Hands on with the Pinebook

The Pine A64 was a 64-bit Quad-Core Single Board Computer which was kickstarted at the tail end of 2015 for delivery in the middle of 2016. Costing just $15, and hailed as a “Raspberry Pi killer,” the board raised $1.7 million from 36,000 backers. It shipped to its backers to almost universally poor reviews.

Now they’re back, this time with a laptop—a 11.6-inch model for $89, or a 14-inch model for $99. Both are powered by the same 64-bit Quad-Core ARM Cortex A53 as the original Pine A64 board, but at least Pine are doing a much better job this time around of managing user expectations.

The 11.6-inch Pinebook.

However, you can’t just buy one off the shelf. The new Pinebooks are Build to Order (BTO) and the procedure is somewhat long-winded. The first thing you need to do is put yourself into the BTO queue on the Pine 64 website. Pick the model you want—11.6 or 14-inch—and then enter your email address. I opted for the 11.6-inch model.

When you reach the top of the queue—my understanding is that it’s quite long, several months, at this point—you’ll get an email from Pine asking you to confirm your order, and offering to upsell you on some accessories; a USB Ethernet adaptor, some USB to Type-H barrel power cables of different length, and a mini-HDMI to HDMI adaptor.

You then add the cost of the Pinebook, any accessories you want, and shipping—which seems to typically be between $20 to $40 depending on where you are in the world—and mail Pine back with your address, phone number, and PayPal ID. At this point you’ll receive request for payment to you PayPal account. Pay the bill, and your Pinebook will ship in the next BTO batch.

I don’t exactly remember when I added myself to the BTO queue, but it was certainly no later than the start of Q4 last year, possibly even before that. I received my initial BTO email from Pine on the 12th of April, replied on the 18th. The Pinebook shipped from Hong Kong on the 24th, and I received it here in the United Kingdom on the 27th—after paying an additional £35 in import duties to the courier—inside its plastic protective case.

As of the time of writing the next BTO batch is scheduled for the 5th of May, shipping from Shenzhen rather than Hong Kong. Your experience may vary widely from mine.

The Hardware

The obvious product to compare the Pinebook to would seem to be the Pi-Top, but there really isn’t a comparison. Funded on Indiegogo back in 2014, the Pi-Top is a Raspberry Pi powered laptop. It has a 10 hour battery life, a 13.3-inch screen, and comes as a kit you put together yourself. The Pinebook looks and feels like a ‘real’ laptop, the Pi-Top really doesn’t. The Pi-Top also cost $299, more than three times the price of the Pinebook.

The Pinebook keyboard.

One of my main complaints about the Pi-Top was its keyboard — I haven’t had to hammer at a keyboard that hard since I stopped using a mechanical typewriter. The Pinebook’s keyboard is better, much better, although I’m not quite sure what key mapping they’re using—it appears to be a cross between a US and a UK layout—the physical keyboard is comfortable and solid to use.

Instead my main complaint here is the trackpad, it’s pretty poor, although I do have to admit its performance is comparable with several of the low-end Chromebooks I’ve had the misfortune use. It’s also better than the Pi-Top’s trackpad, so maybe I was expecting too much from it.

The hole for the microphone is visible above the keyboard, while the two downward firing speakers are spaced one on each side of the keyboard. The speakers are more than a little tinny, with some distortion at high volumes.

Left side of the Pinebook with barrel power connector, USB and mini-HDMI ports.

The Pinebook is powered using a five-volt barrel connector, it comes with a five-volt, three-amp wall wart and you can pick up a USB to barrel connector cable as an accessory when you order—or splice one together yourself from parts. After charging the laptop should run for around six hours on battery, however right now there are some problems due to software which means that you might get shorter battery life than expected.

The barrel connector is on the left-hand side of the Pinebook, along with it is a USB port, and a mini-HDMI connector. Right now, again due to software problems, video output via the mini-HDMI connector is known not to work, with Pine predicting that this will be resolved around the middle of May.

On the other, right-hand, side of the Pinebook is another USB port, and an headphone jack, which at least in theory doubles as a UART port although I haven’t tested this yet—although right now audio out is known not to work. There is also a micro SD Card slot, which I have tested, and works just fine.

