November 17, 2020 | 16:50

Linux Smartphone Project - Part I

Welcome to my new blog series and travel report. After more than 12 years with Apple iOS, and before that already 7 years with Microsoft PocketPC devices and before that - we are already in the 90s - with Palm (my PalmV is still alive!) I finally think it’s time to move on and start a new journey.

Away from proprietary, closed systems with their wiretapping assistants1, the uncontrolled extraction of behavioral data, the constant intrusion of a more less subtle nudgeing2 and the latent threat of simply being bricked3.

PinePhone

I jumped on the current batch of the PinePhone4 and will give you an insight into my journey. In the end there will be nothing less than a system-change someday.

TLDR for the impatient Ones

Neither the hardware or software can be consideres as consumer- or production ready. We are talking at best about an alpha version, which is not meant for normal users without advanced knowledge and a certain hacking mindset. Exactly the right thing for me!

Unlike deliberately poor fixable consumer devices5, a PinePhone is designed to be modular and repairable. The battery corresponds to the one used by Samsung Galaxy and can be purchased for just 10,- EUR. Modem, board and cams can be replaced separately if needed. For the first shipped batches, there are already upgradeable mainboards available with the RAM and eMMC memory of the current generation. The hard- and software are continuously developed and refined. The PinePhone is one of the few devices that boots a system directly from SDCard.

In the upcoming months I will add more blog articles to this series on an unscheduled basis depending on my available time. I would like to start off with the first impressions after unboxing the Manjaro-Community Edition6 with 3GB RAM, 32 GB memory and a Convergence-Package for connecting a display, mouse, keyboard and Ethernet aswell.

PinePhone unboxed

The Holy Unboxing

The shipment arrived within 3 days directly from within the EU. No special customs or import taxes were charged. The price was about 270,- EUR, directly ordered in the pineshop. The package is small and unimpressive and arrived simultaneously with my Multi-SIM. I will continue to use my current iOS-Smartphone in parallel.

I do not agree with Golem’s description of the removable backside of the pinphone7. For me as an early adopter of the iPhone, it just looks like another Android device. In fact, the hardware as a whole is rather located in the lower midfield with its Quad-Core Allwinner ARM64 Cortex-A53 CPU8 and its IPS display with 1440x720 pixels @ 271 ppi on 5.95 inch. Whoever comes from any current iOS Retina device will feel a certain “falloff height”.

PinePhone opend

The USB3 Convergence Dock is made of durable aluminium. The privacy DIP switches for hardware-based switching off the cameras, radios or microphone and the I2C pins9 add to the positive overall impression. The idea behind the implementation of the pogo pins10 is that in the near future shells can enhance the device with additional functionality.

PinePhone in convergence mode

Manjaro is just crap

The Manjaro Linux was “pre-loaded”. For all those who searched for the pin after powering on: “1234”. Having said this in advance, Manjaro is a toy and it comes with almost fatal, if not dangerous settings. To give you an example: Every device is shipped with an open SSH server. Regarding the default user and the entropy11 of a PIN consisting out of numbers from 0 to 9 we don’t have to discuss any further.

PinePhone Manjaro

The bad: It looks like a very conscious design choice. I see all those devices running all over the world with open ssh ports. That fits in the picture with the numerous pre-installed messengers.

I didn’t know Manjaro before, but I felt quite bullied constantly by pacman. However, it was good enough to play around a while and to familiarise with it. With the end-user in view, distributions like Mint, Ubuntu or Manjaro have a reason to exist. One nice thing about free hardware: Everyone is entitled to his or her own choice!

Therefore, on the same evening I decided to go to Mobian12. Thanks to the bootable SDCard you can either boot a new image directly or copy it with dd to the internal MMC. I have never been able to push an image from A to B so fast and comfortable. But at the same time I noted for myself “Disk Encryption” on my virtual To-Do list.

PinePhone with Mobian

Debian cannot be considered as ready

The first impression: Mobian feels “snappier”. In stark contrast to Manjaro, the conversion of the UI to the German language worked at first try.

But there are a couple of quirks and surprises in Debian aswell. Firstly I could not find the terminal. Out of desperation I already wanted to look under Software when half on the way the icon “Kings-Cross” caught my attention. I was used to a tube app when I was in London and asked myself what the heck is such an app doing on my new device? Note to the guys and gals at Debian: You got me, not funny!

I’m not sure which browser I want to use on the device in the future. The Gnome Web Browser is clearly better adapted to a mobile device than the much slower and somehow “alien” looking Firefox.

Numerous missing packages like htop, iftop, gnupg, seahorse, net-tools, openvpn, openssh were quickly installed. I think out of all Debian versions this is the one with the latest gnome without being on sid.

Since I believe nobody understood the previous sentence, there is an overview in the wiki what is not implemented yet and/or works in a limited fashion13. There is also a software wishlist14.

The sync with my Nextcloud and the transfer of contacts, tasks and calendar items works like a charm as usual with Gnome. I have not installed the fat Nextcloud client due to the fact that I only need my contacts and templates on the phone.

PinePhone

File access to my cloud also works with the normal Gnome file-manager. There is some disappointment about the Gnome Calendar App which has not been adjusted for smaller displays yet. I also need to abstain from streaming music from my Nextcloud via subsonic/ampache.

Interim conclusion after one evening

Until well after midnight I worked on my Mobian, created an extra user, SSH certificates and deactivated the SIM pin. After all, it is not a consumer device yet and far from being seriously considered as dailydriver. But the direction is right. I would strongly recommend to order the Convergence Package with it, otherwise I really would have been frustrated without it.

PinePhone htop

The basic functions are working and I am optimistic to have a working device within the next 1-2 years. Until then, I keep my iPhone in parallel operation thanks to Multi-SIM. There won’t be a new Apple device anymore.

More parts of this series will follow soon.
Have fun and stay healthy until then!

Tomas Jakobs


  1. https://netzpolitik.org/2019/schmeisst-die-assistenzwanzen-aus-dem-fenster/ ↩︎

  2. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge ↩︎

  3. https://blog.jakobs.systems/micro/20201113-mac-ocsp-down/ ↩︎

  4. https://www.pine64.org/pinephone/ ↩︎

  5. https://www.golem.de/news/software-restriktionen-kameras-des-iphone-12-nicht-von-dritten-reparierbar-2010-151847.html ↩︎

  6. https://www.pine64.org/2020/08/31/pinephone-manjaro-community-edition/ ↩︎

  7. https://www.golem.de/news/pinephone-im-test-das-etwas-pineliche-linux-phone-fuer-bastler-2010-151515.html ↩︎

  8. http://linux-sunxi.org/A64 ↩︎

  9. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%C2%B2C ↩︎

  10. https://wiki.pine64.org/index.php/PinePhone#Pogo_pins ↩︎

  11. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropie_(Kryptologie) ↩︎

  12. https://mobian-project.org/ ↩︎

  13. https://wiki.mobian-project.org/ ↩︎

  14. https://wiki.mobian-project.org/doku.php?id=wishlist ↩︎

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