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Another HPCesque device? Pinephone + upcoming official keyboard

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robertojones Page Icon Posted 2022-01-07 12:08 AM
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Minor update:

I've ordered the keyboard case for my Pinephone. They start sending them out on the 10th and I went for standard delivery so it'll be a few weeks at least until I have it.

It looks as though there's been quite some progress on the OS/firmware front (in particular with app performance and power consumption) since I last played with it so I'll pass some of the time while I wait trying out a few options - I'll report back anything interesting I find.
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Jake Page Icon Posted 2022-01-07 1:51 PM
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Looking forward to your verdict, Robert.

Jake
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robertojones Page Icon Posted 2022-02-10 5:55 PM
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Update: The keyboard has arrived!

It's very early days yet but it's transformed the Pinephone - It looks and feels like a HPC now. The keys feel good, with a remarkable amount of travel for such a small device. The Pinephone keeps its own battery so it in effect triples the battery capacity. It is noticeably narrower than a Jornada 720 (probably the closest device in size) so two-handed typing is perhaps not as fluid as it could be, but the upside is that it can be used handheld with thumbs (at least by me).

The firmware and driver support are in their infancy so plenty to fix, as supplied the F keys are not available but this is apparently remedied by using the alternative 'userspace' driver. The top row is somewhat 'insensitive' as noted by a number of users, I'm waiting to see if this 'wears in' at all but otherwise it is possible to add shims to these keys.

I'm still using PostmarketOS with Plasma Desktop but I will try other OS options soon.

Photos and more observations to follow!
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Jake Page Icon Posted 2022-02-10 9:55 PM
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The canary in the mine emerges again to tell us more good news! I suppose, in a pinch, you could remap the missing Fn keys to your liking (if an alternative driver fails to produce). I did that with a HTC Advantage X7510 keyboard on a X7501 machine--kb was much better than than the x7501's but driver couldn't generate the top row. Don't know Plasma, but Linux has always let me remap what I needed.

Can't wait to hear more of your reactions.

Jake
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robertojones Page Icon Posted 2022-02-18 10:57 PM
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Mini-update - Sorry this took so long:

I've been playing with the Pinephone and keyboard a fair bit - As previously noted the software support has some way to go, so it's probably most useful if I start by giving a rough guide as to where this is up to.

- Kernel driver has now been rolled out to most of the major Pinephone OSes. I've still only tried it on PostmarketOS but it should be much the same in any of the others. Not all of the secondary / tertiary characters on the keys are working with this driver, but the 'userspace' driver should allow these to be customised as desired. I haven't got this to work yet, but I haven't put much time into it. It does work without any intervention in all applications that allow text input and key shortcuts work as expected.

- At present, the battery works like a power bank - When switched on, it charges the Pinephone's own battery. Not ideal but quite usable in practice. It allows 'pass-through' charging so can charge the Pinephone whilst itself being charged. The keyboard works whether the battery is switched on or off. Battery info is available via i2c and a utility provided by the developer so it looks as though proper support is just a matter of software / drivers - The keyboard has been well received by the community (and is being shipped in decent quantities) so I am optimistic.

As noted, I haven't yet tried any other OSes with the keyboard, based on my previous experience the mobile-orientated UIs (Phosh, Plasma Mobile etc.) don't work particularly well if you're trying to use the Pinephone as a PDA (issues with scaling and screen rotation) and Mobian (the Debian-based one) is just too heavy when you sit a desktop UI like Plasma on top of it. So I'm still using PostmarketOS with Plasma Desktop (aka the KDE desktop UI). With a bit of playing with the scaling it is possible to strike a reasonable balance between keeping it usable for touch input and being able to fit applications on screen. I wouldn't call it quick (given that the Allwinner A64 CPU is roughly as powerful as a Raspberry Pi 3 this is hardly shocking) but neither is it painfully slow. Larger apps like browsers and email clients take a while to load but run reasonably, although script-heavy websites can bog it down quite easily. I wouldn't try and game on it either - Simple puzzle games are fine, as is DOSbox with 2D games, but this is about the limit. Plasma Desktop running on Wayland is decently touch-friendly, long-pressing for the context menu and swipe-to-scroll works in a number of the native KDE apps. I expect this to improve as Wayland support matures. The biggest downside with PostmarketOS is that it's lacking packages for quite a few applications vs. Debian - Though given how relatively little used it and its parent OS Alpine Linux are there are still quite an impressive number in the repos.

