Is there a more prominent sign of being a geek than wanting to have your special OSS tooling at hand 24x7? I started writing this post as a review of the PinePhone and ended up taking a trip down memory lane. I guess that is something that happens when you are getting to be an older geek. Below is less review though that is at the end and more thinking through how we got to this place in the history of Linux on mobile devices.
When I left Air Force Basic Training, I had two purchases I knew I wanted to make immediately:
- Motorcycle since Mom was never going to let me have one when I lived at home
- A Linux-based PDA
I had been hacking on my Father’s devices ranging from Palm Pilots to installing Linux on his Casio E-105. All were just that, hacks, but as a GNU Geek, I yearned to have open source in my hand.
My first real official taste was my Sharp Zarus SL-5500 purchased right after graduating Tech School; that was amazing but very unusable. It got me started on the path, though, and I went through a Nokia N770, N800, Zaurus C860, etc. Anything that ran a *BSD or Linux distro and was mobile; I wanted it. I gave up the dream when the allure of always-on-internet with my original Blackberry/WinCE/Handspring devices spoiled me.
Then there was the N900
Not only did I have a usable unlocked phone while travelling the globe, but I had Linux IN MY FRICKEN POCKET. There I was on a train through the Netherlands or a taxi in Tel Aviv, just SSH’ing away like a wild person. I could install my favourite OSS applications and had a device that was just a great little companion outside of the bulky laptop in my satchel.
I will not rehash the history of Maemo (or is it Mobin, Meego, etc.), but basically, it was a dead-end. When the N9 was released, we all knew in the community; there was no future.
What I think all of us crusty old UNIX geeks missed, and kudos to the KDE and GNOME communities, was the convergence of user interfaces was inevitable. We could fight it all we wanted, but Gnome 2 and KDE 3 would never survive mass-market usage on the plethora of device types coming.
Jolla, though, was going to march on and continue the legacy of Maemo. It wasn’t the pure opensource we all wanted, but it was closer than Android (and could even run Android apps!), so I quickly pre-ordered the phone and Jolla Tablet, but as many know, I only received the phone. Sailfish OS was elegant, ahead of its time, and set never to be a significant player due to its financials and the juggernauts of iOS and Android.
Then comes Pine64
The PinePhone is the latest attempt from the community as a whole to develop an open-source phone. I want to give kudos to the Librem team here also. The dynamic of the market is different this time. I think this idea of an open platform is driving a few niche spaces:
- Right to Repair advocates who want to be able to tear apart their phone
- E-Waste concerns for the planet and those who want their device not to have planned obsolescence
- Privacy Advocates
- Luddite who like removable batteries, external storage, and headphone jacks as an example
- Customisation of interfaces given different use cases. Android has some of this, but the OSS community has it on steroids.
This, in my mind, is where the PinePhone checks some boxes. All of the above requirements are much more met by this device than the usual suspects in the market.
Daily Driver Support
I should start that I am running Manjaro Phosh Dev build.
Here is what my daily needs are:
- Make and receive phone calls
- Web Browsing
- Conference Calls
For personal use, the phone is there, but much like other third-party platforms suffering from a lack of application support, users are stuck with PWA-like options. Anbox provides a similar setup to Sailfish OS with essential Android support, but WAY less refined. WhatsApp and Signal work… sort of.
The hardware feels solid, but it is not the glass/metal slab we expect from much more premium devices. The components within are of a lesser quality to meet the shallow price point. The speakers, camera, haptic motor, etc., are functional but feel cheesy. This is no dig on the company; they put a LOT of quality into this device given the potential addressable market and cost.
Selling the Dream
This device reviewed as a daily driver is a wrong way to think about it. The PinePhone is a proof of concept and developers tool. Much like when the Android and Apple devices first came out, until you have an actual device in your hands, it is hard to build user experiences.
The device is usable by that metric. It is slower than you’d hope, lacks headroom for heavy apps, etc., but it does answer the question of “Can Linux work on a phone in 2021?” You see a peek into what the future can and will hold for this type of platform. Given a better modem, speaker, camera, faster CPU, etc. you have a very usable device.
The device will sit next to the BeBox and SGI systems in my data centre downstairs as I play with it and try new ideas. Don’t buy one for grandma, but if you are a geek and want to see what the future of Linux in your hand can be, I recommend you pick one up.
When I was younger I did a review of my N800 and a stowaway keyboard if you want a chuckle :)