There’s a $200 laptop out in the wild now that has been getting a lot of buzz in the Fediverse. It’s called the Pinebook Pro and it ships with a customized version of Debian Stretch with the Mate desktop. If you don’t know what that means, it’s Linux. This is a Linux laptop. But that’s not all… it also has a few other tricks up its sleeve, like a bootable MicroSD card slot so you can easily run other operating systems off a cheap memory card whenever you feel like it. Now, this is being sold at cost mainly as a gift to the Free (as in Freedom) Open Source Software (FOSS) community so it’s not really meant for normal people. If you just want to open web pages like Facebook or Google Docs, you’re probably better off with a Chromebook or Macbook. If you believe in freedom and like to seriously learn about technology, keep reading… The Pinebook Pro is serious fun!
Just about all laptop computers use Intel x86/x64 processors these days. Only a very small percentage of Windows laptops have started using Qualcomm ARM processors. The Pinebook Pro actually uses a 64-bit ARM processor called the Rockchip RK3399 SOC with a Mali T860 MP4 GPU which is made by the company that makes the Pinebook Pro; PINE Microsystems Inc. PINE also makes other computing hardware such as compute modules and single board computers that you can build into other projects. Anyway, the Pinebook Pro also includes 4Gb of LPDDR4 RAM. This is the maximum supported by the Rockchip, so it’s not upgradable. There’s also 64Gb of eMMC storage (which you can upgrade if you want), as well as a PCIe x4 to m.2 NVMe SSD slot. That NVMe slot is empty, so you’ll have to purchase extra hardware, take apart the Pinebook Pro and install it yourself if you want to make use of it. We’ve also got 802.11 AC WiFi networking and Bluetooth 5.0, stereo speakers, microphones, a headphone jack, a 1080p front-facing camera, USB-C for power/data/video out, a 14″ 1080p IPS display, 10,000mAh battery, and a bootable Micro SD slot.
What’s in the Box?
The Pinebook Pro arrived in a large paper envelope inside a DHL bag. Inside the paper envelope was a completely blank cardboard box along with a little clear zip lock baggie that contained the charging cable. Yeah, the charging cable wasn’t even in the same box. The plain old cardboard box contained only the laptop packed with a bit of foam and nothing else.
Well, okay, the box had a little sticker on the corner that says “64Gb” because that’s the model I bought. Some of them have 128Gb. We hardly ever see packaging that’s so minimal and it’s actually very refreshing. This is clearly the cheapest packaging method that was possible at the factory and I am absolutely fine with that! No logos, no graphics, no documentation, no barcodes, no serial numbers. I paid for a $200 laptop computer and that’s the only thing I’m getting! This is not a complaint at all. I am absolutely fine with PINE spending my money on making computer hardware instead of printing colorful graphics on cardboard boxes.
Hardware and Design
The non-descript styling of the box nicely extends to the hardware. On the back of the laptop, there’s nothing but cold black magnesium allow metal and it’s beautiful. No logos, no problems! Although, this metal finish does tend to attract fingerprint grease, and that’s annoying.
On the bottom, again it’s a smooth clean black sheet of magnesium alloy, but this time we have some circular rubber feet to keep the laptop steady on a desk, along with two speaker grills on the edges and 10 philips head screws that you can use to open it up and replace parts as you see fit.
On the left edge, you’ll see an LED charging indicator, a barrel shaped power adapter, a USB type-A port, and a USB Type-C port. The USB-C port can be used for data, charging, and video output.
On the right edge, we’ve got a bootable MicroSD card slot, a 3.5mm headset jack, and another USB Type-A port. Notice the tapered edge design of the body and how the bezel of the display overlaps the keyboard hand rest. This makes it nice and easy to open the computer.
The 14″ 1080p screen isn’t anything amazing and certainly gets washed out outdoors, but I wasn’t expecting much. Still at least it doesn’t have an extremely glossy finish like Macbooks do. This screen has a matte finish that doesn’t reflect like a mirror when the light hits it. You’ll also notice on the keyboard hand rest, another piece of tape with “64G” printed on it. Again, that’s so we know it has a 64Gb eMMC module in it. There’s also a smaller number there which indicates which number in the sequence of building these was shipped to me. Yep, I got number 472. Near the hinge above the keyboard you’ll see some LED lights that indicate power on, caps-lock, and num-lock along with some microphone holes.
