The video for this script is published here
There are times in the technology industry, when a gadget somes along that has the potential to drastically change how we do things. Pine Store Limited have introduced a line of products that takes aim squarely at the big guns like Google and Apple, flips them the bird and says “we’re going to do things our way”.
I’m just another kiwi guy, and this, is the PinePhone.
First, a little history.
Pine Store Limited (Pine64 as we know it today) was only incorporated in 2019, as Pine Microsystems of Fremont California, was being dissolved.
Some of you may not know, that Pine wasnt always known for their SBC’s. Originally, the founder TL Lim, invented the PopBox and Popcorn Hour media players, releasing them under the Syabas and Cloud Media brands.
In 2015, with the successful crowdfunding campaign that raised over 1.7 million US Dollars, their first SBC, the Pine A64 was released. Though it was plagued with delays and shipping issues, the SBC generally receieved good reviews.
Pine has gone on to create what I would call an ecosystem of products that have the potential to all work together. Whether it was intended or not, it places Pine in the unenviable position of direct competition with both Google and Apple.
Where Google and Apple both develop their products in house, with a lot of closed source and secretive practices, Pine have chosen a more “If you build it, they will come” approach. By providing the hardware platforms and releasing them at extremely reasonable price points, the developers; tinkerers and early adopters have come out of the woodwork and taken up the cause in the name of privacy, sharing and OpenSource.
Projects such as Purism, Manjaro, UBPorts and their ilk – have all jumped on the band wagon, producing amazing results in an extremely short time frame. Where an OpenSource mobile phone would have been nothing but a pipe dream just 5 years ago, today, it’s not just plausible, it’s happening right in front of our eyes.
Now, before we get to the phone, a short disclaimer.
To start with, I’m NOT a developer, and I don’t fully understand the nuonces of developing the OS’s and applications for these devices. I also purchased the PinePhone with my own money, and Pine Store Limited are not paying me, nor do they have any copyediting rights. The experiences and opinions I have stated in this video, are my own. The developers also deserve much more praise, recognition and support than I could ever personally provide. Where possible, I do donate to these projects to help development, because I want to see them succeed.
That said, lets get into it.
Starting at the basic platform itself, hardware is (and lets be honest here) average at best, but the fact that it is almost fully open, makes it a wonder to behold. Like, if something doesnt work properly, there’s probably someone already working on it, and if there isnt, you can do it yourself. That’s literally a game changer for the whole mobile industry.
Seeing forums, chats and bug reports teeming with activity has been an absolute pleasure to watch. I’m seeing bugs resolved on a daily basis, and immediately released. The communities built around the various projects are clear, concise and welcoming.
As a concept, the PinePhone is in a category of it’s own. The only other possible competitor is the Librem 5, and that’s in a completely different price bracket, with a real hyperfocus on ownership and control. By comparison, the PinePhone is most definitely a tinkerers delight. It’s meant to be pulled apart, reconfigured, reinstalled, adjusted, hacked, modded an experimented with. If this is the general direction Pine64 is going in, it has met and even exceeded those goals in spectacular fashion.
On a purely cosmetic level, the PinePhone FEELS like a phone. It feels good in the hand, and it’s a device I actually WANT to use. The plastic case is a little bit of a grease magnet, and the matt finish just soaks up fingerprints, giving it a mottled appearance. It does however, provide a nice grippy feeling in the hand (without that crappy rubbery finish that degrades into mush after a couple of years). The buttons are quite easy to press, and have a gentle clicky feeling to them that’s reassuring. You never feel like you have to press them too hard to make them function. The removeable back cover feels strong, and there is very little creaking or flex in the device as a whole. The only real issue here, is the backward firing speaker. It’s a little bit out of place, but works reasonably well. Unfortunately, it’s heavily muffled when you put it down though.
The screen is not True HD, but 1440 by 720 is decent at 5.95 inches. Text on screen is crisp and clear, with only a little bit of jaggyness around the curved edges of characters. Thankfully, I much prefer this to antialiased text. The 18 by 9 ratio is about right to be in line with the rest of the industry. The color reproduction is great, with impressive vewing angles, but it does struggle a little in direct sunlight. It’s by no means perfect, but better than a lot of LCD panels we see on many cheap Android phones. It’s touch response is great, with only the occasional doubletouch. This is likely something that can be fixed in software.
