I’m a big fan of crowdfunding, because it enables novel and niche products that you’re unlikely to see from established companies.
The GPD Pocket is one such product. A tiny 7-inch laptop, running your choice of Windows 10 or Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, launched in early 2017 on Indiegogo by Game Pad Digital, otherwise known for a line of gaming handhelds based on Android and Windows.
The GPD Pocket next to a 12-inch MacBook
I love portable computers, so backing GPD’s campaign was a no-brainer for me (of course it helped that GPD has a history of successfully shipping products). I received my unit (the Ubuntu version) almost half a year ago and have been using it as my main portable computer since. Here’s my review.
No Contest: Speeds and Feeds
Let’s get this out of the way: this machine does not compete on performance.
Here are the main specs:
|CPU||Intel Atom 1.6GHz Quad Core|
|Display||1920 x 1200, 7 inch, 323.45ppi|
|Ports||1xUSB-A 3.0, 1xUSB-C 3.0,|
|Micro-HDMI, 3.5mm Audio|
|Battery||7000 mAh LiPo|
|Size||180mm x 106mm x 18.5mm|
|Price||500 - 600 USD|
These are fairly respectable specs for a tiny laptop - in particular, 8GB of memory are very nice, and distinguish the Pocket from the memory-starved netbooks of yore. But don’t expect miracles from an Atom chipset - Geekbench shows that not-so-recent smartphones handily beat the Pocket on CPU performance:
|Device||Single Core||Multi Core|
|iPhone 6S Plus||2105||3761|
|One Plus 3T||1909||4351|
And my little Pocket worked hard to get those scores! Here’s an actual photo of the unit under test:
Some browsing around Geekbench shows that the Pocket’s results are on par with MacBook Pros from around 2010 (machines that were 4-5 times bigger and heavier than the Pocket, mind you). In day-to-day use, I’d say the Pocket feels snappier than those would feel today (and probably at least as snappy as those felt back in the day), thanks to flash storage, 8GB of RAM and a graphically less demanding OS. Geekbench scores reflect peak CPU-performance — they have little bearing on my typical usage (mostly small private coding projects and blogging), but you’ll want to keep them in mind if your usage is more demanding. In this review I will not focus on performance under load because I am not familiar enough with CPU-heavy tasks (say, editing video or audio) to do meaningful testing and comparisons. I recommend you check out Youtube reviews that show the Pocket under heavier load scenarios such as PC gaming or emulation - this one from Linus Tech Tips is a good start.
The Value Proposition: Portable Computing Freedom
What the Pocket lacks in raw performance, it makes up by dominating it’s own niche: providing a full desktop OS in a supremely portable package - a real computer in a footprint smaller than most tablets even.
Here’s why this appeals to me: I consider myself a lifelong student, and I recently became a professional programmer after making a career change. I have always loved to study, and these days that mostly means programming. On a typical day off, I will be out and about, and aim to spend a few hours of the day studying at a coffee shop, library etc. I’ll be on the move for much of the day, so I want a small, lightweight machine with great battery life that won’t weigh me down or die on me, and that I can easily use in cramped quarters. (I live in Tokyo, rich in amazing but less than spacious coffee shops.) My most used applications are the terminal and a browser. I don’t usually edit photos, audio or video on my laptop. Ideologically, I prefer free open source software, but I’m not a fundamentalist about it. I’m also a minimalist - I generally try to avoid owning stuff that would weigh me down (literally or figuratively). For all these reasons, I have long prioritized portability when buying computers and I am willing to compromise on performance to improve portability.
Since you are reading a review of the Pocket, I assume you see it’s appeal, but you want to know more about its compromises. So I’ll start by discussing what I consider to be its biggest flaw (spoiler: the keyboard), cover some peculiarities, and end on a high note describing the Pocket’s strengths.
How good is this 7-inch Keyboard?
If there is anything that should discourage anybody from buying a GPD Pocket, it’s the keyboard. It’s underwhelming at best, and frustrating at worst - particularly if you’re used to premium keyboards such as those on MacBooks or ThinkPads.
