The ultimate one year review: daily driving the PinePhone
I brought the OG PinePhone UBPorts edition back in July of 2020. Back then, it couldn’t even last a few hours. At that time I daily drived either Mobian or Arch. We didn’t even have Megapixels, we had…. Pinhole. Dark times man, dark times.
Around July of 2021 software had really settled. For me phones are a big distraction, with social media and such. The PinePhone doesn’t have the greatest range of apps other than the essentials and some novelties like Cawbird and Waydroid (classic Anbox was previously used). But that’s how it helped me, by only using it for what a phone is supposed to be used for (being able to contact my parents and friends). And maybe checking my timetable for school or searching the odd thing up on Google with Firefox.
One of the main issues I’ve had with PinePhone software is how software breaks quite often, I’m always checking the PostmarketOS Edge page for issues that are breaking the system. Usually these issues affects all the other operating systems. EG: The sound switching issue that we had recently.
Thankfully whenever something breaks PostmarketOS Stable exists. It’s a lifeline for when something like this happens. So I always have a stable SD card on me just in case. But I do like having the latest packages.
The hardware in the OG PinePhone is pretty low powered, but it definitely can do the job. The PinePhone sports a Allwinner A64 SOC by SUNXI, it has 4 a53 cores clocked in at 1.2Ghz. The Allwinner A64 includes the Mali 400MP2 which released in 2008 eeeek. But even with this slow hardware it works humbly for todays standards, but it’s not great. The reason why they chose this SOC was because it has very good mainline support, so it does make sense. Thankfully the PinePhone Pro has been announced with a much needed spec upgrade. I really wish to test and give feedback for it but I’m saving my money for other things sadly.
The camera on the PinePhone isn’t the best, but it does work very well with Megapixels. It takes a lot better photos now with the autofocus software, and takes decent photos for a 5mp camera. The pictures are good enough for me to see text that is written on a whiteboard. So it definitely works well enough.
The front camera isn’t great, I never use it, but I never expect it to be very good anyway. It has a green hue with photos it takes. Sometimes light can really drown out photos, so be aware of that. But with optimal lighting conditions it can be at least bearable.
Before we move on I just want to talk about some of the other hardware on the PinePhone.
- The screen is alright, I don’t really care too much, but it will satisfy most people, not bad, not the best.
- The modem works well, I like using Biktorgj’s custom firmware, works well with my sim using Warehouse Mobile which is based on 2degrees (I live in New Zealand), I don’t usually have any problems with it.
- The 15 watt quick charging does help, especially when my old android had only 5 watt charging.
- Bluetooth is all good, I used to have issues with it but I haven’t had any issues since then.
- The storage is meh, isn’t too, too fast. But it works well enough.
- Battery, yeah, it’s a battery eheh. It’s not large but it lasts the day + more for me.
- Privacy switches work as intended, not much to say here.
Now, an obvious question new users ask is which operating system should I use? I’ll go through all of the ones that are currently active and state my opinion.
- Arch Linux (Phosh): It’s made by Danct12, it’s pretty reliable and stable. I would recommend using this one as the packages are usually updated quite often but issues don’t usually land there.
- ExpidusOS: An operating system that makes Xfce4 into a mobile user interface. Currently no further images have been produced but work is still being put in. I don’t recommend this for daily driving. But I do recommend testing it out on an SD Card, it’s pretty neat.
- Fedora: Last time I tried to update the packages it didn’t work with neither yum or dnf, but it worked after a reflash for some reason. It probably needs a bit of work, personally wouldn’t daily drive until I know stuff is working all good. But do check it out anyway if you’re adventurous!
- Gentoo: Very fun if you have a free afternoon or two. There aren’t any prebuilts that people have made that I know of but it feels rewarding when you get it up and running and It feels really clean. Proceed if you have knowledge with Gentoo or have a more advanced knowledge of Linux systems. YOU WILL BE COMPILING YOUR OWN IMAGES.
- Glodroid: Android for the PinePhone. Doesn’t have modem support yet but wifi works, not daily driver ready, not updated often.
- LuneOS: This operating system is based on WebOS and was created after HP brought Palm for the HP Touchpad. The UI (Luna) was made in the QT toolkit, it’s beautiful and feels really fast. Mostly because it’s made for this older lower powered hardware. Calls, SMS work, and is daily driverable. But be warned, a lot of cracks are starting to show of it’s age, freeware (software center) doesn’t seem to work anymore and the browser doesn’t scale properly. I haven’t been able to login into my gmail either.
- Maemo Leste: Another older operating system using the GTK+ 2 toolkit. It originally ran on the Nokia n900 and the UI had to be reverse engineered before it could run on other operating systems and phones. It’s based on Devuan which is Debian without Systemd. It runs very fast and is still making gradual progress. You can send sms messages through the command line which isn’t convenient but it still works. The virtual keyboard is glitchy as some of the keys disappear for some reason. But other than that, I think it’s pretty neat. I wouldn’t use it as a daily driver though.
- Manjaro (Phosh and Plasma): I have used them on some occasions but they both break often as they usually use the most up to date bleeding edge packages. Stable channel doesn’t help that much either. But if you truly love living on the edge go ahead. But stable can be fine sometimes. If you use Manjaro I recommend using Phosh.
