Dylan Burger (Canada)
I love Pine64. I love how they are making quality hardware available for reasonable prices, I love how the community shapes their decision making and the degree to which they communicate with me as an end user. At the moment I own both a Pinephone and a Pinebook Pro and the build quality on these items relative to the price is just amazing. I will 100% be buying more Pine64.
I purchased my Pinebook Pro (PBP) in August of last year. I needed a laptop for my daughter’s online schooling and I decided to buy a PBP instead of a low-end chromebook. When my daughter returned to in-person schooling later in the fall I claimed it as my own.
As stated above, I think that the Pine64 hardware is simply outstanding. It makes me wonder what they could do for $1000. However I find that the software options have yet to catch up to the hardware. That’s not to complain, I knew that I was purchasing a work-in-progress when I ordered my PBP and the developers are constantly improving things. However in the past 6 months I must admit that I have found myself looking forward to the day when the software catches up to the hardware.
When it comes to evaluating a distro for the Pinebook Pro it is not as simple as on a conventional x86 system. The system uses UBoot instead of UEFI/Grub and it is built on ARM architecture. This means that you have to write the image directly to your eMMC or to an SD Card (the PBP can boot off of either with the SD card superseding eMMC when loaded). Essentially the process of loading a distribution more closely resembles the process for a Raspberry Pi than a conventional laptop or desktop PC.
My typical distro testing process (for PBP) is as follows: I boot into my main driver running off of my eMMC. Then I use GNOME Disks to “restore disk image” on a microSD card. From there I boot off of my microSD card into the new distribution (going through the installation steps such as time zone and user name/password on first boot). If I really like the new distribution then I will install to my eMMC. For that I use GNOME Disks while I am running off of microSD to “restore disk image” onto my eMMC . There are certainly other approaches to getting a distribution onto your PBP (the Pine64 forums are quite good for advising on this) but this process has worked quite well for me.
The ARM architecture, small-ish user base and relatively recent release also means that there are fewer distro options available. In particular there is no “official” Ubuntu release (although there is a community build of 20.04 and the reasonably good Armbian releases rely on Ubuntu). Sadly that means no Linux Mint Cinnamon (my first choice Distro)), or Lubuntu (second choice distro)for me.
Because my top choice distributions are not available I have been searching for an offering that I can use as a daily driver for the entirety of my PBP ownership. At this point I have tried every distro image listed on the Software Release Page at least once. I always manage to find an issue (either major or minor) that keeps me searching. However I recently installed Manjaro ARM 21.02 (MATE version) on my Pinebook Pro and I think that my search for a daily driver may be over. Here are some thoughts on Manjaro Mate for the Pinebook Pro and how it compares to some of my other experiences.
My system initially shipped with Manjaro KDE 20.04. This was sufficiently functional to get my daughter started in her online schooling. It looked professional with a nice Splash screen and background options but I hate KDE and in particular the Manjaro take on KDE. It was a large amount of work to get everything to look and work well for a grade 3 student (i.e. really simple). But my biggest problem with Manjaro 20.04 was that I had an update completely wreck my system . I reported the bug and booted from SD to reflash with Manjaro XFCE 20.04 but about a week later I ran into the same problem.
I then switched to the Fedora 32 Community build because at the time it was the only offering that had the Cinnamon DE. This allowed my daughter to get through her schooling without any further stability issues and I continued to run this until January without any major complications. I did have two issues with Fedora. First, the fact that it was a community build showed through (i.e. no splash screen, limited background etc…). I suspect that this will be addressed if and when the official release comes available (there was some talk about this with Fedora 33 but I haven’t seen any update on this in quite some time). The bigger issue for me, and the one that pushed me to try other options, was the fact that the Fedora build uses DNFdragora as a package and update manager. DNFdragora was SLOW; by far the slowest update process I have ever had for any distribution on x86, RPi, or Pinebook Pro. It is also extremely difficult to browse/search for software. To me this is significant because the PBP is ARM-based. Since not all software is available for ARM architecture, I often find myself looking for alternative programs and DNFdragora makes this challenging.
So in February when Manjaro released their latest offering for the Pinebook Pro I was excited to have a fresh look. The big news for me with this release was that Manjaro added a Mate offering in addition to the KDE and XFCE versions that had been available. XFCE and KDE are my two least favourite desktop environments so having MATE as an option was extremely welcome news. I am still holding out hope that they will eventually offer Cinnamon or LXQT, however Mate is a DE that I quite like and am comfortable with.
My PBP is essentially as originally ordered. The only modification is that I purchased the 128 GB eMMC to replce the stock 64 GB (it is a simple install that just snaps into place). I also have the NVME adaptor and for a time I had a 256 GB NVME drive installed as well but I found it to be too taxing on the battery and eventually removed it. One of the nice things about the Manjaro release on PBP is that it is an official release designed specifically for PBP. As such I have had no hardware compatibility issues whatsoever. Mind you the only peripheral I have used is a wireless mouse.
My User Experience
My first impression of Manjaro Mate 21.02 was that it was far and away the most polished distribution available for Pinebook Pro. The splash screen looks smoother than the previous iteration and the background options are visually appealing. The menu system is familiar and everything works well.
Setup (i.e. language selection, keyboard layout, region and user details) went smoothly and I was able to get my VPN up and running (a common roadblock with other PBP distros) on first boot. I have been able to run my typical compliment of software: Remmina, Plank, Telegram, Chromium, Shotcut, LibreOffice and Evolution Mail without a single issue over several weeks. I’m particularly happy to have LibreOffice running smoothly as in the previous version of Manjaro (and a handful of other distros) I have had display issues (phantom text disapperances/reappearances). Another issue that I have had with other distros (notably OpenSuse) is with the touchpad sensitivity and button recognition but, again, this has been issue free in Manjaro 21.02.
I also can’t say enough about Pacmac as the package manager. It is loaded with every (ARM-compatible) software you could possibly need, has an intuitive interface with rapid installation and updating. It is on par with the best software centres/package managers that I have used and really makes Manjaro accessible. My primary goal for this system is stability so I am still a little leary about using a rolling release but I’ve had almost two months worth of issue-free use thus far.
From a resource perspective, Manjaro Mate runs fairly lean. The PBP has 4 GB of RAM and at rest it uses about 550 MB. With LibreOffice and two browser windows open it goes up to 1.1 GB. This is fairly similar to my experience with Mate-based distros on my x86 systems and leaves plenty of resources for more intensive use. When my daughter was using Google Meet alongside Classroom there was the occasional frameskip but the sound was smooth and there was no mouse lag.
If you run into issues with Manjaro on PBP, finding help is fairly easy. Those used to a Ubuntu-based distro on x86 architecture may find the material limited but when you consider the PBP specifically then I would put Manjaro at the top of the list. The Pine64 forums have a fairly active base of users who are extremely supportive. There is also a Pine64 podcast “PineTalk” that just started. The focus is more often on the PinePhone and the hosts are developing but new users may still find some nuggets in the episodes. Outside of Pine64 the Manjaro forums are filled with people who are quick to respond and supportive although I personally hate how they are structured. Finally, to avoid hate mail I will add “there is always the Arch Wiki”.
The Pinebook Pro is really an excellent piece of hardware that deserves a distribution that can fully realize its potential. My first choice for any system would be Ubuntu-based; and that may eventually be an option now that Ubuntu has an ARM distribution for the Raspberry Pi. But in the meantime the new Manjaro is a smooth and polished distribution that solves all of the major issues I have had to date. It is a no doubt daily driver for a system that didn’t really have such an option until now.