The Case Against Replacing Your Standard Laptop With A Pinebook Pro

As I’ve written about manytimesbefore, I own a Pinebook Pro that I’m rather fond of; I’m writing this post on it at this very moment. However, a friend at work recently asked me if I still was enjoying the device. I tempered my initial reaction to immediately reply with, “Of course!” to instead respond with a question of my own: “Why do you ask?” This particular friend isn’t someone I would describe as a Linux enthusiast, and I don’t think they particularly care about the ARM architecture. The response was what I expected: my friend was looking for a relatively cheap laptop to replace what they were currently using.

The raison d’être of the Pinebook Pro is to serve as a hobby device to the open-source community. I feel like anyone who purchases one without that mindset is going to quickly find themselves simultaneously both frustrated and disappointed, left wondering all the more why so many people are raving about a device they find themselves hating. I immediately cautioned my friend against ordering it.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I figured it would be worth some investment in writing up exactly why purchasing a Pinebook Pro as a daily driver to another laptop without the aforementioned open source predilections in mind is such a bad idea.

The Official Word

Perhaps the biggest reason why this should be avoided is that PINE64, the company which makes the device, recommends against it. The information page for the Pinebook Pro leaves this perhaps a little unclear if someone doesn’t read closely enough:

The Pinebook Pro is meant to deliver solid day-to-day Linux or *BSD experience and to be a compelling alternative to mid-ranged Chromebooks that people convert into Linux laptops.

https://www.pine64.org/pinebook-pro/

If you were to stop reading halfway through that sentence, you might be inclined to believe that the Pinebook Pro is a good Chromebook alternative. However, the comparison is only apt if you were planning to go through the pain and suffering of getting Linux on that Chromebook in the first place.

The store page spells things out a bit more clearly:

Please do not order the Pinebook Pro is you’re seeking a substitute for your X86 laptop…

https://pine64.com/product/14%e2%80%b3-pinebook-pro-linux-laptop-ansi-us-keyboard/

The PINE64 team quite clearly knows the target audience for the Pinebook Pro, and they have zero interest in dealing with returns or refunds from people who may not have fully realized what they were getting into.

The World Is A Mess Right Now

Ordering a Pinebook Pro isn’t something you do on a whim so that you can get it a couple of days later to begin using. PINE64 produces the devices in batches. Once each batch is completed, they then begin the arduous process of shipping from the facility in China where they’re assembled to their final home. How long it takes to receive a device depends on when the next batch is expected to be finished. I ordered my device at the very beginning of December, 2019. Between production and QA delays, the coronavirus, and shipping problems, I didn’t receive it until February of 2020.

Things are currently no better considering that the coronavirus is still a problem, shipping is still a problem, and now there’s a global electronics shortage due to the skyrocketing demand for technology over the past year and a half while everyone has been trapped at home. Expect a wait of at least a few months after the next production batch begins; there’s no telling when that will be since, at the time of this writing, both the ANSI and ISO versions of the device are simply listed as out of stock.

Linux Experience Is Required

Experience with Linux (or Unix if you happen to be one of those absolute juggernauts who puts NetBSD on it) is a requirement for using the device. Even if you never bother to flash a different OS to the eMMC, you’ll still inevitably find yourself digging under the hood in order to get the best experience… either that, or you just suffer with a poor experience.

I could see some logic in thinking that the device would be a good way to learn Linux, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; it’s like learning to swim by jumping in the deep end with no assistance when you’d be better off in the shallow end with some floaties. While they’ve been relatively rare, bugs do happen, and so far they at least anecdotally seem to be a little more frequent under ARM than they are under x86 due to how relatively uncommon it is. The community around the Pinebook Pro is awesome, but you need to be comfortable with doing a bit of digging for solutions when you run into issues, popping into the Pinebook Pro IRC server, etc. More broadly, you’ll also potentially be limited in what Linux or Unix distribution you can even pick from based on where their ARM support is at the moment; that’s not something you’ll have to worry about when learning on x86.

Even basic maintenance of the system can require a decent bit of *nix familiarity. For example, when I updated my device today, I was reading through the terminal output and saw the following:

On one hand, reading terminal output and copying the commands may not seem like much, but you have to know to even bother reading the pages of text dumped to the screen to see it in the first place.

Similarly, there have also been instances of hardware misconfiguration when devices shipped. One particular batch, for example, shipped with the hardware switch for the WiFi turned off. Anyone receiving those devices needed to pop the bottom off and adjust the switch. It’s a simple fix with great documentation from the community, but it’s a lot more than most people are likely expecting when ordering a laptop.

User Experience

I feel like this section is going to come across more negatively than I intend, but the user experience on the Pinebook Pro should be expected to be similar to running a ROCK64 SoC (or Raspberry Pi, if you’re more familiar with that) attached to a screen and a keyboard. While the specs aren’t terrible, the process will bottleneck a lot of the “modern” web experience if that’s the main use someone has for it. I run Manjaro as my operating system because the Manjaro community has been very involved with the Pinebook Pro, making it one of the best experiences for the hardware — there’s a reason why Manjaro is now the default operating system that ships with the device rather than Debian. Likewise, I use XFCE as my desktop environment because it’s:

…a lightweight desktop environment for UNIX-like operating systems. It aims to be fast and low on system resources…

https://xfce.org/

Even with this setup, YouTube playback isn’t exactly the best experience, and I discovered that even playing a few games on Chess.com is a bit of a laggy experience.

Wrap-Up

I don’t say any of those to be disparaging of the Pinebook Pro or the work done by PINE64. More to the point, playing chess and watching YouTube videos weren’t exactly what anyone had in mind when the device was designed. The Pinebook Pro is an amazing device, and I use mine all the time; it’s just important for me to keep in mind when I should be reaching for it and when I should be reaching for my iPad or Star Lite Mk III.