Pinephone Review: The State of the Linux Smartphone
This isn't something that I do very often and it probably won't be a recurring thing. I don't consider myself much of a reviewer. If it turns out that this content ends up being enjoyable, then I could consider opening up a second blog to do more articles like this. For now I'll post it here on this blog and we'll go from there.
The Pinephone has become a popular device to chat about in the privacy circles. It's price ($149 USD) alongside it's promises has made it a very appealing device for those that are looking for an option to get away from devices offered by Apple and Google. It also provides an option for those who want a “pure” Linux based smartphone where the hardware shares the same freedom respecting principles as the software. I've been able to get my hands on one and I'd like to share my thoughts.
This also ended up getting fairly long, so here's an index!
- My Background
- Hardware Final Thoughts
- Ubuntu Touch
- KDE Neon
- Pinephone Conclusion
- Bonus Content: FreeTube Experience
I feel like I should give a little background on who I am as a potential user. The device I'm transferring from is an Asus Zenfone 6 with Lineage OS and Micro G installed. I have been an active Linux user for about 5-6 years now. I self-host nearly every service that I actively use. I'm also a full time developer.
The point I'm trying to make is: I'm a prime example of the ideal user who could realistically make the switch to a Pinephone while also giving up the least amount of convenience in their life.
People like me are going to be the people that advocate for the Pinephone in years to come and to show others that privacy / FOSS can be both self-respecting and convenient to use. Before we can get this product out to the masses, we need a few who are willing to deal with some rough patches within that process so that the developers working hard on this software can fix any pain points that we might have before more users are aware of it.
I hope that my experiences can educate those who are considering buying a Pinephone and whether or not the Pinephone can be a potential device for daily usage. I will be reviewing the hardware as well as a few of the more popular operating systems currently available for the phone. These won't be full on reviews per-say but more so of my opinions and experiences as I try out each and every one.
I don't consider packaging very exciting, but with a device like this I guess it's worth talking about. The box didn't come with much. It came with the phone, a USB-C cable, and a small amount of paperwork. It also came with a nano SIM to micro SIM adapter which I definitely appreciate. It ended up not fitting my nano SIM though so I had to use a different one. It does not come with a power brick but I have no complaints with that. I already have so many I don't really want another one at this point.
I must say, for the price of this phone, I'm very impressed with the hardware here.
It's a bit thicker than most of the other phones out there, but it's about the same thickness as the Zenfone 6 that I've been using. The extra thickness likely has to do with all the modularity that this phone has, along with other features like a removable battery, which is something I haven't seen in a long time. I don't consider the thickness a negative, though if they manage to make it thinner while keeping the modularity of it then that'd be a huge plus for me.
The speaker is fairly mediocre. The cutouts on the back plate makes it seem bigger than it actually is, but it only takes up about a fourth of what was cut out for it. Even if it's supposed to help, it doesn't sound great. The Pinephone does include a headphone jack, which I'd end up using more than the speakers any way, so I don't mind if it isn't that great. It's usable when you need one which is what matters.
Call quality is bad. Just about any phone I could find in the past 10+ years probably has better call quality than this. This is assuming that calls even work with the OS that you choose.
The camera is much worse. Only one OS had a working camera and it was completely unusable. The view finder in the camera app looked more like a slideshow. The pictures that it took weren't good either. The front camera also doesn't work without entering in a command in a terminal to change it. I didn't expect much but it's probably worse than I expected. You should assume that there isn't any camera on this phone if you decide to buy one. It's that unusable.
The back plate was fairly difficult to remove at first, but after a few times it's been much easier to remove. Once removed, there's a decent collection of goodies underneath. Here we have the removable battery as mentioned earlier, along with a SIM card and SD card slot. The SD card slot is used more to flash operating systems than to be used as expansion storage. You can still use it as mounted storage but you have to mount it through the command line to use it. Even then, the phone attempts to boot to the SD card even if there isn't a flashable OS installed on it. The most user friendly way to use this slot would be to have the OS installed on your SD card instead of the built in storage. There might be a way to prevent it from booting into the SD card but I didn't spend any time to find out.
There are also a few pins towards the top that looks like they could provide some expansion to the phone. This could open up some extra discussions about adding some extra features like a bigger battery or even wireless charging. I'm definitely looking forward to see what they use these for.
The last things in the back of the phone are these tiny switches that allows you to disable certain features of the phone like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or even the headphone jack. There's even a handy little sticker next to them that allows you to keep track of which switch does what. This is a huge feature for the privacy community as it gives you that peace of mind that nothing is using your camera for example.
