A trope in open source commentary over the last decades has been the phrase “Is this the year of Linux on the desktop?”, as though the open source OS will finally break through and challenge Windows. In fact the process has been one of stealth rather than explosive growth, as the likes of ChromeOS with its Linux underpinnings become the go-to choice for an inexpensive consumer laptop. In the phone arena the same has happened with Android, as most users have no idea that a Linux foundation lies beneath their Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel.
Fully open-source via Android on the phone has been very slow to arrive, but could that be changed by the arrival of Pine64’s PinePhone Pro? The new device will be available alongside their existing PinePhone, and will continue the dream of a fully open-source mobile phone with its increased-specification hardware.
As much as the specs of one black slab versus another matter, at its heart is a 1.5 GHz Rockchip RK3399S hexa-core SoC alongside 4 GB of dual-channel LPDDR4 RAM. This compares well to the original PinePhone’s quad-Core Allwinner A64 at 1.152 GHz and 3 GB LPDDR3 RAM, so it’s clear that there is plenty of capability in this phone.
Any phone whether open-source or not will however live or die on the quality of its software and support, so for this model to be a real success outside the realm of extreme open-source devotees we think that Pine64 will need to be prepared to up their game when it comes to what happens after hardware delivery. It’s fair to say that some of their previous products have been a little lacklustre in this department, with hardware bugs remaining unfixed. Their approach of relying on the community of users to deliver software support has not so far returned a stable experience for users of the original PinePhone. We understand that their intention is to provide a developer’s phone, but developers need to place phonecalls and take pictures too.
We’ve seen some PinePhone owners commenting to this effect, and though we’re fans of Pine64 and like what they are trying to do, we have to admit that those users have a point. If they were prepared to put some effort into software development to the extent of providing an official OS image with let’s say Plasma Mobile, a working phone app, a working web browser, and responsive phone features such as instant on and off, even at the expense of charging more for the phone itself, we think that they’ll be on to a winner. Otherwise they’ll remain as the really cool open-source phone that only your kernel-wizard friends own, and even then they use a Google Pixel as their everyday phone. Please Pine64, prove us wrong!
Last month our colleague Brian Cockfield took us on a tour of his PinePhone.
Over the years we’ve seen a variety of interesting pieces of hardware emerging from the folks at Pine64, so it’s always worth a second look when they announce a new product. This time it’s the PineNote, a tablet that packs the same Rockchip RK3566 as used in the company’s Quartz64 single board computers behind a 10.1″ 1404 x 1872 16-tone greyscale e-paper screen.
Fitted with 4 GB of LPDDR4 RAM and 128 GB eMMC flash storage, it will feature the same Linux support as previous Pine64 products, with the slight snag of the display driver not yet being complete for 5.xx kernels. They are thus at pains to point out that this is not a ready-to-go consumer device and that early adopters will be expected to write code rather than notes on it.
That last sentence sums up Pine64’s offering perfectly, they produce interesting hardware with open-source support, but sometimes the path from hardware release to stable and usable product can be a rocky one. If you’re interested in hardcore hacking of an e-paper tablet, then you may want to be an early adopter. Otherwise, hang back for a while and buy one once some of the bugs have been ironed out. Meanwhile you can see the whole update in the video below; it has a few other things including a nifty keyboard for the PinePhone.
We’ve mentioned Pine64 a few times over the years, it’s worth noting that their products also lie outside the realm of Linux boxen.
Continue reading “Take Note: An E-Paper Tablet From Pine64” →
The Pine64 folks have given us so many tasty pieces of hardware over the last few years, but it’s fair to say that their products are for experimenters rather than consumers and can thus be a little rough around the edges at times. Their Clusterboard for example is a Mini-ITX PCB which takes up to seven of their SOPINE A64 compute modules, and networks them for use as a cluster by means of an onboard Gigabit Ethernet switch. It’s a veritable powerhouse, but it has an annoying bug in that it appears reluctant to restart when told. [Eric Draken] embarked upon a quest to fix this problem, and while he got there in the end his progress makes for a long and engrossing read.
We journey through the guts of the board and along the way discover a lot about how reset signals are generated. The eventual culprit is a back-EMF generated through the reset distribution logic itself causing the low-pulled line to never quite descend into logic 0 territory once it has been pulled high, and the solution an extremely simple application of a diode. For anyone who wishes to learn about logic level detective work it’s well worth a look. Meanwhile the board itself with its 28 ARM cores appears to have plenty of potential. It’s even a board we’ve mentioned before, in a personal supercomputer project.
