Pine64’s PinePhone – Testing a few OSs

Disclaimer – The development on the PinePhone is very rapid and it is more than likely that by the time you are reading this, most of the issues I describe are fixed. I will try to update this blogpost as I test different OS images on the phone.

Last Thursday (2020-02-12) I received my Braveheart PinePhone all the way from Hong Kong. I had to pay £11.81 customs fees when I went to collected it, as I live in the UK. The box contained the phone, a note from Pine64, and a red USB-C to USB-A. When I took the phone out of the box and pressed the power button, it hesitated for about 5 seconds, then lurched into the factory test image based on PostmarketOS. It had a few tests such as for the vibration motor and the modem (which will automatically fail without the SIM inserted. If yours fails, don’t worry! Just insert a SIM card).

UBPorts

The first image I tried on the PinePhone was UBPorts. This is the most complete of the images available as of writing this blogpost. With a few scripts and commands you can get it to make phone calls, make the audio work on the speakers and make it pick up FM radio stations. Keep in mind that these do not work without running the scripts, and the scripts do not persist reboots so you will have to re-run the scripts every boot.

At this point in time, the battery life is pretty bad, as the necessary optimizations have not been added to the image. The phone gets very warm, and the battery lasts for a few hours, but will not last the whole day. If you plan to bring your PinePhone around with you, remember to bring a power bank!

PostMarketOS

PostMarketOS is probably my favourite of the OSs currently available, as it runs all the full desktop programs natively. That being said, more things seem broken on PMOS than on UBPorts and the DEs available are still in pretty early development.

Plasma Mobile on PostmarketOS

Plasma mobile is the DE I am most excited for. It is very fast paced in terms of development and it looks really awesome.

Phosh on PostmarketOS

Phosh, short for ‘Phone Shell’ is a shell based on Gnome created by Purism intended for use on their Librem 5 phone. It seems to work quite nicely, but I found that in some apps the keys were mapped incorrectly, and often the apps would not fit on the screen. A simple workaround for this is to rotate the screen to landscape mode.

Debian

The last Debian image which I tried, loaded with Phosh, seemed to work slightly better than Phosh on PostmarketOS. The battery drain is still an issue and the UI crashed a lot, but more apps seemed to fit the screen in portrait mode and I found myself switching to Landscape mode much less often. The Debian image seemed to have the modem working nicely and I was able to receive and send phone calls without running any scripts which was a nice thing to see. As far as I can tell, SMS doesn’t seem to work at all.

Fedora

The Fedora experience was very similar to Debian, as they were both running Phosh and must have had similar patches.

In conclusion, the PinePhone seems to be coming along quite nicely and I suspect that in 3 or 4 months I will have my SIM card in it and carry it around every day. That is, if we are out of lockdown by then.

-Joe.

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