All of the PinePhone specs, features and build quality are designed to meet a super low price point of just $149. But can a Linux phone this cheap provide a real alternative to Android and iOS devices?
Keep in mind that the PinePhone is aimed at Linux enthusiasts and software developers. These users are best placed to appreciate the device’s combination of privacy-minded open source software and physical hardware kill switches, and (more importantly) be less concerned by any bugs or missing features.
Or to put it another way: the PinePhone is not trying to compete with Samsung’s latest handset, nor those of any other Android OEM. Its ambitions are modest: provide a reliable, open, and hackable (maybe even upgradeable) smartphone platform supported by the mainline Linux kernel.
For more info on this (admittedly exciting) Linux phone, including details on where to buy one, which mobile networks it supports, and the kind of apps it can run, read on!
PinePhone Release Date & Price
The are two questions on everyone’s lips right now. The first is ‘when will the PinePhone be released?’ — but the answer isn’t straightforward.
See, Pine64’s goal is for a general release sometime in 2021, date TBC. The phone will only go on general release when the software is considered ‘good enough’ for most people.
Prior to then you can only buy the PinePhone Beta edition (though an early-adopter version and a series of community editions were available in 2019/2020). As the name implies, the PinePhone Beta edition is loaded with beta-quality software lacking support for core apps and even some hardware features.
The second question people have is “how much is the PinePhone?” — thankfully this answer to this is straightforward!
The PinePhone starts at $149.99. This is the price for the base model, and does not include shipping fees or any taxes which may be applicable in your country.
A more expensive model called the PinePhone ‘Convergence Edition’ is also available. This model has more RAM and storage and is bundled with a USB Type-C dock accessory. It costs from $199.
PinePhone ‘Community Editions’
When looking into Linux phones you’ll find references to PinePhone Community Editions and PinePhone Brave Heart — but what are they?
Or more accurately, what were they, as they are no longer on sale.
The first PinePhone to go on sale was the BraveHeart model in November 2019. A limited run of them were made, and they were sold without an OS pre-loaded. These extra early-bird editions shipped to buyers in January 2020 and many of the hands-on reviews you can find online are based on these models.
There are differences between BraveHeart models and later revisions too. The most significant of these: Brave Heart models cannot connect to an external monitor over USB Type-C.
After the success of Brave Heart came a series of PinePhone ‘Community Editions’.
First up, the PinePhone Ubports Community Edition. It went on sale in May 2020 pre-loaded with Ubuntu Touch. This unit had minor hardware revisions (including revised antenna placement), and, once again, sold out fast.
The second community edition was preloaded with postmarketOS. It went on sale in July 2020. This was the first version of the PinePhone to support video-out over USB Type-C out of the box.
September saw a Manjaro flavoured model go on sale, followed by a Plasma Mobile edition in December 2020.
All Community Edition units are identical in form and feel. They all have the same screen size and case dimensions of 160.5mm x 76.6mm x 9.2mm, and weigh between 180 to 200 grams (without a case).
A Newer, More Powerful Model
In July 2020 Pine64 announced an upgraded PinePhone with 3GB RAM, 32GB internal storage, and support for video-out over USB Type-C.
This increased specs increases the handset price, but only slightly: PinePhone Convergence package costs from $199 and comes bundled with a USB-C docking accessory for connecting external monitors, keyboards, and other peripherals.
Like the Pinebook Pro, the PinePhone is assembled and built in China but can be shipped from China to (almost) any country in the world.
It’s yet to be seen if any resellers for the device will emerge, though. So while you aren’t able to buy the PinePhone in the USA (or Germany, or Sweden, etc) you can buy the phone from those countries and have it sent to you.
Will the PinePhone work on my network?
Unless you’re living somewhere particularly remote there’s a good chance that the PinePhone WILL support your mobile network or operator of choice.
That said, be smart: if you plan to buy a Pinephone make sure to check that the cellular modem/baseband supported by the phone is compatible with your current mobile network provider and/or the frequencies used in the country/s you want to makes calls, send texts, or browse the web in.
