Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Pandora's Potential

Long time no post! Well of course, this blog is charting the adventures of something that only exists in the form of a couple of prototypes! However after an epic wait, the final delaying factors were a Chinese holiday and some additional corrections to the case. Now these delays are behind us, the Pandora's arrival is imminent.

I thought it would worth writing an article of the eagerly anticipated applications I plan to use on the Pandora, and then in a later article see if those ambitions were achieved and how well they have performed.

The flag ship feature of the Pandora. Coupled with impressive processing power for a portable device and awesome gaming controls that have been cherry picked from the best features of various controllers including the Sega Saturn & XBox. As a platform, all the required ingredients for a superb gaming experience are there - however initially it will not suit the masses & will have a very hard time converting those who already have an NDS or a PSP. This was the same challenge Pandora's predecesor the GP2X faced. The simple reason being the lack of commercial games. There is no sense in a software house investing large sums of money developing a title that can only be aimed at a small user base. This will be no different with the Pandora given that the first batch will only be 4000 units. However the excellent potential of the hardware and the fact that the Pandora is an open system may prove enough to lure the smaller and more independent commercial developers. The most notable commercial game to be spawned from the GP2X was the superb PayBack (also now on iPhone). This arguement does however focus on titles written from scratch, unlike the GP2x, there is arguably a greater potential for porting of commercial titles to the Pandora. The major obstacle with this approach is the availability of the source code which usualy is only freely available to rather old titles. However this could change very rapidly if there will be a second batch of Pandoras, one can only speculate how the Pandora will fare on the commercial gaming front.

The lack of a wealthy catalogue of commerical titles however will by no means be the death of the Pandora. One of the GP2X's greatest strength was emulating old skool systems such as SNES, Genesis and coin op arcade games (running MAME). This will be immediately available to the Pandora, but there are some new very exciting additions to the list of emulated systems including Dream Cast, PS1 & N64. If I can multi play Sega Rally by pairing two Pandoras on WiFi, then without doubt the Pandora can claim the title of iPhone killer.

However, if even that was not enough to counter a lack of commercial titles, there is also the Home Brew scene which already has an ecclectic mix of interesting and querky games in the pipeline. This topic alone deserves a seperate article.

So we have seen iPhone people using SatNav to find their way to their local pub. Together with a USB GPRS dongle and mapping software (most likely from Google) Pandora should be able to achieve the same. Personally I find Google Maps accessed via my mobile more than good enough for navigating on foot. So any SatNav I would be using (predictably?) would only be in a car, and given this will be pretty rare (e.g. driving in a foreign
country or trying to fight my way out of traffic) I would prefer a more temporary solution than say installing a dedicated incar SatNav.

Specially for the task I have bought a Gorilla Pod. Although this has been developed with cameras in mind, it can also be used as a tripod/mount for a multitude of mobile devices. Hopefully this will allow me to mount the Pandora safely on a car dashboard while giving me an unobstructed control and view of the screen. The fact that this is a touchscreen should make it pretty easy to control despite being behind the wheel. What would be pretty cool is to use this setup to warn the driver of nearby speed cameras by matching the current GPS location against a database of locations of the cameras. So the Pandora may have quite a fight being an iPhone killer, but perhaps would probably have a much greater chance of being a TomTom & Garmin killer.

Mobile Media:

The Pandora is no iPod. Imagine having it playing through your entire record collection in shuffle mode but then suddenly it starts playing something terrible that mysteriously managed to sneak onto your playlist. You will have to yank out the Pandora from your pocket, open it up and then do whatever command to skip over to a more desirable track. Too much effort. While there has been talk of developing some sort of remote control, for this task I will most likely leave to my trusty cheap and tiny MP3 player. However, theres no harm sticking the entire record collection onto an SD card using a lossless format.

The use of media onboard the Pandora is more likely to be used to make travelling less tedious, by watching movies, catching up with missed TV or even eBook reading. The GP2X handled media tasks very well, so one can only expect more of the same but perhaps more intuitive or glam GUIs.

Mobile Surfing:

With its built in WiFi, surfing the net within your WLAN should work out of the box. However the whole point of the Pandora is to allow you to have a good substitute to your laptop while you are out and about - so how can you surf when you outside the confines of your local network? You could do a little bit of war driving and being a Linux based system cracking the encryption AHEM! running security audit software should not be too challenging, so you can publish that all important Tweet while in the pub or on the bus. A simpler solution could be just to use a USB dongle provided by a mobile network. However I foresee two obstacles, firstly pricing. In the UK at least, using a 3G dongle can cost almost as much as your home broadband connection. Personally I cannot justify nearly doubling my Internet bills just on the off chance I desperately need net access while on the road. I am still in the frame of mind that most online activity can wait till I get home, plus now I have unlimited net access on my mobile. Using a dongle abroad would be fantastic, but as with any form of roaming, this can prove very expensive and in some cases only available in contract form rather than my more favorable Pay As You Go. The second issue is compatibility, this may not prove to be a huge stumbling block, however support it often only made available Windows PC & Mac only. Having mentioned earlier that my phone plan includes unlimited net access, it may be possible for my mobile to act as a modem, delivering packets to the Pandora via bluetooth or USB.

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