Dennis ten Hoove

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Pinephone - First impression and tweaking fun!

My old piece-of-crap phone was dying, so I decided to invest in a new one. I am not the most familiar with the smartphone market nor the Aarch64 (ARM) platform, but I do know that the majority of consumer devices are horrible locked-down garbage which heavily rely on proprietary software and firmware to work properly. And besides that Android is just boring to use, Apple devices were never an option. I had been following the development of the LibreM 5 and Pinephone for a few years already and a Linux phone seemed like a very interesting toy to play with. I decided to grab a Pinephone UBports Community Edition back in April, it's low price and active community of developers and enthusiasts made me choose it over the LibreM 5. I am aware that the Pinephone and LibreM are two very different devices, the Pinephone just wants to build a working Linux phone with a healthy software ecosystem around it. The LibreM 5 is aimed more at the privacy and free software crowd, people who want hardware kill-switches and their devices to run 100% on free software. So the Pinephone runs some binary blobs, nothing major though as Pine explained on their blog. I personally prefer free software over non-free, I will avoid non-free as much as possible, but with most modern hardware you can't get around the firmware required for the device to function properly. Just look at the LibreM and all the sacrifices it had to make to get the phone to run 100% free. So.. the Pinephone arrived on June 25th after several shipping delays and an upgrade to DHL Express shipping, the delays were completely out of Pine's control the world is on fire (Almost litterally) currently. The first thing I thought once I had the phone unboxed was "It's bigger then I expected", modern phones have gotten a lot bigger then the older models from ~10 years ago like my previous LG P700. The old P700 is around 66% the size of the Pinephone. The phone being much bigger has some advantages and disadvantages; typing and media consumption is a much better experience on a larger phone, but the phone is less portible and more likely to break/bend when carried in your pocket you also have to constantly move your hands because you can't reach every part of the screen when holding the phone. This batch of the Pinephone shipped with UBports Ubuntu Touch, my first impression of the OS wasn't positive. Ubuntu Touch was stable, and it worked pretty well for what it is supposed to do, but I want to tweak it, I bought a Linux phone to use Linux and not some weird OS trying to emulate the closed platform which is Android. I tried doing some basic tweaks, use apt, etc.. it fought me at every turn. "You are not allowed to do this", turns out I have to enable "Developer mode" (On a GNU/Linux OS? Fuck off), the developer mode functionality appears to not be build in yet in Pinephone Ubuntu Touch. So after fighting the OS for a few hours and trying more extreme tweaks to get it to do what I wanted it broke. I was trying to get SSH to work and I got pretty far, I at least got it to confirm the connection and ask for a password, it kept saying my password was wrong, so I changed the password via the command-line to something containing both numbers and letters, this made me unable to login to the phone which still wanted me to give it a pin code. The problem isn't Ubuntu Touch, it is me. I want to use the phone for stuff Ubuntu Touch isn't made, I want a tradition GNU/Linux experience. I want to be able to open a command line and control everything from there, I want SSH, I want to install random GUIs and software which are not made for phones, I want to compile software on it. So I started looking for an OS which better fits my needs, I ended up on Mobian which is basically just a slighly modified Debian with the Phosh DE. It's a vanilla Linux distro which is exactly what I want to run on this device. I am a huge fan of the Phosh desktop, it looks nice, it's very usable and I am overall a huge fan of GNOME-like desktops. Libhandy makes most GNOME apps work pretty good on the phone's tiny screen. A huge thanks to Purism for Libhandy and Phosh. The software is not very stable however, bugs and crashes are common. Performs is also not great, but it's good enough to make the phone usable. One of the main things I use my phone for is 2FA (Two factor authentication). On my desktop and laptop I use OTPclient for the one time tokens which I usually install via Flatpak. OTPclient is not available in the Debian repos nor does Flathub supply ARM software so I had to build it myself. Building the client was a pain in the butt but I got it building and running within 30 minutes. I wrote a little script to automate the process in the future. I only ran in to a single issue with the Pinephone. The phone randomly decided it didn't want to charge anymore, I plugged it in to the charger and it did not acknowledge that it was plugged in. I shut the device down and plugged it in, the phone should start booting when connected to power while off which it did not. While troubleshooting I tried booting the phone without the battery which worked fine. I installed the battery again and the problem was gone. I am guessing the battery wasn't installed correctly which caused it to not charge, it was a weird incident it only happened once so far. Calling and SMS works fine on Mobian without any issues. I heard the device suffers from a hardware bug making it unable to "perform any kind of negotiation and communication over the CC pins", this basically means you can not connect any devices (Keyboards, monitors etc..) to the phone via USB. There is a workaround but it requires you to do micro soldering. I will myself wait for a revision of the phone which has these things fixed and then replace the logic board in my device. My experience with the phone so far has been very positive, it's fun to play with the device and the currently available distros work quite well. The device can be used as a daily driver if you are tech savvy and willing to deal with the bugs and issues which still plague the software. In it's current state the device is not at all suited for the average consumer. So unless you are a Linux enthusiast and/or developer I recommend against buying this device. If you are a Linux enthusiast you will absolutely love this device. I can't wait for the drivers to be mainlined in Linux 5.8, it will make installing random distros on the device a lot easier. I will be actively following the development of the Linux phone, these devices most certainly have a bright future ahead of them.