The last part of the hardware that I wanted to talk about is the screen. I feel like the screen is the best part of the Pinephone. It's a 720p screen and doesn't get that bright so it isn't going to be winning many prizes of course, but it's actually not bad to use for the amount of phone you're getting. This is the one thing that usually disappoints me with cheaper phones but I really can't complain with what I'm given here. The phone did come with a plastic screen protector that made the screen look slightly worse. I'd definitely recommend removing that and replacing it with the glass screen protector that Pine64 offers in their store.
I won't really go over the specs too much here, but the phone has 2GB of RAM with a quad core ARM SoC. My opinions on the performance fluctuated drastically as I was trying different operating systems with the phone. As you'll see for the first few operating systems, performance wasn't that great. Navigation was slow but usable. The screen responsiveness typically lagged behind your touches quite a bit as well.
During the second half of my testing, I was able to try a few systems that were more optimized, and my experience improved significantly. Apps were suddenly running better and navigation felt much smoother. It still wasn't as smooth as a low end Android device, but the improvements made the phone usable.
Video playback wasn't great regardless of the optimizations. Loading a video on Invidious (which is a lightweight option to browse YouTube) resulted in choppy videos, even on 720p. It wasn't until I lowered it to 480p that I was able to watch videos at a smooth frame rate.
I understand that the phone is very cheap compared to most other phones, so I can't complain too much. Eventually I'd love to see some more expensive options with a faster SoC to ease the performance issues. I'm aware that Pine64 recently announced a slight upgrade with more storage and more RAM, though I don't think more RAM will fix the current issues. I'd much rather see that higher price go towards a better Soc.
Hardware Final Thoughts
Overall, this is a very nice device for the price and Pine64 absolutely nailed it. Please keep up the great work guys, I'm overall very satisfied with the hardware that I was given. I'd eventually like to see a little more performance in a future device but either way it's a very solid device. Huge props to the Pine64 team on their accomplishments.
I wanted to keep the software experience section separate from the hardware, as Pine64 technically doesn't make software for the Pinephone. Instead, they rely on community driven projects to develop operating systems that are compatible with the Pinephone. This really drives the “openness” of the project as it right away makes you know that this phone is meant to be configured the way you want it to be. I'm going to try out a few different operating systems before I settle on which one I like the most. I'll be giving each option a fair chance regardless of what my preferences are on desktop.
My Pinephone is the UBPorts Community Edition, which means that it was pre-loaded with Ubuntu Touch installed. With that being the case, I started here first. Many consider Ubuntu Touch to be the most polished option out of the major operating systems available, so I was definitely interested in seeing just how it works.
The initial experience with Ubuntu Touch is actually really nice. Having the most frequent apps on the side bar ended up being much nicer to use than I originally thought it would be. I'm fairly used to how Android works and Ubuntu Touch pleasantly has some of that similar feel while also changing the UX in a way that makes it feel more like Linux / Ubuntu.
Swiping from the left brings up your favorite apps. Continuing the swipe opens up the app drawer with all of your apps. Swiping from the right swaps to your most recent app. Continuing to swipe right shows a list of all of your open apps in a carousel of sorts. It didn't take too long to learn this process and I'd say it's fairly intuitive.
Swiping from the top opens what I'd probably call a “Settings Tray”. It shows your notifications like Android does but gives full access to a majority of the more common items you'd find in the settings app. It gives you access to your Wi-fi / Bluetooth settings, screen rotation, sound, brightness, and even a calendar. Swiping down from a certain icon at the top determines which settings you see when the drawer is open. If you slightly miss, you can adjust your thumbnail as you're swiping to navigate to a different tab in the drawer. It's a much appreciated fail safe to make sure you open up the setting that you intended to open.
Overall Ubuntu Touch has a unique and friendly interface that's easy to pick up on.
One of the first things I wanted to do was get my VPN setup. I use Mullvad if it matters. Once I got it setup, the device said that it was connected, however it was never able to make a connection to anything once the VPN was enabled. It's possible I misconfigured something here so I'll look more into it. It didn't allow me to upload any pre-configured OVPN file or anything so I had to manually set it up.
After that failure, I wanted to hook up the Pinephone to my Nextcloud account so that I could sync up files / contacts / calendar / etc. The option to do so is here in the settings but it never did work. Clicking on the Nextcloud icon just makes it load indefinitely. During one attempt the phone completely crashed on me and I had to remove the battery to reboot it. I never got to the point where I could attempt to sign in. Another failure.
