Pinebook Pro Reviewnavigate:backcounter

Caveat: this review is work in progress.

Overview

Pine64, or more precisely Pine Microsystems, Inc., is producing ARM based single-board computers and laptops. The first laptop was the Pinebook for initially $89 from 2017. An updated version was then sold for $99. The second laptop is the Pinebook Pro for $199 from 2019. Both models are sold "at no cost" with no or minimal profit.

Pine64 is promoting open hardware. The Pinebook Pro's primary audience are people who support Pine64's mission and want to move away from UEFI, Intel Management Machines, closed source drivers and coincidental compatibility with Linux.

Ordering

Pine64 was initially building a first batch of 100 Pinebook Pros (with 10 being reserved for selected developers) scheduled to be shipped early September 2019 and a second batch of 1000 Pinebook Pros scheduled to be shipped early October 2019. Eligibility for one of the first two batches was a forum account created prior to July 1. 2019.

Pre-ordering started on July 25. 2019 5:00am PST. The night before, I set the alarm-clock to 4:50am and watched the count-down ticking on Pine64's website. When the counter reached zero the URL of the pre-order webpage appeared. My password manager was smart enough to fill out the login dialog with my forum credentials. This saved me a few seconds which I lost for reading the small-print. Pine64 sent me a confirmation email at 5:00:43am. The first batch was gone by 05:02:14am and so I made it into the first batch. The second batch was not completely gone by August 25. 2019 when pre-orders for further batches opened for the general public.

From: Pine64 <no-reply@pine64.org>
Date: Thursday, July 25, 2019 at 5:01 AM
To: XXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX
Subject: Welcome to the Pinebook Pro!

Dear XXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX, Thank you for your interest in the Pinebook Pro. You have successfully reserved a spot in the priority pre-order system. Please be on the lookout for a member of the PINE64 Sales team to be sending you your Coupon Code.

Please note that this coupon code will be required at time of purchase of a Pinebook Pro. Upon checkout, you must use the same email address which you registered on the PINE64 Forum. You can only buy a Pinebook Pro and Pinebook Pro accessories per coupon. The NVMe M.2 SSD adapter will be available at checkout for $6.99.

Please note that VAT and any types of import duty and taxes have not been added to the total value of all goods in the consignment. Please note that if your shipping address is located in a remote area, there will be a remote area surcharge on the delivery of your item.

If you encounter any problems during your purchase, you are always welcome to contact us by replying to this email pinebook@pine64.org

The Pinebook warranty period is 30 days and all sales are final, meaning a no return policy.

Please let us know if you need further assistance. We will be more than happy to assist you.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
PINEBOOK Team
http://store.pine64.org

I received the coupon code exactly 12 hours later. Folks in the second batch received their coupon code four weeks later.

From: PINE64 - Pinebook <pinebook@pine64.org>
Date: Thursday, July 25, 2019 at 5:01 PM
To: XXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX
Subject: Meet your New 14" Pinebook Pro!

Thank you for your interest in the Pinebook Pro. In this email you will find the coupon code required to complete your pre-order.

Pinebook Pro specifications can be viewed here and we encourage you to review them prior to completing your order.

To place your order please follow this link: https://store.pine64.org/?product=14-pinebook-pro-linux-laptop

Please note that your coupon code listed below will be required to complete the process. Upon checkout, you must use the same email address which you registered with on the PINE64 Forum.

Email : XXXXX@XXX.XXX.XXX
Coupon Code : XXXX-XXXX-XXXX
Expiry Date : 2019-07-31

You can only buy one Pinebook Pro and Pinebook Pro accessories with this coupon. Your order is planned to be shipped around the early of September 2019.

Please note that VAT, relevant import duties and taxes have not been added to the total value of all goods in the consignment. Please note that if your shipping address is located in a remote area, there will be 'remote area surcharge' on the delivery of your item.

If you encounter any problems during your purchase, you are always welcome to contact us at pinebook@pine64.org

The Pinebook warranty period is 30 days. All sales are final, with a no-return policy.

Please let us know if you need further assistance.

We are always more than happy to help.

Thank you.
Sincerely,
PINEBOOK Team
http://store.pine64.org

With the coupon code, I could order the Pinebook Pro. Billing was handled by PayPal. No PayPal account was required; a credit card was sufficient. Ordering the $199 laptop came to a grand total of $255.99 with $199.99 for the actual laptop plus $18.00 CA sales tax, a $5.00 CA e-waste recycling fee (although I never intend to recycle this machine) and $33.00 for shipping with DHL. Pine64's email suggested that there might additional import duties. There have been none for me. We live in such a connected world and so I do not understand why it is not possible to calculate import duties at the time of order.

Contradictory to Pine64's first email, I could not add accessories to my order and needed to open a ticket. My case seemed to have been particularily complicated. The customer service representative acted very professional. I gained the impression this person was genuinely interested in not finding the easiest but best solution. Multiple emails later I could finally order an NVMe M.2 SSD adapter for $6.99 and an eMMC reader for $4.99. These two items raised the total price to $269.05. There are follow up costs for those, who actually want to use a NVMe M.2 SSD. A typical NVMe M.2 SSD costs around $[FIXME].

