#Tech

The $199 Pinebook Pro ARM64 Linux Laptop – Unboxing and First Impressions

The first part in a many part series (and it’s NOT an AD). . .

Background

The $199 Pinebook Pro ARM64 Linux Laptop – Unboxing and First Impressions– Pine64 is a community-based platform. They make single board computers, some laptops… they’re working on a tablet, smartwatch, and even phone.

The Pinebook Pro is the latest addition to the Pine64 family of the product. While the $199 price point for a 1080p laptop might be tempting, it might not before you… or maybe it is… keep reading below…

The goal is to deliver ARM64 devices that you really wish to engage with and a platform that you want to be a part of. As such, the community – PINE64 – and the company PINE Microsystems Inc. are interlocked and intertwined, but separate entities.

https://www.pine64.org/philosophy/

Unboxing

Ahhhh the good stuff…

First off, the shipping for this was bonkers. It took ~ 1 day for it to ship from Hong Kong to Portland… IT EVEN TIME TRAVELED! WTF is up with that… $199 AND IT CAN TIME TRAVEL… this thing is too good to be true.

Pinebook Pro is capable of time travel with a little help from DHL

Ok, so I’m a little made about this DHL shipping service. I purchased the Pinebook Pro back during a presale in September. The Pine folks had some publicly acknowledged shipping and production issues, that push my order back. This was no problem at all, they handled it brilliantly. They also prefaced prior to purchase there may be issues. In all, it was minor and only delayed my shipping time by a few weeks.

But. I didn’t need it ‘next day’ shipped. I appreciate it, but as many know I’m pretty environmentally sensitive, and this in my estimation was a completely unnecessary speed. I’m also a little amazed that one can ship something literally 1/2 way across the world in a few hours. I’ll be carbon offsetting this once I figure out how to estimate the impact.

Specs

  • CPU: 64-Bit Dual-Core ARM 1.8GHz Cortex A72 and Quad-Core ARM 1.4GHz Cortex A53
  • GPU: Quad-Core MALI T-860
  • RAM: 4 GB LPDDR4 Dual Channel System DRAM Memory
  • Flash: 64 GB eMMC 5.0
  • Wireless: WiFi 802.11AC + Bluetooth 4.1 (now upgraded to 5.0)
  • One USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 Type-A Host Ports
  • USB 3.0 Type-C ports with alt-mode display out (DP 1.2) and 15W 5V 3A charge (charging capable)
  • MicroSD Card Slot: 1
  • Headphone Jack: 1
  • Microphone: Built-in
  • Keyboard: Full-Size ISO(UK) type Keyboard (ANSI USA style now available)
  • Touch-pad: Large Multi-Touch Touchpad
  • Power: Input: 100~240V, Output: 5V3A
  • Battery: Lithium Polymer Battery (10000mAH)
  • Display: 14.1″ IPS LCD (1920 x 1080)
  • Front Camera: 2.0 Megapixels
  • Power Supply included
  • Dimension: 329mm x 220mm x 12mm (WxDxH)
  • Weight: 1.26 kg (2.78 lbs)
  • Warranty: 30 days

Initial Impressions

The build quality is pretty good. It’s mostly metal, with a plastic bezel around the screen. The screen is slightly oversized the body, so opening the laptop there is a nice 2-3 mm lip to open with. The hinges appear to be quite good from my limited use.

Boot time is ~13 sec from internal eMMC storage (poweron), it’s about 4 seconds from the boot screen. There is an optional NVMe ( 80mm (M.2 2280), PCIe 2.x, 5GT/s per lane) ribbon cable adapter. Buy this adapter at the same time you buy the Pinebook Pro… it’s $7 at the time of writing, but ~$9 for shipping.

The keyboard… kind of really sucks. And, it’s disappointing. “But Andrew, it’s $199!” Yep, it is. I’ve used Chromebooks that are at the same price point… keyboards are a lot better in my opinion. Key travel is pretty good, but particularly the bottom row of keys specifically Z-? are quite loose feeling and have a noticeably “clicker” sound the other rows. Maybe I just got a bad unit… but it’ll be interesting to see how long it lasts. I will say, typing on it is just fine, and… it hasn’t double pressed keys or stuck, unlike my MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE MacBook Pro. The keyboard is useable and functional with decent travel. But I’d expect much much more in the future on this. I’m actually considering replacing it.

