Trying Out the PinePhone in 2023
Image source: pine64.com
A Linux phone is the ultimate privacy device. Through many positive experiences, I had become convinced of Linux' usability for normal, day-to-day digital tasks, and as a viable alternative to commercial operating systems. I had already experimented with alternative systems for Android smartphones, called 'custom ROMs', and found these mostly practical and accessible to regular users, including my children.
However, a dedicated Linux smartphone seemed like the ultimate privacy tool. I found the company Pine64, who sold an experimental device, the PinePhone, at a reasonable price. While 'experimental' is key here, and my experiences with the phone came nowhere close to the mostly smooth experiences I'd had with Linux on laptops, I am glad this device exists, and feel hopeful that development over the next decade may lead to good, working Linux hardware mobile devices.
Pinephone in 2023
My first attempts with the PinePhone occurred a few years ago, when I discovered the project and decided to support it by purchasing the phone, knowing full-well I might have a rough experience as a non-developer.
For this 2023 review, I decided to start from scratch, as if I'd only just bought it. As is the case with any Linux operating system, development is ongoing. I must say this time around I was impressed; development over the past two or three years has led to noticeable improvements!
There are a couple of operating systems under development today that make the PinePhone quite usable, provided you can cope with slow response speeds.
Additionally, Pine64 now sells a more expensive PinePhone Pro. To find out about their differences, please visit their online shop, linked at the bottom of this article.
Lastly, the PinePhone is a hardware device built for Linux development. This is not the same thing as running a Linux OS on a device originally built for Android, as happens when we install CalyxOS onto a Google Pixel Phone.
The discourse around the PinePhone is full of warnings targeted at wide-eyed, hopeful, but non-tech privacy fans: the PinePhone is not for you! It's for developers only. It's experimental. Do not attempt to try and use a PinePhone as your daily driver. Proceed with caution!
These warnings abound. You can even find them on the Pine64 website:
Beta Edition PinePhones are aimed solely at early adopters. More specifically, [we] only intend for these units to find their way into the hands of users with extensive Linux experience.
You can also read these warnings from a range of contributors on forums like Reddit, as for example, here.
On the other hand, I have also seen more encouraging statements like these, found on the European Pine64 website:
"all of the device’s core functionality is now well supported by nearly all mobile Linux operating systems."
"The PinePhone can run Android apps via a compatibility layer, but in all likelihood your banking or travel apps will not function fully or at all."
The second quote illustrates that some of PinePhone's development struggles are on par with those in the custom ROMs field, where running banking apps is still an issue.
Finally, you can also find outright criticism from some developers, as seen in the post 'UtopiaOS for the PainPhone'. It's worth reading the discussion to get a feel for the different perspectives on the PinePhone.
Once you've heeded all the warnings, compared the hardware, and decided which PinePhone best suits your goals, there are a couple of decisions that need to be made.
SIM card or SIM-less?
There are reviews out there written by people who have tried to use the PinePhone as their daily driver, including calls and texting. While I did try that once myself (even while travelling), I have decided to test my PinePhone without a SIM card this time, as this is how I currently use my CalyxOS phone, as a type of mini-tablet or iPod connected to WiFi. I rely on a feature phone for calls and texting. I will therefore not be reviewing calling and texting here.
Which distro should I install?
The PinePhone comes with one Linux distro pre-installed on the 32GB internal flash memory (eMMC). There is a slot for an SD card, which I highly recommend using, as having a spare SD card makes testing out different distros very easy. The PinePhone is setup so that during boot-up, any distro installed on an SD card will take precedence over anything that's installed on the phone's flash drive.
The Pine64 wiki is an excellent source of information on this. It lists all the distros in development and seems to be kept up-to-date.
After some research, I narrowed my selection down to three distros:
- Ubuntu Touch
- Manjaro ARM
I flashed each operating system to a 16GB SD card and tested these out in turn. To learn how to install an operating system, please see Pine64's excellent wiki and documentation. For those in the know, it is as simple as downloading an .iso image and flashing it to the card using something like BalenaEtcher.1
I liked postmarketOS best. (There are four graphical user interface options on the download page; I went with Phosh). The scroll and swipe movements felt intuitive, the shop had a lot to offer, and on my device, it felt the fastest, keeping in mind these devices are generally slow and sometimes buggy.
Command terminal & convergence
On commercial smartphones, the user is generally locked out of the operating system, or has to jump through numerous hoops to gain access. One of the neatest features about the PinePhone is that it runs like a small Linux computer, giving the user full access to the system through the terminal. On PostmarketOS, I use Console for this, and it works well. Keep in mind Console uses
apk instead of
apt for updating repositories and downloading apps.
It is possible to connect into the PinePhone from another computer, using SSH.2 I need to try that again, but it worked fine a few years ago.
Lastly, the convergence version enables you to hook the PinePhone up to a monitor, mouse, keyboard and Ethernet cable, so you can run it as a tiny computer. I must admit that this was a lot of fun, similar to the experience of playing with a Raspberry Pi. It took some doing to get the screen layout correctly matched to my monitor screen, but I was eventually able to drag windows back and forth. This type of functionality feels unprecedented on smartphone.