While the trackpad is a decent size, you may find it very difficult to click small controls such as the window resizing border as its touch sensitivity is not as accurate as it needs to be for such small control elements. I highly recommend pairing a Bluetooth mouse for better control (I got one for $20 that works great.)
The web cam is only 1080px resolution and it’s not very good quality, but it still works with Jitsi Meet (the best FOSS way to video conference).
The power button is actually just another key on the keyboard in the upper right corner. Usually laptop makers have a special “different” power button so that you know it’s different and won’t accidentally press it. Those designs must cost extra ’cause the Pinebook Pro doesn’t have time for that. Granted, you do have to hold it down for a few seconds in order to activate the power. I actually really like how easy it is to press too. One quick tap of that key and the Suspend/Restart/Power-off dialog will appear in the default operating system thus letting me choose what I want to do next.
The “super” key between the Fn and Alt keys is the only place you’ll find any branding on this hardware and that’s pretty awesome. The super key here is a pine-cone for obvious reasons. The printing on these keys is a little off center, too, but who cares? This is meant to be a frugal laptop.
Now, this is where things get really interesting. The Pinebook Pro ships with a customized version of Debian Stretch Linux with the Mate desktop environment on the internal storage. It includes a few things like Libre Office, Chromium, Firefox, and a number of other utilities.
I’ve been using Macintosh computers since the mid 1990’s and Windows PCs since the late 1980’s. My general analogy when people ask about the differences is that switching between Mac or Windows is kind of like trying to cook something in some one else’s kitchen. All of the tools are probably there, you still have everything you need to cook stuff, it’s just that they’re probably in different locations than you’re used to. With switching to Linux, the analogy is the same, except every distribution and every desktop environment is like a different kitchen and also you may have to assemble some parts of the kitchen yourself.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing though! There are plenty of people out there who want their kitchen built exactly the way they want it. It can be very satisfying to put a lot of work and effort into making something totally personalized the way that makes perfect sense to you (and maybe only you). That’s where Linux can have huge advantages!
If you treat Linux like a personalized kitchen renovation or a custom car or a brain-teasing puzzle game, learning and customizing it can be a lot of fun. If you expect everything to work 100% intuitively out of the box in the same way that you’re used to on Windows or macOS or ChromeOS, then you’re going to be frustrated.
Bootable MicroSD slot means you can run whatever
One of the cool features of the Pinebook Pro is that it has a MicroSD card slot on the side that’s actually bootable. It’s kind of like how the Raspberry Pi computers boot from a MicroSD card slot. So I can burn an image of some other operating system to a MicroSD card, pop it into the Pinebook Pro, turn it on, and now the laptop is running off of whatever software and operating system was on that MicroSD card.
This makes the Pinebook Pro even more fun to experiment with because booting to the SD card leaves the native operating system on the internal eMMC storage totally alone. If you want to go back to the default Linux OS, just shut down, take out that SD card, and turn it back on.
At the moment, the other operating systems that may work with the Pinebook Pro are a bit buggy. You can find a list of other operating systems that are in the process of being made to work with the Pinebook Pro on the Pine64 Wiki.
I was able to get Chromium OS running for a little while, but only the default Debian Desktop is stable enough at the moment. I was unable to get the Android 7.1 boot images to work at all as of 11/8/2019, but this is sure to change in the future.
Default Debian Stretch with Mate Desktop
On first boot to the default OS included with the Pinebook Pro, you’re going to get straight to the log-in screen asking for your username and password. There’s zero set-up dialogues here. You don’t create your own username, you don’t sign in with an Apple ID or Microsoft ID or Google ID like you would on other computers. You don’t even get to choose your time zone or language. In fact, you’re probably going to have to search the internet with another device in order to figure out how to log into this because zero documentation was included with the computer. I’ll tell you right now though, the default log in is username “rock” and password “rock”.
The Debian OS with Mate desktop only takes up 550Mb of RAM when booted. Compare this to the 3.4 (almost 7 times more) gigabytes of RAM that Windows 10 takes up alone when booted. With Windows 10 on a system that has 4Gb of RAM, you might have 500Mb of remaining free memory to run one or two lightweight programs. With the Pinebook Pro’s Linux operating system, you’ve got about 3.5Gb of free memory to run a good number of other programs. It’s a huge increase in efficiency.