The last notable thing I saw in the settings page was “Libertine”. Libertine is apparently a compatibility layer for Ubuntu Touch which gives the device a container with access to
apt and the ability to install packages through
dpkg. This also ended up not working. Any attempt to create a container simply kicked me back to the Getting Started page. Doing a little bit of research on this and it seems that the team isn't focusing on this functionality right now and instead focusing on features that will likely get used more like the camera and GPS. That's fair enough, though if this isn't ready it should probably be hidden or at least prevent me from creating containers.
App Experience – Default Apps
Moving outside of the settings app, the default apps included seem fine. Basic apps like calculator and calendar work as you'd expect. The messaging and calling apps are fine as well. Everything is basic to get the job done and that's actually what I'd want out of default apps. They don't need to be feature rich to be usable. It also comes with apps you wouldn't find by default in an Android phone like a file browser will full OS access and a terminal.
The music app experience was mediocre. You can't listen to music when the screen is off which is a huge disappointment. The headphone jack ended up not working on my unit either. Any sound would simply continue playing through the speaker. I made sure that the kill switch wasn't enabled and even flipped it on for good measure. I'll see if this is fixed with a different OS later in this review but even something basic like listening to music is basically non-existent here with UT. This is a big deal breaker for me when it comes to daily driver status. Looking into it more, this is an issue with the OS itself and not necessarily the music app.
The last default app was the browser. It's called the Morph Browser but I was curious what was running under the hood. I accessed the FreeTube Website and checked the analytics there. Morph is apparently a very old version of Chrome (v65) and is detected as an Android 4.4 device. Some elements of the UI didn't render in the same way as it does on my Android device though I don't know if I'd contribute that to my questionable web design skills or because of the very old browser. Likely a combination of both. Firefox or other alternatives are nowhere to be found here, so if this is our only option, then it really needs to be updated more. Being this far away from the latest release of Chrome could make this an insecure way of browsing the internet and doesn't go well with trying to have a private experience with the Pinephone.
App Experience – App Store
Finally we're here at the app store, or the OpenStore as UT likes to call it. The Ubuntu Touch team has decided to focus primarily on Progressive Web Apps (PWA) for the available apps in their OS. Anything that wasn't a PWA was based on QML though there are many more web apps available. This means that FreeTube will fit right in with the rest of the apps available once I get the PWA version finished. Having said that, I'm not too convinced that having only PWA available is the right way forward.
I understand the appeal though. A PWA is much easier to develop and it also allows them to publish unofficial versions of apps that would probably never be in their store otherwise. It's also much easier to convince developers to create a PWA than it is to make a native app. I feel like there are a plentiful amount of excellently created Linux apps that are simply being ignored on this platform. Terminal methods like
apt are blocked off as well so you don't even get the option to sideload them. This type of blocking removes the appeal of a “Linux” smartphone to me and the UBPorts team should really backtrack their stance on this.
With the apps that are available, I had a difficult time finding anything in the OpenStore that were good and worth using for long periods of time. There's a Reddit app called uReadIt that looked nice at first, however trying to open any image or video just shows a blank screen with no way to get back besides closing the app completely and reopening it. Comments would only load if no link / image / video were included in the post. It also hasn't been updated in a very long time which means it likely won't be fixed.
The YouTube app (which is just a wrapper of the website) wouldn't load, I was just greeted by another blank screen.
Syncthing works well. Downloading the app gives access to their web UI which is usable. Closing the app causes Syncthing to stop running which I feel like should still run. Turning off the screen when it was running completely stopped any progress as well. I couldn't sync too much anyways since I'm limited to the small amount of storage on the device, but it's still disappointing. I'm assuming this is also an OS issue and not an issue with Syncthing itself.
There was an app I found called Active Screen which allows the screen to stay on without having to touch it constantly. It works as intended and helped me get Syncthing working a little bit better, but functionality like this really needs to be built into the OS itself as a setting.
The last notable app I tried was the UT Tweak Tool. This app allows you to change a few of the UI elements within UT and allows you to view more information about the apps you have installed. Options included things like changing the theme and the icon / font sizes. I'd consider this app a must have if you insist on using UT touch. When browsing the list of installed apps, there's a toggle to prevent the selected app from suspending. This didn't seem to fix my issue with the music but it did party fix the Syncthing issue. Syncthing still wouldn't work if the screen was off just like music though.