Next I'm probably going to try XFCE as the UI (again on top of PostmarketOS) - I've shied away from this in the past as it hasn't been particularly touch-friendly but as it's now running on top of Wayland I'm led to believe this is much improved in recent versions. It should hopefully run a little lighter than Plasma and I hope this translates into the whole system being a bit more responsive. It's somewhat simpler and less visually 'busy' than Plasma too

I should note as well that the keyboard case fits the new Pinephone Pro - OS and software support are so far in their infancy but this is a far more powerful machine so should open up far more possibilities - The Pinebook Pro uses the same SoC (RK3399) so this should give some indication of what will be possible. Main downside is the price - at $399 (USD) this is quite a way outside of my 'buying gadgets to play with' budget and a little too close to more polished devices like Planet Computers' various offerings.

Altogether it's still very much a project for tinkerers - It has never been marketed as anything else, so this is not a criticism, but I wouldn't want anyone to think this is going to replace their smartphone, or a HPC for those on this forum still using theirs for practical tasks. Hopefully I've made this fairly clear.

- A few final notes on the keyboard itself: It's not a scissor-switch keyboard like most laptops (and indeed many HPCs) but more like a desktop membrane keyboard from what I can tell - Key feel is not amazing but not unpleasant either. There's almost too much travel for a keyboard this size, if that makes any sense. I think I prefer the Eee PC keyboard I've been using for my DIY 'HPC' attempts, so a Jornada or Mobilepro user may come away a little disappointed. Fine for playing around at terminals, taking notes or short emails but I don't think I'd write long documents on it, though the size is as much an impediment to fast or prolonged typing as the keys themselves. The top row, unfortunately, has not 'worn in' to any noticeable degree, so I will probably end up adding shims to these keys.

Please let me know if you have any questions or anything in particular you'd like me to try out.




Edited by robertojones 2022-02-18 11:02 PM




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Jake Page Icon Posted 2022-02-19 10:49 PM
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Robert, so appreciative of these extensive--not at all "Mini-update"--follow-ups. I feel as if I almost own the machine myself, your attention is that thorough. [I would turn that AltG into a Right Shift in a second, or on second thought, remap /? to AltG and make /? into a Right Shift]

I love xfce; when possible, I run it on all my Linux devices. The applets are great, though sometimes unsupported, but there are always workarounds.

https://forum.xfce.org/index.php -- moderated by ToZ, who is the c:amie of xfce -- will be a go-to site. But you probably already know that. If the panel does work on the PP, look into the genmon applet, which is a do-it-yourself thing, because I've got some great scripts for small screens--battery, temps, uptime, and weather (the weather is ToZ's fine work).

I suppose if xfce is still too heavy, you could go lxqt/openbox, though its keystroking, customizations, etc has to be edited in xml, always a pain for a lousy typist like me.

As for the EEE keyboard, I found laying 4-5 sheets of aluminum foil under the actual kb took away a lot of my contact/pressure problems, but your EEE sounds in better shape than mine.

EDIT: another great thing about xfce is the user can embed the panel into the window title bar, giving a boost to available screen space.

Thanks again,
Jake



Edited by Jake 2022-02-19 10:59 PM
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robertojones Page Icon Posted 2022-05-10 6:11 PM
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Jake - Much belated thanks for the info you provided and apologies for not responding sooner! Beyond some tinkering with Xubuntu and Armbian years ago I've not had much experience with XFCE so this is all new to me.

Unfortunately I never got around to putting XFCE on the PinePhone - On further reading it seems it's still very much a single-touch interface so without a pointing device of some sort it's likely to be a bit frustrating on a 6" screen. A shame really - With a mouse or even the little trackball setup on my DIY devices XFCE was great, very lightweight and the minimalist UI is well suited to small / low-res screens.

