Pinebook Pro, First Impressions

Note: This post was written on the Pinebook Pro :)

After seeing it in action at FOSDEM (from afar, as the crowd was too large), I decided to buy a Pinebook Pro for personal use. From the beginning, the intention was to use it for pkgsrc development, with NetBSD as the main OS. It was finally delivered on Thursday, one day earlier than promised, so I thought I would write down my first impressions.

If you have never heard of the Pinebook Pro: It is a cheap, open, hackable laptop with an ARM processor, the successor of the original Pinebook (which I thought was too low-end to be a useful daily driver) with generally more premium components.

As I alluded to in the first paragraph, the enthusiasm of the Free Software community is incredibly strong! Nothing showed this better than the incredible resonance from a tweet with a quick snapshot after the first boot:

It's here, a day earlier than expected! @thepine64 #PineBookPro pic.twitter.com/HIMdnFtxIG

— benz (@bentsukun) May 28, 2020

You’ll note, in passing, that on the photo, I am downloading the NetBSD install image :)

What makes this device attractive, apart from the price, is the ARM architecture without the baggage of the PC world. What’s more, an open and hackable system in the age of Macbooks with soldered everything, tablets that you cannot open, “secure” boot that severely limits what you can run on it, is something of a counterculture device. The Pine64 folks have built a great community that embodies the true hacker spirit.

The Hardware

Here is where I am going to be harsh: in some ways, using this device feels like a regression.

I was previously using a Samsung Chromebook Pro, a Pixelbook and a Pixel Slate as laptops. Compared to these, the Pinebook Pro has

  • no HiDPI screen,
  • no touchscreen,
  • a barrel connector power supply,

and peripherals are mostly using USB-A port. To be fair, there is USB-C, and it can be used to charge the machine, so I haven’t used the original charger yet.

The display resolution is 1920x1080, equivalent to about 100 dpi. While I regret the absence of HiDPI, it is well lit and well readable. The viewing angles are fairly large, and the colors are crisp. The default Manjaro Linux wallpaper is a great showcase for this.

The Pinebook Pro is vaguely shaped like a MacBook Air from a few years ago, with the same curved bottom. At 14”, it is surprisingly large – the machines mentioned above are 12 to 13”. Compared to the MacBook and Pixelbook in their quest for ever thinner devices, the Pinebook Pro feels strangely empty. I guess there is actually free space on the inside that you can use for upgrades and such.

The most similar laptop I have used is the HP Chromebook 14. Against this, the Pinebook Pro holds up really well though: it is lighter, has a better keyboard and display and is actually cheaper!

Keyboard and Trackpad

The keyboard is an absolute joy to use. Really, it’s great. The keys have a large amount of travel, comparable to older MacBook Pros, before they introduced the terrible keyboard. The layout (I have ANSI, i.e. US) is exactly what you would expect. This is definitely made for typing a lot.

On the other hand, I am not friends with that trackpad. I am hoping I can get used to it at some point. The way it tracks small finger movement is … weird and counter-intuitive, and I am having a hard time hitting small click targets. It has two mouse buttons under the bottom left and bottom right, so clicking in the middle usually has no effect. For dragging, you need to keep one finger in the corner on the button and move another finger, which sometimes triggers multi-touch gestures.

Battery life

I have not done detailed measurements, but it seems pretty good at about 7 hours. Here is the envstat output while writing this:

Current  CritMax  WarnMax  WarnMin  CritMin  Unit
[cwfg0]
            battery voltage:     3.935                                         V
            battery percent:        79                                      none
  battery remaining minutes:       319        0        0        0        0  none
[rktsadc0]
                        CPU:    42.778   95.000   75.000                    degC
                        GPU:    43.333   95.000   75.000                    degC

Performance

Compared to all those ARM SBCs I have used (Raspberry Pi, Orange Pi, Pine-A64), the Pinebook Pro feels really fast. Storage (at this point I am using a memory card) is decent speed-wise, and compilations are reasonably fast – though my five year old Intel NUC with an i7 still beats it by far, of course. But my workload involves compiling lots of stuff, so this seems like a good fit.

Graphics performance has not blown me away. Animations on Manjaro stutter a bit, Midori on NetBSD (the first browser that I tried) is really testing my patience.

Hackability?

I noticed that opening the bottom of the housing is screwed on with standard Philips head screws and easy to open. There are no rubber feet glued on top of the screws, no special tools needed.

You can easily boot your custom OS from the micro-SD card reader. As mentioned, I bought this machine for running NetBSD on it, which works well.

There are upgrade kits available, for example an adapter to add an NVMe disk instead of the eMMC. For the original Pinebook, there has been an upgrade kit with a better processor even.

Because we are on ARM, there is no “Intel Inside”, and consequently, there are also no stickers, except for one on the underside that gives the model number.

Conclusion

This has become longer than I intended. Despite my criticism, I really like this machine. I am hoping I can get some good development work done with it and use NetBSD for my daily computing tasks.

Stay tuned for another post with some NetBSD tips!

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