Ubuntu Touch Final Thoughts
Ubuntu Touch overall feels like a decent phone experience, but it doesn't feel like a “Linux” experience. The lack of typical Linux apps and the focus of web apps leaves a lot to be desired. Using this OS feels like they're trying to be a successor to Firefox OS because of this focus. It doesn't feel like it's trying to be a Linux device no more than Android is.
Even with access to a terminal, the lack of installing packages outside of their app store via methods such as
apt removes a lot of customization potential for a device such as this. I should be allowed to try out different things regardless if it breaks the OS or not. In it's current position, I couldn't even install languages such as Python to run small scripts if I wanted to.
The OS issues with app processes not persisting when the screen is off makes this a hard sell for me as well. Having Syncthing stop working or have music shut off just because I want to save battery life makes this very unusable to me. At the very least these issues need to be fixed before I can seriously consider using this OS myself.
The UI and experience is easily the best part of Ubuntu Touch. It's considerably better than the competition at this point and everything is user-friendly enough where just about anyone who has ever used an Android or iPhone could probably pick this up and start using it right away.
To reiterate, Ubuntu Touch just isn't for me. My ideal Linux smartphone would have the ability to function as my phone and my desktop and it doesn't look like Ubuntu Touch is aiming for this eventual convergence. Nevertheless, I am pleased with my experience with Ubuntu Touch and I wish the team good luck in their work. I look forward to seeing what has changed the next time I look into it.
The nice thing about the Pinephone is that it has options. Even if Ubuntu Touch isn't for me, that doesn't stop me from finding another OS that is. With that in mind, I decided to put KDE Neon on my phone next to see what they have to offer.
I chose them next mostly because I'm fully expecting to not stick with it as a permanent solution. I don't use KDE software very much mostly because I don't like the experience very well whenever I do. I don't want that to stop me from giving this a fair chance though as the phone ecosystem is brand new and full of opportunities to be innovative, so here's my experience.
Upon first boot, I'm greeted by an interface that looks much more familiar to the average user. A home screen with a notification bar and 3 navigation buttons at the bottom, with a dock of your most used apps. Swiping up on the home screen will open your app drawer just like an Android device. You can hold and drag apps from your app drawer to the home screen to customize your look. There are even a few basic widgets that can be added to your home screen. I had some trouble pinning apps to the dock, but it eventually works.
The bottom 3 buttons behave very similarly to Android as well. In Android, you normally have a back, home, and open apps buttons at the bottom of the screen at all times. With KDE Neon, you have your open apps, home, and a close current app button. I would have much preferred a universal back button, though I imagine that might be hard to implement.
At the top is your notification tray. This also works just like Android. Swiping down opens up the notification tray and will show any notifications along with quick applets to enable / disable common settings like Wi-Fi and Auto Rotate. Some of the settings up here, like the flashlight and screenshot applets, didn't work in my testing. Hopefully this will be fixed in a future update.
The keyboard with KDE Neon takes a more traditional keyboard style layout compared to Android and even Ubuntu Touch. Keys like the backspace button are in the top right and the enter key is in the middle right instead of where you normally find them in mobile keyboards. The bottom corners are now populated with a button that will close the keyboard when pressed. I ended up having a lot of issues with the keyboard in KDE Neon. A lot of the issues I had with KDE Neon were because of the keyboard bugging out on me in one way or the other. Apps wouldn't resize properly in some cases when the keyboard goes away and other times the keyboard would completely disappear but still be usable. Some times switching to the numbers page would cause the keyboard to flash as well. During a lot of the times I had problems, I couldn't hide the keyboard either to make these problems go away. Eventually clicking to something else fixed it, but it came back too many times to not mention it. The keyboard is easily the worst part of KDE Neon.
If it isn't clear yet, KDE Neon has a ton of similarities to Android and I don't consider this a bad thing. A Linux based smartphone is going to be difficult to transition to for some people and having some familiarity will go a long way in user adoption. I'm a huge fan of the workflow that the KDE team has put together and I really look forward to seeing this in a more polished state.
The settings options are much more bare compared to Ubuntu Touch. For starters, there isn't even any Bluetooth settings here. I didn't use any Bluetooth devices in my testing but it's still something I expected to be here. We get WiFi, Broadband, Hotspot, Cellular Networks, Sound, Time, Language, Appearance, Accounts, and Information. It isn't a lot, but it gets us started at least. There were no settings for VPN either, so I didn't even get to attempt to set that up.
