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A look at Pine64: Pinetime

One of the more challenging choices I face as I move further into open source is what to do for hardware needs. I always start with the goal of supporting community driven companies that work together with the linux and open source community. However often this goal often encounters obstacles and I have to admit that I’m not always successful. For one thing, such companies are often small or regional so they don’t necessarily ship to all locations and if they do shipping costs can be prohibitive. The cost of the hardware can also be a barrier: I quite like the idea of the Librem phone but can’t bring myself to pay that much for what might not be a daily driver. Finally, even if you can overcome these barriers, availability can become an issue.

That’s not to say that there aren’t success stories: The Raspberry Pi is undoubtedly one such hardware success. Pine64 is arguably another success story and a company that I have been particularly engaged with. Their products are generally available, they ship everywhere, and they sell their products at very reasonable prices in an effort to increase uptake and promote development. That being said, “development” is an important point to stress because Pine64 products are developmental and not intended as production-ready. So there can be (to varying degrees) some extra effort compared to more expensive, closed commercially available counterparts.

So how do these products stack up? Well most reviews out there are overwhelmingly positive online. In my experience, it depends on the item. In this series I am going to take a look at Pine64 products, providing my personal experiences with the hardware that I own. We will finish with an overview of upcoming products.

PINETIME

I am going to start with the least expensive Pine64 product that I own, the Pinetime watch. You can find the product and purchase info here: https://www.pine64.org/pinetime/

Below is an image of my Pinetime with a 20 mm replacement watch band that I got off Amazon. For what it is worth, the watch ships with a decent rubber band that is on-par with the default Fitbit bands, I just prefer an elastic band. As you can see the Pinetime is a square watch with a 240 x 240 touchscreen colour display and a single button on the left. On the back are the charging contacts (the pinetime charges using a tray which you can see in the second picture), and the heart rate sensor.

For a $27 watch, I was very surprised by the build quality. This will be a recurring theme in discussing Pine64 products: their products always have a premium look and feel which belies their price point. In the case of the Pinetime, the watch is much closer in quality to my Fitbit Versa 3 than one of those low cost watches that you find on Amazon in the under $50 range (my wife has owned several). In terms of features, the Pine64 store notes “a heart rate monitor, a week-long battery, and a capacitive touch IPS display that is legible in direct sunlight”. There is lift to wake, step counting, and push notifications via Bluetooth as well. Most features that one would expect out of a low to medium end smartwatch are present.

OS/Firmware

In terms of firmware/OS, there are really two options to consider at the moment.

The most common choice (and the one that ships on the watch) is Infinitime. This is a feature-rich OS with an intuitive interface that I am very much a fan of. If offers some basic styling options (3 choices of watchface), a stopwatch and timer which work quite well. There are also media controls for your phone (which in my hands could use some work), and a navigation interface (paired with the companion app- I have not really tested this). Infinitime also ships with two games: a Pong clone and a 2048 clone. The best part about Infinitime is that development is highly active and the OS is constantly improving. Since I bought my watch in June there have been 6 updates and each of these has been meaningful. For example, the addition of an alarm clock or improvements to touchscreen sensitivity. There still are small things that could use improvement (one particular issue I have right now is that call notifications don’t cancel when handled by the phone) but this is logged and the developers have been incredibly responsive to feedback. I expect this will be addressed soon and in the meantime I find things to be quite functional for daily use.

The other OS that is advanced in its development is Wasp-OS. This is also a feature-rich option that is well developed and I have to say that it is a worthy option. For quite a while it was my OS of choice, as it was initially more responsive and offered an alarm feature first. The documentation is also really excellent. While I have since switched to Infinitime, Wasp-OS does still offer some appealing unique features including a calculator and the ability to choose which applications are enabled and visible on the screen. When I used Wasp-OS, my only complaint was that it had a habit of crashing once every couple of days. When the watch did crash then it would desynchronize and I would have to re-pair the watch. I will stress that I haven’t used this in quite some time, so things may have improved, but as best I can tell there hasn’t been any developmental progress in quite some time.

The good news, of course, is that things are open and you are free to switch between these OS’s and decide for yourself. There is a decent guide to switching between Wasp-OS and Infinitime on the Pine64 Wiki

Companion Applications:

Like other smart watches, syncing of the time and date and updating is done through a companion app that you run on either your phone or your desktop. Unlike other smartwatches though, the companion doesn’t need to be tied into an ecosystem controlled by the manufacturer. There is something freeing about being able to sync your watch with open source software that doesn’t force you to create a new account just to view the time. For Pinetime there are several companion apps that are listed in the Wiki. These include: Gadgetbridge (Android), Amazfish (Linux) Siglo (Linux), PinetimeFlasher (Windows) nRFConnect (iOS and android) InfiniLink (iOS).

I personally use Gadgetbridge and am able to easily load the software and updates, update the time/date, and enable push notifications with it. I find it quite functional. There were initially issues with loss of bluetooth connection over time, but these have been fixed with the most recent updates to Infinitime.

I have also tried nRFConnect (was able to load the software easily and update time/date with some difficulty) as well as Siglo (I wasn’t able to get this to work when I tried 6 months ago). The best instructions I have found for using the companion apps with Pinetime are on the Infinitime Github page.

User Experience

So I have used this watch daily for about 6 months now and I am extremely happy with it. The watch is a good size and a comfortable fit with the stock band. With my after-market band I barely even notice it on my arm. The screen of very good quality and is visible outdoors even in direct sunlight. I can confirm that the watch is water resistant as well, although I do not regularly push this. In terms of basic functions, the watch is fantastic. The touchscreen is really responsive with very little lag. The stopwatch and timer functions in Infinitime are intuitive and easy to use and the step counter is quite accurate. Battery life is not quite as good as Pine64 claims, but still excellent in my opinion. I consistently get about 2-3 days per charge on high brightness and ~4 days on low. The lift to wake gesture is just the right sensitivity in my opinion. The watch doesn’t wake spontaneously, nor do I have to repeat the gesture due to lack of sensitivity. Using gadgetbridge the push notifications are nearly immediate and extremely convenient.

All-in-all I am very happy with the watch and have gone on to buy additional watches for my children (who had been stealing mine).

The one issue at the moment is the heart rate monitor which is quite variable. Sometimes I get an accurate reading, but most of the time it skips around and gives unreasonable values (i.e. 10 bpm or 180 bpm at rest). I am not sure if this is a software issue (i.e. might improve over time) or a hardware issue (where it wouldn’t) but it was true for both Infinitime and Wasp-OS. For me this isn’t a major issue. If I wanted to track fitness then I’d get a blood pressure watch such as the Omron HeartGuide rather than a $25 smart watch. Nevertheless, if a heart rate monitor is important to you then Pinetime is probably not quite ready to meet your needs.

Final thoughts

One of the best things about Pinetime is the fact that it is open. Not being tied down to Apple, Samsung, or Fitbit is the key reason why I purchased my Pinetime. It is the first usable smartwatch that I have owned that doesn’t require excessive personal data and with the open source model I don’t have to worry about cancelled updates or forced upgrades to incrementally better products 2 years on.

Given the price point, I would say that this watch is an absolute no brainer purchase. It is stylish, well made and the software is extremely functional now (and constantly improving). This really isn’t a developmental product at this point, it is just a watch that I put on and don’t have to think about.

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