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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.