This $200 Laptop Is Like a Chromebook You Can Hack

The Pinebook Pro, a community-built Linux laptop that runs on ARM hardware, offers a few surprises. Fairly inexpensive, it’s the perfect machine for tinkerers.
February 17, 2020, 1:00pm
pinebook pro
Image: Ernie Smith

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

For some reason, despite the fact that our devices can seemingly do anything with an impressive level of polish, there are folks who want to learn from the tech they use.

They want a challenge—and an adventure. I think I’ve learned over the last year or two that I’m one of those people. I primarily like using Hackintoshes despite the fact that the machines are intended for Windows, and I will mess with old pieces of computing history just to see if they uncover new ways of thinking about things.

So when I heard about the Pinebook Pro, I was in. Here was a laptop built on the same ARM architecture primarily used for smartphones and internet-of-things devices, and designed to run Linux. Is it for everyone?

Maybe not. But, if you love an adventure, you should be excited about what it represents.

The only logo you’ll find on this entire device. Image: Ernie Smith

The Pinebook Pro’s hardware does the right things right—and cuts corners thoughtfully

Most companies want to scream out their brand name at you everywhere. Not Pine64, the community-focused maker of single-board computers that has done a lot of branching out in the past year or so.

On its latest laptop, literally nothing on the outside signifies that Pine64 was responsible for building this machine, minus a small pinecone logo on the key where most manufacturers might put a Windows logo.

If there’s a reason for that, it’s rooted in the community around this machine that drives the Pine64 project forward. In an interview from a couple of months ago, Pine64 community manager Lukasz Erecinski told me that the while certain hardware decisions were driven by developers in the space and people in the community.

“We listened and took note of the features the community truly wants, such as privacy switches for the camera, microphone and radios; modern IO interfaces; no excessive branding; end-user repairability, and we tried to deliver the best laptop we can,” he explained.

The delivery part is admittedly not easy for something like this. It took me about two months to get the device directly from Hong Kong, and the Wuhan coronavirus could cause delays for future units. Mine was one of the first units Pine64 produced that had a U.S.-centric ANSI keyboard; all of the devices released before the one I received this month used an Eurocentric ISO keyboard. The manufacturing process here is small, bespoke. Erecinski and the firm’s other main figures are moving carefully as they put these devices into the world.

You’re not buying this machine because you’re looking for something simple and cheap—it’s not like the original Pinebook, a $99 device that is basically a proof of concept that a community-built laptop is an actual thing that could exist. (Linus Tech Tips reviewed it last year, though again, it’s a proof of concept.) You could hit up eBay or your local Target for a cheap Chromebook if you wanted that, and skip out on the wait.

Rather, it’s a weekend-warrior machine, a product for people who think ARM is awesome, who think Linux is awesome, and who like the idea of developing on native hardware, or who want an actual keyboard, rather than a cheap tablet. (Side note: Pine64 is also working on a Linux-based tablet now. And a smartphone. And a smartwatch. Like I said, they’ve been busy.)

There’s a general understanding that, even if this device is only $200 plus shipping, people are doing to get more than $200 of use from it. From that front, I think they did a great job making the device feel nicer than the price point might suggest. The case, with its magnesium trims and plastic top case, wears its budget status thoughtfully. The decision to put metal on the outside, sandwiching a plastic interior, feels inspired, as it’s usually the opposite of what many Chromebook-makers do. It’s a great example of stretching a tight budget in a thoughtful way.

And that’s a common theme of the device, whose creators invested in things users would want (a relatively-beefy-for-budget ARM device, a 1080p matte screen, a useable keyboard, a USB-C port). Sure, corners were cut, but they were cut in places where it makes sense to trim, where the price tag makes them easy to explain away. A few examples:

The trackpad is tiny and plasticky, but perfectly usable. (Suggestion: Don’t click; tap.)

The outer case is a fingerprint magnet in a way most laptops are not, to the point where you wish they gave it an extra layer of coating. Fortunately, it’s also quite good for stickers, which I recommend you use for covering this thing.

And the speakers are cheap, in a bad way—but the Bluetooth works, as does the headphone jack. You don’t buy a device like this for the speakers.

You’re willing to forgive a lot because of the fact that this is a team of experimenters that was willing to put their necks out for a group of people that find a non-Intel-based laptop an awesome proposition. I mean, I certainly did.

It doesn’t come with much in the way of warranty—just a month—which is almost freeing in a way. You can break it, but you can also break it, if you get my drift. It’s not like you spent $2,500 on it.

And even amid the compromises, the device has a huge advantage over your average Chromebook in one important place: The ease of repair and modification. You can open this machine up and replace things. The default eMMC storage can be upgraded; you can get an adapter to install an NVMe SSD blade; and because the device has single-board computer roots, it’s not outside of the realm of imagination that you might be able to put another board inside of this machine in the future, while reusing most of the other parts. This is a $200 laptop with an upgrade path, and that’s a rare thing in 2020—especially for a low-stakes device like this.

