If you’ve been intrigued by the idea of messing about with a $9 PC but had no idea what you’d do with it, Next Thing Co.’s PocketCHIP turns its tiny computer into a portable gaming machine, music editor and learning tool. It’s just full of ideas.

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I’ve been enamored with miniature computers for quite a while now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the Raspberry Pi website and filled my cart with things I didn’t quite understand, before wandering off, leaving the hobby computing to the people with time for hobby computing.

Next Thing Co.’s CHIP was an even greater temptation. The two million dollar Kickstarter success promised an entire computer on a board smaller than a credit card for a ridiculously low price.

Unlike the $5 Raspberry Pi Zero, which lacks storage, built-in wifi or low-power Bluetooth, the $9 CHIP comes is ready to be plugged into an older monitor using the included composite video cable out of the box (an HDMI adapter is sold separately.) It’s got a 1GHz Allwinner R* Cortek A8 processor, 512MB of RAM and 4GB of built-in storage with a Linux-based operating system installed.

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I wanted to buy one, but I know myself. It would sit on my desk, doing absolutely nothing. Other people, more tech-savvy people, would be creating robots and emulator boxes and Pipboys with this thing. I would eventually put it in a drawer and forget I had it.

I’m pretty sure people like me were why Next Thing Co. created the PocketCHIP. Shipping this month from the company’s website for $49, it’s the CHIP computer with extra-added purpose.

The duel holes for using a pencil or pen as a stand are a cute design touch.

The PocketCHIP takes that same $9 computer and places it in a plastic housing with a poppy little keyboard, a 480 x 272 backlit touch screen display, a battery and several cool applications to get people playing with it. If you want to take the CHIP out and play with it on its lonesome, it’s just a matter of removing it from its housing.

I will leave the CHIP inside this rugged plastic shell forever.

Mine will probably stay where it is. If I get to feel adventurous I might fiddle with using the row of GPIO (general purpose input output) connectors along the top of the unit, but otherwise I am good.

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What drew me to PocketCHIP was the included gaming program, PICO-8. Created by Lexaloffle Games, PICO-8 is a “fantasy console.” It presents a set of programming restrictions as if they were tied to a game console, challenging Lua programmers to create games to run within those restrictions. Here’s what creators have to work with:

Display128x128 16 colours
Cartridge Size32k
Sound4 channel chip blerps
CodeLua
Sprites128 8x8 sprites
Map128x32 cels
Controls2 6-button joysticks

Harsh restrictions, but that hasn’t stopped creators from creating some amazing “cartridges” with PICO-8, like Matt Thorson and Noel Berry’s Celeste.

I know, trim the damn nails.

Celeste is a challenging little platforming game in which the title character jumps and dashes across various screens, avoiding obstacles and collecting fruit. I was horrible at it, at least until I changed it.

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The joy of PICO-8 running on the PocketCHIP is that, at any time during gameplay, I can escape out and start editing the code. I couldn’t make the first long jump in the game, so instead of trying again and again until I got it right, I went into the code and tweaked gravity.

Now I’ve not mucked about in game coding since since when I was a young teen working out my angst by programming my classmates into horrible text adventures. Thanks to the relative simplicity of the Lua language, finding the bits I wanted to change was simple.

And if I wanted to change more? There’s a visual sprite editor. There’s a sound editor. There’s a map editor. Each of these just a screen tap away, easy-peasy.

Celeste’s creators didn’t ask for this.

It’s not only an entertaining way to play tiny indie games, it lays down the basic fundamentals of coding in an easy-to-understand manner as well. Players are encourage to tweak these games and make them their own.

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Or change gravity and cheat.

There are hundreds of games out there for PICO-8, all ready to be torn apart by curious fingers on the pop-button keyboard.

You’ll want a pair of headphones or a tiny external speaker for the PocketCHIP, as it has no external sound built-in (though I’ve seen folks modding internal speakers into it. Once your sound situation is figured out you can fire up the SunVox tracker program and start creating your own electronic music.

Let’s see, what else. The PocketCHIP launches into a desktop screen giving the hopeful tiny PC hobbyist things to do instead of simply staring at it and nodding appreciatively.

Write documents, muck about in terminal. Install a media player and listen to music. Go back in time and connect to a Telnet BBS to play some Legend of the Red Dragon. Man, if I’d had one of these during my BBS days I would have had even less of a social life than I did, and that’s saying something.

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The PocketCHIP is a lovely little device that showcases the potential of the $9 computer in ways that folks like me can understand and build upon. Here are some of the cool things people can do. It’s an easier-to-reach starting point. From here you can learn and fiddle until you’re ready to yank the CHIP out and go to town.

Or you could just hang out with me at the starting point. It’s quite nice here.