Pinebook Pro Review
Short summary: if you’re on the fence about buying the Pinebook Pro as a supplementary laptop for short trips where extreme performance is not necessary, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option for $200.
I’ve been using the Pinebook Pro regularly as my daily driver for the past couple of weeks and wanted to note down some thoughts. But first, specs of the device:
- [Compute] Rockchip RK3399 SOC with Mali T860 MP4 GPU.
- Rockchip contains a dual-core Cortex-A72 and quad-core Cortex-A53 in big.LITTLE configuration.
- Surprisingly this SOC supports hardware virtualisation.
- It also supports AArch32/AArch64 with backwards compatibility with Armv7.
- The RK3399 can handle H.264/H.265/VP9 up to 4Kx2K@60fps which is pretty incredible for such a low power chip.
- Finally, the embedded GPU can support DX11.1 and OpenGL ES/3.1.
- [Memory] 4GB Low Power DDR4 RAM.
- [Display] 14.1” 1080p 60Hz IPS display panel
- [Power] 10,000mAh LiPo battery with USB-C 15W power delivery support and additional power port (5V 3A).
- [Storage] 64GB eMMC 5.0, bootable microSD card slot.
- [Connectivity] WiFi 802.11ac and BT 5.0.
- [Audio] Stereo speakers, headphone jack, and single microphone.
- [Camera] Single 1080p/2MP front facing camera in display.
- [Input] Trackpad and ANSI keyboard.
- [Boot] 128MB SPI boot flash
- [I/O] 1 USB type C host controller with DisplayPort 1.2 and Power Delivery; 1 USB Type-C port; 1 USB 3.0 port; 1 USB 2.0 port.
The keyboard is of average quality. I’m using the ANSI version. The keys feel mushy on the way down but have quite a bit of spring back allowing you to type reasonably fast. In a typing test between this device and my Macbook Pro 2018, I found myself to type about 5 to 10 WPM faster on average on the Pinebook Pro. The position of the trackpad means that sometimes you’ll inadvertently move your fingers and trigger mouse movement – which sometimes results in your words being scrambled. Turning off the trackpad when an external mouse is connected can help to resolve this issue. There’s no backlighting on the keys.
Unlike the Macbook Pro, I didn’t experience any issues with repeating keys unless I had the repeat delay set low and the repeat rate set high.
The trackpad is a bit small given the available space on the frame. Precision is poor unless you’re making long swipes across the trackpad. Small, minor adjustments are difficult to position so I’d recommend you set the sensitivity low. I expect there to be iterative updates here to the trackpad firmware that will improve the readings.
Build quality of the case
The PBP comes in a hard metal frame. It’s cool to the touch when the device is off and has a beautiful matte black colour. I have no concerns throwing this device in my backpack or upon a desk as the frame seems very capable of protecting the RockChip innards.
If I had a choice of this frame and a durable plastic one, I’d choose the plastic one for an even lighter laptop.
The big question about this laptop: the performance. I found that I could comfortably watch 720p videos on YouTube and 480p streams on Twitch with live chat visible. The machine seemed also capable of having two streams side-by-side with occassional, but manageable stuttering on each.
By default the performance settings on Firefox is set to use 8 threads which I think is set a bit high considering that there’s only two BIG CPUs. Switching between 2 and 8 doesn’t seem to change the performance. I use a mixture of uBlock Origin and uBlock Matrix to reduce the amount of scripts running in each tab – again, this only seems to affect the initial page load speed – after the webapp is running I didn’t notice a performance difference.
I haven’t tried running any games on this device and don’t plan to – that’s what my Nintendo Switch is for!
Finally, I noticed some high pitched whining when the device was under load. Usually opening a web browser causes this whine. It’s pretty annoying and something that I hope can be fixed in due time.
The audio quality is passable and has little distortion across the volume range. I would say it’s good enough to understand a movie but not enough to enjoy a movie. Stick to headphones!
I’d recommend the Pinebook Pro as a great travel laptop if you primarily work in DevOps or live in the command line. It doesn’t grind to a halt under load – it simply slows down and I think you’ll get used to the reduced speed rather quickly.
I think this laptop’s ideal purpose is to serve as a realistic representation of what 99% of your users experience when they use your webapp. Keep it on your desk as a second laptop for testing performance improvements you’re making.
As a representation of the state of Linux on ARM, you can’t go wrong with this laptop. It’s battery life is an solid 10 to 12 hours. Suspend isn’t as power performant as on the Macbook so you’ll be shutting down this machine when you’re not using it.
For the hackers and tinkerers inside all of us, you’d be surprised at how easily you can get up and running. Just download an image, flash to a USB stick or SD card, insert it into the machine, and boot up. Run through a 5 minute installation and you’ll have a fresh installation very quickly. However, be warned that if you have a more esteroic setup (and I mean that from a Linux on ARM perspective), such as LUKS on LVM or custom peripherals you need to get working — you’ll be spending a few days wrapping your head around compiling a custom kernel, getting the initial ramdisk built with all the required modules, and dealing with the quirks (i.e. the separate bootloader partition before the EFI partition).
The PBP wiki has a very thorough guide on the internals of the machine and I think with enough time you can enable any scenario on this device. The forums are teeming with information and you’ll be entering the space with quite a bit of SME that can give you tips on using the machine.
Buy this machine.