Right side of the Pinebook with micro SD card slot, headphone socket, and USB port.

Above the screen is a Silicon Motion 640×480 pixel (0.3MP) USB camera using a BYD Microelectronics BF3703 VGA CMOS image sensor. It gives a predictably awful image quality—the last time I had a 640×480 pixel camera in my cellphone I think it was the late 90’s—but it works out of the box and is fully supported by the Linux UVC driver.

Frankly, I was surprised that the Pinebook had a camera at all considering the price point of the laptop. So I’m not complaining.

Apart from the trackpad the screen is probably the poorest quality part of the build. The panel is a decently sized 1366×768 pixels, and is more than bright enough. Unfortunately on mine there were noticeable horizontal lines. In other words, it flickered. Constantly. The colour representation of the panel also isn’t that great, but compared to the flickering that’s really a very minor issue.

The Pinebook screen is readable, but not high quality.

The flickering is constant enough so that, while the screen is perfectly readable, long-term use probably isn’t going to be a good idea. I’m unsure whether this is a problem with my unit, or a design or build problem with the Pinebook in general, and I’d be interested in hearing in the comments from anyone else with their hands on a Pinebook whether this is a more widespread problem.

Booting from a cold start to the login screen takes 27 seconds, after entering your password—the password for the default user is ‘pine64’—it’ll take another thirteen seconds for the desktop to fully open. Shutting down from the desktop to cold takes just over eight seconds.

Update: The screen issues I’m experiencing are apparently due to a software issue which only affects the 11.6-inch model–they aren’t present on the 14-inch unit. The problem hasn’t yet been resolved, although the root cause is currently thought to be the ANX6345 driver, or fbturbo settings.

The Software

The Pinebook ships with Ubuntu MATE 16.04 installed. Unfortunately it runs sluggishly and, at least for me, at a speed that feels significantly slower than the PIXEL desktop on Raspbian running on a Raspberry Pi 3. This is surprising considering the speed of the A64 processor. Although the poor quality of the trackpad is probably contributing to that feeling of sluggishness, I’ve got a feeling that there are optimisation problems here; it really shouldn’t feel this slow.

The default Ubuntu MATE desktop.

Running Firefox was especially painful, which sort of rules it out as a ‘casual web browsing laptop’ that you leave lying around on the sofa.

So, just like last time, the main issues with the Pinebook seem to be around the software. Things are vastly improved over the state of things when Pine released their original board, unlike the original Pine A64 board the Pinebook is actually useable. However Pine have made it very clear that, “…it will largely be up to the community to help further develop and improve the BSP [Board Support Package] Linux experience on the device.”

It’s possible that the current efforts to add support Allwinner support to the Linux mainline kernel will eventually pay off, however until they do you’re dependent on Pine, or more likely the community around the Pine A64 board and the Pinebook, to improve hardware support.

This means that documentation around the hardware is pretty important. That documentation is however, lacking. It’s scattered, and if you’re expecting something that looks like the Raspberry Pi documentation you’re going to be in for a disappointment. The support forums are also sparsely populated. It’s early days, but there isn’t a lot of community to pick up the slack right now.

However in addition to the build of Ubuntu Linux that ships with the Pinebook there is also Android port to the Pine A64 in progress, and it appears to be in fairly late-stage development. So, if you’re having problems with Linux installation that shipped with the Pinebook, you might want to try the Android build instead.

Looking Inside the Pinebook

Opening up the Pinebook is pretty simple, there are ten Philips screws on the underside of the laptop—be careful though, the ones towards the thin leading edge of the wedge are smaller so don’t get them mixed up—so flip it over, unscrew them, then carefully lever the back casing off with a metal spudger.

The inside of the Pinebook case is mostly battery.

The main board is immediately visible on the right, along with a daughter board handling the sockets on the other side of the case on the far left.

After removing the bottom of the case there are four more Philips screws to remove the battery, as well as some tape where the battery is attached to the board. The connector just lifts out of its socket, so keep the tape handy you’ll need it to reseat the cable when you come to put everything back together again.

Removing the battery exposes the trackpad PCB.

After lifting the battery out you can see the final circuit board, which had been hidden underneath the battery, this handles the trackpad.