The sound settings allowed me to switch to the headphone jack, so it's at least usable, though it doesn't switch automatically when you plug in a device. There is a setting that can supposedly do this but it didn't work in my testing.
The account settings finally allowed me to add my Nextcloud account. Having said that, I wasn't able to fully set it up because of the keyboard issues I was having. I was very close to finishing the setup before the OS crashed and I had to remove the battery, so I gave up on trying. I will assume this works though as I saw no reason why it wouldn't.
Nothing else really seemed worth talking about settings wise. So moving on!
App Experience – Default Apps
Like Ubuntu Touch, KDE Neon provides mostly basic apps that do basic functions like Calendar, Alarms, Gallery, Contacts, Music, etc. Unlike Ubuntu Touch, these are native apps and not web apps. This definitely gave them a more unified look and also allowed for some nicer swipe gestures compared to a lot of the apps I tried on UT.
The music app for example felt a lot more polished than the default app that is available on UT. I can swipe left and right to toggle between tracks, albums, artists and playlists. It also has the ability to select a folder of tracks unlike the app on UT which would only look in your default Music folder. I wasn't able to actually add a folder though, so I didn't get to test this too much. KDE Neon has the same problem as UT where apps stop working when the screen is off as well so listening to music was never going to be a good experience anyways.
KDE Connect was installed out of the box as well, which is a very welcomed addition. I didn't actually set this up, as I couldn't get my desktop to detect it (My smartphone did, however I wasn't interested in connecting the two), but it's one of those apps that really contributes in the overall convenience of a phone.
The file browser is fairly good. Had no real complaints here. Works as intended.
There wasn't a camera app, even though I wasn't expecting the camera to work. Not really a problem but something that I noticed.
Phone calls still didn't work.
The default browser here is an app called Angelfish. It is a QTWebEngine based browser so I wasn't familiar with how out of date it is compared to upstream, though it did render the FreeTube website much better than the browser on UT did. The Analytics thinks that the device is an Android 9 device (Compared to an Android 4.4 device on UT) so that was a better sight to see.
App Experience – App Store
This is where all the fun begins. KDE Neon on the Pinephone is a standard ARM device running Debian / Ubuntu which means that any app that would theoretically run on a Raspberry Pi running a 64 bit OS. This includes the ability to run staple Linux apps like LibreOffice and even allows for you to install .deb files from the internet. The
apt command is also available in the command line so the available apps are almost limitless compared to the selection in Ubuntu Touch.
That isn't to say that it's always the best experience. Out of the few apps that I tried, they didn't scale properly to the size of the phone, which made it basically impossible to run the apps. Some that I tried to download (Like a caffeine app that should keep the screen on) didn't work at all.
Even with the bad experience on the phone screen, these problems can likely be solved by plugging the phone into a bigger screen and attaching a keyboard and mouse to it. This is what will eventually make this ecosystem a powerhouse with the large amount of apps already available for this device. As more users adopt devices like the Pinephone, I expect app developers will pay more attention to smaller screen sizes and better optimize their apps for this type of experience.
I wanted to spend a little bit of more time on this section, however my phone decided to stop connecting to the WiFi so I couldn't install any more apps. I'm still satisfied with stopping here as I feel like I've seen enough. Seeing the available apps for this has made me excited to try this out again.
KDE Neon Final Thoughts
I overall had a much better experience with KDE Neon. Mostly because I'm more excited about the future of this project. This is a prime example of what the future of Linux smartphones should look like. Access to the already plentiful selection of ARM Linux apps makes this OS (and the others I'll talk about later) much more appealing than the more closed Ecosystem of Ubuntu Touch.
I do want to mention that I had a few more crashes on KDE Neon compared to Ubuntu Touch and I had to remove my battery several times to fix a few issues. This along with the keyboard issues made it very annoying to use in the worst of times.
I can't recommend it at this time, but there's a lot of potential here.
I came into this OS not expecting to care too much about it, however I left with a potential candidate of a daily driver that I will be more than happy to recommend in the future once a few of their issues have been fixed. I will be paying more attention to this project moving forward as I'm really looking forward to see what the KDE has to offer in the future.
As before though, calls still don't work and there are still too many issues to be had, so it still has a long way to go before being daily driver ready.
