Pinebook pro "review"

So, I got one, few months ago already, and now I figured I may write something about it, because of course everyone is so curious about this thing, right?

hardware, what you buy

Let's go over the hardware first. So, the laptop is light, quite thin and generally looks much more premium than its price. If you at first think the touchpad has a very weird feel, it's because it's covered with transparent plastic you're supposed to remove, but it's not very obvious. So I'm telling you. After you do that, touchpad is, well, OK. It doesn't have any separate buttons, but the bottom works as a button, I don't like that too much as it makes middle mouse button click bit difficult, but it's not a major issue. Unfortunately, there's no variant with a trackpoint, however I wish there was. Keyboard. It's OK. But it has issues as well. First, power button is just an ordinary button at the top right corner, which means accidental presses and all that. You will need to disable it in software, there's nothing more annoying than accidentally turning your computer off... You can choose either ISO or ANSI keyboard, I got the ISO one, so there may be differences, who knows.

Now, the layout has issues, I'm afraid. Too many keys have Fn modifier, mainly the entire Pg Up/Down, Home/Insert row, which seriously sucks, there isn't even delete, you need to do Fn + Backspace. And Insert is, by default, Fn + F8. It's hard to complain about there not being all keys, because the keyboard just isn't big enough, but I don't understand why they couldn't put at least Pg up and down in those empty spaces next to the arrow keys. Also, I have noticed that Super + arrow keys doesn't send any keysym, which again really sucks in Gnome, but that could be maybe solved in software. Actually, you can probably remap everything in software as the keyboard firmware can be flashed. I haven't tried that though. Other than that, typing is reasonably comfortable. It doesn't feel bad. My keyboard has some issues with the bottom row seemingly not matching the cover perfectly and having some friction, but it's barely noticeable. I don't know. Details.

Display is good. I don't know what else to say. It's fine. I really don't know how to rate displays. It doesn't seem to suffer imprints from the keyboard, or at least suffer them too much, which is nice as well. Hinges are probably fine as well. It's not wobbly from the factory and it's probably going to be fine over a longer period of time, as the display is quite light.

So, those are hardware things you can see. Inside, you actually get basically a rock64pro chip (rk3399) and a battery. It's got a different layout inside and there's an extra board on the right side for the ports there, but I believe it's virtually the same thing. One thing I always mention and people are bit surprised about is that the board is always powered from the battery. It can't be powered directly from the mains, you always are just charging the battery while the board itself is hard wired to it. There is a bypass cable inside, you can take it apart, unplug the battery and have the computer run from either barrel connector or USB-C, but then you got no battery. I find this... weird? It's essentially the same configuration your phone or tablet has, but it comes with certain unfortunate downsides, the main one being you just can't use the laptop when the battery is completely discharged (well, as much as it lets itself be). You need to wait something like 10 or 15 minutes for it to charge a bit. It's rather silly. Now, you can absolutely comfortably expect 6 hours of runtime out of the battery and if the software was good (more on that later), I imagine 10 hours wouldn't be out of the reach. Battery itself is most likely a very off-the-shelf component so I don't think it's going to be any problem to source an affordable replacement when it dies.

In order to get in, you need to remove 10 screws on the bottom plate, they are the only thing holding it in place, so no wonder you need quite a few, but it's honestly bit annoying, especially because one rather important switch which is located on the board. It's the UART console switch, the console itself is wired to the audio jack output, so you switch between the audio and console. Since u-boot currently isn't able to display anything on the display, you absolutely do need the console if you want to try booting anything not guaranteed to work out of the box, which is essentially everything. I strongly suggest you buy the cable for it together with the device, they sell them on the website. I haven't got one so I tried to hack something together from broken headphones and a spare CP2105 chip. Then I got a connector with screw terminals.

