Pinebook Review Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Unboxing:

To get my opinions on the Pinebook out of the box and after the first few hour or so of use, check out my previous post here. The following pictures are the contents of the package I received from Hong Kong, as stated before, it's an extremely compact package.


Contents of the Pinebook package that came in the mail

Contents of the Pinebook package that came in the mail

The Pinebook sitting on top of the blue plastic case it ships in

The Pinebook sitting on top of the blue plastic case it ships in

Open Pinebook in all its glory, here you can see the slightly strange keyboard layout, which is why xmodmap(1) would be a very useful tool

Open Pinebook in all its glory, here you can see the slightly strange keyboard layout, which is why xmodmap(1) would be a very useful tool

To the review bits:

So spending some more time with this nice little Chromebook replacement, I was able to run a few tests, see how things worked when it was actually being used. The first thing to note, is that even without any particular power saving steps or other modifications, this battery lasts a LONG time. The shortest I was able to get it to last was 5.5hrs on a full charge. When allowed to sleep, it ran for 7.5hrs only hitting 15% battery life remaining, so you can generally expect this to get through a day without needing to be recharged. Unless, of course, you do a lot of CPU/GPU intensive work on it locally, but this is better suited to being your remote workstation. Allowing you to ssh into a more powerful machine to get your work done from anywhere.

wifi Performance:

As requested, I tested out the Wi-Fi performance of the Pinebook. I'm lucky enough to have a gigabit connection at home, so there's plenty of bandwidth to play with.

I was only able to connect to the 2.4GHz bands in my tests, so there was more interference than I would've liked, but less than there would be in a usual metropolitan area. In my house I was able to keep a pretty constant 25-30Mbps symmetrical connection, with a latency not exceeding 30ms.

To test some greater distances than around 50 feet at most, I decided to take the laptop outside. Once outside, and across the street, putting me somewhere around 70-75 feet, the performance dropped off to around 10-20Mbps symmetrical, still with decent latency.

Walking down the street, to a point of roughly 125-150 feet away from the router, the performance dropped off again to only around 5Mbps with a latency still around 20-30ms.

I walked a bit further down the street, to roughly 200 feet away and the performance degraded to the point of being only about 1Mbps symmetrical, with latency up to around 50ms. Going a bit further down the street, the signal dropped off, and was no longer a reliable connection. At the same time, my phone lost the wifi signal and switched to cell service as well.

All things considered, the Wifi performance depends much more on your access point than the Pinebook. The 2.4GHz limitation is a bit annoying, but very much usable, and it's unlikely that you'll need to be connecting to an access point several hundred feet away from you. I should note that I'm using a consumer grade Linksys 1900ac router, so an enterprise router or a router using something like a semi-parabolic antenna would allow you to get a better signal further away. The phone being used as a reference point is a Motorola Nexus 6, so the Pinebook performance is pretty much on par with other consumer wifi devices.

General System Performance:

I've been doing some general tinkering on the system, and it's nicely responsive when doing work locally, though the trackpad can be a bit on the touchy side. While this could just be a Firefox or MATE quirk, it's a bit too easy to accidentally zoom in or out of a webpage instead of scrolling up or down. This can likely be overridden in:

/etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/10-synaptics.conf

But it's not such big problem that it can't be worked around.

There's also a strange issue with troff(1) that prevents man(1) from working correctly, though this could be fixed in other available systems or in a future update. This only really impacts the users that would use them, so if this is just a Chromebook replacement for you, allowing you to access media on the go, you'll be fine.

It ships with gcc(1) ready to use, so you can build programs locally, and use suckless tools like dwm and st, or as I found recently, even just have fun playing with writing arbitrary C code like so:

$ cc -x c - -o hello
#include <stdio.h>
int main(void) {
printf("Hello, World\n");
return 0;
}

You can prototype things directly from stdin! But that's more of a fun side effect of me playing around than an endorsement of the Pinebook.

Fortunately, the system's also sporting one of the more powerful SoCs available on the market, so if you're into it, you can run retro games for everything from the Atari2600 to at least the Playstation (original). It would likely be able to handle up to PSP/PS Vita games, but would require a well written emulator to prevent the emulation from consuming too many resources and perform at a playable level.

And for you developers/hackers out there, you can absolutely use this as a mobile build system, just be aware it's ARM64 (AARCH64), and may not really match the intended build target.

Final Thoughts (for now at least):

The system boots in about 30s from POST to login, which is certainly nice in a mobile platform like this, as it's actually faster than my Nexus 6 boot speed. At this point, I'm not sure what else I can really say about the Pinebook that would encourage people to buy it, especially since they were sold out to the point that I had to cancel my original order of the 11" version for the 14" version just to be able to make these pages a possibility. Odds are if you're reading this it's because you're either waiting for yours to show up or are the perfect demographic and just want to be sure it's not too good to be true.

Well, the Pinebook's an amazing little budget machine for hacking and general use on the go, with a battery ranging anywhere from around 8.5-5.5hrs on a single charge. It's very real, and a fantastic price for what you get. It really shows off just how inexpensive technology is right now, it's never been kinder on your wallet to get into RISC hardware. "RISC is good." and it's only getting better with the rise of RISC-V, hopefully it won't be too long before I can share thoughts on a similar device with RISC-V powering it!

If you, like me, are wanting to put an alternative operating system on it, you just need to use their install system to install an approved image or build a compatible AARCH64 image of your preferred system. You just need to ensure you have the right compatibility using the device tree that should be located under /sys, and of course, get U-boot set up. I'm not familiar with how to do these, but will likely have another post about it when I've figured it out. I'm sure there will be other users posting about their personal experiences, but I'm a pretty spartan guy, so long as I can get suckless tools, openssh, mksh, tmux, a serial console tool, and at least a C compiler, I'll be happy. So at least that much works for the most part. The serial connections aren't all that great though, would much rather Linux had tip(1) or cu(1). But that's why a goal of mine is to get some version of BSD on it instead of Ubuntu MATE. More on that as I gather the required information.