Developers: How PINE64 is creating a community to compete with Raspberry Pi's

PINE64 is on a social mission to make device ecosystems that developers can collaborate on. TechRepublic interviewed PINE64's Lukasz Erecinski about the company's philosophy toward open source.

RISC-V: The open-source ISA aiming for Arm's domination of IoT and embedded devices The open source RISC-V ISA allows companies to build their own CPUs for IoT and embedded devices, without needing to pay royalties associated with Arm processors.

One of the consequences of the explosive popularity of the Raspberry Pi is the flourishing of competing ecosystems of single-board computers (SBCs). These devices fundamentally fall in either of two camps—products that offer slightly more processing power or memory than the Raspberry Pi, with a slightly higher price tag, or products that integrate features on-board that are otherwise accomplished on a Raspberry Pi with HATs.

Aside from the accessibility a $35 price tag offers, the foremost benefit of the Raspberry Pi is the community—the proliferation of projects and integrations that center around the Raspberry Pi, and the ease-of-use that creates, makes competing products that look better on spec sheets a disappointment when taken out of the box. PINE64 has attempted to head this off by fostering an involved community; the PINE64 website explains their philosophy as "the community gets to actively shape the devices, as well as the social platform, of PINE64 from the ground up. The goal is to deliver ARM64 devices that you really wish to engage with and a platform that you want to be a part of."

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Devices is the operative word. While the Raspberry Pi was envisioned as a replacement to early home computers like the BBC Micro and Commodore 64—devices that were easy to get started programming on—PINE64 is differentiating itself by building not just SBCs, but notebooks, tablets, and phones with community input and feedback. The first-generation Pinebook was available in an 11.6" or 14" configuration, with a quad-core Allwinner A64, 2GB RAM, 16GB eMMC, and 1366x768 display for $99, beating Nicolas Negroponte's OLPC XO-1, a decade after that project sputtered.

Ahead of the release of the Pinebook Pro this summer, a Rockchip RK3399-based ARM laptop with 4GB LPDDR4 RAM, 64GB eMMC, and a 14" 1080p display, TechRepublic interviewed PINE64 community manager Lukasz Erecinski about the Pinebook Pro, and the PINE64 community philosophy.

TechRepublic: Why is Pine64 building a device ecosystem of not just SBCs, but also finished devices, like tablets, laptops, and phones?

Lukasz Erecinski: While SBCs are and will remain our bread and butter, there is no denying that our vision for PINE64 has expanded beyond the SBC market. The core aim of our project remains the same however—to foster a community and bring affordable ARM64 devices to developers and end-users. You have correctly identified that we are building eco-systems; that is to say, we strive for convergence between our SBCs and other ARM64 devices we manufacture. 

In result, when evaluating future SOCs, we're not only considering if they'll make for good SBCs but also laptops, modules, tablets, etc. As time progresses, you will see more and more of this type of convergence across devices from us. Allwinner A64 and Rockchip RK3399 are two examples of what we strive for: the Pine64-LTS, the SOPine, Pinebook, PineTab and PinePhone all share the Allwinner A64, whilst the RockPro64, Pinebook Pro and SORock (upcoming module akin to the SOPine) use the Rockchip RK3399. 

We believe that it is a compelling proposition for developers, as it makes the porting process to the next device a much easier ordeal that it is normally. That said, this will not hinder us from doing one-off SBCs either, especially if we're particularly interested in a specific application the SOC is tailored for.

TR: Why RK3399 on the Pinebook Pro, but Allwinner A64 on the PineTab and Pinephone?

Lukasz Erecinski: The answer to this question is twofold. We needed a powerful SOC to drive the Pinebook Pro and, at the same time, we wanted to have the benefit of existing development in our software pool. We also needed a SOC that has excellent or complete software support in mainline—as that is something that many users and developers (e.g. Manjaro) want too. 

The choice of the RK3399 was obvious to us, as it's much more powerful than any Allwinner SOC we have and also has the benefit of all software that already runs on the RockPro64. The second most powerful SOC we currently have on one of our boards—the Allwinner H6 in the Pine H64 SBC—doesn't have LCD or battery support, which would make for a lot of custom PCB work were we to go this route. 

TR: How has the experience of building the $99 Pinebook informed the design and building of the Pinebook Pro?

Lukasz Erecinski: We've learned a lot from the original Pinebook. Not only did we learn the ins and outs of creating the necessary hardware, but we also gained a better appreciation of what our community really wants from an affordable ARM laptop. From the feedback we received, it became apparent that many users are ready for a much more powerful and feature-rich ARM laptop—something that can be used on a daily basis, as opposed to just as a tinkering toy. 

To this end, I feel that the Pinebook Pro manages to strike a balance between being a spiritual successor to the Pinebook in that it is a very open, FOSS community driven and hackable device—but at the same time, it features hardware capable of delivering performance for work or school use. We are in the process of adding new features to the Pinebook Pro based on feedback from community members and will be announcing upgrades and new features shortly.

TR: When moving from the plastic shell of the Pinebook to magnesium-alloy on the Pro, how has this changed antenna design for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi?

Lukasz Erecinski: We are still deliberating on the best placement for the antennas. We obviously want the best possible reception, especially since we quietly upgraded the module to a better AC / BT 5.0 chipset for the Pinebook Pro. The bezels for the LCD panel are plastic, which presents an opportunity for running antenna wires up to the lid near the camera. However, the bezels are very thin for aesthetic reasons, which presents a challenge for wiring. The space covering the hinge, and the area around the keyboard, are also made out of plastic—so these may also be good options. 

TR: Is the M.2 slot on the Pinebook Pro wired for SATA or PCIe?

Lukasz Erecinski: The M.2 slot uses the same PCIe 4x as the RockPro64. A small and inexpensive adapter will be required for NVMe drive to physically mount in the Pinebook Pro—we'll make sure to have users aware of this during store check-out in case they require the functionality. I'll also point out that the microSD slot on the Pinebook Pro can be used for expansion and the eMMC modules are replaceable. 

TR: Why use a 720p display on the PineTab?

Lukasz Erecinski: Other than economic considerations, the 720p panel for the PineTab was also chosen for the sake of good performance. The A64 SOC performs at its best at sub-1080p resolutions, and we felt that on a 10.1" LCD IPS panel the 720p looked really quite sharp. I think that most users will be fine with the resolution, given the nature of the device and its price point.

TR: Tell me more about your collaboration with Jolla on Sailfish OS for the PinePhone.

Lukasz Erecinski: We treat all partner and software projects in the same way. All established Linux-on-phone projects interested in the PinePhone receive dev-kits and are welcome to participate in the development process, which takes place mostly on our chats but also on forums, GitLab, etc. We currently have devs—and in some cases entire teams—from all major Phone OSes actively engaged and working on the Pinephone.

I wish to underline that all of the developers from these different projects work together and contribute to a single repository. It is a real pleasure to watch developers help each other out, offer suggestions, and in some instances literally create patches for their friends from a different project. Consider my mind blown—having been a part of the broader FOSS community for many years, I haven't really seen this sort of engagement not only in our products, but also anywhere else. I am happy to say that the PinePhone, as a project, is already a huge success for us in a social sense—which is the core of our mission.

Also see

pinebookproiso1.jpg

The Pinebook Pro.

Image: PINE64

By James Sanders

James Sanders is a staff technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI/ML, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on ...