The GPD Pocket’s keyboard layout
Of course, even the smallest MacBook has the luxury of space when compared to a Pocket. Fitting a full keyboard into a 7-inch laptop is a design challenge that necessitates some compromise. To keep most keys a reasonable size, GPD chose an unorthodox layout with punctuation and special characters forced into unusual locations and/or downsized and crammed together. By contrast, the letter keys are full size and have good separation. I have some niggles (I would ditch the Caps Lock and Delete keys, and I would rather not have chiclet-style keys at all) but overall I find the layout reasonable. It does take some getting used to, and I suppose I’ll never type quite as fast as on a full-size keyboard. But complaining about a cramped keyboard on a tiny laptop is like complaining about the small display on your smartphone. It’s physics, Jim.
The keys are a different matter. They feel somewhat similar to pre-2016 Apple chiclet keyboards, but the key response is inconsistent. Some keys might not respond if struck softly or off-center. Even after months of adapting to this keyboard I sometimes fail to trigger keystrokes. On my unit, I notice this more with specific keys and rarely with others - maybe switch quality is inconsistent, or I strike inconsistently with different fingers. I believe it’s the former, since this does not happen to me on other keyboards1. Whatever the reason, it is annoying.
I assume this keyboard alone may be enough to turn some people off, and I sympathize entirely. When I first started using the Pocket, I was appalled by the patchy key response. By now, I have resigned myself to adapting my typing habits - I type more carefully, more intentionally and a bit more slowly when using the Pocket. Even so, every few sentences I’ll need to re-type a missed ‘e’ or ‘c’, every once in a while I have to re-enter my password, and sometimes the machine won’t turn on because I pressed the power button off-center. If you can’t put up with that, there are excellent compact bluetooth folding keyboards but of course even the smallest keyboard will increase bulk and weight by 30-50% and add significantly to the machine’s footprint, thus detracting from it’s raison d’etre. In my opinion, if you can’t deal with a less than ideal typing experience, you should probably skip this laptop entirely (of course, if you’re very picky about keyboards, you probably made up your mind a few paragraphs ago).
To me, the inconsistent key response is the only drawback that is not inherent to the Pocket’s size. But there are some peculiarities that I would want any prospective buyer to be aware of - I don’t think of these as problems, but they may be unexpected (and they are certainly not advertised).
This computer has a fan, and boy you’ll hear it. I rarely put the processor under heavy load, but even when editing text documents or browsing the web, the fan is audible in a silent environment (not in your average coffee shop though, or if the air conditioning is blowing). It’s not annoyingly loud - and it does the job of keeping the machine cool to the touch - but tablets, phones and gaming handhelds have conditioned me to expect no fan in a device as small as this. Of course, unlike those devices, the Pocket is a full-blown computer, so expect it to, ahem, blow ¯\(ツ)/¯.
Power management while suspended is not great. This is likely a GNU/Linux issue, not a problem with the Pocket itself (I’m not sure, as this is my first GNU/Linux laptop), but in any case you’ll be in for a nasty surprise if you put this thing to sleep and forget about it like you’d do with a MacBook (I can’t speak for recent versions of Windows). Expect a fully charged Pocket to be half dead after a day in suspended state, lid closed (on macOS I would expect single-digit battery drain over the same period). Basically you’ll want to power down the Pocket if you’re not using it for more than a few hours. Not a big deal - boot takes about a minute, shutdown maybe 20 seconds - but it’s not as convenient as just closing the lid and slipping it in your bag.
Charging is not very fast. Using the included USB-C power brick, it takes an overnight charge to go from 0-100%. Not a problem for me (battery life itself is very good - I never need to charge during the day, and rarely deplete below 50% before I get a chance to plug in), but it’s worth knowing.
Wifi reception is slightly on the weak side. At certain coffeeshops I can’t detect their free Wifi network on the Pocket, while my phones have no trouble connecting. The Pocket supports 802.11a/ac/b/g/n at 2.4 GHz and 5Ghz, so I assume the issue is with the antenna’s sensitivity.
The display’s native orientation is portrait, not landscape (GPD used a screen designed for tablets). The screen is rotated in software, and I have not seen any issues with it since upgrading from the original (buggy) Ubuntu build the Pocket shipped with. The screen rotation is adjusted during boot, so you’ll see a sideways screen during some stages of boot and shutdown. This is only annoying in edge cases. For instance, until the drivers make it into the mainline Linux kernel, you’ll need to install custom builds to reinstall the system (the Pocket has a great community of users, which have made a number of different Linux images available - visit r/GPDPocket/ for links and more info).
