Whatever Tim Feels Like Posting

Month: April 2021

​A Slice of Raspberry Pi 400

How I got baked into this…

I was offered the short-term use of a brand new Raspberry Pi 400 Personal Computer Kit, and leapt at the chance. The kit comes with the actual Raspberry Pi 400, a matching mouse, a power supply a 16 Mb MicroSD memory card and a cable for connecting an HDMI monitor or TV to a Micro-HDMI port on the Pi.

I have been a longtime users and fan of the Raspberry Pi family of single board computers. These little boards can be used as regular computers, as the “brains” in a robot or drone, as the controller for a scientific or industrial system, as a file server, or about anything you can think of.

Part of what I love is that they come as a simple little board and anything else you want you can make or buy and add on to the board. This leaves a lot to the imagination, and the original purpose of the Raspberry Pi was as an educational tool, so imagination is key.

So I had a bit of skepticism about a Raspberry Pi that was a complete computer, in a case that was also a keyboard, and even (in the current configuration) as a kit which just needs a monitor added.

First taste of Pi

It’s really too cute – a tiny keyboard, white on top and red underneath, no bigger than the keyboard area on a small laptop. And, with a computer inside it. The attractive package is also solidly built and solid feeling. The Super Key (“Windows key” to some people) has a raspberry on it. It has led lights for power, capslock, and numlock.

On the back there are ports for gigabyte wired Ethernet, USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, USB C (for power-in only), two Micro-HDMI ports for connecting monitors, a slot for a MicroSD card (used as main storage memory), and a 40-pin GPIO port that can be configured for anything a tinkerer can think of.

Inside is a quad-core 64-bit ARM processor running at 1.8 GHz. Bluetooth connectivity, and b/g/n/ac wireless.

As I noted above, the package I borrowed includes the power supply, HDMI cable, memory card, and mouse. It also has a well-written 250 page book on getting started with the Pi 400.

Rolling out the Pi crust

One way that this system still allows for the imagination to roll free is that you can have some choice in operating systems. The kit comes with a memory card that boots into a menu that allows you to choose and install an operating system. I chose the default, Raspberry Pi’s own RaspberryPi OS (PiOS), a version of Debian Linux with small modifications for Raspberry Pis.

First run/setup was easy, mostly automatic, with an update and a restart following.

After rebooting, it’s ready to use. It comes with a small but useful component of software including Chromium Browser (open-source version of Chrome), LibreOffice Suite, some games and some programming tools, VLC for multimedia, etc. One interesting add-in is Wolfram Mathematica software that they put in under a special license from Wolfram that allows non-commercial use of this scientific software.

It’s running an up-to-date version 5.10 Linux kernel. Overall responsiveness seems pretty good. It connected to my network file server easily (some systems don’t). Even with software that asks a lot of the system (for example, LibreOffice, or browsers) it moves along at a pretty acceptable pace.

While the small selection of software is pretty useful, the “Recommended Software” entry in the menu doesn’t give much extra. I immediately added Synaptic, a powerful tool though a little less that user-friendly tool for adding more software packages. I had to add Synaptic from the command line (“sudo apt install synaptic”) and then could use it to add more software like Mozilla Firefox to replace the Chromium browser, and other favorites to the user’s tastes.

I also tried out a 4K monitor, to see if it would work, and it did but only at 30 Hz, a slow refresh rate.

Did you try other flavors?

I also tried the Pi400 with Manjaro ARM, which has been my favorite distro for ARM-based computers lately. It is on my Pi4 and my PinebookPro laptop. For the Pi400, I used it with KDE Plasma desktop environment. Since Manjaro is a “rolling” release, it updates frequently and supports the latest hardware and software.

The installed software is similar to that of PiOS, but does have Mozilla Firefox in place of Chromium, and, unlike PiOS, includes GIMP for higher end graphics editing. Software management is not user-friendly, but the provided package manager (PAMAC) is very comprehensive.

So all in all how did the Pi taste?

It’s worth repeating that it’s a pretty cute little unit! It is also well-made, pretty snappy, and supports a lot of software and hardware. While the original modular Raspberry Pi form factor still is more appealing to me, I concede that this would be a better choice for anyone who wants a small, inexpensive computer and doesn’t want to do a lot of customization.

The complete kit is available for about $100 in a variety of online merchants.


A light-hearted poke at people who say they don’t need online security because they “have nothing to hide”

Please fill in the following
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If you wouldn’t want to make this info public,
you should be taking measures to ensure your online privacy! For example…

  • Security measures in your browser
  • Virtual Private Network (VPN)
  • Anti-virus / malware software
  • Advanced password management (complex passwords, different for each site, two-factor, password manager, etc.)
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  • Take steps to avoid tracking
  • Never respond (or even open) Spam mail
  • In general, learn about privacy and security and take it seriously!

A year of using a Pinebook Pro as my main laptop computer

Tim Hilliard

I have been using my Pinebook Pro as my main laptop for a year now. While I still use a desktop computer most of the time, I use the Pinebook Pro for anything I would use a laptop for including quite a few online meetings using Jitsi and occasionally Zoom.