The main board itself is hidden at the top right underneath a square of tape and an RF shield. If you carefully pry the tape off the shield should just lift off and is easy enough to reseat when it comes to closing the laptop back up.

The Allwinner A64 processor is visible near the centre of the board, while the chip directly below it is a Sino Wealth SH68F83, a low-speed USB micro-controller being used as a HID keyboard/touchpad bridge. On the left of the A64 processor is a Foresee NCLD3B2512M32 with 2 GiB of LPDDR3 DRAM running at 533 MHz

The main Pine board with the major silicon labelled.

A 16 GB eMMC module is visible, up and right from the CPU. You can pick up replacements for the module—ranging in size from 8 GB to 64 GB—on the Pine store. The module is user-replaceable. Reportedly read speeds up to 80 MB/s and write speeds up to 40 MB/s are being seen with the module. The Pinebook is able to boot from both the internal eMMC or an external micro SD Card.

 

The three other smaller chips are the X-Powers AXP803, which handles battery management and charging, a Genesys Logic GL850G which acts as the USB 2.0 hub controller, and finally the Analogix ANX6345 handling RGB to DisplayPort translation.

At the top you can also see a second RF Shield, this is a bit more firmly attached than the main shield, but can be carefully pried off to reveal a Realtek RTL8723CS, an SDIO 2.0 solution comprising Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LR, and FM Receiver.

Unlike the Pine A64 board, or the Raspberry Pi powered Pi-Top, there are no GPIO pins exposed on the Pinebook’s main board.

You should be aware that when you reassemble the Pinebook the surface of the trackpad has a tendency to bow outwards, you’ll need to make sure it’s pushed back into place before reattaching the back — you won’t be able to push it into place after the back has been attached — because otherwise the trackpad buttons won’t work on reassembly.

Summary

Overall the build quality of the Pinebook is surprisingly okay. Apart for the touchpad, which really isn’t great, and the screen, which might well be a problem with my unit, it feels like a ‘real’ laptop.

However to be really clear, this isn’t a replacement for your Macbook. You can’t give this to your kid that’s heading off to college — or even high school — and expect them to manage. It’s also not really a replacement for a low-end Chromebook, the desktop is sufficiently sluggish that I’d be wary of recommending it as a cheap web browsing laptop for the sofa.

On the other hand, I must admit, I rather like it. It’s a lot better put together than a $89 laptop has any right to be, and despite the battery there’s a lot of space inside for adding things. Quite what things I’m not entirely clear on, in the same way I’m just not sure what I’m going to do with it quite yet. But I’ll figure something out.

Help Wanted: Open Source Oscilloscope on Rigol Hardware

We’ve often heard (and said) if you can’t hack it, you don’t own it. We noticed that [tmbinc] has issued a call for help on his latest project: developing new firmware and an FPGA configuration for the Rigol DS1054Z and similar scopes. It isn’t close to completion, but it isn’t a pipe dream either. [tmbinc] has successfully booted Linux.

There’s plenty left to do, though. He’s loading a boot loader via JTAG and booting Linux from the USB port. Clearly, you’d want to flash all that. Linux gives him use of the USB port, the LCD, the network jack, and the front panel LEDs and buttons. However, all of the actual scope electronics, the FPGA functions, and the communications between the processor and the FPGA are all forward work.

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FlowCode Graphical Programming

If you’ve ever been curious if there’s a way to program microcontrollers without actually writing software, you might be interested in FlowCode. It isn’t a free product, but there is a free demo available. [Web learning] did a demo of programming a Nucleo board using the system. You can check it out below.

The product looks slick and it supports a dizzying number of processors ranging from AVR (yes, it will do Arduino), PIC, and ARM targets. However, the pricing can add up if you actually want to target all of those processors as you wind up paying for the CPU as well as components. For example, the non-commercial starter pack costs about $75 and supports a few popular processors and components like LEDs, PWM, rotary encoders, and so on.

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$10 Orange Pi 2G-IoT Released to Compete With Pi Zero W

A new single-board computer by Orange Pi has popped up for sale on AliExpress. The Orange Pi 2G-IoT is designed to compete with the Raspberry Pi Zero, and if specs are anything to go by they have done a nice job.

