I’m waking up and digging into a light breakfast and decided to write about another small project of 2020: my experiences with the Pinebook Pro. In a nutshell it’s an inexpensive, ARM-based, Linux laptop. Inexpensive? $200. ARM-based? That’s the type of CPU that’s in your mobile phones, tablets, and usually smart watches. Linux? It’s the operating system that powers the internet, Android, TiVo’s, and much more. But no, it’s not Windows10 or MacOS.
I ordered the laptop back on March 18th. At that time COVID-19 was just exploding on the world scene. Like a lot of tech, the Pinebook Pro is made in Chyna, so it didn’t arrive until the beginning of June as the lockdowns started to ease up.
The scruffy little upstart company that makes them tends to make them in batches. I was a bit lucky that this wasn’t their first batch, which like a lot of 1st Generation tech, had some initial manufacturing and assembly flaws. The things I’d been warned about weren’t an issue with mine.
So how is it for a Linux laptop? The out of the box experience is actually pretty decent. Unlike a Mac or Windows laptop, Linux is wide open in the variety of graphical environments and the folks at Pine64 chose to ship it with the Manjaro KDE Plasma desktop setup to make it very new user friendly. Check out some screenshots at reddit to see some examples of how KDE looks and folks theme it.
As with Intel and AMD processors usually found in laptops, there’s a wide spectrum of performance in the ARM processor family. Apple recently announced it’ll be making ARM based Macs. NVIDIA and Qualcomm both make some fast ARM hardware. If you’ve purchased a flagship smartphone, tablet, or any Apple product, you know that those chips don’t come cheap.
But on the other end when you buy an ARM-based system from companies like Pine64 or their big rival, Raspberry Pi, you go in knowing that there are cost/performance tradeoffs you’re facing. Single Board Computers (SBCs) from Pine64 range $15 to $80. Similar boards from the Raspberry Pi foundation cost about the same. When they first started coming out, they weren’t designed to be a Desktop Replacement. They were designed for tinkering and exploration. You don’t care too much if you ruin your $35 computer like you would if you blew up a traditional computer. Few want to risk frying their Macbook because they hooked up some LEDs, sensors, or a servo motor to it, but that’s the market these cheap SBC manufacturers went after: the Maker’s.
All this is to say that the Pinebook Pro is not a fast laptop. I’m writing this on a five year old Chromebook Pixel LS. It was then and is now a fast laptop. It should be for $1300. It was the “loaded Macbook Pro” of Chromebooks of its day. But the Pinebook Pro is fast enough for casual browsing, email, coding, tinkering around, etc. I’m debating whether to move my hugo blogging setup to it. About a month after I got it, I ordered a 256GB microSD card for $40 to expand its internal long term storage for data – things like pictures, movies, etc. I also picked up a cool ‘skin’ for its lid because the lid is a fingerprint magnet!
One could argue that I’d be better off just going on eBay and picking up a $200 used enterprise grade ThinkPad. I get that argument. I really do. Love me some ThinkPads. Those things are tanks and so modular and repairable. I always recommend that route when someone says that they need a cheap laptop. Some advantages of the Pinebook are its battery life, fanless operation, its cool operating temperatures, and I don’t think it does thermal performance throttling. And unlike most laptops which could run Linux, the Pinebook ships with it.
So… do I recommend it?? For most folks, probably not. Probably 80% of the laptop market just wants a Windows, MacOS, or ChromeOS laptop that the Pinebook will never be. For those who aren’t afraid to “Think Different” or are already comfortable with Linux, it’s pretty decent. Fast WiFi, decent 14 inch 1080p screen and keyboard, good software updates, and fast enough for 90% of computing needs. And at it’s cost, it doesn’t beg to get stolen when you’re at a coffee shop. ;-)