The PinePhone

June 16, 2020 · 4 minutes read

My experiences with the PinePhone

Background

I have long been looking forward to a smartphone alternative which does respect my privacy, and as well brings actual GNU/Linux to the smartphone world.

My interest started back when I first heard of the Firefox OS, and something which I was reminded about on the last JSConf Berlin, with the talk from Grann Means What happened to my JavaScript phone?

Having exitedly pre-ordered a Purism Librem 5 in July 2019, (still waiting), I slowly realised I have to look around for other options.

Well, when I first read about the PinePhone through Twitter, I did not really believe it - the price is approx 1/3 of - the Librem 5, more like a keyboard or a mouse for comparision, I took the chance.

Well, a few months later, after ome initial troubles with the tax authorities (the device has no european CE certification), the phone arrives.

I unpack, turn the device on and is welcomed by a demo screen, used for testing the touchscreen. The phone as it arrives, has as much functionality as when you buy a new SSD or a CPU. It comes without an OS pre-installed. Why am I surprised? After all Pine64 did warn me both during the purchase process and in the welcome letter, this is not ready for end-users.

Ubuntu Touch (UBPorts)

After some initial research, I decided to install Ubuntu Touch, as I understood that was the most mature GNU/Linux smartphone option available.

Well, the Ubuntu Touch Community port for the PinePhone is in its very (very) early stages.

The setup reminds me of the days where Ubuntu would only support a few selected WiFi network cards. Just this time, it is not wifi, but phone calls. And without phone calls, the phone part in smartphone gets a bit lost. I have yet to do a successful call. Successful meaning I hear someone, and someone else hears me.

What adds to the trouble is that there is currently no app ecosystem available: Signal, an app I heavily rely on to communicate with friends and family, is not available. The Signal compatible messaging app Axolotl did allow me to both send and receive messages, but lacks many of the standard features offered by Android Signal.

There is a fully integrated app store, Open Store, but without users there are, of course, fewer apps.

Quickly realising what that the “Pinephone is maybe not your daily driver yet.” sentence from the PinePhone UBPorts readme means, I decide to (at least) use the phone as my alarm to wake up in the morning. That, unfortunately also turns out was not possible: in my naivety, I assumed that the device had a battery time lasting from late evening to the morning.

Nope. The PinePhone, with UBPorts, has a battery life equivalent of a standard laptop - say three, four hours. This should, according to a forum post in the Pine64 official UBPorts forum section, be resolved by now. I have not yet tried this out though.

What I successfully managed to do, was to both send and receive a text and a Signal message. I could also use the touch screen, and WiFi worked most of the time. Using the camera and making calls did not.

To replace my current phone, I have some higher demands.

I do however really support the project, and see its potential - it was refreshing to use its swipe-based UI where most actions are swipes starting from the edges of the phone. Using a shell, and having full control and access to the device, is also something which makes absolute sense to me once available. The docking mode, where the smartphone is converging to a fully-fledged (Ubuntu) desktop system, is also something which really interests me.

Up next is trying out the PostmarketOS with the phosh GNOME mobile desktop interface, the same setup which the guys at Librem are working on. From what I can read, it might even support phone calls and camera. (early adopter pain, yessir)

For now, I am back to waiting for the Librem 5.