There are a lot of options for extra small single board computers these days and there’s a growing list at the lowest price points. Let’s call it the sub-$20 cost range (to quell the argument of shipping fees). We have seen C.H.I.P., the Raspberry Pi Foundation released the Pi Zero W (an update to the Zero line that included WiFi and Bluetooth), the already available Orange Pi Zero (which was featured in a project on Monday), and now add to that list the unfortunately named Orange Pi 2G-IoT.

The 2g-IoT is sporting an ARM Cortex-A5 32bit clocked at 1GHz with 256MB DDR2 RAM. It’s nice to see 500 MB of on-board NAND to go along with an SD card slot for larger storage. It also has a CSI camera connector, WiFi, Bluetooth, an FM Radio and GSM/GPRS with a sim card slot on the bottom. It is pin compatible with Raspberry Pi’s almost standardized GPIO layout.

All this for $10 is quite impressive to say the least, especially the addition of GSM/GPRS. Will it kill Raspberry Pi Zero W sales? We think not. While the Orange Pi’s are great little computers, they don’t have the community support that is afforded to Raspberry Pi products making for less support online when you run into a problem. That’s if you can even get the thing running in the first place. The Orange Pi’s website has not yet been updated to reflect the new release. However if you are interested in getting one for yourself right now, head over to your favorite Chinese electronics supplier.

[via Geeky Gadgets and CNX]

PlatformIO and Visual Studio Take over the World

In a recent post, I talked about using the “Blue Pill” STM32 module with the Arduino IDE. I’m not a big fan of the Arduino IDE, but I will admit it is simple to use which makes it good for simple things.

I’m not a big fan of integrated development environments (IDE), in general. I’ve used plenty of them, especially when they are tightly tied to the tool I’m trying to use at the time. But when I’m not doing anything special, I tend to just write my code in emacs. Thinking about it, I suppose I really don’t mind an IDE if it has tools that actually help me. But if it is just a text editor and launches a few commands, I can do that from emacs or another editor of my choice. The chances that your favorite IDE is going to have as much editing capability and customization as emacs are close to zero. Even if you don’t like emacs, why learn another editor if there isn’t a clear benefit in doing so?

There are ways, of course, to use other tools with the Arduino and other frameworks and I decided to start looking at them. After all, how hard can it be to build Arduino code? If you want to jump straight to the punch line, you can check out the video, below.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Pocket Serial Terminal

When you have a microcontroller or other microcomputer on the bench in front of you and it lacks the familiar keyboard and display of a modern desktop computer, what do you do when you wish to program it or otherwise issue commands? Unless you are a retro computer enthusiast who longs for a set of Altair-style toggle switches, the chances are you’ll find its serial port and attach a terminal.

Serial terminals, devices containing a screen and keyboard hooked up to send and display text from a serial port, used to be a staple of computing, but as standalone devices, they’re now rather rare. In most cases nowadays using a serial terminal will mean opening up a terminal emulator in your modern OS, Linux, Windows, or MacOS, but there is still a use for standalone hardware. [Kuldeep Singh Dhaka] certainly thinks so, because he’s making an extremely nice portable terminal with an LCD screen.

The terminal emulates a venerable DEC VT-100 terminal, but since it’s built around an STM32F105 ARM microcontroller we’re sure it could emulate other models with appropriate software. It takes either a USB or a PS/2 keyboard, so we’d expect to see it paired with a suitably tiny portable keyboard when it in use. There is no source code available for it yet since this is very much still a project in development that we’re featuring now because it is a 2017 Hackaday Prize entry, but he assures us that code will be on its way and it will be GPL licenced.

He’s even posted a video that we’ve placed below the break of the device in operation, connected to a machine running MicroPython. We’d probably turn off that beep, though.

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Hackaday.io User Reviews Six STM32 IDEs

One of the issues with getting started with any Arm-based project is picking a toolset. Some of us here just use the command line with our favorite editor, but we know that doesn’t suit many people–they want a modern IDE. But which one to choose? User [Wassim] faced this problem, evaluated six different options for STM32 and was kind enough to document his findings over on Hackaday.io.

Many of the tools are Windows-only and at least two of them are not totally free, but it is still a good list with some great observations. Of course, the choice of an IDE is a highly personal thing, but just having a good list is a great start.

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