On September [FIXME], I finally received the Pinebook Pro.

A Picture

Pinebook Pro

At a Glance

A deeper Look

The primary audience of the Pinebook Pro are people who see advantages in the next paragraphs on its open architecture, somewhat transparent boot process and full Linux support (albeit with a patched kernel).

The Pinebook Pro is as open as a computer can be in 2019: board schematics are available and the SOC is fully supported by open source drivers. The SOC's wifi/bluetooth block is Broadcom intellectual property and requires closed source firmware, though. Furthermore, the boot-process includes a stage-one boot-loader in ROM and a binary blob for both, the stage-two boot-loader and DRAM initialization.

The Pinebook Pro comes with 4 GB of DRAM. That is the maximum the memory controller can address. The memory controller is a physical block on the SOC and as such can not be replaced with a more capable one. It is unlikely anyone wants to remove DRAM from a 4 GB laptop and so it does not really matter that it is soldered. The effective DRAM is 3.875 GB: the top-most 128MB from 0xF800-0000 to 0xFFFF-FFFF are not addressable as the memory controller maps into this address space the PCI address space, a ROM holding a small boot-loader, some internal SRAM and register sets of various blocks on the SOC.

Upon powering up the SOC, one CPU starts executing at address 0xFFFFF-0000. That is where the memory controller maps a 32 KB small internal boot-rom. The boot-rom loads the first 8 MB or so from the eMMC flash into an internal SRAM (mapped by the memory controller to address 0xFFFF-????). What resides there is a binary blob provided by the SOC manufacturer to initialize DRAM and load the next 4 MB from the eMMC flash into the just initialized DRAM. What resides there is the open source boot-loader u-boot which loads the kernel and device tree [rk3399-pinebookpro.dts] from the /boot partition into DRAM and passes control to the kernel (first u-boot checks for a /boot partition on a potentially inserted SD card and then on the eMMC flash). Guided by the device tree, the kernel initializes the SOC and board [FIXME: Is this correct? Rockchip's documentation on the boot process is somewhat cryptic]. This is quite elegant compared to how the Intel Management Engine [wikipedia link] or the AMD Platform Security Processor [wikipedia link] boot up modern PCs.

The Pinebook Pro is built around the Rockchip RK3399 SOC. Its Big.Little architecture has two high-end Cortex-A72 cores and four low-end low-energy Cortex-A53 cores. Like all its cousins from Intel, the Cortex-A72 "out-of-order execution" cores are vulnerable to Spectre and Meltdown. Due to its simplicity, the Cortex-A53 "in-order execution" cores are neither vulnerable to Spectre nor Meltdown. More information on the Rockchip RK3399 SOC is available on the manufacturer's wiki page. [FIXME: display /sys/devices/system/cpu/vulnerabilities/]

The Linux kernel is a tweaked kernel started off Rockchip's github repo. It supports the whole SOC and so there are no problems which plague many laptops running Linux such as unsupported chips or flaky suspend to disk a/o memory [see my Lenovo G510 review link]. The kernel version 4.4 is somewhat dated as the current version is 5.3, but by no means obsolete as it is a long-term kernel with support till February 2022. By then the SOC is hopefully supported by the mainline kernel.

The Pinebook Pro comes pre-installed with Debian. As discussed in the previous paragraph, the kernel is a custom kernel. The windowing system is xorg and the filesystem is FAT32 for the /boot partition and EXT4 for the rest.

Review

The core of this review was written after one week of owning the laptop.

o CPU

[FIXME]

o Storage

[FIXME]

o Battery

[FIXME]

What worries me is Pine64 not offering spare batteries. This is planned obsolescence.

o Operating System

The pre-installed operating system is a vanilla Debian 9 Stretch (with a custom kernel).

root@pinebookpro:~# cat /etc/apt/sources.list
deb http://http.debian.net/debian/ stretch main contrib non-free
deb-src http://http.debian.net/debian/ stretch main contrib non-free
deb http://security.debian.org/ stretch/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src http://security.debian.org/ stretch/updates main contrib non-free
deb http://http.debian.net/debian/ stretch-updates main contrib non-free
deb-src http://http.debian.net/debian/ stretch-updates main contrib non-free

1360 packages are pre-installed [package list]. The custom kernel is not managed by apt but simply dumped onto the filesystem and updated via /usr/bin/mrfixit_update.sh by copying over new kernel images from a github repo.

[FIXME]

o Wifi and Bluetooth

[FIXME]

o No Ethernet

The SOC supports 1GB ethernet, but the board design does not make use of it. It is a pitty that available functionality is not used, but not many will miss ethernet on a laptop in 2019. Neither do I (yet).

o Keyboard and Trackpad

[FIXME]

o Benchmarks

[FIXME]

o Misc

[FIXME]


Contact

You are welcome to send me comments. Contact information is available on the main page.