The Pinebook Pro (PBP) is a laptop computer designed as a prototype (maybe a proof-of-concept?) of an ARM-based, inexpensive, Linux-centric laptop aimed more at hobbyists and die-hard Linux users than at general users. Basic specs are:

Rockchip RK3399 SOC with Mali T860 MP4 GPU
1080p IPS Panel
Magnesium Alloy Shell body
Bootable Micro SD Slot
64GB of eMMC (Upgradable)
USB 2.0, 3.0
USB-C (Data, Power and Video out)
Lithium Polymer Battery (10000mAH)
Stereo Speakers
WiFi 802.11 AC + Bluetooth 5.0
Headphone Jack
Front-Facing Camera (1080p)
ISO & ANSI Keyboard Variants
Privacy Switches for Camera, Microphones and BT/WiFi
Large Trackpad
UART Access via Audio Jack
Barrel Power (5V 3A) Port

For details see the PBP webpage.

Is it a viable low-cost laptop for anyone to use?

Maybe not everyone, but it is a reasonable alternative for many people. I would say it was good for anyone who is already used to using Linux, is willing to deal with a few quirks or limitations that require some adjustments or tweaks on the user’s part, and doesn’t need blazing speed.

Since it is different from other laptops I would hesitate to suggest a user who hasn’t used Linux start right in with it; they would be having a hard time knowing whether issues were due to Linux or due to the PBP.

Some of the quirks or limitations I think the user would have to be accepting of include the smallish keyboard. I haven’t used the ISO keyboard, just the ANSI, so my comments refer to it. The keyboard has the letters standard size, but not as many other keys to make up for the small overall area of keys. For example, the backspace and delete keys are combined so you need to use “function-backspace” for “delete.”

Additional quirky aspects include the lack of a graphics subsystem aside from that built into the ARM chip, no easy way to add internal SSD drives, and the inability to upgrade the memory from 4 GB. For me, the biggest hardware issue was related to external monitors, of which I will address more completely below. The solution to my issues was simple but is a clear example of why I don’t recommend the PBP to someone not willing to get their hands a bit dirty, so to speak…

As for the speed, it’s a $200 laptop running on an ARM chip with memory fixed at 4 GB – the somewhat slow speed is a given and if that is a deal-breaker for a user, they should shy away.

So why does it work for me?

As a longtime Linux user the fact that it comes with Linux was a point in favor of it for me. The quirks of the hardware don’t bother me. I usually prefer to use external storage for files I plan to work on when I am on a laptop anyhow, which the USB-C and USB-3 ports make easy. The keyboard is not an issue for me aside from the aforementioned lack of a delete-key, which I am now used to. And the speed isn’t a problem for me – running Manjaro ARM, avoiding tasks that bring it to its knees, and occasionally being patient are enough to make it work for me. Booting up, loading the OS, etc. are quick, the slowness is usually only noticeable when starting a new software instance where the package is fairly large – LibreOffice for example.

Using it over the last year as my secondary home computer (any time I want to use a computer away from my desktop), traveling machine, and go-to platform for videoconferencing, it has been great. Traveling it has been nice to have such a compact machine in cafes, hotel rooms, and when in other people’s homes.

It runs very cool. There is only passive cooling and it has no internal moving parts. It seems pretty rugged for such a lightweight item, and the hinges are suitably stiff. The screen is maybe slightly dark but I only notice it when I have a second monitor attached to compare it to.

I first used the OS that was included last year, Armbian Mate, and had some issues. I don’t really like Mate and when I heard that Manjaro was the new shipping OS, I tried it and was hooked. The KDE desktop is so clean and snappy, and almost everything has been working well.

Almost everything? Well, the Armbian had better PBP-specific utilities,such as a CPU speed “applet” that showed the speeds of all 6 cores. I haven’t found such a beast for Manjaro.

The ARM chip might limit some software choices, but I haven’t really had a problem. I don’t think you can use Wine, and sometimes a piece of software in the repositories will say something like “not available for this architecture. Nothing I could do would make the LibreOffice spellchecker work until I tried installing it from Snap (https://snapcraft.io/) and it has been flawless since. The repositories did not let me install DarkTable so I assumed it was incompatible, but then I tried it from a from Snap and again it works well. I use DarkTable on the PBP for editing RAW graphics files on the road and it does severely test the machine’s speed!

The issue I mentioned before with an external monitor was that an upgrade to version 5.8 of the Linux kernel broke my USB-C to HDMI connection. The solution, easily found in the great PBP forums, was to use a PBP-specific kernel installed at the command line. After a few weeks I went back to the regularly updated kernels and the problem was fixed. I am letting it update as Manjaro wants to now, which means you get a newly updated kernel about 2 weeks after it is released – time for the bugs to be sorted out, I guess.

One other hardware issue for me has been that the touch-pad is very sensitive and messes up my typing – already poor – when I brush across it. Since I rarely use a touch-pad I just turn it off by clicking on an icon in the system tray. I think Pine has a fix for this on their website but I haven’t applied it.

I bought a generic, inexpensive USB-C hub from Anker to use as a pseudo-docking station, and it works very well. The HDMI output drives the external monitor without issues. Anything I have connected has worked well, including wireless mouse, printer, camera, and phone. The KDE Connect software was preinstalled and works well with an Android phone, something I find especially handy when traveling.

Battery life is excellent.

The tiny size, light weight, and rugged magnesium case are real pluses.

What’s the bottom line?

As I see it, most existing Linux users would be able to use the PBP without being cutting-edge addicted Linux nerds, but on the other hand Linux “noobs” with an aversion to tinkering a bit should be wary of getting one.