. In this regard, the music playback was phenomenal, and the audio quality is rich. I wish that Flash and video behaved this way.
Software installations & updates
If you're not familiar with Pandora, you might be a little confused how to get software updates. There are two programs that do that, one called PNDManager, the other called PNDStore. They do different things, and then again, the same. And you can also go manually about the whole thing.
Indeed, if you consult the quickstart guide PDF file on your desktop, it explains a little how the package management works on Pandora. Updating software is very simple. You can just copy PND files to your device, and you're done.
PNDStore behaved well. It refreshes its repo list easily enough, then offered me a list of available packages. You can clearly see which applications are installed, as well as if there are any available updates in the repository. The upgrade process worked well, although it felt a bit slow. I'm going back to my network connection thingie, but I need to debug this some more perhaps.
PNDManager is another curious beast. It's a mouseless manager for your software, controlled using the gaming buttons, which is quite neat. It looks nice, and it's rather detailed when it comes to what information it offers the user. It also allows you to associate your own PND files with it, so you don't have to go about manually installing software. All in all, a welcome component to this curious, unique beast.
And if you want to do it manually:
Multi-tasking, ease of use
Here's another hot topic. Despite its small size, Pandora is a very powerful machine, I have to admit. It does offer true multi-tasking, and it manages this fairly well. I was able to launch several programs at the same time, and enjoy them well. The system was responsive and robust.
However, the form factor is somewhat tricky overall. Working for about six hours straight on the little box, I got tired. The keyboard is supple and fun, but the screen is way too small for comfort. And most of the Xfce applications are not designed for 800px resolution, so you end up with horizontal scrolling, and no auto-centering. This problem happened in a lot of programs, including Web browsers, see the Youtube example from earlier, as well as the media player, office applications, and other. I believe Pandora would benefit from a higher screen resolution, but then, this could present a problem for the touch usage.
Some small problems
One time, Pandora booted with only a small repertoire of its programs. Some of the desktop icons were missing, and most of the entries in the menus were gone too. The next reboot resolved this. On another occasion, the left nub lost some of its sensitivity during the usage once or twice, causing my downward motion to be about two or three times slower than other vectors. Resetting the nubs in the configuration panel fixed the problem, but I did not like this.
Yet another small issue I had was with the volume icon suddenly changing its shape and becoming the signal thingie instead of a speaker thingie. Not a big one, but then the devil and his mother in law are in the little details.
A day of dedicated hard work shows a variety of behavioral traits with Pandora. On the bright side, it is fast, stable overall, with very good audio quality, and a rich assortment of programs. Truly awesome. On the negative side, networking was slow for some reason, and the multimedia stack could benefit from some polish. There were other tiny niggles here and there, but nothing too serious. From the purely physical perspective, Pandora takes a bit of time getting used, and you mind get tired staring at a small screen almost directly below your face. If you try using it at a much greater distance, you won't see that well, so this presents a problem. Firmware update was also a disappointment.
Pandora embodies a very risky dance of compromise, trying to be everything at the same time. It is a proper desktop, a gaming platform, a media hub, a touch device, and it packs a huge collection of programs. But something's got to give. With the Xfce component gone through Dedoimedo's sweatshop, I would say, more focus on media, better networking, and an additional consideration to ergonomics. So far so good, but not an explosion of senses, especially not my eyes, as they be hurting. If I had to grade the current round of testing, then the Xfce flavor of Pandora's personality deserves around 7/10. In the third sequel, we will discuss games, Android, as well as the battery life. Stay tuned.