There didn’t appear to be anywhere to screw in the NVMe adapter, so I just held it in place with that big yellow sticker. I’ll eventually switch to double-sided tape.

As a part of my research into this, I got a hold of an NVMe adapter (sold separately, delivered much quicker than the computer itself) and tried installing a drive myself. The results weren’t perfect: The adapter doesn’t seem to naturally fit anywhere, and a sticker, announcing changes to the device’s internal design, blocked the spot for the ribbon adapter. When I removed that sticker, I got the ribbon cable in, only to find that there is seemingly no easy way to fit in the adapter, which partly goes under the trackpad. It was just hanging out. Fortunately, I had the sticker to go where screws couldn’t. (I joked on Twitter that it’s a load-bearing sticker.)

There are things that one could quibble about with this design—the hinge could stand to go back a little bit further, for example, and backlit keys would definitely be useful—but I think that they pulled off a lot in an extremely tight budget.

The battery life on this is insane—8 to 10 hours easily. And because it doesn’t use a ton of power, it can charge off a cell phone’s power brick, as long as it uses USB-C (though a barrel plug charger is included). If you were backpacking across a continent and wanted the most lightweight and battery-packed device possible, the Pinebook Pro would be a contender.

There were some areas where the device buckled a bit in my testing. For example, while the device is technically capable of 4K video, plugging it into a USB-C adapter on my 4K monitor was a strugglefest. I’m sure that, if I keep tinkering or find a different cable, I can get it to work. Just like a lot of other things here.

Because honestly, that’s the point of this device.

“Our end-users are very well informed, usually technical and specifically want an ARM laptop.”

— Lukasz Erecinski, discussing the user base for Pine64 devices, which is often very community driven and in the open-source spirit.

Software considerations: Get ready to tinker

The first time you boot into your Pinebook Pro, you’re greeted with a red intro screen, complete with Pine64 logo (the same one on the keyboard), that says, “Open Sesame.”

That description feels pretty accurate. This is a device intended in many ways for discovery of the Linux ecosystem, its benefits and quirks, and what might or might not work out of the box. You don’t buy this because you want to save money that you’d otherwise use for a Chromebook; you buy it because you want to be able to screw around a bit.

By choosing an ARM-based device over x86, you’re cutting down your options for both operating systems and software, but there’s still plenty of stuff there. Most of the major browsers have ARM variants, most notably Chromium and Firefox, and I found the ARM version of Vivaldi quite nice. YouTube playback was perfectly serviceable, and I ran into very few situations where I couldn’t install an app because it had not been designed for ARM-based Linux. There’s reason to expect that situation to improve in the coming years, thanks to the rise of hobbyist computers like this.

So, what about the operating systems? I think this is where my viewpoint gets a little mixed. The default Debian-based build included, with a MATE-based graphical interface, is simple and spartan—not as polished as some of the x86-based alternatives, but still offering plenty to work with. It does the job. If you’re just looking for the machine to work, this is probably the default you’ll want to stick with.

Fortunately for those wanting more than that, trying other operating systems is very doable—with the included MicroSD slot, I was able to throw in different cards and try out numerous community builds that supported this device. With the exception of the Android build, I was able to get every one I tried to work with varying levels of stability.

Chromium OS worked decently for surfing the web, but the offered community build had some stability issues and didn’t allow for easily installation of the software’s pretty-good Linux capabilities. As it’s not a pure Linux build it’s likely not getting as much attention as some of the others, but I hope that changes, as it’s a fairly decent way to surf the web on the cheap and it has some great stretch capabilities.

The Manjaro build (which uses a KDE Plasma desktop interface) was nice, though not my personal cup of tea, as I tend to be more comfortable in Debian/Ubuntu terminals. Probably my favorite of the bunch, though, was the Ubuntu MATE community build, which is more customizable than the default Debian MATE build—although, like Chromium OS, it had some quirks, most notably some compatibility issues with the NVMe drive that prevented the laptop from going to sleep.

If you’re looking for a Linux experience with training wheels, this probably isn’t it, and you’ll be happier setting up an old x86 laptop to try the more diverse ecosystem of Linux variants—among them System76’s simple and thoughtful Pop OS Ubuntu variant, the Mac-like Elementary OS, the switcher-targeted Zorin OS, and the highly polished Chinese-made Deepin.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily a knock on the Pinebook Pro. You should get it because you know you’re going to spend weekends messing around with random settings, or programming. And when you do get things where you like them, you get a device with a nice keyboard, a long battery life, and a fully repairable interior.

This ecosystem is still fairly young, and young ecosystems grow older and more diverse over time. This comes with good sides and bad sides. While you can tinker to your heart’s content with a device like this, it also means that you’re at the mercy of fellow tinkerers when something doesn’t work quite right. That might just lead you to a solution, but because it’s relatively early days in the world of ARM-based laptops, you’re stuck if something doesn’t work.