I wasn't sure if I wanted to try out Mobian or PostmarketOS next. Both operating systems feature the Phosh environment, which I have been really looking forward to trying. I made a self prediction before I received my Pinephone that Phosh is what I would most likely end up settling on so I wanted to save these two systems for last. I'm a big fan of GNOME and GNOME apps so a mobile UI based on GNOME while also featuring GNOME apps sounded like a good thing to me.
I decided I was going to try Mobian first. My reasoning is because Mobian is a smaller project compared to PostmarketOS (There's only one dev working on it I believe) so it might have a few more issues. As you might have guessed, Mobian is based on Debian while PostmarketOS is based on Alpine Linux. While I much prefer Debian based systems, PostmarketOS claims a much more lightweight OS because of it's Alpine base while Alpine Linux claims to be extremely lightweight itself. With all of these together, PostmarketOS should have the better overall experience in theory. If that is the case, I will save it for last simply to prevent an extra cycle of flashing a new OS on here as it's very slow to do so.
Even with all of that, it's still possible that Mobian can win me over, so here's my experience with using it.
On first boot, there was an immediate performance difference. Mobian was performing much smoother overall compared to both UT and KDE Neon. UT had some good performance don't get me wrong, but scrolling specifically felt snappier on Mobian than UT. Up to this point I've assumed that the unresponsiveness was just because of the poor SoC (which still might be the case), but the Phosh environment is extremely optimized. The stability is much better as well. Apps as well as the OS itself crashed much less than what I've dealt with up to this point. More parts of the hardware works as well.
The performance along with the stability makes this a winner to me. If you are considering an OS for your Pinephone, please do not skip on trying out Mobian.
Phosh takes a similar approach to Android, while also keeping the same guidelines established by the GNOME environment. Unlike Android, you will very rarely see your home screen unless there are no apps are running. Your “Home” screen typically is also your app drawer. At the bottom of the screen where the home button normally is on Android, there's instead a button that opens up your app drawer. This button can not be opened by swiping up which is a little disappointing and something that I'd like to see included eventually. In your app drawer is where you also view your currently open apps along with being able to close any of them.
There's a notification bar at the top as well. Tapping the top bar opens up your notifications while also giving access to applets to enable / disable common settings. Auto rotate doesn't work on Mobian and requires that you manually swap it using one of these applets. A small annoyance though I don't use landscape view too often, so it isn't a huge deal for me.
The navigation of the OS is fairly basic and boring. The important part is that navigation is stable, which is much more important than a full list of features.
The settings you see here are also similar to how they appear on GNOME. Bluetooth settings are available unlike KDE Neon. There are privacy settings which allows you to disable the camera and microphone (Even though there are hardware switches, this is still nice). A notable option in the settings is the users setting which allows you to change your pass code within the UI, however this ended up not working.
There's a setting to select your default applications. I don't think this was available in UT or KDE Neon.
Mobian also did not have any settings options to setup a VPN.
Setting up my Nextcloud account finally worked! I had no problem accessing my files / contacts once connected.
The sound settings behave similarly to KDE Neon, except for a few major differences. The headphone jack works and it works as expected. Plugging headphones into the Pinephone actually switches the sound source on Mobian. Listening to music even persists when the screen it's off. It's really silly that I have to praise an OS for doing this, so I really hope that the other systems can get this fixed soon. The issues might have been because of some battery optimizations that they've done recently, so it's hard to say if it's a good or bad thing that Mobian doesn't have that implemented.
For Mobian, I'm going to talk about both default and third party apps in the same section, as most of it is the same as from KDE Neon.
Being based on GNOME, a majority of the default apps are the same default apps you'd fine in a typical GNOME environment. GNOME Web, Contacts, Calculator, Clock, Calendar, Fractal, Geary, Lollypop, Maps, Gedit, To Do, and System Monitor are all available. Other apps like Firefox and Telegram are pre-installed as well. Most of these apps worked fairly well and as intended. I didn't notice any major issues with many of the default apps I tried.
With GNOME Web being mediocre, it's probably why Firefox was also included. Firefox runs websites much better, however the UI is not optimized for mobile at all so you're stuck with sometimes tiny buttons you have to click on in order to navigate through the browser. Even if you get to certain preferences it might not be sized properly. Once you start browsing it's a fine experience, but navigating around the browser itself is really annoying.
The one default app that caught me by surprise though was the camera app. The app actually works! This was the first time I was able to interact with the camera. I must say that it's a very bad camera experience. The view finder is more of a slideshow than GNOME Web and obviously doesn't take the greatest of pictures. I never expected it to, but the fact that the camera app works at all means that this is the best camera experience on the Pinephone.
