Despite the dodgy keyboard, this is a great budget Linux laptop, ideal for most online activities and word processing. It should suit students and entry-level developers, too.
Looking for a new laptop, but on a ultra low budget? Planning to do some school work, or just need a lightweight, portable computer? You probably already know that Linux is the cheapest option. But can you get a Linux laptop?
Well, yes you can. Usually these are Intel or AMD-based, with 64-bit architecture. But the success of ARM processors in smartphones, tablets, and hobbyist computers over the past few years has made the prospect of an ARM laptop a reality.
The Pinebook 64 Linux laptop is a great example. Retailing at just $100, the 14-inch computer we’re looking at can comfortably handle most tasks. But is it good enough for your needs?
What Is a Pinebook?
In short, the Pinebook is an attempt to weld the Linux operating system into the realm of ultraportable notebook computers, but at a fraction of the price of a MacBook Air. With a narrow profile, the Pinebook is easy to carry; indeed, it can fit inside an envelope with no difficulty.
The Pinebook comes in two flavors, an 11.6-inch model, and a 14-inch version, which we’re reviewing here. The difference in price between the two makes it more likely you’ll pick the larger computer. While the 11-inch version is a tasty $89, the 14-inch model is just a few dollars more. In our view, $99 for a 14-inch laptop is an excellent deal.
You can check the current prices and availability at www.pine64.org – but beware, availability is very limited. So limited in fact that you need to add your email address to a waiting list, then you’ll be contacted when your turn arises.
So there you have it: a Pinebook is an ultra-portable, ultra-affordable computer running Linux. But would you want it? Or is it so underpowered that even simple computing tasks are frustratingly slow? Keep reading to find out!
Low Specs for a Low Price
Packaging for the Pinebook is nondescript, and inside the box you’ll find a sturdy plastic case that you’re advised to discard once opened, the MacBook-esque Pinebook, the stickers/decals, and the power adaptor. That’s it. As far as un-boxings go, this has to be one of the most underwhelming I’ve ever experienced.
No doubt the real surprise is waiting for me when I boot up Ubuntu MATE, the default operating system that comes pre-installed on this system.
It’s light, it’s compact — but are the internal specs of the Pinebook up to the job? Can it match the ultraportables from big-name computer manufacturers like Apple and HP, or even Microsoft’s Surface Book?
The straightforward answer is a resounding “no”. But that doesn’t mean the Pinebook doesn’t have something to offer.
Controlling everything is a 1.2 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A53 64-bit processor. This is the same CPU found in the PINE A64 single board computer (a Raspberry Pi competitor) and is supported by 2 GB of RAM. Storage is 16 GB eMMC, but this can be expanded via the microSD card slot, up to 256 GB. Two USB 2.0 ports are also available to connect extra devices — such as external storage — to the Pinebook.
The IPS display is a good option for this computer, and above it you’ll find the front-facing, 0.3 MP camera. A built-in microphone is also mounted, and there’s also a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Wireless connectivity, meanwhile, is in the shape of 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0. While no Ethernet port is included, you can always connect a USB Ethernet dongle.
Finally, the 10,000mAh Li-Po battery is worth a mention. Surprisingly, despite the ARM processor and low spec, you won’t get any significant time out of this cell. I’d say six hours tops, based on different usage scenarios, which is a bit disappointing, really. Four hours seems to be the norm for typical usage.
First Use: It’s a Bit Sticky
When it comes to the hardware, however, there are some difficulties. If you’re used to the solid keyboards of more expensive laptops, you may be disappointed with the Pinebook. When it comes to entering text, typing is tricky. This isn’t just a case of the usual differences experienced when you swap keyboards, either – there is a responsiveness expected of modern keyboards that just isn’t found here.
Sometimes, keys don’t respond; other times, there’s too much responsiveness, phantom repeat characters, for instance. Oh, and the spacebar either doesn’t work, or it inserts spaces where you don’t want them. In short, keep a keen eye on what you’re typing! This is especially important in the command line; however, I typed much of this review on the Pinebook, and had a lot of problems to fix.
Perhaps some of the problem is with the surface of the keys. They’re quite unappealing, and don’t lend themselves to the ergonomic pleasures of touch typing.