I will end by summarising the positive and negative experiences I had testing the PinePhone in 2023, and with questions that still remain.
I would like to state here that while the overall experience is slow and sometimes buggy (and therefore not ideal for serious daily use) I found that, with postmarketOS, the PinePhone experience was surprisingly fun, making it quite usable for me as a mini computer with touch screen at home.
If you are a fan of Linux, then participating in this project and seeing the progress on the PinePhone is a joy, even as a non-developer, because of what it could potentially bring us in the years to come: a Linux smartphone that exists in a totally free and separate space to the restricted and controlled experiences commercial smartphones give us today. I am really looking forward to that future!
- I came to testing the PinePhone with low expectations about speed, but found the PinePhone somewhat usable with postmarketOS. I did not have that experience when I first tried the PinePhone a few years ago
- Setting adjustments were implemented without problems, as were changes made with the 'Mobile Settings' application
- The software store in postmarketOS is user-friendly, containing a useful range of applications
- Audio worked well; the 'Podcasts' and 'Shortwave' (radio) apps worked; Bluetooth and physical headphone outputs worked.
- Swiping in postmarketOS feels intuitive, and it is easy to kill apps. The user-friendly interface is one of the main reasons I choose postmarketOS.
- The wiki help pages for Pine64 and postmarketOS are excellent
- The 'Secrets' password manager can access KeePass database files
- Convergence works, after some trial and error, provided you have a USB-C dongle. It's impressive that it does
- Linux makes the device extremely versatile. I managed to get a working Nextcloud (snap) server up and running on the PinePhone, and mined Monero with XMRig.
- The device is slow; Firefox feels especially slow
- Battery use and charging feel unpredictable. The battery sometimes runs out quickly; the device sometimes feels warm
- Some touch screen buttons were unresponsive. This happened with Bluetooth settings, and also with the CTRL button in the terminal
- The Software store doesn't let you filter searches for 'adaptive' apps only. To find out if an app is designed to work on a touch screen device, you have to select it in the Software app and read the details. The postmarketOS applications by category page helps, but a filter in the Software store would be more efficient
- Some apps that are labelled 'adaptive' in the store did not work on the Pinephone
- The Megapixels camera app works, but it crashed a few times
- Some menus that popped up within applications could not be closed; instead, I had to go back to the home screen and close them there
- There is a big discrepancy in cost between US and EU Pine64 products (EU over 80% more expensive) which cannot be convincingly explained as just tax and shipping costs
Questions that remain
There are a few features I wasn't able to investigate yet.
I was not able to find a way to install web applications via the browser. The Chrome app, which usually allows creating PWAs, is designed for desktop use and did not work on the PinePhone.
I could not find an easy way share files between the PinePhone and my PC. Plugging the device in via USB did not open access to the media storage space. I uploaded some files to my Nextcloud server, and then downloaded them from the browser on the PinePhone, but that was not convenient. Someone suggested using SSH for transferring files, which I need to look into.
The postmarketOS wiki page refers to an application called Axolotl that should enable using Signal on the PinePhone. This something I still need to look into; the app cannot be installed directly from the Software store.
Given my initial low expectations about the practical uses for a PinePhone actually led to a fun, mostly positive experience with the device in 2023.
The speed is slower that what we might expect from devices today, but that is easily balanced by the fact of what a PinePhone is: a full handheld Linux device with touchscreen, a working camera, Bluetooth, and so on. I am excited about what the future might hold for Linux smartphones. Once these devices are working smoothly, they will provide a true privacy alternative to the very limited and limiting choices we have today, created by and for Big Tech.
If the developers of the Light Phone 2 ever decide to develop a Signal tool for my daily driver phone, then I think I would happily put away my custom ROM Android smartphone and use a Linux device like the PinePhone instead.
Pinephone US store (149 or 199 USD)
Pinephone EU store (339 Euro)
Pinephone Pro (399 USD, 592.50 Euro)
Overview of Pinephone software releases
Securing SSH on the PinePhone
Info about postmarketOS desktop interfaces (I found this useful)
postmarketOS applications by category
Installing apps via terminal (2020 video)
Copy of my notes for installing Tow-Boot for Ubuntu Touch
For users interested in trying out Ubuntu Touch OS on the PinePhone, you'll need to install something called tow-boot onto phone's flash memory (eMMC) first. It took me a while to figure out how to do this, as the instructions assume prior knowledge, so I thought I'd share the notes I took on that process here.
Need 20.4 https://wiki.pine64.org/wiki/PinePhone_Software_Releases#Ubuntu_Touch (new method)
Annoying: tow-boot instructions don't tell you where to download the file. Found it here: https://github.com/Tow-Boot/Tow-Boot/releases
... via here: https://ubports.com/en/blog/ubports-news-1/post/pinephone-and-pinephone-pro-3889
Will also need to use terminal command
lsblkto see where device is mounted under /dev and use, for example, 'sdc' instead of XXX
Hold power & volume up to access phone as media drive from a computer using USB cable
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Ubuntu Touch requires an extra step, which I describe under Documentation.↩
SSH stands for 'Secure Shell'. It allows you to jump into one computer from another device, using written commands. It is easy to set up, but you need access to both devices the first time.↩