Calls still didn't work for me, however it seems that calls are working for a few users. If I come back to Mobian as a daily driver I'll experiment more and see if I can get this to work. Text messaging and mobile data was working though.
Like KDE Neon, Mobian is a normal, Debian based computer, which means that is also has access to any ARM version of the many apps already available. You can once again open up a terminal and install applications through
apt. Flatpak is also installed by default here, though I didn't test any Flatpak apps during my time.
Generally any GTK or QT based app runs very well. There were a few that didn't size properly but they were still usable. The real problems occur when you run anything that isn't GTK or QT based. Apps like VLC doesn't know how to size itself for the small screen size and becomes an unusable experience. Just because an app is based on GTK or QT doesn't make it a guarantee though. I attempted to install the GNOME Tweak Tool and it was unusable due to size issues. In general though, you'll likely have a decent experience if you're able to stick with GTK or QT based apps.
Mobian Final Thoughts
Overall I'm extremely impressed with Mobian. A majority of the experience is smooth and stable. I've been heavily leaning towards recommending that the Pinephone isn't worth anyone's time or money if you're wanting a private and usable phone today. After using Mobian for a bit, my opinion has completely changed. A Pinephone as a daily driver just might be possible. Once some small issues get fixed and non GTK / QT apps are more usable, this will become a very solid option as a mobile OS.
If you're confident that you can get calls working under Mobian, this may end up being usable. Mobian has now become my prime candidate as my daily driver. At this point of my journey, there's only one other OS that could possibly change that.
This is the last OS that I plan on looking at. After this, I will settle on an OS and begin trying to set up the phone as a daily driver.
After my pleasant experience with Mobian, I have high hopes for PostmarketOS. While Pine64 doesn't have a default OS with the Pinephone, I do believe that they consider PostmarketOS their flagship option.
PostmarketOS is based on Alpine Linux instead of Debian, which is supposed to be a more lightweight base. This will be my first time trying any Alpine based system, so let's see what happens.
To no surprise, PostmarketOS runs just as smooth as Mobian did. Phosh actually had some small animations when opening and closing the app drawer which Mobian didn't have. Otherwise there were very small differences between the two. No complaints here.
Differences with Mobian
A lot of what I said for Mobian also applies for PostmarketOS, so I'll talk about what's different instead.
Calls worked right out of the box with PMOS. This led me to find out that call quality wasn't the greatest, but it was usable, which is important.
APN options were fetched automatically, where as Mobian had to have them entered in manually. A very nice quality of life addition.
Like a most of the other systems I tried, PMOS didn't swap between the speaker and headphone jack automatically. It's possible to do it manually though.
The keyboard has a slightly different design. I wouldn't consider either keyboard better or worse. They're both usable and decent no matter the situation.
There are much fewer apps installed by default on PMOS. By default, you get Phone, Text, GNOME Web, Contacts, Calculator, Cheese (A picture taking app), Clocks, Extensions, Firefox, Settings, Software (App Store), Terminal, and a text editor. It doesn't even have a file browser installed.
The camera app has sizing issues and also didn't detect the camera.
The App Store doesn't show any apps you can install outside of the ones already installed on your system. I'm assuming this is because it needs to fetch app information from some repositories, but I didn't see a way to do that.
PostmarketOS Final Thoughts
In it's current state, PostmarketOS seems like they have the best OS when it comes to actually functioning as a phone when used with the Pinephone. Calls work out of the box and APN settings are easy to configure as well. It also provides a smooth experience on the Pinephone. This should be your number 1 option if you plan on actually using the Pinephone as a phone, regardless of your other needs. The issue with installing apps should be fixed though as installing apps through a terminal is much more of a pain than it is on a desktop.
I do want to mention that the PMOS team recommends that you build an image for your device yourself. I instead used a pre-built image which may have affected some of my issues with it.
After everything is said and done, I have decided that I will stick with Mobian moving forward on my Pinephone. To me, Mobian provided the best overall experience. My biggest issue with it was that calls were still not working. While it's a major issue, it leads to my final conclusion.
Linux smartphones are the future, but they're not the present.
I am absolutely amazed at the progress that the FOSS community has made towards creating a totally open and freedom respecting smartphone experience. As a whole, we are so close to having a fairly complete system where I could realistically see myself using a Pinephone as my daily driver, albeit with a significant downgrade in my overall convenience.
