negative zero

PinePhone: initial thoughts

2022 October 7

[hardware] [phone] [pine64] [pinephone] [review] [tech]


A friend recently sent me their old PinePhone! I've had this thing for less than a week, so this is a very preliminary review. I intend to write more posts as I use it more.

This is a pre-owned device not directly from Pine64, so I don't have reactions about the Pine64 packaging.


How I use it

This is very important: I am not using this as a cell phone. Before turning it on, I opened up the back and set the modem killswitch to cut power to the modem. I have never inserted a SIM card into this device.

This post is not for me to rant about cell phone tracking; I just want the reader to understand how I'm using the PinePhone. Most likely, the way I use it is different than the way you would use it. If you're looking for advice on whether to get a PinePhone to use as a cell phone, this post is probably not for you.

In particular, the reason this device might be useful to me right now is because when I go to school, I have a school-issued laptop I carry back and forth. I don't use this laptop for personal stuff, just school stuff. That means that if I want to check my XMPP messages or email while at school, I need to carry an entire separate device with me as well. This phone is a lot easier to carry to school than a whole second laptop.


Initial reaction

It's really big! My last smartphone was about 14.5cm/5.75in. by 7cm/2.75in. My Sansa Fuze+, which I'm accustomed to carrying around, is a mere 9.5cm/3.75in. by 5cm/2in. The PinePhone is about 16cm/6.25in. by 7.5cm/3in.! It's tall enough that trying to tap things in the upper part of the screen is quite cumbersome.


Hardware

This is the original PinePhone with 2GB of RAM. It has a huge battery to fit the huge frame. The charging port is USB-C, so I had to buy a new cable for it. Oh well, it's good to have one anyway.

There's a Debian logo on the back of mine, which is cute.

The case is harder to open than I'd expect. Once I get one corner of the case popped up, it's no problem, but for some reason I have trouble getting that corner (the bottom-right corner, where you can dig in a fingernail or other tool) open.

It can fit a micro SIM card or something like that and a microSD card. The PinePhone boots from the microSD card by default, which is nice.

There are 6 hardware killswitches:

  1. Modem
  2. Wifi/BT
  3. Microphone
  4. Rear camera
  5. Front camera
  6. Headphone

The microphone killswitch disables the built-in microphone. With this switch disabled, the PinePhone can still use a microphone as part of a headset plugged into the headphone jack (if the headphone jack is enabled).

I set the modem and microphone switches to off and left the others on. I have not yet gotten around to putting stickers over the cameras, but I intend to. It's a hassle to flip the killswitches (since it's a hassle to open the phone and the switches are very small and must be set with a tool like a pin or mechanical pencil), so it'll be easier to leave the cameras enabled at the hardware level but cover them. I think I don't need the built-in microphone at all because I can just plug in headphones with a mic if I need one.


Software

OS

A bunch of different operating systems are available for the PinePhone.

Right now, I'm running Mobian (basically Debian) with Phosh. In order to boot Mobian, I had to first install Tow-Boot. As is typical for Pine64/ARM devices, it took me a while to figure out how to install an OS, but I figured it out. Mobian conveniently offers an installer that can encrypt the installation.

One complaint I have about the Mobian installer is that it only allows you to put in a numerical password, and it reverses the position of the numbers on the number pad during installation from how it is on the lock screen.

Specifically what I mean by that is that the lock screen number pad looks like this:

123
456
789
0

However, during the initial installation (when you set your screen lock PIN), the number pad is positioned like this:

789
456
123
0

I also tried to reset my password once, and it didn't work.

(The FDE password can contain non-numeric characters too, just not the user account/screen unlock password.)

Phosh is GNOME-based. You can change the theme to dark, but it didn't work well when I tried. To get dark theme properly working in some apps (like Dino), I had to run:

gsettings set org.gnome.desktop.interface gtk-theme "Adwaita-dark"

Mobian currently defaults to Debian bookworm (testing). I ended up switching to sid (unstable).


Applications

The big one I need is an XMPP client. I use XMPP a lot. The problem is that desktop Linux XMPP clients are generally not optimized for small, narrow mobile screens. The exception is a specific version of Dino which uses libhandy to support mobile. This is available from Debian's experimental repo.

This version of Dino... mostly works. There are some issues like when verifying keys which still run off the screen. It's possible to scroll down applications under the Mobile Settings app → Compositor, which is necessary for some things in Dino.

I get notifications from Dino, but they don't cause the phone to ring or vibrate. I need to look into that.

I also installed Pinafore as a progressive web app in GNOME Web (Epiphany). This isn't a great time (see below).

I set up ssh so I can run commands from my desktop (with its full physical keyboard), which is nice.


Performance

I mean, what can I say? It works, but not well. It's slow. It can't handle running very many things at a time. (Only 2GB of RAM, minus what it takes to run a GNOME-based DE, is not very much.) Pinafore frequently crashes while the only other thing running is Dino.

I mostly want this device for XMPP and SIP. (I haven't tested SIP yet, but Mobian+Phosh comes with Purism's Calls application which supports SIP.) It works for XMPP. I can scroll my Fediverse timeline while lying down, which is nice. This pretty much is what I need it to be, which is a VERY minimal device I can easily carry with me.

Oh yeah, also the battery life is not good. I don't have numbers, but it's not good. One thing in particular is that battery optimizations generally come from having the phone suspend while inactive, then allowing the modem to wake it up if you receive a phone call or text. I have the modem disabled; I'm only using it on wifi. It's only useful to me when not suspended, so I disabled the setting that causes it to suspend when not in use. So the battery drains.


Overall

I don't think this is news to anyone, but this is not (yet) the phone for most people.

It might work for me as the handheld computer I could benefit from.