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PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition: Great hardware, but the software is for patient Linux pros only

This Linux-based phone is filled with promise -- and headaches.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor
PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition

PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Over the past six months or so, I've been asked a lot what I think of the PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition, a Linux-based smartphone.

Yes, Linux, not Android. Android is based on a modified version of the Linux kernel, and been modified and optimized for use on smartphones and tablets. 

Also: Flipper Zero: How to install third-party firmware (and why you should)

Heavily modified and optimized. 

But what's a pure Linux experience on a smartphone going to be like? I'm about to find out.

Well, after obstacle after obstacle (Covid-19, supply chain issues, "unprecedented times," postal strikes, the holidays…), I finally got my hands on one.

Design-wise, I like it. It's a thin and light smartphone that still retains a 3.5mm headphone jack and even has a removable battery.

Removable battery!

Removable battery!

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Yeah, that's right -- a removable battery.

This phone blows out of the water the idea that you can't have a thin phone with a removable battery.

The 3000mAh battery

The 3000mAh battery

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

I wish my iPhone had this snap-on plastic back cover instead of a fragile glass back (I use an iPhone because of the ecosystem, not the "design").

And look at what's behind that back over. Not just a battery but privacy switches that allow me to turn off the camera, mic, and other stuff.

Privacy switches to turn off certain features

Privacy switches to turn off certain features

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Neat!

I like this.

I like it a lot.

Then I fired it up. And this is where things got ugly. 

PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition tech specs

  • Display: 6-inch, 1440×720 pixels, 18:9 ratio, in-cell IPS capacitive touchscreen, Gorilla Glass 4
  • Processor: Rockchip RK3399S featuring 64-bit 4x ARM Cortex A53 + 2x ARM Cortex A72 CPU and Mali T860MP4 GPU
  • RAM: 4GB LPDDR4
  • Storage: 128GB eMMC
  • Main Camera: 13-megapixel, Sony iMX258, LED Flash
  • Front-facing Camera: 8-megapixel, OmniVision OV8858
  • Battery: Removable Li-Po 3000 mAh
  • Expansion: Micro SD Card (supports SDHC and SDXC, up to 2TB)
  • Outputs: USB3.0 type C + 3.5mm jack with mic
  • Privacy Switches: Modem (includes GPS), Wi-Fi/BT, Microphone, Rear/Front Camera, Headphone Jack
  • OS: Manjaro Phosh

Let's rewind back to past Adrian, the Adrian who ordered this smartphone. He clearly saw this warning on the website.

It's in red, so it had to be important.

Warning on the Pine64 website that the operating system "should be considered pre-Beta" and that "the PinePhone Pro is specifically made for developers and early adopters"

Warning on the Pine64 website that the operating system "should be considered pre-Beta" and that "the PinePhone Pro is specifically made for developers and early adopters"

Pine64

What went through past Adrian's head was something along the lines of "well, I'm not a massive Linux guy, but I know a bit, so how hard can it be?"

Well…

On firing up the PinePhone Pro, the first thing it told me was that it was in dire need of an update.

Lots of updates.

Lots of updates that I soon discovered wouldn't install.

Well, the job of fixing that could wait for a time when Future Adrian had more time on his hands.

Then I discovered that the camera software -- Megapixels -- wouldn't run.

Nice looking camera -- shame I couldn't test it

Nice looking camera -- shame I couldn't test it

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Oh, and I couldn't install anything else, either.

After some online sleuthing, it turns out that the problem with the updates was an issue with expired security certificates.

Also: PikaOS is a next-gen Linux distribution aimed specifically toward gamers

After about 4 hours of reading forums and trying various things and inputting more Linux commands than I've inputted for a long time (and wishing I'd connected a Bluetooth keyboard to the phone -- assuming that would work -- or, better still, set up SSH to be able to connect to it from another device), I stumbled upon a post on Reddit by user The57thUser that seemed to fix this problem (well, except that last two lines need the command "sudo" in front of them to work).

Lots of trial-and-error work in Terminal

Lots of trial-and-error work in Terminal

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

OK, but finally, I had it fixed, and a whole bunch of updates were coming in.

Yay!

The smartphone rebooted, fired up (felt snappier this time around), and the camera app worked.

Double yay!

Also: This has replaced my multitool for a fraction of the cost

Then I tried to get into Settings.

Nope. Now that didn't work.

Not to worry, I can use the command line through Terminal. 

Terminal wouldn't fire up.

Remember earlier when I said I wished I'd set up an SSH so I could remote connect to the PinePhone Pro from another device? Yeah, that would have helped here, allowing me to connect to the phone and try to fix it.

But I can't set that up now because I can't access Terminal.

Would that have even worked? Who knows.

Oh, and charging was also broken, at least while the phone was on, constantly connecting and disconnecting, making the chime play endlessly. I had to switch it off to charge.

A quick scan of the official support forums suggest these issues are known and the fix is to install the latest "nightly" build. Why users are being pushed broken software is beyond me. 

Why the PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition -- a $399 smartphone -- ships with such broken software is also beyond me.

Now I have a PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition that needs to be reflashed to try to get it back to a semi-working state. I'm not sure whether to reflash it with the official PinePhone Pro image or install something else like Ubuntu or Kali Linux.  

So there we are. I'm sure I can get this phone working with some more sleuthing and time. But, as promised, the PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition is definitely a handset for Linux enthusiasts. It's a challenge right out of the box, and if nothing else, I'm getting to use what Linux I know a lot more.

I like the idea behind PinePhone Pro, but it's full of headaches

I like the idea behind PinePhone Pro, but it's full of headaches

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

If you're a beginner looking for a tool to get into Linux -- this is what some of the people who wanted me to review the PinePhone Pro were looking for -- my advice is avoid this platform. 

Go for something like a cheap Chromebook or install Linux into a virtual machine on an existing laptop or desktop, or get a Raspberry Pi, install Termux on an Android smartphone, or even use cloud service like Linode (which is cheap, and can cost as little as $5 a month).  

Also: These are my 3 must-have Raspberry Pi accessories

The PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition might end up being a superb Linux platform when I get it working (I'll let you know), but if you don't want to struggle to get your Linux, there are far, far, far easier (and cheaper) routes!  

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