Many Linux distributions include a “software” store where you can easily browser software categories, see program logos, and screenshots to find and install programs. It’s basically a better user experience front end for browsing the repositories of programs available for a particular distribution. The Pinebook Pro’s default OS, doesn’t have that. Instead you get a Package Manager that lists all of the program packages available in the distributions repository. It also has category organizational listings, but it’s not as graphically fancy as others.
The first thing I wanted to install was my favorite Linux-based email program. I searched for “Evolution”, marked it for installation (along with its Exchange ActiveSync support plug-in), clicked apply, and the package manager installed the software for me. This can be done via the terminal by typing commands as well of course.
If you’re a Chromebook user, you’ll understand the importance of web apps. The Pinebook Pro includes the open-source version of Chrome (called Chromium) which enables the installation of web apps almost just like what you would get on Chrome OS. It was very easy to install Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, OneDrive, and OneNote web apps and they all showed up as icons in the Mate desktop’s main menu. I was also able to install an “Instagram Uploader” extension that allows my Instagram web app to actually post images. Chromium is basically the same as Chrome except without a special Google Update app, extension restrictions, error reporting, and licensed media playback codecs.
One of my favorite aspects of many Linux distributions is how robust their customization options are. I can often change the window manager, the desktop environment interface, and the system wide themes. The stock OS’s Mate desktop environment nicely supports GTK3 themes and they apply to all of your GTK3 compatible programs. This is much much better than the theme structures on Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Chrome OS and comes close to my wish list of “How to design an OS of the future“. It comes with a good selection of themes and each one can be customized further to change the design of your control elements, window borders, icons, etc. Furthermore, you can download other GTK3 themes from the internet or program your own.
Apple’s iOS 13 is just now getting light/dark theme support, Windows 10’s theme capabilities barely ever affect the applications, and Android is a complete mess when it comes to user interface consistency. The Linux community is the only one trying to do it right… although you will occasionally find a few programs that don’t support the system-wide theme structures and turn out looking completely out of place. For example, the Pinebook Pro includes Libre Office version 5.2, an older version that doesn’t support GTK3 like Libre Office 6+ does. Many programs have their own built-in theming capabilities as well such as the included HexChat program for Internet Relay Chat (which was nicely pre-configured for accessing the Pine64 IRC server).
Of course it is possible to install serious high-end programs on the Pinebook Pro, but you can expect to start running into the limitations of the hardware the harder you push it. I was able to get RAW Therapee to load a folder of about 2000 RAW photos from a recent photo shoot. Editing was possible too, but it was pretty unstable and the program would crash periodically. I wouldn’t have expected to be able to get that far at all on a Windows 10 PC with only 4Gb of RAM though!
The GNU Image Manipulation Program v2.8 seems to work okay as well, but again, don’t push it too hard. I was not able to get the open-source VS Code development environment installed, but for web development, Bluefish and BareFTP are working great.
The 10000 mAh battery has been great at lasting throughout a day for me. Obvoiusly your mileage may vary depending on what operating system you use, what programs you keep running, etc. I can comfortably go all day without bringing the charger around, and plug it in at night after getting home. I think you can safely expect about 6 hours of use on average.
Pros & Cons
- Only $200
- Debian Linux pre-installed
- Easy to replace & upgrade hardware
- 10,000 mAh battery life
- Bootable MicroSD card slot
- No-logos black metal body
- 4Gb of RAM may be a bit low for some
- Base can get hot with heavy processing
- ARM processor means your favorite applications are less likely to be supported
- ARM versions of Linux and Linux programs are works-in-progress, so you can expect some software bugs.
While this little black $200 laptop isn’t for everyone, I am absolutely enjoying using it. I’ve only seriously started learning and using Linux over the past two years, starting with Raspbian and the Raspberry Pi along with a short stint with the Purism Librem 15. My previous attempts at Linux over the past 20 years were always met with frustration and the inability to even boot, but today we’re seeing a lot of new computer makers actually shipping with supported Linux distributions and things are starting to work really nicely.
PINE describes the Pinebook Pro as a Chromebook alternative, and that’s a valid description considering the price as well as the fact that many people buy Chromebooks so that they can install Linux on them. If you just want something that opens a web brower and lets you visit web sites like a Chromebook, this probably isn’t for you. I’d also say it probably shouldn’t be your only computer either since the software is still a bit of a work in progress.
On the other hand, if you seriously want to learn more about Linux or development for ARM architectures with the option to easily boot plenty of other operating systems off a MicroSD card, then the Pinebook Pro is a great choice.