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.