I did try Mobian + Plasma Desktop again, it now has proper Wayland support so performance / touch support is much improved. It also shows the battery level on the keyboard now - A big improvement. Still short of acceptable to me sadly - Whilst the GUI itself is fairly usable, anything beyond the core apps is slow to load and cumbersome in use. Browsers in particular (both Chromium and Firefox) are just that bit too slow to be truly usable. I tried both Plasma Mobile and Phosh again too but they just don't work well for PDA-type usage - Too phone-oriented, and neither of them seem very happy in landscape mode.

I found that the last few times I dug the PinePhone out I'd just run updates, tweak a few settings and then play with it for just a few minutes before getting fed up and putting it away again. With the other projects I have on the go (including my current 75%-ish complete DIY 'HPC') I just can't see it getting any real use. With the PinePhone Pro I could see the keyboard case making for a truly useful PDA, but as is, still really a tinkerer / developer's device. I'd struggle to justify the cost of the PinePhone Pro when it's within touching distance of far more polished devices with keyboards (both ARM and x86), as I've previously mentioned. I also don't particularly get on with the keyboard - having to use the 'Fn' key to get cursor keys is an annoyance (though fixable with the userspace driver) and the top row is still too stiff, as many have observed. This too is fixable, but I didn't want to start modifying the device when I wasn't sure I'd be keeping it.

With all this in mind I've decided to sell it - Both PinePhone and keyboard are going up on eBay this evening. I'll post in HPCBay once the auctions are live - If anyone on HPC:Factor is interested I'd be happy to arrange a favourable price via offers / BIN.

Thanks all for your interest / contributions - I do tend to jump from device to device looking for a suitable 'modern HPC' and this is sadly another one that's not quite 'there'. Hopefully I've at least provided some useful observations along the way!

Edited by robertojones 2022-05-10 6:12 PM
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Jake Page Icon Posted 2022-05-15 4:14 PM
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Hi, Robert. I took a glance at the current bidding and you appear ready to get most of your investment back, yea.

I am disappointed, though, that the PP/kb ultimately didn't pass muster. God knows you gave it your best, which is even more disappointing. It makes sense not to upgrade to the Pro, whose hardware, apparently, would only make the problems faster

So many drawbacks to making these phones a daily driver, and that includes, IMO, the Planet series to date. Perhaps the Astro will fulfill its promise, but its hardware continues to antiquate with each month of missed delivery. And of course, you have to hope the device arrives bug-free.

I've become reluctantly attached to my Pixel 4a. It, as Apple fanboys always insist about their own kit, "just works." Yeah, I'd like to have a kb, but the price you pay for that is so high when you reckon camera, durability, etc.

Good luck with the sale and many thanks for always keeping us up-to-date,
Jake
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robertojones Page Icon Posted 2022-05-15 5:52 PM
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Jake - 2022-05-15 4:14 PM

I've become reluctantly attached to my Pixel 4a. It, as Apple fanboys always insist about their own kit, "just works." Yeah, I'd like to have a kb, but the price you pay for that is so high when you reckon camera, durability, etc.

Jake


Interesting you should mention this - I've recently (also reluctantly) bought myself a 'normal' Android phone (Asus Zenfone 8) after my Blackberry KEY2 died at only 2 years old (I think the storage failed), and like your Pixel, the Zenfone just does its job without a fuss - I hadn't realised how much time I spent working around the Blackberry's flaws and idiosyncrasies.

I am somewhat tempted by one of these though: https://shop.pimoroni.com/products/bbq20-keyboard-with-trackpad-usb-i2c-pmod?variant=39913457188947

It's a Blackberry Q20 keyboard in a little plastic case with a USB (C) interface - It would be a bit unwieldy but is pretty cheap and would give me the Blackberry keyboard experience on any phone. Probably quite handy for playing with SBCs etc. and could even be incorporated into DIY devices.



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stingraze Page Icon Posted 2022-06-04 4:20 PM
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Take a look at this tweet on Twitter. Somebody made a handheld out of solderparty’s BB keyboard.

https://twitter.com/srinivasan_kb/status/1532970100189720576

Edited by stingraze 2022-06-04 4:21 PM
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AximUser Page Icon Posted 2023-03-12 6:29 PM
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I have a few BlackBerry keyboards from SolderParty (BBQ20KBD) which I purchased from their Tindie store for about $30 each.

