Review: PocketCHIP—Super cheap Linux terminal that fits in your pocket

If you’re a Linux user who wants a pocket-size terminal, PocketCHIP fits the bill

Review: PocketCHIP—Super cheap Linux terminal that fits in your pocket
Credit: Benj Edwards

Portable, pocket-sized computer. Runs Linux. Has a good battery life. Bonus points for a physical keyboard, and full-size USB port. Double bonus points for being cheap. 

That’s sort of my ideal “carry with me” device. If I can have a Linux device, with a proper shell that I can work entirely from, I’m a happy camper. Over the past few years I’ve been able to hobble together a few devices to accomplish this Utopian goal—more or less. 

At one point, I hobbled together a makeshift Raspberry Pi case (with a screen that I powered with an external USB power supply) using a whole lot of electrical tape. That was great except the “case” was just—well—tape. And I couldn’t find a tiny physical keyboard that fit with the size of it.

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I’ve taken Android tablets, stripped them down to their core parts, and installed Termux to give me a basic Linux shell environment. Except I was still running all of Android (as much as was left), even though I wasn’t using it. And the Linux package selection in Termux isn’t quite enough for my needs. Plus, no full-size USB port (without an adapter). 

I even took one of those old Sony UMPCs (the little hand-held “laptops” they made for a while) and installed Linux on it. But the battery life stinks, it has a big, loud fan (it’s just a laptop CPU in a little form factor), and it was pricey for what it was being used for. 

Enter the PocketCHIP 

Then along came the PocketCHIP from Next Thing Co. It met all of my requirements, including every bonus point. 

The $69 gadget is really something special. The heart of it is the $9 CHIP computer. It’s sorta like the Raspberry Pi, but smaller. It has built-in Wi-Fi, a 1GHz Arm CPU, half a gig of RAM, 8GB of storage and Bluetooth. 

They took that tiny, cheap little computer and stuck it inside of a custom-designed case. Which includes a 480x272 display, a battery, and an almost, kinda-sorta, steam-punky custom physical keyboard. 

The whole unit feels distinctly “homemade by people who really know how to make cool stuff at home.” The back of the case, which consists of funky triangles (surprisingly comfortable to hold), is see-through. So, you can look at the battery and all the guts (which there really aren’t much of) of the PocketCHIP, beckoning you to fiddle with it. There’s even a labeled row of pin-outs across the top. 

The screen isn’t huge, but the size is just right for this sort of pocket device. Really, the only drawback here is the resolution. Being only 272 pixels tall presents pretty significant difficulties in running applications such as The Gimp or Firefox (which, other than the resolution problem, run fairly well). Modern graphical applications just aren’t designed with lower resolutions in mind. And running full desktop environments (such as XFCE), while they do technically run, are pretty difficult to use.

That brings me to an important point. The PocketCHIP runs Debian. This means you can install just about anything on here (assuming it’s been compiled for the processor). There’s no graphical package manager or “application store” on here. So, you’ll be firing up the built-in terminal application and “apt install”-ing. But if you’re like me, that’s preferable anyway. 

Really, I don’t use the handful of built-in applications that the PocketCHIP ships with. I use it exclusively as a pocket Linux terminal. And, at that, it excels. 

PocketCHIP runs any shell application 

From the PocketCHIP itself I can run any shell application I can think of. Web browsing, email, (some) instant messaging, writing (I’m writing these very words directly on the PocketCHIP), music playing, gaming, torrent-ing—it’s all just a “sudo apt install” away. (OK, I did have to build a few things from source, but not many.) 

I can SSH from my PocketCHIP into a server, which I do much of my work from. I can SSH from my laptop into my PocketCHIP, which is handy when I want to do a lot of typing faster than what thumb-typing on the device itself allows. 

Side note: To do that, you need to “sudo apt install openssh-server”. The SSH server isn’t installed by default. 

Second side note: The default root user (“chip”) has a password of “chip”. It is super secure—no need to ever change that (he said sarcastically). 

The battery life has been great. Not “turn it on and forget it for 3 days” great—more like five or so hours of usage. But it charges with the same little micro USB charger that all cell phones seem to use nowadays. So, there’s never a lack of charging options nearby. 

Performance is, in short, exactly what I need. It has no problem running all of my standard shell software I run on my desktop: playing music (via cmus), writing (wordgrinder and nano), instant messaging (finch), and web browsing (I hop between shell browsers like a frog on crack). And I run a handful of other bits of software, but that makes up the main (always running) ones. 

I’ve used faster computers. But none of the software I’m using lags, stutters or has difficulty keeping up. 3D accelerated games (such as OpenArena) and others like Minecraft play well on this device. I tested them out just enough to know, then quickly went back to my comfortable little terminal. 

As a dedicated, in-my-pocket, Linux terminal, PocketCHIP is a champ. And because it has a full-size USB port, I can plug in a regular-sized keyboard. Or a thumb drive. Or a gamepad (because using the PocketCHIP’s thumb keyboard for gaming isn’t great for everything). Or any other odd little USB device I want to use with the PocketCHIP. 

Do I recommend getting a PocketCHIP? 

No. 

Unless you’re a Linux user wanting a terminal in your pocket. 

Or you’re any sort of nerd and want a super nerdy-looking device to tinker with while out and about. 

Or you have $69.

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