In a year, the operating system situation is likely to look a lot different because there’s a community pushing it forward. If you buy this, you’re buying into the community as much as the device—and Pine64 has a really interesting community right now, one that will become fundamental to its future growth.

And with that in mind, you can see the potential down the line. In our interview, Erecinski noted that there is room for system-on-a-chip (SoC) gadgets to eventually become useful to more than just the tinkerers that will buy this.

“I feel that we are getting very close to ARM Linux desktop computers being viable as a choice for non-technical end-users,” he said. “We aren’t there just yet, but many ARM SoCs are (at least in theory) perfectly capable of running full desktop environments and software for these SoCs is getting better by the day.”

Just as the original Pinebook was a necessary step to stake out the market, the Pinebook Pro helps set the stage for an eventual maturity. For people that buy this, living through the growing pains is basically the fun part.

“When I see Raspberry Pi-shaped things or slightly bigger, or even smaller, I think to myself, ‘Well, we’re just where the PC was in 1985’—you know, way cheaper than the expensive stuff. People make fun of it, but it’s going to get better faster than the older technologies of stuff. People are going to try things out just to try them, and maybe they’ll succeed.”

Ed Vielmetti , an employee of the cloud firm Packet and a former journalist, discussing the current shape of the market for ARM-based devices, which he has helped to evangelize through his role with Works on Arm, a collaboration between Packet and Arm that aims to make the case for ARM in data centers.

The interesting thing about the Pinebook Pro is not that it exists and works effectively, but that it paints an image of a future where ARM chips could genuinely prove a better use case on the go. The fact that these chips have found a home in our smartphones and connected devices makes one wonder about the long-term potential of a device that took those skills back to more traditional computing form factors.

The board at the center of the Pinebook Pro.

It would be a fascinating homecoming of sorts for a chipset that gained momentum in low-power use cases, but whose roots are actually in desktop computers produced by the British firm Acorn.

Certainly, there have been efforts to bring ARM to the laptop realm—most notably the Microsoft Surface Pro X, released last year, that featured impressive hardware, although reviewers were less impressed with the compromised software. Ed Vielmetti, a former journalist who has helped ARM’s reach in the data center through his employer Packet, has tried some of the Windows-based ARM machines, which he notes often have impressive battery life and connectivity compared to equivalent Intel devices.

But Vielmetti, who first gained a professional interest in ARM through exposure to the Raspberry Pi when working on a solar energy project, noted that in many ways, the play for the ARM chipset in more traditional computing form factors is in the long term—rather than right now.

“If it’s like this quarter, something has to be on for some of us this quarter, then you probably want to be, you know, parked very close to what your customers use,” he told me in an interview last summer. “But if you’re looking a little bit out or even further out, and you’re looking at the landscape of changes in the chip industry, and you want to target your software at the people who have the hardware that’s the best, then I think you have to be looking at ARM.”

And there has been growing interest in this specific proposition. Last year, for example, Linus Torvalds noted in an online discussion that there was a growing need for ARM developer boxes if ARM is to have a shot in the world of servers. “Without a development platform, ARM in the server space is never going to make it,” he noted. (The Pinebook Pro is a good start.)

And then there’s the general consumer level, which has seen some exposure to ARM-based laptops running Chrome OS. The wildcard, of course, is Apple, which has long been rumored to be working on an ARM-based Mac. Both Vielmetti and Erecinski noted it was well-positioned to push things forward.

“They have extensive experience with ARM from their phones and their kernel, and presumably also much of the stack already runs on the architecture,” Erecinski said. “Perhaps more importantly, Apple has very loyal customers who would buy an ARM laptop with little or no reservation.”

There are a lot of ways this could end up looking, and Pine64’s image of an ARM-based future may not be the one that wins in the market, although it makes an intriguing present. Another potential path forward involves a recent Kickstarter success story called the NexDock 2, which effectively is a laptop-like shell for ARM-based smartphones with built-in desktop support. It makes sense—after all, many Android phones are already more powerful than desktop computers.

Maybe the future of ARM computing looks like the Pinebook Pro; maybe it looks like the NexDock 2; maybe it even looks like whatever Apple is rumored to be working on. But we may be on the cusp of a future where a chipset famously used in smartphones starts appearing in more traditional computing forms—and the Pinebook Pro shows that the tinkerers are out front here.

Pine64, by building this device and others, is for now at the vanguard of ARM-based computing, but its goals are more modest than most. Speaking about its efforts to support a Linux-based phone ecosystem—another area where Pine64 is at the vanguard—Erecinski underlined the firm’s simple, open-source roots.

“We are not out to sell a million units, dethrone Android and iOS, or build a PINE64 empire,” Erecinski explained. “This project will never be a financial success because we make no money off it—we donate all revenue to our partner projects building the OSes. But that is besides the point.”