I faced a purchasing dilemma recently: to buy a mosquito tent for the back deck, on sale for $99 at Canadian Tire, or to purchase a Linux laptop for the same price. Being by nature a geek, I don’t spend a lot of time outdoors so I opted for the laptop.
I must admit I was curious about how much laptop $99 would buy. My main laptop is a svelt, nicely appointed Macbook Air that cost several multiples of $99 and it’s the kind of machine you take good care of and hope nobody ever steals. What I wanted was a cheap laptop that was lightweight but capable of being a portable writing machine that I could schlep around comfortably but not worry too much about accident or theft. Plus I really love the Linux operating system.
A bit of background. You can’t go to a store to check out the Pinebook. Instead you have to take a leap of faith, filling out a request to purchase from Pine64.org and when they have enough orders, they make up a new batch of the machines that they ship to purchasers upon completion. Pine64 is a Chinese company that caters to the maker crowd and it sells little system boards, similar to the Raspberry Pi, and other parts for maker projects. Wrapping up these parts and enclosing them in a cheap case with keyboard and touchpad is a stroke of brilliance.
It turns out that you get quite a bit of bang for your buck, including the Quad-Core ARM Cortex A53 64-Bit Processor used in the popular PINE A64 Single Board Computer, 2GB memory, 16GB internal storage, internal wifi and bluetooth adapters, 2 USB slots, Micro-SD card slot, earphone jack, HDMI output, 1080p resolution 11.6" screen, built-in camera and speakers, keyboard and touchpad in an attractive eggshell white case, and powered by a 5-volt adapter. The weight is just under 2 pounds. It arrives with Linux installed, using a Debian-derived version of the KDE Plasma interface. There are other distributions of Linux that have been customized for the Pinebook should you have a different preference.
My interest in the laptop is mainly its functionality as a portable writing device — something a little more convenient than an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard, especially when travelling by commuter train into the city and back. It isn’t necessary for it to be a speed demon or have massive storage. Here’s what I found.
The keyboard, as you can imagine for the price, is not a high-end keyboard. Its feel is just adequate and it’s large enough allow fumble-free touch typing. If you type too fast you can get keyboard bounce causing extra characters to be emitted by the keys. Typing at steady, moderate pace seems to work fine.
The real downside of the keyboard is its layout, which must have been an afterthought by a designer having a very bad day. The shift keys are tiny and easy to miss. To save space the apostrophe and double-quote characters require the function key to be depressed as Fn — and Shift-Fn — on the minus key. Given how often the apostrophe and quotes are needed by a writer, this is a huge design gaffe. More on this later.
The KDE Plasma interface is pleasant looking and modern, but would never be my first choice for this machine. It’s too heavy for the resources of the machine and takes a long time to boot. More on this later as well.
The machine comes loaded with basic programs such as the Firefox web browser and the LibreOffice office suite including word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, and database program. Firefox struggles with the system memory limitations making it sluggish to use. I didn’t use LibreOffice Writer much but it felt stable. Wifi connected easily and felt like a moderately fast connection when downloading software. My external USB mouse worked perfectly.
All in all, I find the whole package remarkable, for the price. It is usable at a minimalist level.
I don’t use word processors myself, preferring to stick to plain-text editors for all my writing. I use Markdown notation (see my free how-to ebook Markdown for Writers) for italic or bold, block quotes or web links. The included visual text editor, KWrite, is peppy on the Pinebook and it offers Markdown support.
Not being a big fan of KDE I installed the lighter-weight XFCE as an alternative windows manager and relogged into that. Because it consumes less memory, the system felt much snappier. You can install XFCE by typing
$ sudo apt update
$ sudo apt install xfce4
Browsing on the Pinetop requires patience because both Firefox and Chromium have a sluggish response time. This may be a problem with the OS, the wifi adapter, or just that both of these browsers are on the bloated side.
So, all in all, I’d say that the Pinebook just ekes it out as a writing machine. The keyboard is the biggest weakness of the system. Someone wanting an inexpensive writing machine might be better off spending a little more for a Chromebook with its superior keyboard layout and its general simplicity.
However, if you have a techie streak and like to tinker, the Pinebook is an engaging unit, despite its eccentricities — and in my opinion, it’s a lot more fun than a mosquito tent.