June 27, 2020

Pinebook Pro: Betting it all on ARM - Part 1

Pinebook Pro: Betting it all on ARM - Part 1

During this lockdown, I have not been spending as much as I would typically with eating out and doing non-home bound activities, I have had a bit more disposable income for gadgets than I would usually have.  With these extra funds, I decided to invest in two pieces of fascinating hardware.  This blog post with be the first item I received.

My usual laptop is a Dell Latitude E7440, Intel i7-4600u, 16 GB RAM, 2 x 480GB mSATA drives, and a 14 inch 1080p screen. Currently, it's running Windows 10, 2004 but in the past, it has run Linux, BSD and even MacOS a few times.  It's a nice machine, powerful enough to do most tasks and light enough to be in a backpack at all times.

I have used Raspberry Pis in the past as well as some "clones".  These have been used for server related tasks and not for personal computing.  I believed x86 is the best platform we have but with the last few exploits in that hardware has shown that there are flaws with these closed-source, closed-designed implementations of this platform.  The need for speed and performance has come at the cost of security and "simplicity".  ARM (other RISC platforms are available) I think will become the next architecture that will take over.  It might have already done, so ARM is everywhere you look, phones, TVs, some fridges, VPSs and now my new laptop.

I got a Pinebook Pro, ISO version, and it's the device I am currently writing this post with.  I have had it since the 18th of June, and so far I like the device.  I will be using it more and will be writing a part 2 in case my opinion changes.  I was expecting it to be "crappy and cheap" hardware and it to be slow and cumbersome, but I have yet to see that (with the use I have given it so far).  This instance is not the first time I have used PINE64's hardware before, I originally kickstarted the original PINE A64, and once it arrived, I had countless software issues. Still, it was new hardware, and I have to assume if I took it out now it would be a way better experience.

I bit the bullet on this laptop after seeing post after post talking about it, and this is the second laptop made by PINE64.  With that, I assumed it would be less "dogfooding" and to my surprise, the current pre-installed Linux distro, Manjaro KDE (an Arch-like distro, with my favourite DE), is pleasant to use and is fully-featured out of the box.

Some things could be improved with my "generation" of Pinebook.  The boot sequence is weird there is no BIOS/UEFI on board,  the processor looks at the start of the microSD card and then the EMMC.  You can flash uboot to the onboard SPI flash, but it's not recommended.  I can only assume this is being worked on to bring more BIOS like features to this laptop, some kind of boot menu and the ability to boot from USB and/or NVMe (adaptor required).

While one slight annoyance that can't be fixed with software is that the keyboard layout has one issue that I can not ignore.  Where there should be a delete key is a soft power button.  I can't tell you how much you notice how much you use a delete key when it's not there.  You can use FN + Backspace, and I am sure my muscles and subconscious will learn this over time.  There is a single USB-C connector that can be used for display output, and this is the only video out on this laptop.  I know a "full fat" HDMI connector would have probably removed one of the USB-A ports, but I think even a mini or micro HDMI port would have been able to put on without losing other connectors.  While on the topic of connectors, there is no Ethernet, not a deal-breaker as there are 2 USB-A ports and a USB-C port that an adaptor can be put in and this laptop is too thin for an Ethernet port but I would be amiss not to at least bring it up

With the recent news of Apple moving to their own silicon which based on ARM, I think the world will now take these processors more seriously, and the development on them will pick up, and we all win out in the end, especially me now I have this £200 ARM laptop, named Zinc.

I will write a followup post after a few months usage and answer:

  1. Did I stick with the Pinebook Pro?
  2. Is ARM the processor of the future for general computing?
  3. Can I write more than one post every few years?