Sometimes the best computer is the one you have with you
Overall, in spite of the Pocket’s shortcomings and oddities, I love this computer.
Other than the Pocket, I also own a 2015 12-inch MacBook, and I like it quite a lot, but if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I’d probably keep the Pocket. And it all comes down to portability.
I am not aware of any laptop currently on the market that can rival the Pocket’s portability. This computer fits in any bag I own, and I won’t even notice it’s there. It will fit in larger coat pockets, and it should fit in most women’s purses. It will fit in cargo shorts. Hell, in a pinch I could stuff it in the back pocket of my jeans (please do so at your own risk - you don’t want to sit down on your computer). Throw it in your day bag or travel luggage and you can get some coding or writing done anywhere you are, anytime you want. Just as you’re more likely to carry a small, lightweight camera - and miss fewer photographic opportunities - I find that I rarely hesitate to pack the Pocket just in case, even if I don’t know I’ll have much time to code or write.
I can use this computer comfortably on the smallest tables in crowded coffee shops. It never weighs me down. Some people use iPads for productivity on the go, but that’s not a great choice if you need to write and run code. The Pocket is smaller than even an iPad mini in all but thickness, and yet it comes with a full, unrestricted, geek-friendly general purpose operating system. Until we get full-fledged Linux on a smartphone/phablet, this is as close as it gets to mobile hacking heaven for me2.
This is pretty much the smallest table I have ever used a computer on.
Battery life: It keeps going and going …
Portability isn’t worth much without great battery life, and this machine does not disappoint. Actually, I find the battery life pretty amazing. In my typical usage I use roughly 10% battery/hour (that’s working in a few terminal tabs, connected to Wifi with a few browser tabs open, writing or testing code (small projects in Node.js, Python, Ruby, C/C++), running a local
hugo server, with brightness around 40% and no peripherals connected). If I’m just working offline in the terminal (I do most of my coding - and writing for this blog - in
vim) that drops to about 5%/hour. Even if I use a graphical editor like
Visual Studio Code instead of
vim, I use no more than 15% battery/hour, and a full fledged IDE like PyCharm (which I don’t use much) still gives me more than 5 hours of working time (ultimately your mileage may vary depending on what plugins you use, the size of your projects etc).
Build quality: hats off!
The Pocket’s build quality is very solid - far better than I expected for the price. I have seen some people call it ‘Apple-like’. Having spent a lot of time around Apple laptops, I disagree - the fit and finish are not quite up to Apple’s standards, but they’re close. Without a doubt, the industrial design borrows liberally from unibody Apple laptops (no, the corners are not squircles - if that bothers you, you may enjoy the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin). The chassis is an aluminium unibody, with a plastic hinge. The display hinge has no wobble, though unlike MacBooks you won’t be able to open the lid with one hand without holding down the laptop - who cares? Speaking of the display, I can’t see any backlight bleed and the display is high-resolution with excellent viewing angles. The design is simple, understated and almost free of branding (there’s a small GPD logo next to the regulatory markings on the bottom plate). The chassis feels very solid - no flexing or creaking - and the surface finish is even. I’m impressed, and so was everyone I have showed this machine.
Input: no trackpad here!
GPD wisely did not try to fit a trackpad into the Pocket’s top case, and I fully agree with that choice. A computer this size should not waste space on a trackpad - trying to shoehorn one in would have made the keyboard even more cramped or made the machine bigger. Any trackpad you could squeeze into this tiny chassis would be hardly usable anyway. Instead, the Pocket has both a touch screen and a track point. Both are well done. I spend most of my time in the terminal, so I don’t use the touch screen much, but I appreciate it when I do. Being able to scroll a web page or dismiss a dialog occasionally is useful. Not all applications implement touch consistently, but the inconsistencies don’t detract from the usefulness. As for the track point, I had never used one before, and was not sure how well I’d adjust to it. As it turns out, I use it more than the touch screen and I don’t miss a trackpad at all - I actually appreciate that I never get accidental cursor movement when typing. A multi-touch trackpad would be useful for scrolling or zooming, but both can be accomplished via keyboard shortcuts or the touch screen. The trackpoint is not perfect - it can’t be clicked, and there is no dedicated scroll button (I remapped holding down the right mouse button) - but it works very well for what it does. The included blue nub, which you see in most of my photos, does not feel quite as nice as a Thinkpad trackpoint - it’s more angular and less grippy - but it’s trivial to replace. I got three low-profile Thinkpad trackpoint nubs for less than 10 USD from amazon.co.jp, which should last me for the life of the device.
