Handheld computing is a topic I am somewhat passionate about. I am enchanted by the idea to have a small productivity helper—preferably in the form of a small Linux terminal—ready to help in my pocket to keep track of my todo lists, notes, calendar and so on.
This problem is, at least for me, not solved by today’s available smartphones however. For me this idea includes complete control over the device, meaning that both the software and the hardware are completely under my control, I can do with it whatever I want, and noone else can run any code on it. This is just not the fact in current smart phones, as the operaring system vendors and the telcos providing the device’s baseband still have significant power over the device.
This is a problem, because the baseband that provides a remote connections and runs code that is not under your control, is usually pretty tightly integrated into the System-on-Chip (SoC). This means that potentially, someone provided with a backdoor or a bug in the firmware that runs in the baseband has likely access to the CPU itself and whatever else is connected to the internal bus(es).
This still is a problem if you somehow manage to run otherwise completely free software on such a device, e.g. like the Replicant project which is available for older smartphones.
Another thing most smartphones lack is the hardware keyboard, which is kind of a requirement for mobile devices as a productivity utility in my opinion. To provide a disclaimer, I still didn’t learn how to type on a touch screen even after exclusively using a screen-only device for about four years, so I might be biased here.
But I guess hardware keyboards are not required by an audience trained to use mobile devices as a way to consume Youtube videos and to play Candy Crush on them.
There have been some super stylish approaches to the productive kind of portable computing in the 80s and 90s, but they didn’t really take off. Those famous Psion devices for example are still valued by some of their collectors, although their capabilities are very limited.
Due to the current trend in availability and development of small Single-Board-Computers (SBCs), this niche seems to get a little more attention again though. Small boards like the Raspberry Pi and others provide the possibility to build computers into anything you like, and there’s a variety of different DIY-SBC-Laptops around. Sadly many of those projects that seem to gain the most drive are again for portable gaming though.
In this set of notes I will attempt to collect emerging projects around this very idea, and anything related to it.
Miscalleneous concepts and ideas
- DragonBox Pyra
- Noodle Pi
- NODE Portable Pi Project
- NODE Zero Terminal
- The infamous Pocket C.H.I.P.
- The pi0cket Clicker
- Pocket computers by GPD
- A small notebook for a system administrator
- SnapOnAir Raspberry Pi Zero PCB
While Cyberdecks aren’t exactly handheld, I still have them mentally filed as a related idea. Cyberdecks are fictional devices that emerged from sci-fi literature I never read, which are like portable computers characters sling around their back, ready for quick access to hack into some stuff—if I got it correctly.
They’re usually pictured much larger than pocket-sized, but still stem from a similar idea.