I’ve become a proud PinePhone owner a few days ago. This is an open and privacy-respecting alternative to Apple-Google duopoly in the smartphone market. This phone is capable of running mainline Linux kernel, which makes it not that different from a typical Linux desktop.
Most of the Linux distributions have certain assumptions about your screen size as well as the availability of a keyboard, mouse, trackpad and other input devices. Now that we have Linux smartphones, we still need to make those distributions aware of mobile screens and touch input methods. That’s exactly why I didn’t expect PinePhone to be usable as a daily driver.
It turned out, a lot of the heavy lifting has been already done by a diverse group of mobile Linux enthusiasts. In fact, many popular Linux distributions work pretty well on PinePhone. Let’s start with the basics: phones should be able to make and receive calls and they’re also expected to handle SMS messages. PinePhone already does it pretty well, although it still lacks MMS support, and it’s unknown if it’s able to receive emergency broadcasts. I never used MMS, so I don’t care about it. Being able to receive an emergency broadcast is something I expect from a daily driver phone, but we’ll have to wait for the next few emergencies to find out if those broadcasts will arrive.
Basic phone stuff is cool, but what about touchscreen support? There are two popular touch-enabled mobile shells available:
Phosh is based on GTK, a popular Linux widget toolkit. It does a good job at adapting desktop GNOME experience to smartphone screens and it also supports touch input. Plasma mobile is KDE-based, and I didn’t try it yet. The screenshots look pretty good, though. These two projects did a lot of heavy lifting in order to bridge the gap between traditional Linux desktops and Linux smartphones such as PinePhone.
Having basic phone functions and a touch interface is essential but there are a lot of other things that work a bit different on smartphones. Here are a few examples:
- Power consumption. There is a huge room for improvement.
- GPS. Figuring out device location and keeping it up to date isn’t as easy as it may sound.
- Alarms. Yes, it’s actually a surprisingly complex thing to implement, and it’s not working yet. Desktop computers aren’t used as alarm clocks that often, so it’s a new use case that needs to be implemented. Don’t rely on PinePhone if you don’t want to miss your alarms!
As you can see, PinePhone is still work in progress. It’s usable, and it’s pleasant to use, but you have to know its quirks. All of its hardware components work great, and you can easily replace them if something goes wrong. As usual, the software has to catch up with the hardware in order for PinePhone to be accessible to non-techies. I’m pretty sure I will be able to recommend such a phone to users without Linux knowledge in about a year or so.