It may, or may not, be worth noting that the insides aren't very crammed and Pine already made an upgrade kit for their previous Pinebook. They don't have any chip right now that's better than rk3399, but it gives me some hope that maybe, for example, someone could make a better power controller for the battery and it'd be easy to put it inside. Supposedly, you can put a NVMe drive inside as well, but it needs some extra accessory and I don't need it now.

software, what you wish you could buy

So, out of the box, it currently comes with preinstalled Manjaro Linux, which is some kind of an Arch variant. And, well, this is a personal opinion, but it's not like you came from anything else, did you, so let me tell you it's garbage. It's an opinionated thing from people with bad opinions. And you can't even really use "normal" Arch repos, so more often than not, you can't have a certain thing. And while you can (more like have to) compile anything you want yourself, this is an Arm SoC with 4G RAM. This is not an amazing solution. Want haskell-platform, erlang? Good luck there. Don't get me wrong, this Manjaro Linux works and if you don't mind bad defaults and having to revert to sane configurations of things yourself, you can certainly live with it. But you're living with a Linux distro where you install emacs and it fails to run, because I don't know, reasons. Some known bug with something. Maybe they fixed it already. Maybe I'm just old and grumpy and don't understand this. I mean, I am old and grumpy... Either way, I'm not a fan of the default.

Unfortunately, replacing this software is not as easy as one'd hope. Pine people honestly don't really care about software very much and it shows. They do provide a list of images that run on the Pinebook and to their credit, it seems they do. However, when I say images, it generally is a list of some images made out of various Linux distributions that you can write on an SD card or the internal eMMC storage and it will boot. To something. I installed the Fedora image they have and it is Fedora. Which previously someone installed and replaced the kernel with some of their own, because the "vanilla" Fedora kernel isn't going to work (properly). If you want to know what config they used, where and how they built it, uhm, well, ... it's just a binary they put there. You can try to install the actual Fedora kernel and it may eventually work as the Manjaro people claim to be using vanilla kernel with only some parameters changed, but I haven't managed to get it work yet. I don't get anything on the display and yes, I was too lazy to unscrew the back and get the console. Sorry.

It is still disappointing, but a lot of it is generally to be blamed on the general arm state of things. You should be able to boot vanilla 5.7+ kernel on the device, there should be a dtb file for it, but don't expect it to just work. Sadly, then your alternative, if you are not going to put the work in, is either that Manjaro or living with whatever un-updated kernel you got in the image. It should be possible to install a BSD (I can confirm that OpenBSD at least boots, to some state), but I don't know very much about this specific case.

Then of course, expect that the panfrost gpu driver for the Mali on the board is, well, it's late alpha at best honestly. Works, but doesn't work great, which is rather unfortunate, you don't get that fast CPU on the device and it costs you power to use it. Hopefully it gets better and it's hard to blame anyone for this. It still sucks though.

Another issue is sort of weird suspend. I have no idea how is suspend supposed to work on Arm devices, but whatever I tried, I don't think it works well here. It drains the battery way too much and I find the computer is slightly warm even after the computer was suspended for a longer time. Once I had it in my backpack for roughly 8 hours and the compartment it was in was noticeably warm. Now it was a very warm day and the compartment is enclosed by some foam that probably provides a lot of thermal insulation as well, but still, none of my x86 laptops would do that. So in practice, I turn the computer off when I'm not going to use it for more than very few hours and that really sucks. Again, I don't know where to put blame here, how/if can it be fixed or at least improved, but I can clearly see the result is not optimal.

conclusion, for now

I like the laptop. Especially for the cost (beware, on top of the shipping cost, DHL took another ~30 dollars for filling in the customs paper, import tariff in the EU is 0, but you need to declare it), I don't think you can argue with it. It's not a very powerful laptop and I don't think it can be your only device, but I didn't expect that. It replaced my old used T420 which was arguably much more powerful, but also much heavier and bulkier. It was annoying to just throw it in a backpack and carry somewhere, you can totally do it with the Pinebook. It's really great when you're away for a weekend but still want to do some light computing (don't judge, your life sucks too). On the other hand, well, there's a lot to be desired. In that sense, it's yet another open source thingie that again falls somewhat short of being an actual product. I hope to be back later with some developments and improvements.

update 1; Was told the total price should include the VAT as well and it's not that simple, so I did the unthinkable and actually checked the receipts, would you believe that. So, I paid 199 dollars for the laptop itself, then 39 dollars for shipping and on top of that 2,067.30 CZK to the DHL, which is roughly another 90 dollars. I can't easily find the breakup of that, but I assume it includes VAT. So the total is ~329 USD. Still worth it, but yeah.