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Review #PineTab

Preview Image

Preview Image

Background

A while back, my laptop was showing signs of death and I needed something to potentially get me out of trouble during lockdown. I wanted something that represented my values as a hacker, but also something that wasn't so heavy (my current laptop is back-breakingly heavy). I was (and still am) strapped for cash, so it needed to be cheap. Enter, the PineTab.

I got my PineTab back in September as an early-adopter and have been using it at least once a week since then, sometimes several times a week. Whenever I am in my office or have a meeting, I pull out this device. It's so light that I can just have it in my bag irrespective of whether I plan to use it or not!

Some time back I purchased an M.2. SSD to put in the PineTab, but at the time I didn't realise that this would require an expansion card they still haven't released yet. From speaking to people online, the M.2. slot will be about as fast as the eMMc or USB as they share a bus.

Workflow

To understand my review, I think it's important to understand exactly how the device is used. The following are some example use-cases for the device:

Review

So the following is a review of the hardware and software of the device. I've broken it down into hardware and software, as this seems most logical.

Hardware

The device is said to weigh 576g without the keyboard, and to be honest, it feels about the right weight. It's light enough that you barely notice it's in your bag. The size is reasonable and the keyboard is just about big enough that you can be quite productive on it. The addition of keyboard LEDs is a very nice touch and makes the device feel classy. The keyboard add-on attaches very well via pogo pins and magnets, with a pop out stand. It really is worth the extra $15 USD or so!

The device is based on the Allwinner A64, which is four A53 cores running at about 1.15GHz. This is a great processor for mobile devices and quite low-power, but lacks an real guts when it comes to processing anything heavy. Given the size of the device being close to that of a laptop, mentally you imagine it would have laptop-like capabilities. The CPU is somewhat lacking.

The RAM is 2GB of LPDDR3, which again is really lacking for such a device. If you open a browser and some tabs, thus is basically all of your RAM used up. During these days, I would consider 4GB to be a minimal amount of RAM for even a lightweight laptop.

The display is 10.1 inches, 16:10 ratio, supports 16M colours, is touchscreen and is 1280x800 resolution. I have zero complaints with it, it's more than good enough for me. Of course you could always ask for "more", but this is enough to be productive and rarely be thinking about it. The touchscreen is always responsive when compared to the touchpad. The touchpad does have a weird bug though, where it remains "pressed" even though nothing is touching the trackpad.

The WiFi is 2.4GHz only, but is adequate and fast enough (have gotten 1MB/s and above). The 3.5mm audio jack works well and sounds perfectly fine. The USB 2.0 slot works fine, but doesn't really grip anything you plug in very well and generally feels loose.

The power supply is a whole conversation onto itself. The device can be charged via either the barrel jack or micro USB slot. The charging current is so low, that it takes literally hours to charge the device. If you are doing anything CPU intensive (such as watching a video or compiling), it will actually drain the battery whilst on charge.

Now for the features I haven't tested:

  • Cameras -- It has two reasonable cameras front and back. I did once try to use it in FireFox for a Zoom meeting, but it didn't work. At that time I had zero audio drivers working, so it's not exactly clear why. After this I tried a video call in NextCloud, but again no dice. So there is likely still some problem for me to fix there if I want the camera to work - which would be ideal for video call meetings. Worst case I could just use a USB camera for now though.
  • Bluetooth -- Never tried to use it, for the simple reason I don't want to waste more power.
  • M.2. slot -- I am still waiting on the hardware for this.
  • Speakers -- I did try the speakers, but it didn't work. I believe the drivers are not setup correctly - in theory it should be possible though.
  • Volume buttons -- This is something that needs to be set in software, so it's not yet tested.
  • HDMI -- I've not yet tried this at all. This should be chip based to mirror, so I have no reason to think it won't work.
  • Microphone -- Not tried to use this yet, but people have had bad audio quality on similar devices (such as the PinePhone).

Software

The Mali 400 MP2 has slowly but surely received more and more kernel updates, and is now to the point where some OpenGL 3D games can run as well as can be expected on such a device. I suspect this will become even better in the future as the open source driver is improved further in the mainline kernel.

Speaking of the kernel, it shares the same kernel as the PinePhone, so it was very quick to get the device up and running and the development efforts were mostly shared. I think the most up-to-date kernel by far is the Arch one provided by Danct - who have been doing awesome work.

At some point I really do want to continue working on the window manager - but it will be a while as yet. The window manager is currently in a place where it works "just about good enough" for now.

Recommendations

So these items are broken down into "what I believe is absolutely required for the next device" and "what would be nice to have".

Required

Power supply -- The power supply clearly needs to be upgraded. Of course the battery can only accept so much current (0.5C to 1C), but it's unacceptable that the batter can discharge whilst being plugged in, because the CPU can discharge faster than the device can charge. It should in theory just be a case of upgrading the charging circuit (at least for the USB - as the micro-DC jack may have current limits).

Hardware switches -- Like the PinePhone, there should be some hardware based switches to turn off certain pieces of hardware, like cameras, radios, etc. There is tonnes of space for some small DIP switches on the side of the device (it's a pain to get into the device itself).

Wish List

CPU -- It's quite underpowered compared to their laptop range - I really hope they are able to upgrade this and offer replacement boards. Failing that, I know they are also working on a new CPU which could be interesting, with 64 bit address lanes, allowing for much more RAM. A newer ARM CPU also offers other nice features, such as USB 3.0 and PCIe lanes (which could even support a GPU).

RAM -- With the current CPU, they could upgrade from 2GB to 3GB. With a different CPU altogether, it would be possible to upgrade to 4GB and upwards. Either way, more RAM is for sure needed on this device.

M.2. -- They just need to allow people to buy the expansion board they have already developed. I suspect they want to sell the boards along with the SDRs, and that will only get put into production when the next version of the PineTab comes around.

USB slots -- You can easily use one USB slot, it feels like it needs at least two in order to be productive - even if internally it is only a USB hub circuit. As it stands, you couldn't possibly have both a mouse and keyboard attached without some dongle.

Screws -- They have used the clam shell, the same design they used for the PinePhone. The problem is, people have broken the display opening up the device (especially if they have a display protector). It would really be nice if it instead had standard M2 screws holding the back on, even if the casing does end up costing a small amount more.

Upgradeable parts -- Inside the device itself, the parts are mostly stuck down. I would really prefer if they were screwed in place, making it more easy to swap them out. For example, if you created some third party PCB for the internals, currently the only solution you could offer for inserting it is double-sided tape. This is pretty crappy in my opinion.

Discussion

Overall, the device is nice and I will continue to keep using it over the coming years. I hope at some point I can add an M.2. SSD, but we'll see. I'm not holding my breath. One problem they are up against is that they have an LCD shortage, as well as other components due to lockdowns around the world.