Pinephone: Quick Thoughts

In brief, if you want a Linux PC in a form-factor that fits in your pocket and you’re comfortable messing with a couple slightly-janky DE/WMs and some manual setup, just get a Pinephone. If you don’t want that, don’t get one, but take a moment to think about why.

I’ve often found myself missing my old Nexus 5 throughout the years–it died to what I can only describe as an expertly-placed knee, which would’ve made Randy Savage weep–for it had some soul to it that I like to describe as “they don’t make ’em like they used to anymore.” I’m sure some of the people here will read the words “x200” and or “X60” and be filled with some sort of pleasant emotion. (If you’re one of those people, pick up a Pinephone just to have around.) This hardware has a lot of this sort of soul to it that I’ve seen nowhere else.

I really value being able to feel like I’m really controlling my own machine: I want to be able to actually do things with all of the devices attached to it, I don’t want it to be a blatant “experience” constructed to upsell me and sell my usage to advertisers (next time you set up Windows and it asks about your preferred advertisement ID settings, please take a moment to think about why that sounds okay, even superficially), I want to have the freedom to fix my own device if I break it, and I generally want to be treated like I know what I’m doing. Because I do know what I’m doing. I think it’s great that there are PC products built around giving everyday users a simple, safe, durable experience. But I also think we need to think very carefully about many of the costs we’ve culturally had to pay to bring that about. The modern cellphone market, which has really been the modern pocket-PC market for a good long while, is currently pretty shit!

Apple devices today are clearly built to be difficult to repair, to serve as one long continuing ad pitch for their paid services (in fact, you’re not even allowed to run code that doesn’t fit their whimsy), and to cause additional upsells (consider how many more $250 AirPods Pros and Beats headphones and whatever all else have sold in Apple stores since they yanked the 3.5mm jack!). The Android ecosystem is little different, as Google plays follow-the-leader with Apple and pushes their own services (remember, they’re first-and-foremost an advertising company); individual vendors push their lock-in software suites, make difficult-to-repair hardware, and work to make life harder for devs who want to modify their devices’ software. Even the Nexus and Pixel lines, which used to be Google’s last bastions of the “pure” Android experience (including rich OS developer support!), have been productized and demonstrate the same problems I’ve pointed out from everyone else (they picked up a display notch, lost the 3.5mm jack, and started upselling on Pixel Buds).

PINE64 doesn’t care about pushing a product to increase their own profits, in large part because they choose not to make any profit. They’re selling devices either with negligible profit margin, or with a few dollars’ profit that they immediately send back to their developer communities or spend to donate their products to developing nations. You can taste that difference in intention by using one of these devices for a few minutes.

I thought “well, vanilla postmarketOS (I got the pmOS CE, Convergence) with Phosh isn’t my cup of tea, I want to try Sxmo.” It was a magical experience to realize that the path-of-least-resistance to trying this would be to insert a blank microSD card and flash it on the phone itself, the same way I’d try a distro on any other machine. I haven’t ever used another phone that trusted me to be able to figure out what I wanted quite that much out-of-the-box.

My general experience with the software landscape available to me on a Pinephone has been fine. I quickly got all the basic/bare-minimum things I need on an EDC device working (even Spotify! Drop me a line if you’d like me to explain how), and in the process I lost so many of the antifeatures that bugged me from using Android: limited control over what software I ran, frequently having to revoke notification permissions because system app XYZ decided that it suddenly needed to upsell me on Samsung products and etc., having no control over whether or not the WiFi or cell modem could just snap on on a whim, …. If those things frustrate you with your current phone, please think about why you put up with them. If those things don’t frustrate you at all, please take some time to think about why.