Initial review of some PinePhone OS options
So, much to my delight, my PinePhone arrived earlier this week, and I am happy to report that it is a perfect phone on every level. Wouldn't that be nice to say? Unfortunately it isn't true. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done, but don't let that fool you; the device is still fun and impressive. I have spent the last few days playing with it and trying different distros. The main goal of this post is to give a breif review of the main distros I have tried, and then give a general overview of the PinePhone experience.
I don't have a sim that will work with the PinePhone, and I have yet to spend extensive time with any given distro. This is all written with those to points in mind. When I have spent more time on these two topics I plan to write follow up posts.
Also of note: I won't be giving any kind of number score since I think that using numbers to describe something subjective and not objectively measurable is not as effective as simply describing experiences.
Manjaro with KDE Plasma
This is the distro that was installed with the phone, and the one I have spent the most time on. Overall, I think that it is passable (as far as mobile linux distros go). I would like to see improvements to the UI in terms of it's responsiveness and its speed. The UI could at times be choppy during animations, and I sometimes found myself needing to press things twice. However, the overall vision of the UI is one of the best in my opinion. Everything felt very natural; it just needs to be optimized a bit more. The choppiness did decrease a bit after all updates are installed, so I am hopeful it will continue to improve with updates.
I do want to note three other issues I had. When opening the terminal application installed on the phone, the keyboard was perpetually open, blocking my ability to close the application, go to the home screen, or switch to a different application. The only way I could consistently exit is by actually typing "exit" in the terminal. Maybe that is intentional, but I don't like it. What if I need to kill the terminal but something is running, preveneting me from typing any commands? The second issue was simply a lack of selection in the installed app store. This could be at least somewhat remedied by having pacman available in the terminal, but I think this gets to a larger issue that I will talk about towards the end of this post. Most other distros were better, but not by that much. The third issue I had was with certain applications not fitting on the screen. I am not talking about applications inteded to be run on a desktop. I mean apps that are supposed to run on a phone. This could be due to the apps and not the distro or DE, but I think applications should be forced to fit on the screen in this kind of environment.
Manjaro/Mobian with Phosh
Phosh was rather similar to KDE Plasma. The one thing it has above KDE Plasma is that it is much quicker and less choppy. It was difficult to adjust to the more tap focused interface, as opposed to the gesture and swiping focused Plasma (and android). Applications were a little better than on Plasma, but not by much. On the Manjaro version I couldn't even run updates, which was frustrating. Overall I had fewer issues on Phosh, but I think the design of KDE Plasma is better.
PostmarketOS with fbkeyboard
I had never heard of this until I found it on the image I installed that had many distros, but I found it really interesting. From what I could gather in my short time with it, it is essentially just the tty with a persistent keyboard to use. I don't think this could be used my anybody as a phone, but definetely is an interesting concept. I bet the battery life on it is specatcular. ;)
It just didn't boot :(
This is the distro I am most pleased with, which makes sense due to it being one of the oldest mobile linux projects. It ran smoothly. It looks nice. It seems to have the most applications. The applications run well. It is really impressive, and gives you a glimpse into the future of linux on mobile.
All of that said, it is not without its flaws. I found the interface very uncomfortable to navigate, especially with just my right hand. I would have preferred some kind of home button somewhere on the screen, or at least some kind of alternative to swiping from the right to open the app tray. I also tried to install a game which would crash on startup. That may just be due to the modest specs of the PinePhone, but I thought it was worth noting.
This is probably the most interesting distro, especially since I am a pretty die-hard DWM user. It is radically different from any of the other distros, but also feels the most like linux to me. The controls were probably the most difficult to get used to, but if I spent enough time with it, I think I could get used to them. I didn't like the software keyboard it used, and the touch gestures it boasted on its website wouldn't work no matter what I tried, but I was able to successfully navigate with only it's unique volume and power button controls.
If you like suckless or minimalist software, I suggest checking it out. I will definetely be following its development and spending more time with it.
The state of linux on mobile is really exciting. I feel like it is just on the cusp of becoming generally usable. All of the distros seem on track to only get better. I would argue, if you have a high enough tolerance, they are all pretty usable today. As the hardware of linux phones, and the software of distros and DEs improve, there is still one area I worry about: applications. The hardware can be great, the distros can be great, but without good applications, linux on mobile will still struggle. It won't work to just try and run desktop applications. Mobile applications need new interfaces and to be optimised for mobile hardware. It would go a long way if the mobile web browsing experience could be improved. I have yet to find a linux mobile web browser that I think truly works well. The Ubuntu Touch browser might be the best. I hope to try and contribute to this issue and write applications for the PinePhone (Mastodon client maybe?). Overall, we are in an exciting time for linux on mobile. The sun is rising over the horizon, but we still have a ways to go.
If you want to comment on this post, or contact me in general, feel free to contact me on Mastodon. :)