June 24, 2022

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Innovation Leader

PinePhone Pro is a faster Linux Smartphone for $399

Most modern smartphones ship with Android or iOS, but there’s also a small, but growing number of phones designed to run Linux-based operating systems. And it’s likely that no phone has been more successful in spurring the development of mobile Linux distributions than the PinePhone, an inexpensive phone that’s made mobile Linux accessible.

But while the PinePhone’s $150 starting price makes the device attractive, it’s only possible because the phone’s hardware is… not great. So now the folks at Pine64 have introduced a new phone for folks that want to run mainline Linux on a phone with more powerful hardware. Meet the PinePhone Pro.

The PinePhone Pro looks virtually identical to the original PinePhone, but under the hood it’s powered by a Rockchip RK399S hexa-core processor which should bring a significant performance boost. It also brings more RAM and storage, better cameras, and faster WiFi.

It’s still a phone aimed at tech-savvy early adopters rather than the general public. But with significant hardware upgrades, it’s capable of delivering a better user experience for folks interested in running work-in-progress mainline Linux-based software on a phone.

The new model also keeps some of the features that made the original PinePhone special, including a removable, replaceable battery, hardware kill switches for the cameras, microphones, and wireless features, pogo pins for optional add-ons, and the same 4G LTE modem that hackers have already developed open source firmware for.

Pine64 will continue to sell the original PinePhone alongside the new model, but notes that the PinePhone Pro offers the kind of performance you’d expect from a mid-range Android device, which could make it a better option for folks that want to use a Linux smartphone as their daily driver (acknowledging that mobile Linux is still very much a work in progress and may not yet do all the things you want, even with more powerful hardware).

Here’s a run-down of PinePhone Pro specs compared with those for the original PinePhone, which is still available for $150 and up:

PinePhone Pro PinePhone
SoC Rockchip RK3399S
2 x ARM Cortex-A72
4 x ARM Cortex-A53 @ 1.5 GHz
Allwinner A64
4 x ARM Cortex-A53 @ 1.2 GHz
GPU ARM Mali-T760 4-cores @ 500 MHz ARM Mali-400MP2
RAM 4GB LPDDR4 @ 800 MHz 2GB or 3GB LPDDR3
Storage 128GB eMMC 16GB or 32GB eMMC
Display 6 inch
1440 x 720 pixel IPS LCD
Gorilla Glass 4
5.95 inch
1440 x 720 pixel IPS LCD
Camera (rear) 13MP Sony IMX258
LED flash
5MP Omnivision OV5640
LED flash
Camera (front) 5MP Omnivision OV5640 2MP GC2035
Modem Quectel EG25-G with global GSM and CDMA
4G LTE
GPS, A-GPS, GLONAS
Quectel EG25-G with global GSM and CDMA
4G LTE
GPS, A-GPS, GLONAS
WiFi Ampak AP6255
WiFi 5
WiFi 4
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.1 Bluetooth 4.0
I/O USB 3.0 Type-C (power, data, video)
pogo pins
3.5mm headphone
microSD card reader
USB 2.0 Type-C (power, data, video)
pogo pins
3.5mm headphone
microSD card reader
Sensors Accelerometer
Gyroscope
Proximity
Compass
Ambient Light
Accelerator
Gyroscope
Proximity
Compass
Ambient Light
Barometer
Buttons Power
Volume up/down
Power
Volume up/down
Hardware kill switches Cameras
Microphone
WiFi & BT
LTE modem
Headphones
Cameras
Microphone
WiFi & BT
LTE modem
Headphones
Battery 3,000 mAh Samsung J7 form-factor 3,000 mAh Samsung J7 form-factor
Charging 5V/3A (15W) 5V/3A (15W)
Dimensions 160.8 x 76.6 x 11.1mm 160.5 x 76.6 x 9.2mm
Weight 215 grams 180 – 200 grams
Price $399 $149 / $199

While the specs are better, the form-factor of the PinePhone Pro is very similar to the original. The new model is about 2mm thicker and the back cover now has an oleophobic coating to make it a little more resistant to fingerprints. But it’s generally the same shape and size as its older sibling, and the camera, pogo pins, and other hardware are in the same places.

That means that accessories like the PinePhone Keyboard should work with both phones.

Unfortunately, Pine64 notes that enough things under the hood have changed, including the cameras, display panel, daughterboard and thermal dissipation that it’s unlike existing PinePhone owners would be able to simply buy a Pro mainboard and upgrade their existing devices.

The default operating system for the new PinePhone Pro will be Manjaro Linux with the KDE Plasma Mobile user interface, but users aren’t stuck with the operating system that comes with the phone.

There are currently more than 20 different operating systems available for the original PinePhone, and the folks at Pine64 are hoping that developers will port most, if not all of them to work with the PinePhone Pro.

One down side though, is that unlike the PinePhone, the new Pro model will not support booting from a microSD card, as the Rockchip RK3399S chipset doesn’t support that feature. So trying out alternate operating systems currently requires writing them to the phone’s built-in storage, although as LinMOB points out, it’s possible that developers might be able to create a custom bootloader that will get around this and allow you to boot from removable storage.

And it’s not like members of the Pine64 community are inexperienced when it comes to working with Rockchip processors – the smartphones’ RK3399S processor is very similar to the RK3399 chip used in the company’s PineBook Pro laptop. But Pine64 says it worked with Rockchip to alter the processors so it could work within the thermal and energy-consumption restraints of a smartphone.

The chipset also supports key features including support for high-resolution cameras, USB 3.0 data transfer speeds, and video output via the USB-C port, which allows you to use the PinePhone Pro as a portable desktop computer by hooking up an external display.

The company says that means that the PinePhone Pro is about 20% slower than a PineBook Pro in terms of sheer horsepower. But it also has a lower-resolution display, which means the processor doesn’t have to work quite as hard, so real-world performance should be similar when used as a phone.

PinePhone Pro Developer units are available for pre-order starting today for $399 and they’re scheduled to begin shipping by December.

Pine64 plans to ship a limited number of developer units first, in order to get the phones in the hands of folks responsible for actually creating and improving mobile Linux distributions. But the company is also planning to begin production of a PinePhone Pro Explorer Edition aimed at early adopters next month, in the goal of shipping units to customers in early 2022.

While most folks will have to wait a little while to get their hands on a PinePhone Pro, a handful of developers have already been testing pre-production models for a few months.

Megi, developer of custom kernels and other software for the PinePhone, has shared some thoughts in a “quick review,” noting that the phone’s processor is faster than the one used in the PinePhone or Librem 5. The eMMC storage is also much faster, with data transfer speeds up to 150 MB/s, which helps with performance.

But there are still multiple software kinks to work out, and the RK3399S processor is also more power hungry, which will likely take a toll on battery life. It’s worth keeping in mind that battery life for the original PinePhone was also awful when it began shipping, but over time mobile Linux developers found ways to optimize their software to extend battery life. Hopefully the same happens with the PinePhone Pro.

PostmarketOS developer Martijn Braam has also been spending some time with one, and has a posted hands-on video looking at the hardware, general performance, and how the new phone compares with the original PinePhone.

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PinePhone Pro is a faster Linux Smartphone for $399