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  • PinePhone First Impressions

    December 27, 2022

    The PinePhone is not a particularly impressive phone. It has a display that has the quality of the original iPhone, a battery that can barely get it through the day with the screen off, and a camera that is so bad, you can hardly recognize what you intended to take a picture of. The CPU is not much more powerful than a potato, which makes anything more than the most basic of tasks almost brutal.

    That being said, I love this phone more than any of my previous phones, despite it being less than a quarter as functional as even my very first phone. The main reason for this is that the PinePhone is the first phone I've ever had that I can actually say I own. It runs real, mainline Linux, and can boot a microSD card, which means I can install whatever I want to install, and I don't have to go through convoluted processes to "root" or "jailbreak" it like I have all my other phones. Every operating system is a custom operating system, because there is no "stock" operating system. It is in this sense that I actually own my PinePhone.

    I wrote in my Goodbye, Android 1 post that my main problem with phones is that I can't do the things I want to do on the hardware that I should supposedly own. I don't wish to re-iterate all those points, beyond stating that it is breath of fresh air that I can actually say a phone is truly mine. Your iPhone is not yours in terms of privacy or customizability, nor is your Android, even if you run GrapheneOS 2.

    For my phone, I chose to go with PostmarketOS, an Alpine-based distribution primarily developed for the PinePhone. I tried out the Phosh variant for a while, but it felt too much like Android... not a lot of customizability, and I did not really know how anything worked under the hood. It also felt really sluggish, because animations are not the potato processor's strong suit, and disabling animations caused a lot of bugs that I couldn't quite explain.

    So I went with the Sxmo variant of PostmarketOS. Sxmo stands for "Simple X Mobile interface" and it is exactly that. It's basically a tiling window manager and menu system, and that's it. It comes with almost no built in apps, and is configured entirely with shell scripts. I think that is the coolest part, is that everything is a shell script, and everything can be hooked into and overridden, just with shell scripts. Absolutely everything that you can possible think to customize can be customized. Anything you want to happen, whenever you want it to happen, is just a few lines of code away.

    It is truely incredible. It offers a level of power and automation I've only experienced on my computers. For the first time ever, it feels like my phone actually is a computer, because it's running a computer operating system. I see this as a very good thing. Now I will definitely say that it's not for everyone. If you want a "traditional" smart phone experience, stick with Phosh or Plasma Mobile. Sxmo is difficult to learn if you don't have experience with Unix like operating systems already. But it is exactly the kind of software I like. It has a learning curve, certainly, but because of that, it allows me to do things I could never do on a normal phone.

    I've said many times before in this blog that I prefer simplicity, but that my version of simplicity is a lot different than most people's. When I say simplicity, I mean simplicity of implementation, not of user experience. Case in point: my alarms are just cron jobs that play an audio file with the alarm tone. There's no alarm app built into Sxmo that just handles everything for you, but there is a fully functional cron daemon in the underlying OS, and that cron daemon can be configured to make noise at intervals that can be defined with such a precision that could not even be imagined with a regular alarm app. This is the way I use my technology. I don't want flashy user interfaces, because they take away from my control. Just give me the raw, unconfigured system, and let me configure it precisely to my liking.

    I'm pleased to report that this phone works for everything I need to use it for. It handles phone calls a lot better than I expected, and it handles texts pretty much flawlessy as far as I can tell. It certainly is a little odd to have to read texts by tail-ing a log file, and writing texts in vi, but even though it's not the most convenient way of doing things, I love it. The gesture-based and menu-driven system is unlike anything I've ever used on a phone before, but somehow it is just perfect.

    I can run Firefox, but not the mobile version, the real version, the version that's packaged for desktops and laptops. This version is surprisingly well-optimized for mobile, I must say. It's very pleasant to have a full desktop browser on my phone, even though it is a little sluggish.

    Another reason I like this phone despite it being grossly underpowered and having comparatively poor hardware support is because it is not something you can get addicted to. It works just well enough to be a daily driver; that is, I can make and send texts and phone calls, and do some casual browsing, and even use it for my alarms, but it doesn't work well enough to be a primary means of consumption. In other words, it hits the sweet spot of being just functional enough to get by with, but not functional enough to do the things that don't need to be done. In many ways, this makes the PinePhone more like a dumb phone from the era before the iPhone. While it technically has the form factor of a smart phone, and can run the same software as a laptop, it's hard to call it a smart phone in the sense that most people have become accustomed to meaning it.

