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.

Juicero: A Lesson On When To Engineer Less

Ben Einstein, a product designer and founder at Bolt, a hardware-based VC, recently got his hands on a Juicero press. This desktop juice press that only works with proprietary pouches filled with chopped fruits and vegetables is currently bandied in the tech press as evidence Silicon Valley has gone mad, there is no future in building hardware, and the Internet of Things is a pox on civilization. Hey, at least they got the last one right.

This iFixit-style tear down digs into the Juicero mixer in all its gory details. It’s beautiful, it’s a marvel of technology, and given the engineering that went into this machine, it was doomed to fail. Not because it didn’t accomplish the task at hand, but because it does so with a level of engineering overkill that’s delightful to look at but devastating to the production cost.

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Measuring Capacitors at the Birth of Rock and Roll

The late 1950s [Bill Haley], [Elvis Presley], and [Little Richard] were building a new kind of music. Meanwhile, electronic hobbyists were building their own gear from Heathkit. A lot of that gear shows you how far we’ve come in less than a century. [Jeff Tranter’s] YouTube channel is a great way to look at a lot of old Heathkit gear, including this really interesting “direct reading capacity meter.” You can see the video, below.

Measuring capacitance these days is easy. Many digital multimeters have that function. However, those didn’t exist in the 1950s–at least, not in the way we know them. The CM-1 weighed 5 pounds, had several tubes, and cost what would equate to $250 in today’s prices. Unlike other instruments of the day, though, the capacitance was read directly off a large analog meter (hence, the name). You didn’t have to interpret readings using a nomograph or move a knob to balance a bridge and read the knob’s position.

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The Shocking Truth About Transformerless Power Supplies

Transformerless power supplies are showing up a lot here on Hackaday, especially in inexpensive products where the cost of a transformer would add significantly to the BOM. But transformerless power supplies are a double-edged sword. That title? Not clickbait. Poking around in a transformerless-powered device can turn your oscilloscope into a smoking pile or get you electrocuted if you don’t understand them and take proper safety precautions.

But this isn’t a scare piece. Transformerless designs are great in their proper place, and you’re probably going to encounter one someday because they’re in everything from LED lightbulbs to IoT WiFi switches. We’re going to look at how they work, and how to design and work on them safely, because you never know when you might want to hack on one.

Here’s the punchline: transformerless power supplies are safely useable only in situations where the entire device can be enclosed and nobody can accidentally come in contact with any part of it. That means no physical electrical connections in or out — RF and IR are fair game. And when you work with one, you have to know that any part of the circuit can be at mains voltage. Now read on to see why!

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Stereo Microscope Teardown

Stereo microscopes are very handy tools, especially for a lot of hackers who now regularly assemble, test and debug SMD circuits using parts as small as grains of sand. We have seen a lot of stereo microscope hacks here at Hackaday, so it helps to take a look inside one to understand how they work. Thanks to [noq2]’s teardown of a Wild Heerbrugg model M8 stereo microscope, we get to do exactly that. His M8 is from the mid-1970s, but it is in mint condition and doesn’t look like it’s over 40 years old. Despite being so old, [noq2] still uses it regularly, so the teardown is not super detailed. But there’s enough for us to get a good idea of how they work.

Stereo microscopes use one of two optical designs — the Common Main Objective (CMO) optical system and the Greenough optical system. [MicroscopeWorld] has a nice blog post explaining these two types and their pros and cons. Not surprisingly, stereo microscopes, just like other optical instruments, are highly modular to allow attaching various extensions, adapters and accessories. The Wild M8 uses the CMO design and its main parts are the binocular head, the main body and the objective lens.

The binocular head consists of the two eyepieces and a pair of prisms that create the binocular split. The alignment of these prisms is critical and they must not be disturbed in their mounting cages. The prism cages have a sliding adjustment to help set the interpupillary distance. The main body contains the zoom and magnification optics and the related mechanics. [noq2] is impressed with the lack of plastics used in the construction of these fine instruments. Finally, there’s the huge objective lens, which [noq2] feels is the Achilles heel of the instrument. Its design is not plan-apochromatic and that causes significant chromatic aberrations, especially when trying to capture photographs. Thankfully, there are other objective lenses which can be used, including some DIY adapter solutions. The Wild Heerbrugg brand was taken over by Leica who still produce a range of stereo microscopes under that badge. If you have one of these microscopes, [noq2] suggests you head over the French forum at lenaturaliste.net where you’ll find extensive information about them.

As a bonus, also check out [noq2]’s ghetto lighting solution for his microscope – a pair of high power LED’s attached to salvaged heatsinks, and mounted on the frame of an old 80 mm cooling fan. The fan frame is perfect since it is the right size to slide over the objective lens. If you’re looking for a more capable lighting solution for your microscope, then check out “AZIZ! Light!”, a microscope ring light with a number of different features.

Before There were Nixie Tubes, There Were Edge-Lit Displays?

We’ve seen a bunch of replacements for nixie tubes using LEDs and edge-lit acrylic for the numbers. But one of the earliest digital voltmeters used edge-lit Lucite plates for the numbers and a lot of incandescent lamps to light them up.

[stevenjohnson] has a Non-Linear Systems Model 481 digital voltmeter and he’s done a teardown of it so we can get a glimpse of the insides. Again, anyone who’s seen the modern versions of edge-lit numeric displays knows what they are: A series of clear plastic plates with numbers (or characters) etched into them, each with a light source beneath them. You turn one light on to light one plate, another to light another, and so on. The interesting bit here is the use of incandescent bulbs and the use of sequential relays to cycle through the lights. The relays make a lot of racket, especially with the case open.

[stevenjohnson] also notes that he might have made a mistake opening up the part of the machine where the plates are stored as it took him a bit to get the plates back in place and back in the unit. We’d imagine it was pretty loud if you were taking a lot of measurements with this machine, although it looks great inside and, obviously, the idea is a pretty good one. Check out this edge-lit nixie tube display or these edge-lit numeric modules.

[via boingboing]

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The Hard Way of Cassette Tape Auto-Reverse

The audio cassette is an audio format that presented a variety of engineering challenges during its tenure. One of the biggest at the time was that listeners had to physically remove the cassette and flip it over to listen to the full recording. Over the years, manufacturers developed a variety of “auto-reverse” systems that allowed a cassette deck to play a full tape without user intervention. This video covers how Akai did it – the hard way.

Towards the end of the cassette era, most manufacturers had decided on a relatively simple system of having the head assembly rotate while reversing the motor direction. Many years prior to this, however, Akai’s system involved a shuttle which carried the tape up to a rotating arm that flipped the cassette, before shuttling it back down and reinserting it into the deck.

Even a regular cassette player has an astounding level of complexity using simple electromechanical components — the humble cassette precedes the widespread introduction of integrated circuits, so things were done with motors, cams, levers, and switches instead. This device takes it to another level, and [Techmoan] does a great job of showing it in close-up detail. This is certainly a formidable design from an era that’s beginning to fade into history.

The video (found after the break) also does a great job of showing glimpses of other creative auto-reverse solutions — including one from Phillips that appears to rely on bouncing tapes through something vaguely resembling a playground slide. We’d love to see that one in action, too.

One thing you should never do with a cassette deck like this is use it with a cassette audio adapter like this one.

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