The Allwinner A64 is unfortunately, not aging so well. It is definitely underpowered, but as a tinkerers SoC, it is a perfect fit for this device. With its Mali400 MP2, it’s capable of hardware rendering and video acceleration, and according to the spec sheet, it is also capable of outputting 4K at 30 FPS over HDMI 1.4. The heat produced by this chip is bit of a concern, with something as simple as a phone call causing the top of the phone to heat up measurably. This could potentially decrease the lifespan of the battery, and possibly even damage the screen. For longevity’s sake, i hope that Pine64 will look into how to wick away some of that excess heat.
The maximum of 3 gigabytes of RAM that this SoC supports is definitely going to limit the utility of this machine, and LPDDR3 is also on the older end of the scale, as the spec was released in 2012. The PinePhone is in good company here though, with devices like the Nexus 10, the Samsung Galaxy S4, and the venerable iPhone 5s. Age aside, as a machine for hackers, LPDDR3 is more than adequate.
Internal emmc storage is fast and efficient. Flashing a new OS is easy once you’ve figured out how, and can be done in just a few minutes. Just remember to check your images for corruption, and attach your phone to a properly functioning USB port. Full disclosure – I had a malfunctioning USB port while testing this, and initially blamed the phone. It was my fault for not checking first.
The camera is… well, to put it mildly… bad. The raw data from the sensor is horrible. It’s grainy and full of artifacts. The low light performance is all but non existant. Colors are desaturated, and contrast is poor. The image is cloudy and feels like you’re constantly looking through heavy smog. This looks to me, as if it’s probably a hardware issue that may never be able to be resolved in software. The Megapixels app also needs some heavy work. At the time of writing, there is a bug that prevents the camera from working upon first opening the app. You either have to kill off and re-open, or switch to the front facing camera and back again for it to work properly. Speaking of that front facing camera – it’s just as bad, if not worse. While it doesnt seem to suffer from the same bug, the image quality has a definite orange/yellow hue to it. While this is likely to be resolved in software, it is never likely to produce good images. But, considering the price point and target audience of the phone, this is not a deal breaker. It was never MEANT to be good. It’s designed to be hackable, not a high end camera replacement. Given the way Pine have built the phone, it is also entirely possible that they could release an upgraded camera module that can be relatively easily installed by the end user.
The inclusion of a headphone jack is a welcome one. With many manufacturers opting to drop support for the almighty headphone jack, this has long been a sore point for customers and developers alike, especially since Pine64’s decision to double up the utility of the 3.5 milimeter jack as a UART port. Pine could have opted for bit-banging, but as a tinkerers device, the UART port is a great choice.
Wireless B G and N, as well as Bluetooth 4.0 make an appearance as well. While I would have liked to see support for 802.11ac, and Bluetooth 5, these are only personal preferences, and the the choice to omit them was a good one to help keep the costs down.
There is also a decent array of sensors like an accelerometer; gyro and compass. Inclusion of GPS is also great to see. The caveat here, is that it just because certain features are available in hardware, doesnt mean that they have been taken advantage of in software, yet.
The user replaceable 3000 miliamp hour battery is a good choice, with the ability to use a Samsung J7 replacement making the phone much more viable to import. Most countries should have local supplies available. However, the battery life is abysmal. On a day when I barely touched the phone, I could get about 12 hours or so. On an average day of use, I got around 6 hours. I don’t mind charging my phone when not in use, but having to charge it to capacity 3 times just to get through a day is a little much.
Now, before I get into the software, I need to make clear that I am not critisizing any of the apps or the people who develop them. I’m going for a “state of play” kind of review. I am well aware that the vast majority of the bugs or issues I talk about here, will likely be resolved in the future, and I’m very thankful to those who are doing the hard work.
There are far too many Operating Systems for me to honestly review them all properly within one week. But I can talk about the main one I have tried.
