In early March of this year, I ordered one of the FOSS-driven Pine64 project’s newest designs—the Pinebook Pro. The company’s manufacturing efforts have taken an enormous hit due to the impact of COVID-19 on its Chinese manufacturing partners, which kept me from receiving my Pinebook Pro until last week.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 didn’t merely slow down production. It also made QA impossible, which led to enough problems with my new laptop that it’s going to need to be replaced. We’ll talk about why that is in much greater detail later, but for right now, keep in mind that some parts of my experience aren’t as-designed for the hardware.
You should also keep in mind that the Pinebook isn’t exactly a consumer product—it’s a device aimed squarely at hobbyists and tinkerers with offbeat plans and limited budget. Most people will not want to replace their standard consumer laptop or Chromebook with a Pinebook Pro—but it’s a fascinating look at what’s possible in inexpensive hardware design with an intense focus on privacy, open source design, and community.
|Specs at a glance: Pinebook Pro|
|CPU||Hex-core big.LITTLE cluster:
2x ARM A-72 2.0GHz
4x ARM A-53 1.5GHz
|GPU||ARM Mali T860MP4 UHD|
1×1 dual-band 802.11ac + Bluetooth
|SSD||SanDisk iNAND 7232 64GiB eMMC|
|Battery||10000 mAH @ 3.8V|
|Display||14″ 1080p color active matrix TFT LCD|
|Price as tested||$199, from Pine64 store|
The most important thing any prospective buyer needs to know about the Pinebook Pro’s specifications is that it’s not an x86 device—it’s a big.LITTLE heterogeneous ARM cluster architecture, with two Cortex A72 cores and four Cortex A53 cores. In 2020, this sharply limits the operating system selection—you’re not going to buy a Pinebook Pro and slap Windows on it after you get it.
The Pinebook Pro comes with Manjaro Linux pre-installed. Manjaro is, effectively, Arch Linux but with a set of reasonably sane defaults—”real” Arch might be considered more of a framework upon which to hang a distro, rather than a complete distribution itself.
If you’re not into Manjaro, that’s fine—the Pine64 project offers a wide selection of additional, downloadable user-installable Pinebook Pro images including Debian, Fedora, NetBSD, Chromium OS, and more.
The onboard 64GiB eMMC module is reasonably high-performance; it can be replaced or supplemented with an NVMe SSD if you purchase an optional third-party adapter.
Unboxing the Pinebook Pro
I have a confession: I do not, personally, care in the slightest about “the unboxing experience,” aside from hoping I don’t have to fight some awful anti-theft packaging. As far as I’m concerned, the box is the thing that you hold on to grudgingly for a week in case you have to ship the thing back—and no more. With that said… the Pinebook Pro presents you with a hilariously low-rent unboxing experience.
My new Pinebook Pro was inside three nested envelopes, two nested cardboard boxes, and a protective sleeve. Absolutely none of this felt rugged, but Pine64’s “fractal packaging” strategy was sufficient to get the Pinebook Pro from Hong Kong to me, via multiple shippers, without so much as a ding or a scratch on it. Don’t knock it if it works!
As a side note: lately, many sharp-eyed readers have focused alarmingly on the crappy American Legion schwag knife I open packages with. Please enjoy its direct inclusion here, from multiple angles, in all its dubiously manufactured and inexplicably serrated glory.
The best part about your first hands-on experience with a Pinebook Pro is the absolute lack of branding on the outside of it. The matte-black magnesium alloy chassis feels great, and having no logo or brand name or anything on it makes you feel like a character from a William Gibson novel. Upon opening the laptop, you still don’t see any obvious branding—the only hint to the specifics of this device is the pine icon on the Super key.
The keyboard feels as great as the chassis does. There are no go-fast stickers slapped annoyingly across the palm rest, and at this point in time—before ever powering it up—I was in absolute love with this laptop’s understated, unexpected badassery.
COVID-19, Factory Quality Assurance, and you
Pine64 is currently experiencing some major quality assurance issues with its factory in China. Unfortunately, my Pinebook Pro exhibited pretty much every problem Pine64 has heard of. First off, the protective film on the touchpad did not pull away easily—removing it felt like trying to pull a used car dealer’s sticker off the bumper of a sedan.
The attempt exposed another issue—the touchpad itself wasn’t installed properly. The left-hand side of it was snapped into the chassis, but the entire right-hand side was resting atop the chassis rather than being snapped in. When I tried to pull the film free, that entire side of the touchpad lifted a disturbing half-inch, showing me a gaping hole into the laptop itself. Yikes. I needed to hold the touchpad down on the right side while peeling hard to pull the film off to the right.
After removing the film, I was able to snap the touchpad into the chassis—mostly—with a truly exorbitant amount of careful downward pressure. I could feel the “push-to-click” working on the left side but none on the right—and at the time, I assumed this just meant no push-to-right-click. As it turns out, I was wrong—and a couple hours later, another application of nail-driving pressure directly on that corner audibly snapped it in the rest of the way.
With the touchpad all the way in, push-to-click works on both left and right bottom corners of the pad. The touchpad itself was perfectly responsive after all this gronking. It still looks a tiny bit “raised” on the bottom right corner—but it pushes smoothly into right-click, and it returns just as smoothly when released.
The next issue I encountered was apparently broken Wi-Fi. Although there was a Wi-Fi icon present in the system tray, clicking it didn’t present me with any Wi-Fi options—only power and such. Dropping to the Terminal, I listed available network adapters—and the only thing I found was the loopback adapter. That’s not a good sign.
Luckily, I vaguely remembered that Pine64 had gone out of its way to support privacy concerns and provide kill switches for Wi-Fi, camera, and mic—so I went on a determined hunt around the chassis for kill switches but came up empty. At this point, I gave up and went back to my main PC to check the Pinebook Pro’s user manual.
It turns out that the privacy switches aren’t manual toggles like early 2000s laptops used to have; they’re BIOS-level firmware cutouts toggled with keyboard hotkeys. Pressing and holding Super+F11 (“Windows key” for the less-Linuxy among us; though there’s a pine cone in place of the Windows logo here) causes the Num Lock LED to blink; twice if you’ve just enabled the Wi-Fi, three times if you’ve just disabled it.
Unfortunately, the Ampak Wi-Fi card was not designed to be hot-plugged—so after enabling the Wi-Fi, I needed to reboot. After the reboot, everything worked just as you’d expect, and I connected to my wLAN and browsed to Ars without issue.
The camera and mic kill switches were enabled and disabled, respectively; either can be toggled without the need to reboot afterward.