This isn’t hard to do:
- Use frequencycheck.com/countries to find your network’s band(s)
- Compare the band(s) you need with the ones listed in this table:
Here’s a concise list:
|LTE||LTE-FDD||B1/ B2/ B3/ B4/ B5/ B7/ B8/ B12/ B13/ B18/ B19/ B20/ B25/ B26/ B28|
|LTE-TDD||B38/ B39/ B40/ B41|
|WCDMA||B1/ B2/ B4/ B5/ B6/ B8/ B19|
|GSM||B2/ B3/ B5/ B8|
For example, my mobile network in the UK GiffGaff who use the o2 network. The bands O2 use for LTE (aka 4G) are B3 and B20. Both of these are supported by the modem used in the PinePhone meaning, hurrah, I can pop my SIM in and make/receive calls, texts, and data.
Pinephone vs Purism Librem 5
If you’re looking in Linux phones then you’ll know that the PinePhone isn’t on its own. Purism’s Librem 5 is the other “big name” in the room.
The Librem 5 is a bespoke device. It cuts fewer technical corners than the PinePhone does (for better or worse) and uses desktop class components which aren’t designed for a phone form factor (for better or worse).
It’s also more expensive — a lot more expensive — and based on reports from community developers it may not get as many mobile Linux operating systems ported to it as Pine64’s cost-friendly offering.
There are commonalities though.
Both Linux phones pitch themselves as a privacy-conscious devices with hardware kill switches and hardware that open source enthusiasts, developers and early-adopters can build on.
Both phones use proprietary ROM firmware in baseband (though Purism load it with a FOSS driver) and in the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth too (though these are separate boards in the Librem 5).
As neither Pinephone or the Librem 5 is currently on general sale (at the time of writing) and given that neither has a “stable” software stack to speak of, it’s too early to post any firm performance comparisons about the devices.
Operating System Support
Pine64 is designed to run a variety of different Linux-based mobile operating systems. The one considered most “feature complete” (and set to ship on the regular release of the handset) is Manjaro ARM with Plasma mobile.
The wider Linux community is also hard at work porting a swathe of other OSes to the device. Regardless of which OS the handset actually ships with you’re free to download, boot and install any OS you choose, both internally and from the phone’s microSD card.
The PinePhone Beta edition ships with Plasma Mobile as its default operating system.
Pine64 sell protective cases custom designed exclusively for the dimensions of the PinePhone. Both hard and flexible silicone cases are available, both with cut outs for the phone’s rear camera.
Branded back covers that bear the logo of various OS projects will, Pine64, say be available to buy in future. A percentage from the sale of branded covers will also go to the respective project — a nice way for phone fans and Pine64 to support the community.
Hardware expansions are also in development. Pogo pins on the actual handset allow a range of third-party accessories to be developed. Wireless charging, a battery case, and even a physical keyboard add-on are being developed.
Finally, as the PinePhone has a removable and replaceable battery (just pop off the back case and slide the battery out) extra batteries are available to buy, as is an external PinePhone battery charger.
Where to Buy a PinePhone
The PinePhone is not yet on “general sale”, but enthusiasts and early adopters can buy the Pinephone Beta edition, pre-loaded with pre-release software. This is available from the Pine64 web store:
These batches are produced in limited runs but shouldn’t be considered “final quality”. They may sport minor differences to the final, finished Pinephone, and will ship with different operating system and software support.
My excitement for the PinePhone is not just because it’s cheap. Like the Pinebook and Pinebook Pro laptops, the PinePhone could help put mobile Linux into the pockets of people who might otherwise have never tried it.
Early adopters should prepare for a “work in process” software experience. Things won’t be super flashy.. Features may be missing. Apps may not be available.
But that’s sort of why this phone is so exciting: it’s a foundation on which various different approaches to mobile computing can be built, all with Linux at their heart.