- Mobian: This distro is reliable and has wide support for a lot of packages while still being stable and rid of issues from upstream. It uses the LTS 5.10 Linux kernel rather than Mainline, but you can install a mainline kernel manually if you wish. This is another distro I can recommend to users who want to daily drive the PinePhone.
- Multi-distro demo image: Made by the PinePhone kernel maintainer Megi. It includes a majority of the distros that are out there for the PinePhone in one image. The image also uses P-boot which is an alternative bootloader to U-Boot.
- Nemo Mobile: Nemo is an opensource UI alternative to Sailfish as the UI Sailfish uses is proprietary. It uses the same framework as Sailfish called Lipstick. And is made completely from scratch. It’s making great progress but isn’t ready for daily driving yet. I recommend to check it out on an SD Card, it’s very awesome.
- NixOS Mobile: This is the only OS I haven’t used, therefore I have no opinion. But it does support Phosh and Plasma Mobile. I apologize.
- OpenMandrivia Lx: It hasn’t been updated for the latest stable release, but the one they released ran pretty well. I don’t recommend using the obsolete image as a daily driver.
- OpenSUSE (Phosh and Plasma): I find that the Plasma image works pretty well, but the Phosh image is where I’ve had many issues with where the applications don’t scale properly or certain things are broken. But since then I do believe they’ve been fixed. I recommend giving it a go on an SD Card beforehand if you want to use them as a daily driver to make sure nothing is broken.
- Postmarket is my personal favourite. It has a true stable channel where only select tested packages get updated to make sure it’s always a solid, reliable and stable experience. There is also the Edge channel where a lot of new packages make their way in, therefore things break often. Postmarket also includes pmbootstrap which allows you to make your own images very easily and even port you’re own devices relatively easily and efficiently (if you have some basic knowledge on the Linux kernel, device trees etc). This is another operating system I recommend for users who want to daily drive the PinePhone.
- SailfishOS: Sailfish is based on Mer (which in turn is based on MeeGoo) and is one of the longest running mobile Linux distributions and it’s aimed at governments and big corporations. But it is still open source so it can be ported to other devices like the PinePhone. It runs very well and I love the looks and feels of the UI (sadly the interface is proprietary). First off, you need a SIM card for it to work correctly. I have also found that the modem doesn’t come back after deep sleep so I always have to reboot my PinePhone when it happens. But lately I haven’t even seen the modem come up at all, but I don’t know if it’s been fixed. It requires a Linux system to flash and you MUST flash to the internal storage.
- SkiffOS: Skiff is a favorite of mine, it’s built upon buildroot and uses containers. So you can make config to use a Gentoo Phosh Skiff docker container and Skiff would boot into it. It’s very underrated and it supports a lot of operating systems and has many different images including Ubuntu Touch. Skiff isn’t exactly for average users though, so if you want to have a look you’d probably want some prior knowledge of Docker, SSH, NetworkManager and Linux in general.
- Ubuntu Touch: Originally made by Canonical, the UBports community took it in after Canonical stopped working on it. It’s a very fast operating system and feels really polished, Lomiri (Unity 8) is based on the QT toolkit. Ubuntu Touch uses Clickable packages having less packages available as well as not having access to the Ubuntu archive, having it’s own app store and doesn’t update like traditional Ubuntu. Rather going for OTA updates instead. The camera app is different than Megapixels, but takes decent photos. This is another operating system I recommend for users who want to daily drive the PinePhone.
Now I want to talk about Manjaro Plasma Mobile. This is the operating system that ships with the PinePhone. There is two branches for each edition of the Manjaro mobile images: Stable and Dev (unstable) but there is an issue. Dev breaks constantly and has lots of bugs often. Makes sense, I don’t complain, but Stable on the other hand isn’t checked for issues and has the exact same packages as Dev most of the time unlike Postmarket’s Stable releases. If I wanted a good Plasma Mobile experience I would personally use a Postmarket image.
This is a major problem, this is most likely a lot of new user’s first impressions of the PinePhone. I have never gotten Manjaro’s Plasma image to send an SMS message successfully, I have always had modem issues with Ofono. So a recommendation to the Manjaro team, please test packages before releasing them on stable, it would make the experience a lot better for consumers (and of course devs and enthusiasts as well) so they can enjoy their PinePhone knowing that it’s software is working correctly.
Overall then, what do I think of the PinePhone? I think it’s a neat phone for anyone with the time to learn a little about Linux or anyone who’s already into Linux. It’s an everyone phone really if you have enough time. At the moment I think it’s pretty stable, not perfect but I think it’s reached the polishing stage. Making battery life better, more optimizations for the older hardware etc.
If you want to buy one, I would, I think it’s worth buying if you’re really wanting a Linux phone. Or you should probably wait for the Pro to mature first if you want more processing power.
I love the PinePhone, it’s just so damn fun to play with, it has to be my favorite phone. I was probably insane daily driving this thing for a year but it was worth the journey. Cheers to Pine64 for the awesome stuff they bring out. It’s given me a lot of motivation to write stuff like this and to get into the mobile Linux community.
All images are mine except for the PinePhone operating systems diagram which is the property of Pine64.