Despite the slight difference in height, the Thinkpad nub will fit fine and the rounded shape makes it more comfortable to use.
Would I buy the GPD Pocket again? Hell yes. Would I recommend others buy it? Well, most people won’t have any use for a tiny laptop, but if you’ve read this far, you just might. But do you have the patience to deal with the keyboard’s quirks? If so, buy it. The Pocket’s value proposition is basically unique in the current PC market3: an ultra-compact Intel-based touchscreen laptop with all-day battery life - and it runs a full-fledged desktop operating system that encourages you to take control of your computer rather than patronizing you.
Some reviews mention keyboard issues, some don’t. This could be due to different reviewers having different frames of reference, or inconsistencies in keyboard quality across units (also, you may be less inclined to complain if you got a free review unit). Keep in mind that my unit is from Indiegogo - not the earliest batch, but an early unit among the Ubuntu orders. For all I know the problems I complain about may have been remedied in later batches, but since GPD is not stocked at electronics retailers, I can’t compare my machine to current production lots. ↩︎
Ideally I’d want to use a smartphone (or phablet), paired with a small, foldable bluetooth keyboard when necessary. Sadly, the current options all leave something to be desired. I have an iPhone, an Android phone and an Ubuntu Touch phone. iOS is not an option unless you like to SSH into a remote server for the most basic programming work. On Android, Termux is an amazing app that provides a sandboxed GNU/Linux command line environment, and let’s me do much of what I want to do on a mobile computer. But the available packages are only a subset of a full GNU/Linux distro. You can install full Linux distros on Android, but in my experience it’s not quite the same as running them on bare hardware, and they don’t work well on small screens. As for Ubuntu Touch, I unabashedly love it, and use it frequently as a mobile terminal. However, on the GUI side it is bad at supporting legacy (X-based) apps, and the OS still has a lot of rough edges - handling bluetooth keyboards well being one of those. I see the potential for Ubuntu Touch to evolve to a point where it could replace both my smartphone and portable computer, but in its present state it can’t. I have cautiously high hopes for the upcoming Librem 5 GNU/Linux smartphone (I’m a backer), but that’s at least one year off. Other than smartphones, I am aware of (but have not tried) some projects that turn single-board computers into hand-held devices, like the PocketCHIP or the Noodle Pi. I’m following both with some interest, but for my use case neither seem superior to the Pocket (or even a smartphone running Ubuntu Touch or Termux). The PocketCHIP is hardly smaller than the GPD Pocket, with worse performance, worse battery life, a smaller and inferior screen and what even enthusiasts like Bryan Lunduke call a bad keyboard. The Noodle Pi is conceptually very interesting (and I am looking forward to future iterations), but the screen is on the small side and 1.5 - 2 hours of battery life won’t cut it for me. I have also not seen anybody use it without an external keyboard, so the total bulk (if not weight) ends up almost comparable the Pocket, but with inferior performance, screen and battery life. ↩︎
Sadly, UMPCs are no longer a booming market. Aside from buying years-old netbooks (and the above-mentioned single-board computers), I am aware of GPD’s own GPD Win (runs Windows 10, and installing Linux seems possible - a successor model will commence crowdfunding in early 2018), the DragonBox Pyra (runs Linux), and the Gemini PDA (dual boots Android and GNU/Linux). Of those, the GPD Win and the Pyra seem more geared towards gaming: the keyboards have calculator-style keys, and half of the bottom case is taken up by gamepad controls. On top of that, the Pyra still has no clear ship date - it has been up for pre-order for several years. The Gemini is most interesting - it’s considerably smaller than the Pocket (it’s phablet-sized, but given the clamshell design I wouldn’t want to use it as a smartphone) and appears to have a nice keyboard, but no pointing device - I wonder how well GNU/Linux will work using a small touch screen alone for navigation, and I am concerned that GNU/Linux support will be an afterthought to Android. It’s also not shipping yet, though the project appears to be making good progress. ↩︎