    Computers most certainly are not smart, and in fact, I prefer dumb computers that only perform the tasks I explicitly instruct them to, and nothing more. My philosophy has always been that a computer should do exactly what the person using it instructs it to, and nothing else, because computers are tools to be wielded by a craftsman, not a device that appears to think and act on its own accord. Nothing drove me more insane on my iPhone than the auto-brightness, auto-night-shift, and tap-to-wake, not because these are bad features or scary in any way, but because I did not instruct my phone to perform these actions and they do nothing but get in my way. For example, when I'm in a car, and I turn my brightness down, within a minute, my phone will have turned it right back up to where it was. This is wrong, because if my phone is doing trivial things like that without my consent, I can only imagine what else it is doing without my consent, and in fact I know a great deal about the nasty things that Apple and Google are doing to exploit the users of their devices. I will add just for completeness that perhaps nothing has terrified me more than the few times that my iPhone automatically started a navigation route to my work as soon as I got in my car. These are the most obvious symptoms of the well-known truth that Apple owns you when it leases you an iPhone. You never own an Apple device; by purchasing one you sell yourself to Apple, and the same can be said for Google, lest the reader thing I am giving Google a free pass.

    I consider it to be a very good thing that my PinePhone only does what I tell it because it runs a real Linux distribution and is in this sense very dumb. I don't want something I can become addicted to or dependent on, and that certainly helps, along with the poor hardware performance. The exceptionally terrible camera, for instance, is a huge reason I don't take my phone out of my pocket now. I can't just snap a picture of whatever I want because pictures turn out so awful so as to be near worthless. This forces me to enjoy life in the moment. The Sxmo interface is dull. A novel idea, for sure, but not something that captures your attention and draws you in, like the fluid and colorful interface of iOS. Unlike an iPhone, the PinePhone is a tool, not a showpiece, and it performs its duties as instructed by me, the user, not the manufacturer.

    I can rest easy, knowing that my phone is not spying on me because it is, for the first time, actually my phone. It is commanded by me, and it never phones home to third party servers, except when I explicitly instruct it to update using trusted package repositories.

    There's also no vendor-lock in. My data is entirely my own, and I can rsync it up to my server to back it up. My texts are stored in plain-text log files, and all my settings are in the form of shell scripts. This is very much unlike an iPhone, which forces you to buy iCloud storage if you want to back up your data and settings. In fact my sister just got a new iPhone 14 Pro and had to purchase more iCloud storage so she could transfer all her photos over because with Apple, there is simply no other option. She is forever restricted to owning Apple devices, because Apple has complete control over her data. I think sometimes she gets frustrated at me when I tell her that I cannot help her, but I am telling the truth. Even if I wanted to, I cannot help Apple users. The only advice I can give is to contact the Apple store or get rid of their Apple devices, because those really are the only options Apple gives.

    Overall, I am very pleased with my PinePhone. Make no mistake, in terms of hardware and software support, it is a bad phone by today's standards. I can't deny that it is not for everyone. It is consistered a "beta" phone, in fact, with means it's not ready for the masses. But it is designed just for people like me. It's for tinkerers, and people that actually care about their privacy. I love the PinePhone because it makes no assumptions about how you use it, and it makes Linux a first-class citizen. You can install whatever operating system pleases you, and it doesn't take any hacking to get root access, because you have root access as soon as you install your operating system of choice.

    I am so happy to be retiring the old iPhone Xs after bricking my OnePlus 8 Pro, and finally settling on the PinePhone, the first phone that is actually my own. Some day I think it would be neat to get OpenBSD on my phone too, and apparently it is possible 3, but I dare not venture into that territory just yet. PostmarketOS, being built on Alpine, actually closely resembles OpenBSD in its design choices. Of course it's no OpenBSD, but for a Linux distribution, it's not bad. I can get on board with it.

    I plan on daily-driving the PinePhone, without a backup phone. Of course I'll shelf the iPhone for emergencies, as I always keep my old phones as a spare, but for the most part, I'm not going back to anything else, and the PinePhone is very easy to repair, both in hardware and in software, so I'm not too worried about it, but this is definitely a bold move, considering that nothing is considered stable. For most people, it'd be impossible to daily drive this phone, because it just doesn't do all the things that smart phones can do, but like I mentioned above, when you think of it as a tiny Linux computer instead of a phone, then you realize that it is just as capable of any computer, if you have the patience to configure it.

    Now that I no longer have an iPhone or an Android phone, I will probably not be much help to iOS or Android users, just as I have long stopped being helpful to Windows users. I am officially no longer using any mainstream platforms. In many ways I am off the grid because of my choice of obscure software. And I am happy. I like my obscure software. Others look at me and think that my software choices are odd because they require so much manual intervention due to the sheer simplicity of the programs I use, but I prefer it that way because I can actually grasp what is happening on my computers. I finally truly own all my computers, and I fear that increasingly few people can say that and have it actually be true.

    1. Goodbye, Android 

    2. Graphene OS 

    3. Exotic Silicon Pinephone OpenBSD 

    © 2019-2024 Jordan Bancino.