Meanwhile, there are no controls for the multi-touch touchpad. This is a problem, as the device is extremely sensitive, responding to slight touch (even a brush of arm hair) by selecting swathes of screen area. If you’re working on a document, this can prove troublesome, leading to the loss of a lot of work. While Ctrl+Z should undo a problem like this, it won’t guarantee a solution on all apps.
On a similar note, the power button was surprisingly tough to get working on the first use, initially leading me to suspect a defective unit. Subsequent presses have proved easier, however, so perhaps there is a safety device in play to prevent accidental activation in transit.
The Ultimate in Ultramobility
A lot of devices claim to be “ultramobile”. The MacBook Air, for instance, and its various successors. You’ve got the expensive, increasingly thin ultramobile notebooks from Sony, Samsung and HP, too. But none of them come close to matching the lightness and portability of the Pinebook.
Its 14-inch screen makes the Pinebook ideal for the majority of cases. At the narrow end, the computer is just 0.24 of an inch, while the thick end is a mere 0.47 inch. Built from lightweight white plastic, the Pinebook weighs in at just 1.26 kg, less than an equivalent-sized MacBook Air (1.34 kg for the 13-inch model).
As such, you can pretty much pick up the Pinebook and take it anywhere. This makes it ideal for students looking for an affordable laptop to take to classes, or entry-level developers on a tight budget. Freelance creatives may be less inclined to take a look at it, however.
And if you’re looking for something cheap for Facebook and online shopping, the Pinebook is ideal, and will fit in most bags.
Games and Media
Everyone wants to play a game or two now and again. The Pinebook comes with three preinstalled in MATE, but of course you can install your own. As long as they can be found in the repositories, or downloaded in ARM format (or you’re comfortable compiling and troubleshooting) then you shouldn’t run into any problems. For instance, I downloaded FreeCiv, the open source version of Civilization, and played a few turns. Note that this also includes the server component, so you could conceivably use the Pinebook 64 as a game server.
When it comes to media editing, however, things will be a bit trickier. There’s no hardware here to cope with HD video editing, for instance, so attempting it will be a laborious disappointment. Standard definition editing is achievable, however, as is audio editing.
On the other hand, with a number of coding and development tools to hand (Scratch, Squeak, and Geany are pre-installed, for example), the Pinebook makes a great programming and game development device. You just need to get over the problems with the keyboard…
So, there is enough power in the Pinebook to play older games, and those intended purely for ARM Linux devices. And if you’re running Android, then you should be able to access most of its vast library of games and apps.
Operating Systems for the Pinebook
As you can see from the screenshots, this Pinebook shipped with Ubuntu 16.04 MATE pre-installed. This is a good option, and has hopefully been chosen to get the best out of the device battery. But what if MATE isn’t your cup of tea?
Fortunately, other Linux operating systems are available for the Pinebook. Debian Jessie, the now-defunct (but still available) Remix OS 2.0 and Android Nougat can all be installed. There’s also support for the Windows 10 IoT platform.
It seems likely that other operating systems will run on the Pinebook eventually. If you have the patience to compile your own choice from source, meanwhile, this should also present you with a usable alternative.
So, Who’s the Pinebook Really For?
It’s described as an “Affordable, 64-bit ARM based Open Source Notebook” but who is it really aimed at? To be honest, it’s really hard to say. Although the computer comes with some development tools built-in, it would be odd to say “this computer is aimed at developers”. There’s simply not enough reliability for this to be the case.
The $99 price point might make it ideal for a first computer for children… but Pine themselves seem to discourage this, pointing out that “if you are looking for a device to replace your current work or school laptop, perhaps it’s wise to look elsewhere.”
In terms of the price point, build material, and hardware, I would say that if the Pinebook isn’t for children or students, then it really isn’t for anybody. But in truth, this laptop is for anybody. Just be prepared to spend some time breaking in the keyboard.
The Pinebook: Coding, Homework, Shopping and Retro Gaming
It’s light, slimline, runs Ubuntu MATE by default and can do all of the internet, coding, word processing and media playback that everyone needs. The Pinebook will run old games; it will run open source media editors.
But, you’re possibly going to need a better keyboard. Perhaps plug one in, and add a mouse in order to avoid the touchpad, whenever you’re at home. If you’re mobile… well, you’ll have to take your chances.
Come on, it’s only $100! Form an orderly cue, people. Literally, because that’s the only way to order one.