Too Lame for the PINEBOOK Pro
Sometime in summer 2020, I got it into my head that it would be a good idea to buy a PINEBOOK Pro, a laptop made to run open source software. I had a lot of free time because of the pandemic, and it felt like a good opportunity to get back into Linux. It also felt like a good idea to have a computing device that I controlled with the bizarre political situation in the US (not claiming this was rational, but it was definitely on my mind at the time.) This was before the chip shortage started, so I had no problem ordering one, and it arrived within a week.
Out of the box, I had a great experience. The PINEBOOK Pro ships with Manjaro, a beginner friendly distribution which fully supports the hardware. It was my first time using an Arch-based distribution, and I was impressed by the number of packages available, and how little effort it took to modify a good number of them to compile on arm. Arch also has some truly stellar documentation which can be applied to Manjaro. I had no problem getting set up to do the computing tasks I wanted. The only issue I had to fix was adjusting how the kernel would put the machine to sleep. The configuration Manjaro ships for the PINEBOOK Pro is the most reliable, but it leads to rapid battery loss while the laptop is suspended.
Unfortunately, that great experience did not last. About 2 months into owning the PINEBOOK Pro, its installation of Manjaro crapped out when I installed a software update. And when I say crapped out, I mean the laptop’s screen didn’t come on after restarting. A botched system update is very stressful on the PINEBOOK Pro. It does not have anything like UEFI, it ships with uboot. uboot is a single piece of software that performs the role of both firmware, and a bootloader, and from the factory uboot is on the same drive as the OS. I had no idea what was wrong. I didn’t have the special cable to debug the machine over serial, and I was having trouble finding reports of other users having the same issue.
Eventually, I learned that the updated kernel I installed was not aligned correctly for the bootloader, and this was causing intermittent failures. After several hard power cycles, I managed to get the machine to boot. The factory install of Manjaro was completely hosed, it didn’t even detect the wi-fi radio. I opted to reinstall Manjaro from SD card, and did not update it after doing so. While my PINEBOOK Pro was working again, I felt I could no longer trust it to do the tasks I wanted it for, so I put it on a shelf.
Some 6 months later, again with an excess of free time, I felt compelled to get the PINEBOOK Pro back out and give it another chance. This time, I decided to go with a different flavor of Manjaro — Sway instead of KDE — and use the machine as a casual programming environment instead of a general purpose computer. I had no problem getting things set up the way I wanted, and was quite happy to poke at side projects. However, I ended up running into an issue with software updates again. This time, I installed updates, rebooted, and was dismayed to find that the wi-fi radio was not detected when the desktop appeared. I never found any other reports of this, I believe it was half-way through Manjaro migrating to a new forum, and I only had so much time and energy to chase it down.
After being burned twice, I gave up on the idea of running Manjaro on the PINEBOOK Pro. Over the coming months, I researching what other distributions might be viable, and was disappointed to find that while there were images available for a number of other distributions, none of them had the same level of support as Manjaro. At this point, it was starting to set in that I am simply Not Cool Enough to use a PINEBOOK Pro. Even before my husband and I started a family, I only had very limited free time for tinkering, and I am not able to contribute to open source projects.
More months passed, and again my interest in desktop Linux was piqued. Once more, I tried to find a reliable distribution to run on the PINEBOOK Pro. While poking around, I noticed that the community seemed to have slowed down a bit, and at least one distribution appeared to have dropped support for the hardware. I tried out a few other distributions, but wasn’t able to recover the level of trust I had when I first got the machine. It was at this point that I began researching used laptops. I eventually settled on a ThinkPad X270, an affordable, upgradable, no frills laptop with good support under Linux.
And here I am, writing this post on the X270 running Ubuntu. I am pretty sure I was never really the intended audience for the PINEBOOK Pro. It was fun to mess with, but I just want a reliable computer that runs mostly free software. It is a bummer that I can’t fully liberate the X270 with coreboot, but it is free enough, and I feel like I am properly in control of my computing experience when I am using it. At this point, I plan to pass on my PINEBOOK Pro to someone who will put it to good use.