The DragonBox Pyra is a handheld computer with a 5 inch display, a QWERTY keyboard and a built-in gamepad. It’s designed to run free and open source software, and it’s been under development for more than six years… and after all that time, project leader Michael Mzorek (EvilDragon) has finally begun shipping prototypes to customers who placed pre-orders for pre-production hardware.
The DragonBox Pyra features a 720 pixel resistive touchscreen display, a 1.5 GHz TI OMAP 5 dual-core ARM Cortex-A15 processor, up to 4GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC storage, and a microSDXC card reader.
It also supports 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 and has stereo speakers, a headset jack, a micro USB port, and an HDMI port. There’s also a “Mobile Edition” version of the Pyra with a 3G/4G modem.
The handheld PC features a backlit keyboard, a D-pad, analog sticks, a D-pad, and buttons that make the Pyra usable as a handheld gaming device. But it’s also a full-fledged computer that ships with a custom version of Debian Linux, although it also supports alternate operating systems.
In other words, you can use the Pyra to run desktop Linux applications on the go, plug in an external display and use it as a desktop-style computer, and install emulators to play classic console games.
While the OMAP 5 processor is rather dated at this point, the little computer has been under development for a long time — and the chipset was selected because there’s support for open source software.
At this point it seems pretty clear that the Pyra is still very much a work in progress. The hardware is nearly finalized, but the software is still under development.
EvilDragon has opened a new prototype info and bug tracker section of the forum, where he highlights some known issues. For example, the touchscreen can be inaccurate. The system sometimes hangs when you try to do a soft reboot. Clicking the pointing nub doesn’t do anything yet. And it takes a few moments after the system boots for the modem to show up in software.
Battery status reporting is also a bit wonky, but a software update is said to fix that. But it also seems that the battery drains when the system is powered off, and when it’s plugged in and turned on, the battery drains more quickly than it can charge so the best way to charge the Pyra prototype is to turn it off and plug it in.
That said, part of the point of shipping prototypes is to get feedback to help improve the performance of the little computer before making it more widely available. Unlike some other handheld PCs we’ve seen in recent years (like the GPD Win and Pocket lineup, and the One Mix Yoga line of devices), the DragonBox Pyra is built by and for enthusiasts of open source hardware. The goal isn’t necessarily to manufacture and sell tens of thousands of units so much as to bring something into the world that meets a very specific set of needs for a very specific set of individuals. And doing that apparently takes a lot of time and a lot of troubleshooting.
That said, there’s something to be said about volunteer-driven development. Some of the software issues mentioned above, for example, only apply to the DragonBox Pyra’s default software. Installing Letux-OS, an open source operating system originally designed for PDAs, resolves some issues affecting battery drain and the modem, for example.
For now, it’s unclear when all of the kinks will be worked out and the DragonBox Pyra will be ready to ship to customers who want something a little more solid than a prototype. But you can keep up on the latest news at the Pyra News section of the Pyra-handheld forum.
Update: Another prototype has been spotted in the wild — Michael McQuaid has posted a series of videos showing the out-of-the box experience of using one of the first 8 prototypes of the DragonBox Pyra, including an unboxing video, the first-boot experience, and a follow-up showing how the system works after a few days of tinkering.