The trackpad feels fine, though the drivers/firmware are pretty bad… especially coming from the MacBook Pro premium glass trackpad and Apple obsession for software. I understand corrections to firmware are underway and no doubt drivers will get better, but out of the box… it felt like I was stepping back in time to mid-2000’s Linux trackpad support. It 100% works and is 100% useable, it’s just 95% of the way to being flawless.

The screen is 1080p and ~14″. It shipped with no dead pixels, however, they do note that a few are possible and not considered a defect. For $199, I’d expect that, but the quality is quite good. The backlight is a bit unleveled, but far better then other screens I’ve seen at this price point. Color is quite good for the price point and… does it ever get bright!

Ports include USB-C 5Gbps, USB-A 3.0 5Gbps, and USB-A 2.0, headphone jack, Micro SD card slot (up to 256GB, 50MB/s), and barrel power port. It looks like there are two mic holes, a webcam, power and activity lights. A little surprised they included a barrel power port and USB-C charge capable port… but it’s a nice fallback and you can charge and use USB-C at the same time. I will say the charging cable is hilariously short (compared to ANY other laptop). It appears to be the same cable they ship with compute boards. It’s fine for charging, but if you plan to use the laptop while charging, you might be disappointed. I’d almost wish they not include that, and spend a bit more on the keyboard.

It boots Debian Linux out of the box, slightly modified for hardware. It runs quite well, can handle 1080p youtube videos OK, web browsing multiple tabs is fine… keeping in mind you have 4GB of ram. It’s not designed to be a powerhouse machine, but it does everything I’d expect at this price point, and does it very well. It was able to max out my ~100 Mbps internet connection just fine, and the CPU was able to handle other tasks while doing a speed test.

Installing a different OS is a bit tricky due to the way ARM architecture works. You have to install machine specific images. The community has quite a few of these going, including FreeBSD and Android… more on that in the near future.

Can I Run ____?

Maybe. It runs Debian Linux out of the box. Because it’s ARM architecture, not every application will run. The good news is a lot if not most things have been ported to ARM64. Web browser, text editors, etc., all are available and work fine.

Windows… Microsoft doesn’t technically support it, again you can’t just install an OS like you might be accustom to. Images have to be built specifically for the machine, however, I’m going to be playing around with this option… because why not 😉.

Final Thoughts & Opinions

What do I think about the $199 Pinebook Pro ARM Linux laptop after unboxing:

Pros:

  • Shipping is freaky fast
  • Cheap
  • Runs ARM
  • Supports a great company and community
  • Expandable internal storage
  • USB-C
  • USB-A
  • All metal
  • Screen is pretty good
  • It’s 64-bit

Cons:

  • Keyboard is meh
  • Trackpad needs some help, but will get better
  • Installing other operating systems is a bit of a pain
  • Linux isn’t for everyone (yet)
  • No documentation in box, online is a bit hard to come by- not for the beginner

I would not recommend buying a Pinebook Pro unless you know what you’re getting into and are pretty comfortable with Linux, or at the very least, want to take the time with trial and error. Outside of that, it’s a pretty damn nice ARM64 Linux machine… and there is no hassle of buying a Chromebook and trying to hackit or chroot it to get full Linux running. If that’s your cup of tea, galliumos.org works well and supports quite a bit of hardware.

Overall, it’s a great machine, especially if you factor in the price. I wish they would have put a bit more money into a better keyboard. They’re improving every shipping batch, so maybe I’ll be getting another 😬. Check back for more posts on this, I have a few projects planned… I’m traveling the rest of the week, but will be posting.


About the author:

Andrew lives in Portland, OR and has worked in tech for over 15 years. With a foundation in philosophy, political theory, and communications, he is an avid thinker & tinkerer, constantly learning and exploring the world around us. 

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