After my failure with Beepy, and inspired by the SiPeed Lichee Pi4a Console, I figured: Let's see if a micro-laptop is still something my aging self finds useful.

Context

Even with a Linux phone, I've carried my Surface Go 2 with me on most occasions - just like around 2010, when you would rarely find me without my EeePC. I just like the comfort of a semi-fullsized keyboard, a large enough screen. While the Surface Go 2 is a tablet, I rarely use it without the keyboard connected, it's very much my 2020s netbook.1

Long story short: The Surface Go 2 is almost perfect2, but something, that fits into the pants or jacket pocket would be, if still usable enough, even more convenient.

Before buying the SiPeed Console, I figured: Let's try that rarely used PinePhone Pro with the PinePhone Keyboard accessory, which had long been half- defect (the battery part had stopped working). I fortunately had a ordered a replacement mainboard for the keyboard months earlier, and guess what: Exchanging the mainboard was easy enough and fixed the issue. I would finally use two items that had seen way less use than I had hoped for when purchasing.

The PinePhone Keyboard

The Keyboard accessory was first sold on the very last day of 2021, and is an i2c connected keyboard cover featuring a 6000mAh battery. It can be a bit finicky: The PINs do not always fit perfectly on the first try, at least with the OG AllWinner A64 powered PinePhone - I have not had any issues with my PinePhone Pro.

When I first tried it, software support was still problematic: Distributions did not ship a proper keymap yet. I can't really comment how this is right now - DanctNIX does not seem to apply the keymap in my testing, postmarketOS, how ever does so. There's also more than one approach to being able to type each and every character: Ship a keymap, enable a service, and who knows what else.

I also did not like the key travel and general mushiness - I also don't use a mechanical keyboard. I had previously converted a PSION PDA into a PinePhone keyboard3, and it really spoiled me - I still prefer its firm, silent typing experience over the clicky, mushy PinePhone keyboard - YMMV!

The keyboard is also not backlit, and while I am usually a touch typist, which makes this not much of an issue on "normal" keyboards, the non-standard PinePhone Keyboard takes a bit of time to learn and get used to in the dark. Speaking of LEDs: an indicator for charge level of the keyboards battery or at least a charging state LED (does it currently power the phone?) would be really helpful.

Then there was another issue that kept me from using the keyboard: I don't like 16:9 laptops, and PinePhones are even wider at 18:9. Phosh, usually my favorite mobile shell, with its top and bottom bar takes too much of the precious vertical space. Sure, you can somewhat mitigate this by choosing a different scaling factor (1.5, 1.25 or even 1.0), but still - swiping up from the bottom is not much fun with the keyboard attached.

IMHO, Sxmo (with Sway) is a better choice when having a phone - but more on that later.

The PinePhone Pro

Let's talk PinePhone Pro. The PinePhone Pro, announced in October 2021 was supposed to solve the performance issues of the original, AllWinner A64-"powered" PinePhone and deliver a more mainstream compatible, mainline Linux phone.

For (potentially) various reasons, it has not lived up to this promise (yet). Almost two years in, battery life remains abysmal - standby is okay, but don't you browse the web or do something else. I have not conducted measurements, but I think less than two hours of active use battery life is a fair estimate - depending on what you do it may be less - even only 45 minutes.

That said, it's not like there are no laudable developments. To name on example the cameras work with Snapshot and other apps that support the libcamera+pipewire stack.4 Granted, the main camera stops working after the first wake-up from suspend, but still - it's an important achievement, as this also means camera support in Firefox these days and thus video chat.

The surprise

To summarize: I had two things lying around, that both had their deficits. Combined, however, it's a lot better - as a micro laptop, the PinePhone Pro is surprisingly fun and useful.

Now how do I use it?

Let's start with the use-case. I don't use the device as a phone, but as a LTE-enabled micro-laptop. I decided to use Sxmo (on postmarketOS, at first edge, now v23.12), as I like having a large number of virtual workspaces, and - due to sticking with the default 200% scaling, mostly terminal apps.

Why? Many GUI apps simly don't work well with a screen height of 360 points minus swaybar. In theory, fully adaptive apps (at least for GNOME) should work, but ... I totally get why many don't work on a height of 294 pixels/points.

Also, Sxmo is very convienient when connecting a display and keyboard to the device. It's like your usual tiling desktop PC, only, due to hardware limitations, a tad slower. Virtual workspaces are just nice.

I could go through all the apps I use, but who has the time. Beyond some nice mobile apps, like Warp, Tuba and Authenticator, I use a bunch of terminal apps, including, but not limited to, tut, aerc, vim, and emacs (for Org Mode). In fact, while I am still quite inexperienced and not super effective in emacs and Org Mode, I consider it the killer app of this micro laptop.

I browse the Web with Firefox, made useful by user0 and enhanced by uMatrix and Tridactyl.

Do I need to mention that I don't use this for phone calls?

If you prefer visual things with audio, I recorded a video for you:

Video link: TilVids

1

After the EeePC, a number of ARM-powered Chromebooks, mostly booting Arch Linux ARM served that niche.

2

I keep watching buy-stuff-used websites for an affordable variant of the SF2 Go with 256 GB storage and LTE, and am really disappointed with the Surface Go 4, that has dropped LTE and still is knee-capped with only 8GB of RAM and non-user-upgradable storage, which really killed my initial excitement about seeing the N200 Alder Lake APU instead of Amber Lake Y.

3

See the first seconds of the mid-2021 PinePhone software progress video for a visual. I bought a broken Psion MX 5, and [this adapter on tindie], and cobbled it together. The keyboard is then being connected to the phone via USB-C.

4

To make flatpak apps work with the camera, you need a proper portals setup. Installing xdg-desktop-portal-gtk, xdg-desktop-portal-wlr and sway-portalsconf did the trick for me. For Phosh users: Installing phosh-portalsconf instead of the sxmo-... package should do the trick for you.