In November last year, I ordered a Pinebook Pro, as part of the second production batch. It arrived on the 30th December and was a fairly minimalist unboxing.

The laptop is based on the ROCKPro64 board, in a metal case, with a 1080x1920 resolution screen, decent keyboard, and basic laptop stuff. You get two USB ports, an USB-C port (which can be used for charging and possibly display output), a headphone/microphone jack, webcam, micro-SD card reader, and an internal port for an NVMe drive. There’s a helpful section on the Pine64 wiki which explains how to disassemble the laptop.

The trackpad is pretty awful, it has a tendency to drift about when making precise movements, there’s new firmware here which sort of helps, but not by much. At the moment my compromise is to just use an external mouse.

The real appeal of the laptop is that it’s a mid-quality laptop, well supported on BSD and GNU/Linux, and it costs only $200! Plus $46 DHL Express shipping from the factory in China, plus £50.33 import duty/tax collected by DHL… so, actually $300 in total. 😞

That’s still reasonable when you consider the alternatives:

The Pinebook Pro uses a RK3399 chip, and I already have a laptop using the last-gen RK3288 chip. It’s pretty likely the upcoming RK3566 will feature in the next generation of budget free software laptops.

I was looking for a modern system - stock Debian, fancy GNOME 3 desktop, on Wayland, with FOSS drivers (almost) all the way.

I built the panfrost driver on the Pinebook itself, using this helpful script. The latest drivers gave a boost to GNOME shell performance.

gnome_desktop

It’s mostly smooth, all except for the couple of instances you get noticeable stuttering. For example, closing Firefox froze the desktop for about a second. Along with a couple of other glitches, it wasn’t a totally solid experience. GNOME perfmormance is steadily improving, so maybe this is something to revisit for the next release cycle.

Similarly, the Pinebook currently needs a patched kernel, but mainline support is coming in kernel 5.7. This means we’re not too far away from standard out-of-the-box support on most distros. You can see there’s been a lot of progress already, give it another few months.

My reluctance to totally embrace a slightly-unstable system is compounded by the fact that my current main laptop has seen small improvements in the three years that I’ve had it.

I got rid of GNOME and replaced it with Sway.

sway_desktop

I really like the idea of a tiling window manager, it makes a lot of sense to my workflow. If you’re using your laptop mostly to modify text, a keyboard-focused interface is the best tool for the job.

However, the learning curve is way too steep. The default configuration isn’t much more than a blank slate, and that’s intentional, you need to invest a bit of time tweaking and searching and generally building up how you want your desktop to look. There are still slightly hacky fixes for something so basic as a wireless network menu. There’s no default image viewer either, I found imv for that purpose.

All this is to say that I still consider Sway the ideal desktop, but it’s not usable as a daily driver.

Manjaro ARM has been trying to include as many fixes for the Pinebook as possible, they’re actively working on the device. Their efforts were successful to the point where Manjaro is now installed by default on new laptop orders. So, I ditched Debian and went with Manjaro and an XFCE desktop. You can download that system image here.

The setup process is pretty stylish.

manjaro_install_1

Here it is running through the install.

manjaro_install_2

As you’d expect, XFCE uses up very little memory and runs extremely smoothly.

I’m getting used to the Arch Linux philosophy, where there’s a focus on building software yourself through the AUR. Sometimes packages don’t build on aarch64, but where it does work, it works surprisingly well. It normalises the idea that you should be able to build software yourself. It shouldn’t be a scary complicated task, and I like that approach.

xfce_desktop_1

I switched to the Greybird theme, because all my past experience of XFCE comes from using Greybird with Xubuntu. It’s familiar.

At the moment Manjaro ARM runs everything I need, even got a lightweight document reader for comics.

xfce_desktop_2

The Inkscape user interface is broken on dark mode. Dark icons on a dark background. There’s got to be a fix for that somewhere.

Since getting a dark mode theme, I’ve also been starting to notice websites which respect the prefers-color-scheme query. Most of the CSS on this site is adapted from water.css, which does already have a dark theme… I had some ideas for updating the stylesheet and that might be something to work on in future.