When I ask Michael Mrozek, aka EvilDragon - and henceforth ED - what he likes best about the Pandora, the open-source gaming handheld he helped create, he says, "The community." Not the unit's 10+ hours of battery life or its beautiful hi-res screen or the wonderfully tactile D-pad or the twin analog nubs or the Linux OS with full X desktop or the amazing amount of homegrown software sprouting up by the day, but the community. "Seriously. And all the nice people helping us out, the devs and everyone else ... you can't thank those guys enough. They have become close friends for me."
The OpenPandora project began when ED teamed up with Craig Rothwell, M. Fatih Kilic, and Michael Weston - enthusiasts of open handhelds such as the Korean-made GP2X and GP32 - to plan a device of their own. "Our first idea was basically a GP32 with proper batteries and gaming controls - but then we thought it would be outdated and we probably should use a better CPU. So we started to think what we'd want," explains ED. The Pandora was conceived when they turned to the GP32X community boards for ideas.
When shut, the Pandora looks like a portly, matte black DSi, but the comparison ends there. Below its nubs and D-pad, the Pandora sports a full qwerty keyboard; turn it on and its 800x480 hi-res touchscreen offers you the choice of console mini-menu or full PC desktop. Designed from the start around emulation and homebrew, Pandora's app site now boasts over 50 emulators (from MSX to PSX) and more than 200 homebrew games and ports - including Zelda remakes, ScummVM, Doom and Baldur's Gate. "A device like this can only live with a community around it,"says ED. "But we were certainly surprised by the patience the community had (and still has!)."
The Pandora nearly didn't make it. With a gestation longer than an elephant's, its development has seen DS incarnations come and go. Rashly billed by its creators for a release back in 2007 - well before the DSi hit stores - production only recently hit its stride in the last few months, when the 3DS became everyone's favorite new toy. Worse, many pre-orders placed in late 2008 at just over $300 have yet to be fulfilled. The Pandora was beleaguered by many production snags: unreliable suppliers, faulty parts and the inexperience of the team made a slow process slower. Because of the excessive gap between payment and delivery, PayPal canceled all pre-orders and credit card companies enforced refunds. But the team's openness - and the understanding that these are just a bunch of guys with a crazy idea and day jobs - incites goodwill, and pre-orders were re-ordered. Those still waiting are rewarded with photos of stacked LCD cables, nubs, screens, batteries, cases and a video of the kitchen table around which these pieces are assembled by hand.