My main experience with the PinePhone was with Mobian. As I’m already familiar with Debain and Ubuntu, this seemed like the logical place to start. After the initial boot and setup, I was pleasantly surprised. Phosh is able to give Linux a real mobile experience. It feels familiar. Icons are large and friendly, and menus are where you expect them to be. Mobian is still a little rough around the edges, but is mostly functional.
My first instinct was to attempt to use Mobian as my daily driver, but after a couple of days, I found this wasn’t reasonably possible. There were just too many issues i couldnt get passed.
During these days with Mobian, I had an unexpected national alert from the Civil Defence force (similar to the US National Guard), evacuating people from coastal areas due to a potential incoming Tidal Wave. Phone calls and text messages were of major importance in this scenario. The failure here, was that I never got a single phone call, nor a single SMS message. In a Civil Emergency like that, it is unforgivable to be out of contact. This is not to say Mobian is at fault, but when the phone is in a deep sleep state, it rejected all inbound phone calls, and not a single SMS was received. The SMS messages only arrived after I manually opened the Chatty app. This was a wakeup call for me, as I have a wife and two children. If I am not contactible in a situation like this, then it puts all of us in danger.
Aside from the unreliable incoming calls and SMS, when a call did actually connect, the quality was quite bad. It was scratchey and tinny, which made it near impossible to discern what the person on the other end of the call is saying.
Software wise, the inclusion of Firefox ESR is a little bit odd, as the difference in loading times between ESR and Firefox 78 are essentially identical. Considering the updated thechnologies included in the later version of FireFox, I have to question this choice.
Confusing things more, the re-labelled terminal application Kings Cross made finding a terminal a little confusing to begin with. I’m much more used to looking for an application called Terminal or Xterm.
There are a few other niggling issues as well. For example, once the Automatic brightness has been enabled, it can take over the whole function of screen brightness, set it as low as possible, then not allow you to disable it. Also, in the default applications, the calendar is listed as a Text Editor, and not the standard calendar, which doesnt appear in the drop down at all. And the real killer for me, was an apt upgrade, which broke the user password entry. This is a known problem, but it took me a while to find out about it through researching bug reports.
One of my biggest pet peeves, was WiFi and Mobile Data. After the phone goes to sleep, it shuts off the WiFi; Bluetooth and Mobile modem (I’m assuming in an effort to save precious battery life), but it has a knock on effect of completely disabling any apps that require internet or Mobile connections to function, such as Fractal, Tootle, SMS and Phone calls. I found a setting in the “Power menu” where you could disable this function, but instead of just disabling the sleep function of the Modem and Wireless cards, it puts the phone into Aeroplane mode. Turning of Aeroplane mode just turns back on the sleep function. Im hoping this is an oversight to be fixed later.
Most of these issues made me switch my sim back to my old Oppo A5.
All of the problems aside though, when it comes down too it, this phone is a masterclass in how to grow a community. The subgroups that have popped up around this device are phenominal. Development is being carried out at a staggering pace, far faster than any other projects I’ve seen in recent times. Pine64 has created something special here, and the community has embraced it with enthusiasm. I am proud of what has been achieved so far, and am excited to see what will be done in the future.
Should you as a general end user, buy a PinePhone? No. It is definitely not ready for daily use. Absolutely not.
What if you want to contribute, or tinker? Oh HELL yes. I would say that this device is the equivalent of what the Raspberry Pi is to the computer ecosystem. Its cheap, extensible and fun to play with. There is a ton of room to grow, and a lot of open neiches that have yet to be filled.
Do I regret buying my PinePhone? 100% No. In fact, I’m contemplating buying a second phone, and a few other devices like the PineTab; PineBook Pro and PineTime. I can see the potential in this project, and want to encourage its growth, as well as potentially write a game or two for it.
Thanks to everyone for listening to my ramblings, and I’ll attempt to upload more in the near future. keep an eye out for the upcoming video about mobile convergence.
Be sure to check out my alt peertube channel, where I post random quick videos that don’t really warrant a complete video of their own, and things I think might interest other people. The link is in the description.