Part the First: ceci n'est pas une évaluation (du pinephone)
In which I begin to write a review of the PinePhone, but it devolves into a lament regarding the state of technology design.
I bought the PinePhone on a whim: the Mobian edition. The PinePhone wiki indicates Mobian has the most functionally mature support for the platform, and it's $149 for the 2GB RAM / 16GB eMMC version, inclusive of a $10 donation to Mobian. This isn't nothing, but it's accessible by modern smartphone standards, and it's even reasonable if you consider the parts cost of assembling a Cortex A53 + touchscreen display + cell modem + sensor package as a hobbyist platform.
Let's get the review part out of the way - it'll be short and to the point, and might serve as an introduction to the "lament".
I received the PinePhone on a Friday evening, charged it until I'd finished work for the day, then got down to business. The hardware is physically nice. It's not metal, nor high design, but it's far nicer than $149 might imply. Everything fits, the case snaps on tightly, the battery is large and replaceable, as are many of the major components, and the display doesn't look bad, even next to my iPhone 8, a much older but still much more expensive device.
When you turn on the PinePhone for the first time, you're greeted with a setup page for Mobian. Your first encounter with the Mobian on-screen keyboard will be as you type your encrypted partition passphrase, and it works - it's clearly not the same as the Android/iOS keyboards with their carefully tuned typing correction, so you do need to be careful, but it works.
Then one chooses a PIN. On this screen, the touch calibration is offset by almost exactly one key. The careless will input a PIN consisting of the numbers one row above those which they meant to touch. This is an important bulwark against the "$5 wrench problem", since you can't be forced to divulge the PIN you don't actually know yourself.
Setup complete, the phone rebooted, and I worked through some unlock screen stutters to enter my shifted PIN. The homescreen loaded, slowly, and I was off! My SIM card (t-mobile) seemed to work fine with the cell modem, and I joined Wi-Fi without a hitch, though the performance of the UI was at all times inconsistent.
I opened a terminal and ran 'sudo apt update' as a prelude to patching the phone. Cocktail hour, back on the case Saturday.
Saturday morning, the phone was on my desk, and I revisited it to check on the update progress and run an upgrade. Naturally, it was locked, so I swiped up on the lockscreen and entered my PIN (still shifted from the miscalibrated setup screen). Rejection. I tried it again, and again, and tried alternate forms of the PIN, just in case another shift had occurred, or a default setting had returned. No dice. Googling around a bit, I found some folks with the same issue, and did a hard reset on their advice. My PIN worked again.
Back in the device, the cell modem wasn't working with the SIM any more, though the Wi-Fi was still functional. I troubleshot this cell modem problem a bit, and discovered that a firmware reflash is necessary on occasion after a hard reset or a battery removal.
The 85MB firmware for the Quectel EG25-G in my phone is 85MB because it contains a full copy of Linux for armv7. You heard me right: this isn't merely a firmware, it's a full OS for the modem, being addressed by the OS with which you, the user, interact.
The flashing process took a bit, but most of that was administration - running the terminal with the on-screen keyboard, getting the download link right, the permissions right, etc - the actual flash was a few minutes. Modem is running again!
I turned my attention to the patching once more, to be sure I was running the latest Mobian on my phone. Back to the terminal, I issued 'sudo apt update && sudo apt -y upgrade' and sat nearby to keep the screen awake (which keeps the radios on) while apt ran. The upgrade process asked fairly normal dpkg questions about config file priority and changes, timezone, keyboard type, etc, but the screen and keyboard made answering these ncurses dialogs pretty burdensome. Eventually all was well, though, and apt concluded its run.
The phone was still slow, and appeared to be getting slower, so I initiated a shutdown from the power menu (tap the top of the screen, it's an unmarked secret menu which emanates from the top), and restarted the phone to see if that would help post-upgrade.
When the phone came back up, my PIN wouldn't work once more. I tried another hard reset, but this time to no avail.
I'm back in. That bug I mentioned about the PIN shift? It's not just in the installer they send you out of the box, but also in the current Mobian installer image. Watch your PIN inputs during setup!
So yeah, I'm not going to bother with apt update/upgrade again, I want to play with this thing. Here's the skinny in the unpatched default install:
- Maps load about as slowly as ordering a microfiche via post from the USGS and interpreting it with a loupe.
- SMS works. MMS doesn't work.
- A lot of the settings app works, but changing some settings causes the settings app to crash. It's like a game of settings minesweeper.
- The interface is a bit like Android, if Android were running many times slower than any Android phone from a major manufacturer ever ran, worked 88-93% of the time, sometimes precipitated a reflash of the separate operating system embedded in your phone's cell modem, and ran many times more processes in the background to coordinate its 1.6GB of roly poly bulk.
- There's a ton of functionality here, some of it works.
My list is not a full recounting of the system, and for that I apologize. A full recounting is simply not worth the time to write. I'm going to skip to my conclusion, which consists of the microblog I sent out after I decided to make something of the remainder of my weekend:
It's official. Mobian on Pinephone is an unpleasant circus. I don't think this is PinePhone's fault, I blame Linux, which, either because of, or in spite of, decades of talent being poured into its ecosystem, remains a rabbit warren inside a dumpster fire.
The manifold and petty ways in which mobile linux on PinePhone appears to be broken is not compelling. Someone needs to hack this product back to basics. An attempt to overlay and implement the features of commodity smartphones upon the bloat of GNU/Linux is neither approachable nor maintainable. The hardware is nice, and it's begging for a paradigm-shift minimalist OS, not 1.6GB of GNU/Linux desktop packages stuffed into a pantomime Android costume.
The experience is summed up by the conclusion of Joyce's "Araby" - "Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity" ... should have spent the pennies of my weekend more wisely here.
I continue this lament here.