I think it is a nice gizmo to have around. The plastic case is comfortable and well built. The PCB layout looks professional and clean. The keyboard are new and the trackpad is responsive. They work flawlessly IME and can be reconfigured by the user (backlight, key mapping, mic jumper, etc). They have several ports for DIYers.

Currently, I connect it via USB-C to my laptop. In the future I would like to:

- add a BLE module & battery for wireless laptop use

- connect one to the bottom of an android phone via a USB-C stub. With an external keyboard, the phone screen real estate will be huge! Will require some DIY long phone case lol (I am thinking of 4 extruded aluminum strips with 4 screws in each corner and a bit of rubber where they touch the phone).

On the downside:

- My BB typing speed has slowed down. But I am getting (somewhat) faster again

- Could use autocorrect functions like those in the BB phones. Looking for some text editor with that.

- I haven't had any hand cramps but am not using the BB keyboard for hours every day, like I did back in the day. Cramps and pain are a thing with virtual phone keyboards too but I don't know which is "better".
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stingraze Page Icon Posted 2023-03-19 2:17 AM
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Thank you for sharing your experience with the BB keyboard gizmo. Maybe one day I will get one like it. I have one tiny keyboard with a stereo output I use once in a while. It is from a company called Princeton.

https://www.princeton.co.jp/product/mobile_tablet/ptmbhk.html

Edited by stingraze 2023-03-19 2:18 AM
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Jake Page Icon Posted 2023-03-20 2:52 PM
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I was recently bequeathed a PinePhone Beta and physical kb, the same kit as Robert’s, but because of better OS development, I’ve been able to avoid—mostly—the pitfalls that bedeviled Robert.

It does seem that the late Phosh betas, especially Manjaro, have very much tried to fix things. gsettings are my new best friend and with console commands, you can overcome most display/suspend issues. I will always prefer X over wayland, but I’ve learned to manage, and the actual apps perform surprisingly well for a machine that’s been pushed out into traffic with fingers crossed. Calendar/Contact on-line synching works, so does Chromium’s. There’s a definite lag when opening programs, even simple Terminal, and I imagine the faster Pro edition would reduce this but with a hefty increase in price.

As for the hardware, things have also improved. The missing fn keys have been found again, and while the top kb row isn’t as responsive as other rows, it’s functioning. Given the union of the kb and phone batteries, there’s plenty of power. I’ve remapped the ? key as a Right Shift, Left Shift + ? = ? and Altg + ? = /. That’s improved my poor typing and Phosh allows endless kb shortcuts to the point where I rarely touch the screen, except for scrolling.

Abiword is as mediocre as I had remembered, so I turned to LibreOffice, which is a real bear to set up, since many of its menus are off-screen. The solution is oddly simple: install LibreOffice on a Linux laptop, tinker and extension-install to the heart’s content, then dump the .config/libreoffice directory directly into the PP’s. Though one directory has been created in x86 and the other in ARM, there’s no dissimilarity.

The insertion of the phone into the kb is a violent one—one must tear off the phone’s back cover, then force the kb contacts to match the phone’s. The procedure, as a Discord user remarked, is “bum-clenching.” Now that I have things in a semblance of order, I never disassemble.

Discord and the official PinePhone forum could take many lessons from our own forum. Though much information can be found, both forums are distinctly unhelpful. There’s a locker-room pecking order and I’ve never had a question answered; I just don’t count. That said, tremendous work is available—custom kernels, custom kb maps, long how-to’s—but you’re studying alone.

Whatever positive news remains within the realm of using the PP as an HPC. I haven’t even tried a SIM card and my reading tells me the machine is nowhere near ready to behave as a phone.

So despite PP’s unfriendly atmosphere, still-buggy hardware, program lag, and steep learning curve, I feel the PP is a genuine addition to the handheld collection. If only because Manjaro is my Linux flavor and the wifi’s security is up-to-date, I find myself using the PP more and more.

So hats off to Robert who always takes the hits with his early forays into these devices. The cheaper beta edition is still available for $200USD, and that includes a convergence kit with Ethernet/HDMI/2 USB/charging. Another $50USD gets you the kb:

https://pine64.com/product-category/pinephone/?v=0446c16e2e66

I did not purchase my kit, so buyer beware in terms of shipping and official customer response.
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