A smartphone based on Linux is possible. Pine64 in 2020 came up with a modest but interesting PinePhone, and now renews that model with the PinePhone Pro.
This new device is clearly more powerful, but still stands out for having Linux preinstalled thanks to its Manjaro ARM distribution with the Plasma Mobile interface. Even more striking are its privacy switches, which allow you to physically disable sections such as the modem, microphone or cameras.
A smartphone made by and for Linuxers
The PinePhone Pro’s spec sheet isn’t going to win any power battles. Even cheaper Android devices far outperform this smartphone in almost all areas, but the PinePhone Pro is a different bet.
Still the difference with the previous model is remarkable, and we have a CPU with six cores (two more powerful, four more efficient) accompanied by 4 GB of RAM.
The Rockchip SoC seems to be manufactured in 28 nm, a lithography that is certainly obsolete for the rest of the market, but which proves to be able to continue fighting. As indicated in Ars Technica, this chip could be equated to the Snapdragon 618/650 of 2016, which makes it clear that we are facing a discrete performance.
The screen is not spectacular either (720p at 60 Hz), and the cameras probably can only get us out of trouble, but here again the bet is to offer a mobile in which Linux can demonstrate that it is viable.
In fact, Pine64 warns that “contemporary Linux mobile systems are still far from being considered true alternatives to Android or iOS”. Even so, they stress that the PinePhone Pro is powerful enough to become the cell phone of any user “if you are able to accept the current software limitations”.
These limitations are clear in terms of the range of applications, much smaller than Android or iOS, and even the version of Manjaro ARM with Plasma Mobile is not entirely stable and they qualify it as “pre-Beta”.
Everything on the PinePhone Pro is clearly geared towards Linux enthusiasts and developers who are comfortable with this ecosystem, but the best part of the phone is in a small section on the back.
If you remove the plastic rear casing -with your fingers, no screws- you will find the real star of this phone, which is none other than the control it gives its users.
In a small section above the battery compartment are the privacy switches, a series of small physical switches that allow you to enable or disable different elements of the mobile so that we can protect all kinds of sensitive information and connectivity.
Thus, we have switches for the modem (which also disables GPS), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, the microphone, the rear camera, the front camera and even the headphone jack. Access to this “panel” is immediate, and it certainly offers interesting options for those who want to take advantage of it.
The surprises, by the way, do not end there. On top of that mini-panel are six small metal contacts, the Pogo pins that give access to another of the PinePhone Pro’s striking ideas: the modular cases.
One of the most striking features of the PinePhone Pro is the possibility of adding functions through various casings. It is not a modular cell phone to use, but it is able to have new options thanks to accessories of the most original.
In fact Pine64 has created not only this accessory, but others such as the physical keyboard that allows you to use this phone in an even more striking way. The keyboard ($49.99) has interchangeable keys to adapt them to each language, as well as integrating an additional 6,000 mAh battery to extend the life of the device even further.
Another available accessory is the Pinedio housing with a LoRa module that is used in IoT products and allows devices to be interconnected to decentralized networks using technologies such as The Things Network or Helium.
The last of the accessories is the case that allows you to add wireless charging via the Qi standard, and offers that option with a charging speed of 5W.
The bad thing about those accessories is that one has to choose between one and the other: it is not possible to have a case that combines those options, but they are still an interesting feature of this Linux-based mobile.
Price and availability of the PinePhone Pro
The new PinePhone Pro that was announced in October is now available for purchase, and although its recommended retail price is $599 its creators are offering it with a promotional price of $399.