The PinePhone is an inexpensive smartphone designed to run free and open source operating systems including postmarketOS, Ubuntu Touch, Mobian, Sailfish, and Manjaro.
Pine64 began shipping the first version of the phone at the start of this year, and since then the company has offered several additional batches of phones, often involving “Community Edition” versions that come pre-loaded with a specific operating system and with the logo for that OS on the back of the device. Some of the purchase price of the phone also goes to the developers of that OS.
The latest batch to ship is the PinePhone postmarketOS Community Edition phone, and after placing an order for one of these phones about a month ago, I received my device today.
The unit I ordered is the Convergence Pack model that sells for $200 plus shipping fees. For $50 more than the price of a basic PinePhone, I chose this model because it has twice as much built-in storage, 50-percent more RAM, and comes with a Convergence Dock – a USB-C dongle that allows you to connect an external display, keyboard, mouse, or other accessories and use this Linux phone like a Linux desktop. The dock even has an Ethernet port.
I’ve only spent a few minutes playing around with postmarketOS, but it seems like a reasonably well thought-out operating system. Under the hood, it’s clearly a GNU/Linux distribution with a terminal emulator and open source software including the Firefox web browser. But the user interface has been designed for touchscreen devices.
There are some quirks: for example, you can tap the top of the screen to open up a menu for quick access to wireless, screen rotation, brightness, and volume settings, among other thing. But it won’t go away until you tap the top of the screen again, so it persists if you start scrolling, switching apps, or doing anything else.
In the first hour of using the phone, I also had the OS crash and close all the apps a few times, and it takes longer for applications to launch than I’m used to on a modern smartphone. Scrolling and zooming in Firefox was also rather slow.
But as a $150 – $200 device aimed at developers and early adopters, the PinePhone makes it easy to see that there’s a lot of potential in the idea of a Linux phone that runs something other than Android or iOS. And that doesn’t just mean you have to wait for a new version with faster hardware.
The PinePhone is an unlocked device that can be customized. The version of postmarketOS that came pre-installed is using the phosh user interface that was originally developed by Purism for the Librem 5 smartphone. But you can change any settings or replace the UI with something else if you’d like. And if you want to try a different operating system, there’s nothing stopping you.
In fact, the PinePhone can boot from a microSD card, so you don’t even need to replace postmarketOS to try a different Linux distribution. You can even try a multi-boot image that allows you to choose from as many as 13 different Linux distros when you power up the phone. I’m looking forward to giving that a try.
Unlike most modern smartphones, the PinePhone also has a headphone jack, a removable battery, and physical switches that allow you to disable the cameras, WiFi and Bluetooth, modem, or headphone jack.