When the PineCube was announced by the Pine64 project in 2020, it created a fair bit of interest. Most of this was due to the appeal of a single-board computer (SBC) in a network-based (IP) camera form factor with integrated camera module, for a mere $29.99. Add an enclosure to it, and you would have a neat little package combining a 5 MP camera module with 100 Mbit Ethernet and WiFi. As a bonus, the system could be powered either via an optional battery pack as well as passive PoE, in addition to MicroUSB.
A few weeks ago I bought two of these boards, as part of a client project, and set out to use it for a custom IP camera implementation. With existing Linux-on-SBC and MIPI (CSI) camera experience on my end ranging from the Raspberry Pi to the Odroid, Orange Pi and Banana Pi boards, I felt fairly confident that I could make it work with minimal fuss.
Unfortunately, my experiences were anything but positive. After spending many hours with the PineCube, I’m not able to recommend it for those seeking an IP camera. There are many reasons for this, which I’ll try to explain in this article.
Continue reading “Hands-On With PineCube: An Open IP Camera Begging For Better Kernel Support” →
To say the TRS-80 Model 100 was ahead of its time would be something of an understatement. It had a high-quality mechanical keyboard, phenomenal battery life, plenty of I/O and expansion capabilities, and was actually small and light enough to easily carry around. While its layout might seem to be a bit dated to modern eyes, there’s little debate that it was one of the most successful and influential computers in history.
So it’s little surprise that [belsamber] thought the Model 100 might make an ideal platform for his mobile command line work. With a few modifications, naturally. While technically the nearly 40 year old portable could connect to a Linux computer as a simple serial terminal, its outdated and non-backlit LCD leaves a bit to be desired in 2021. But there’s little sense in upgrading the display if he’d still be saddled with the anemic Intel 80C85 motherboard, so he decided to clean house and replace everything.
Once stripped of the original hardware, the Model 100’s enclosure offered up plenty of room for a Pine A64 LTS single-board computer, four 18650 cells, and a 1920×480 ultra-wide LCD. While not a perfect match for the dimensions of the original panel, the new screen is an exceptionally close fit. The keyboard has been left intact, but rather than adding a QMK-compatible microcontroller to the mix, [belsamber] wired the matrix directly into the GPIO of the A64.
While we know some retro aficionados might shed a tear to see an iconic computer get gutted, [belsamber] mentions that nothing will go to waste; the parts he pulled from this machine will serve as spares for a second Model 100 he has in his collection. Besides, given the immense popularity of these machines, they aren’t exactly rare to begin with.
As an aside, we recently saw this same unique display used in a 3D printed desktop computer with distinctively retro-futuristic styling. We didn’t have miniature 4:1 ratio displays on our list of 2021 hardware predictions, but it seems they’re already making a strong showing.
There was a time when decent quality soldering irons were substantial affairs, soldering stations with a chunky base unit containing the electronics and a lightweight handheld iron for the work. That has changed with the arrival of a new breed of microprocessor controlled lightweight handheld irons. There’s a new kid on the block from a company we associate more with open-source phones, laptops, and single board computers, Pine64 have produced the Pinecil. It’s a lightweight handheld iron with some innovative features at an attractive price, but does it raise the bar sufficiently to take on the competition?
I put the Pinecil through its paces, and and although the device is fully open source, give it a teardown for good measure. Spoiler: it’s my new favorite.
Continue reading “Review: Pine64 Pinecil Soldering Iron” →
We should all by now be used to microcontrollers with wireless hardware on board, with Espressif or Nordic Labs dominating the hacker scene. There have been several other contenders in this arena over the years that haven’t really caught the attention of our community, usually because of the opacity of their available information.
A new contender should be worth a second look though. The BL602 from Bouffalo Labs is a Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth LE-capable microcontroller with a 32-bit RISC-V derived core. If that doesn’t interest you much, perhaps news that the PINE64 folks are spearheading an effort to reverse engineer it for a fully open-source blob-free wireless implementation might sharpen your attention.
So where can you get your hands on one? Hold your horses, this chip is at an early stage in its gestation. We can see that there are some exciting possibilities in store, but we’re still figuring out the hardware interfaces and other software required to make it work. A community is hard at work reverse engineering it, which leads us back to the PINE64 story we mentioned earlier.
You can find BL602 modules from AliExpress vendors, but the PINE64 folks will offer you a free one if you join their blob reverse engineering effort. Take note though, this offer is for those prepared to show commitment to the project, so don’t spam them in the hope of free stuff if you won’t be helping deliver the goods.
We might see the BL602 gaining an open-source toolchain and internal blobs over the coming months thanks to the efforts of those working on it. Just as the ESP8266 did back in 2014, it’s starting as a black box with a relative scarcity of information. But if this hacking effort pays off, we’ll have a cheap RISC-V Wi-Fi and Bluetooth module with entirely open-source software from the silicon upwards. What a time to be alive!
Thanks [Renze] for the tip.