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Cover image for Trying out the Pinebook Pro - a $200 ARM Laptop
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Trying out the Pinebook Pro - a $200 ARM Laptop

jeremycmorgan profile image Jeremy Morgan Originally published at jeremymorgan.com ・5 min read

The Pinebook Pro is a $200 laptop that runs a couple of ARM processors, and it promises a lot. Does it deliver? After what seemed like an eternity waiting, mine arrived and here's what I think.

I used this thing for a few days casually to get a feel for what it's like, and this is my first impression.

As a note, you can get a $100 Pinebook here as well.

What is it?

Before I start reviewing this thing, you may not be familiar with what it is. The Pinebook is an open-source project (hardware and software are open-source) that aims to build usable laptops at the lowest possible price.

Pinebook Pro Review

The Pinebook Pro has a Rockchip RK3399 (SOC) and a Mali T860 MP4 GPU, both ARM platform processors. It has 4GB of RAM, a 1080p display, and magnesium alloy shell body. This is the model I'm talking about in this article. You can get the full specifications here.

Of course, I had to rip this thing open to check it out. Click on the image to see a larger view.

Pinebook Pro

As you might have guessed, there's very little inside this thing; it's the small Pine board, a battery, the touchpad, and a USB controller. My hope is when newer Pine64 systems come out, we can swap them here, but I don't know if it's a possibility. So it looks to be simple and serviceable.

What am I using it for?

Another important consideration for a good review is a use case. If I were using this for gaming or editing video, it wouldn't be a great review. I decided to spend a few evenings in my free time using it as my living room/goof around laptop.

Here's what I did with it:

  • Web browsing
  • Checking email/social media
  • Building web apps
  • Writing

I wanted to see if I could grab this lightweight little laptop and do everyday things with it, and it worked well. How much stuff could I realistically do with this $200 computer? The fact that it only runs Linux doesn't bother me as my usual "goof around" laptop is also running Linux. So I put it to the test.

Look and Feel

Pinebook Pro Review

First off, the case is an alloy shell, bottom is metal top is plastic. It's difficult to describe but this laptop doesn't "feel" cheap at all. There is no loose feeling or rattling when you shake it. The keys are firm and clicky. The hinges feel sturdy and smooth. It weighs a couple of pounds. Though I haven't tried it, I'm confident I could throw this thing in my backpack, lug it around, and use it whenever without worry.

Pinebook Pro Review

The display has no dead pixels and it looks good at night. As far as hardware goes, so far, everything has worked. The USB ports, the card reader, power supply, everything. Zero hardware problems. This is awesome.

The only mouse I had lying around was a Microsoft (ironically) Bluetooth mouse. I connected it, and it's worked flawlessly every time I needed it. The touchpad worked fine, but I have big hands and can never get used to them, so I disabled it.

Pinebook Pro Review

Performance

I haven't done any official benchmarks, but instead just went about usual work to see what stood out.

Pinebook Pro Review

With everything I did, nothing was slow or unusually laggy. This included things like:

  • Watching Videos
  • Browsing the web
  • Installing software
  • Compiling code
  • Minor graphic work in Gimp
  • Run a web server

It did all of these things smoothly and without problems. This answers the burning question of most of you probably reading this:

Can I use this for a web development machine?

Yes, you can! It runs Nginx/Node, NPM, Docker, and text editors. Which brings me to my next point:

Software Availability

Pinebook Pro Review

There are quite a few software packages you can't get on this laptop. You can't fault the Pine64; everything has to be built for ARM and that's still a work in progress.

Note, I originally wrote that I couldn't get Visual Studio Code on this, however, feoh from Lobsters helped me out. You can get Visual Studio Code with a one-liner here.

I used the standard version of Debian 9.11 Stretch that came pre-installed with the laptop. I'm sure I'll swap it out with Manjaro soon enough. It works well, but the packages lag. I manually installed GoLang 1.13 because it only had 1.8 available in the Debian repos. Node in the repos is at v4.8.2, but you can manually install the ARMv7 binaries and it appears to work fine.

Again, not a fault of the Pine64, but Debian and ARM package availability.

Edit: I have recently installed Manjaro on it and it's running great.

Final Verdict

This laptop is better than any $200 laptop should be. It's high-quality construction and it feels polished. You can tell a lot of effort has gone into making the Pinebook work. There are no errors or glitches you usually find in cutting edge, experimental things like the Pinebook.

Pinebook Pro Review

I'm told the battery should last 8-10 hours, and I have discharged it a few times and it hits the mark. Power usage is impressive.

I used it as a browser, built some applications with it, and I'm writing this article on it. I do believe if someone really wanted to get into software/web development and only had a $200 budget for a machine, this would be the one to get. Hands down.

I'm hoping they can get to a point to go into mass production. I worked on the Classmate PC Project years ago, where Intel tried to create low-cost laptops for underserved regions of the world, and we would have given anything for functionality like this. It's a step closer.

I love it.

Questions, comments? Let me know!

Posted on by:

jeremycmorgan profile

Jeremy Morgan

@jeremycmorgan

Silicon Forest Developer/hacker. I write about .NET, DevOps, and Linux mostly. Once held the world record for being the youngest person alive.

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Discussion

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I currently use a HP Stream 14 w/ manjaro for daily purposes. My "daily driver" laptop is almost 10 years old at this point and while still performs OK-ish, it is literally breaking apart and held together by tape. The battery life is just enough to get from one plug point to another.

My main complain with Stream 14 is that it always just misses the mark by a bit. In the maybe a refreshed version with slightly better processor would've made it territory. That said it works well for basic tasks. I'm writing this on the stream, it has nice keyboard. My current website is mostly done on this laptop. VSC lags a bit sometimes and I work with a reduced set of plugins compared to what I have on my other laptop but it ain't bad.

The ARM part might be a hurdle but looks like performance wise this wouldve been a good choice.

 

I totally support this kind of initiative. I'm very grateful for this review, because I read about 'this thing' another day and I was very curious about if it works or not. Also, it was very interesting to look at it from inside. Thanks man.

 

Hope I can get it to Nigeria with not too much charge
I could do with a new laptop right about now

 

The biggest problems I have with laptops running Linux are the function buttons for like bright/dim backlight and volume, and sleep on close/open on wake. Did those work ok?

 

I did not try the bright/dim on the standard Debian install but I just tried it with Manjaro and it works. Sleep on close/ open on wake doesn't but I haven't configured it to do so, I'll play around with it and let you know

 

Fun aside, I have an older laptop (Samsung Series 7 Chronos) -- after upgrading it to Win10, those buttons stopped working. It wasn't until I installed Fedora a year or so ago that I got the functionality of those buttons back.

Long story short, Linux can be even better than Windows in regards to function button functionality these days.

 

I picked up one of these and I patched the keyboard/trackpad issue but haven’t had a chance to play with it otherwise yet.

 

Been eyeballing the phonebook as a chromebook replacement. Looks like that would just about do it and then some. Does it have upgradable ram and hard drive?