I do believe even as little as a year from now, we could see the Pinephone become much more usable as a daily driver. If you're curious about the experience yourself or if you'd like to have a secondary device on hand, do yourself a favor, buy a Pinephone, and install either Mobian or PostmarketOS. If you're planning on ditching your current phone, especially if you use a lot of proprietary services, I'd wait a little bit longer. If you can't wait, consider buying a device compatible with LineageOS for a more private / freedom respecting device, even if it isn't a perfect solution.
I feel like I've written enough at this point, so I'll stop here. If you'd like a follow up of me trying to setup / customize / personalize my Mobian based Pinephone please let me know. My goal will be to fully setup and find solutions needed to make the Pinephone that much closer to daily driver status. I'll also try to comment more on the state of apps available for common services and how well they work.
Bonus Section: FreeTube Experience
I don't know how much I'll be spreading around this review, but this section is more of a bonus for the users that read this blog a bit more often.
For those of you that are new here (and you might have guessed from the review), I am the main developer for FreeTube. FreeTube is an open source YouTube client for Windows, Mac, and Linux that focuses on privacy centric features such is being able to subscribe without an account as well as not having your views tracked by YouTube. One of my main reasons for purchasing a Pinephone was so that I could keep an eye on the state of FreeTube on the device as well as debug any problems that may end up coming around in this new ecosystem.
Throughout this entire process, I tested with the upcoming rewrite and not the live release. I am in the process of rewriting the entire app from scratch to introduce better coding practices as well as better optimizations to the app compared to the live app. This rewrite also focuses on expanding the availability of FreeTube by providing a web version as well as a new UI that is able to provide a much better mobile experience.
This section will go over my experience with trying out FreeTube as is so that I can see what changes need to be made so that the experience on the PinePhone can be as pleasant as possible.
Because of the restrictive nature of Ubuntu Touch, I couldn't even get FreeTube installed on the device. Having said that, I am in the process of making sure that FreeTube functions as a progressive web app, so there shouldn't be any issues with it running once that effort is finished. I expect to see FreeTube in their OpenStore once I am finished with the rewrite.
I was able to get FreeTube installed on PostmarketOS, however I couldn't get it to run. I couldn't figure out what the problem was. I'm also not very familiar with Alpine Linux so I'm not sure if that had anything to do with it. If you'd like to help with debugging this and maybe figuring out what's wrong, I publish both x64 and ARM builds for Alpine Linux over at the GitHub Actions page of the FreeTube repository. Feel free to download the latest build and let me know if you were able to get it working. If you had to make some tweaks, feel free to send a PR and we can get this working upstream.
KDE Neon and Mobian
The experience on KDE Neon and Mobian were identical, so there isn't a need to separate these two.
FreeTube actually installs and works! During installation of the .deb file, I also had to do
sudo apt --fix-broken install to fix some dependancy issues, but other than that every installs with no issues.
Actually running FreeTube in it's current state is very mixed though. Upon startup, the app doesn't fill the whole screen. There isn't anything that can be done as a user either. This is something that I believe I can fix by forcing the app to be full screen.
Video playback works just fine. Full screening the video also works however the video controls stay hidden and the OS UI is hidden as well so it essentially soft locks the phone unable to do anything else until the user restarts their device.
Using the keyboard is completely unusable. Key presses don't reflect what's actually registered within the app which makes it extremely difficult to try and search for anything. You can paste text from another app as a work around but this obviously isn't a real solution. I tested a different Electron app and it had the same problem, so it doesn't seem like it's something that I can fix myself.
Some of the UI elements still don't size properly and forces some horizontal scrolling. I don't consider this ideal and is something I will be looking at fixing.
FreeTube Final Thoughts
All in all, FreeTube is actually somewhat functional on the Pinephone, with no special modifications needed to make it work. There's obviously a lot of work that needs to be done in order for it to be usable but the fact that it works is pretty awesome. I will be working hard to make sure that FreeTube stays a pleasant experience on mobile just like it is on desktop.
That seems to be everything I wanted to talk about. I'm usually available to talk and answer any questions about the Pinephone if you'd like to reach out. I can be reached at the following platforms:
Mastodon Matrix Reddit Email (firstname.lastname@example.org)
You can learn more about FreeTube and the rewrite at their respective links:
Website GitHub (Live Release) GitHub (Rewrite)
I hope this review has helped someone out on their thoughts on the Pinephone. If you enjoyed this content, please let me know and I might do more of this in the future.