Pinebook, after first week

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Well, I was aware that the Pinebook is not meant as a day to day laptop replacement. It is rather an experiment, targeted at enthusiasts and developers.

Heck, I am both 🙂

So I like it! Despite software glitches and some (minor) hardware issues. But first start with what we get.

The Pinebook comes with a 11.6″ or 14″ screen, glare type, resolution 1366×768 which is pretty usable. The LCD is a TN panel, i.e. not IPS, but a pretty good TN one! The colors are bright, contrast is good, pictures are perfectly sharp. The mainboard, of which the schematics can be found here, come with 2GB of LPDDR3 RAM and a 16GB eMMC for storage. Also built onto the mainboard is a WiFi 802.11bgn + Bluetooth 4.0 (with BLE) module. That makes it pretty connectable. The mainboard plus the so called “small board” (schematics here) offer two USB 2.0 host ports, a miniHDMI connector and a 3.5mm headphone connector.

This brings me to the first critic, charging the internal 10.000mAh battery is done via a separate +5V CD power supply and not using a standard microUSB or USB-C connector. Which is a pity since the CPU, an Allwinner A64, feature a USB client port which could have been available this way too. Oh well, let’s not be too picky. Last but not least there s also a small click-in slot for a microSD card.

Also included in the pretty nice white plastic case are two small speakers, according to the printing on the case two microphones and a small web-cam with 0.3 mega pixel – which translates into VGA 640×480. Well… sufficient for video calls. The touchpad for moving the mouse pointer is pretty OK too – I had worse. There is not touchscreen.

The Allwinner A64 CPU is pretty interesting. It is the same as on the older Pine64 boards. The name suggests it, it is an ARM 64 bit implementation with four CPU cores running up to 1.2GHz. The GPU is a MALI 400 core. The downside of this CPU is that its mainline Linux support is bad, really bad. A lot of the internal peripherals is not supported and the documentation is, well, weak. But this is not novelty and true for many of the new embedded and mobile ARM implementations. One of the biggest issues especially concerning free software support is the Mali GPU, likewise for many other ARM GPUs. There is a pretty old Mali driver reverse engineering project called Lima but which seems to be abandoned since the end of 2015.

Unboxing, booting!

I ordered my Pinebook with “Linux” which means an Ubuntu flavor with Mate desktop. But it came with Android 7 pre-installed. Oh well, not too bad to test the thing. I still have it on the eMMC and have installed the “Linux” on a microSD card. In Android pretty much everything is supported, sound, WiFi, GPU acceleration for GUI and for video playback etc. But Android is not that much fun on such a big screen and without a touchscreen. I have the impression  that the mouse pointer also shows a lag which reduces the usability a bit. The Android system comes pre-rooted and with the most basic Google apps installed including the Play store.

It is not a big surprise that Android is working somewhat nicely since the Allwinner CPU is meant for mobile devices and surely Allwinner provides an Android “SDK” to customers. Likewise with most other Android manufacturer SDKs/BSPs the used Linux kernel version is an ancient 3.10.105.

Linux Ubuntu Xenial & Mate Desktop

Getting to boot something else than from the internal eMMC is pretty easy. If a microSD card with correct boot information is inserted when powering up the Pinebook will boot from it – first it load a pre-bootloader which will load U-Boot which again will execute a boot script. This is very straight forward an easy to use, very good! Pine offers an easy GUI interface for downloading and flashing SD card images for their Pine boards – Pine64, SOPine and Pinebook. So I used this GUI tool to write the latest Ubuntu Xenial based build 0.5.5-65 to a 16GB microSD card – my 8GB card did not work, I guess the image is just slightly bigger. Plug it into the Pinebook and boot away – works!

The Linux Mate desktop is not as snappy and elegant as the Android GUI. But it works pretty nicely – at least most stuff. You need to accept that even a 1.2GHz 64bit quad core ARM does not perform like a 1.2GHz 64bit quad core Intel PC. But also consumes a fraction of energy. Apropos energy!

Standby, oh yes!

One of my most concerns about mobile hardware always is, how long does the battery last when I put it to sleep / standby? This is one of the areas the Pinebook is a total blast! The standby power draw is near to zero! It really does an amazing job. Just close the lid and after 2-3 seconds the power LED is off. I left it this way for about 6 hours and the battery still had 99% (started with 100%). This can even be an inaccuracy in the power meter or whatever, I need to test this further but this is already very encouraging.

A small drawback for me as a keyboard junkie I found that the space key does not emit a key press when I hit it at the left corner. Since I am typing with both hands sometimes I hit space with my left thumb on the left end of the space key andgetnothingwhichisquite annoying 🙂

First summary

If you are interested in playing with an ARM SoC and do not want to spend hundreds of € or $ on eval kits then the Pinebook is definitely something for you!

If you are looking for a replacement for your current laptopt, no, this is not for you.

Personally I especially love it because the schematics are open and free so a low level and kernel hacker like me can directly dive into hacking.