This review is not static, as new OSes and their releases become available on a daily/weekly basis. That means that what might be valid today for a specific OS might change tomorrow when a new update is available. Therefore, when there will be a need of change in the review, it will be properly notified on Twitter. Hope you enjoy this review.

Of all the mobile operating systems that I’ve been in contact to, I think the best one for All-Screen-Phone devices is still Windows Phone, before the update to Windows 10. And not because of the Apps, but because of the system interface, easy on the eyes, ergonomically friendly, and scalable to an extent never seen on any other device nor OS. This might not seem important when you are 18, though it becomes more important when your eyes start aging.

Right now, looks like no one cares about eye health, and everyone in the industry goes white, and sometimes they offer a “dark mode”, that is, at most, hilarious to call it that way. When will we see a real “black mode”?

I’m tired of setting every app to dark mode and each app understanding “dark mode” in a different way… what’s this?

20200810 – While before I started the review as a Distro hopper, it turns out to be better to do it from the perspective of the Interface instead. So from now on, this is the way it’s going to be, having only 3 options, UBPorts, Plasma and Phosh, with the particularities of each and each provided distro.

After all this, there is still the first impressions to use as a reference of how this evolved.

The new review, interface based, is ordered according to the suitability of the interface for mobile, and how that interface performs. The list should be then:

  1. UBPorts
  2. Plasma Mobile
  3. Phosh-Gnome

Starting with some Common topics that are shared among all interfaces and distros

Common topics:
- Charging the phone with a Motorola G5Plus charger takes about 3 hours to full charge.
- The phone gets hot. Some distros make it hotter than others, though overall, it feels a lot hotter than the MotoG5Plus.
- All on-screen keyboards, no matter the interface (UBPorts, Plasma, Phosh) end up covering the application, thus it becomes impossible to see what you type as you type.

1 > U B P o r t s

2 > P l a s m a M o b i l e

3 > P h o s h – G n o m e

First Review

Remember that all these OSes are still under huge development and from a day to the next there might be plenty of changes.

1>UBPorts

UBPorts is the default OS provided with this Pinephone UBPorts Community Edition. It’s not my favourite OS for a Linux phone. It wasn’t at the time of the BQ Aquaris 4.5 with UbuntuTouch, and still it’s not today. Nonetheless, it’s a quite polished interface and has a software store that is somewhat useful.

The first issue I noticed is the font size. It’s so small I can’t use the phone without glasses. Only 2 applications (File Manager and Weather) seemed fine to my eyes and could be usable without glasses.

(Edit: -20200707-)>>
As P.V. pointed out in the comment, the utility "UI Tweak Tool" allows setting up the scaling of fonts and change the system theme to SuruDark, which is a dark mode.
So if you are fond of UBPorts, do try the "UI Tweak Tool".
  • Battery life, with default UBPorts: around 6 hours.
  • Touch gestures: yes, various.
  • Interface: very laggy and choppy.
  • Wifi: working good.
  • Data, Calls: not working.
  • Extra software: installed through the Store some web apps, but interface is too small to use Telegram or any messaging. Stellarium seemed fine, though the compass was a “bit” out of alignment.
  • Updated: yes, went through some OTA updating process, all in the same channel (it’s said that testing performs better – need to test it).
  • Screen brightness: flickering whether in auto mode or in fixed brightness.
  • Gets hot in iddle.
  • Screen rotation: yes, auto.

I wouldn’t go with UBPorts because the interface more than the lag is not ergonomic at all. There is no way to change the font size and there is no way yet to change display to Black Mode. These two features are key in my case, and as important as any other spec. I should try it back after the Arch ARM Pinephone test that is WIP at the moment.

2>PureOS

Image used: pureos-pinephone20200613.img (not available, as updated)

20200613:: As UBPorts font size and background are not ergonomically friendly for eyes that show some aging, I decided to test PureOS from Purism, as seemed a good option and using some sort of default GNOME interface.

As PureOS is developed by Purism for the Librem 5 there is no official support on the Pinephone, though there is some unofficial/unsupported release here. I used the 20200613 image for testing purposes.

This is the first non-UBPorts OS that I try on the Pinephone, and there is a reason for that. PureOS has been around for quite some time and Phosh shell seems to be quite polished for phone usage. So as I have a spare 32 GB SD card, I went for it, downloaded the image and get it on the SD card.

I used Gnome’s Disks utility to burn the image onto the SD card, and it also offers the ability to resize the image to take all the space of the SD card, so that I did too. I had to do this twice:

  1. Resizing the system partition results in the Pinephone not booting. The cursor just blinks there and the phone ends up shutting down.
  2. Using the SD card without touching anything after burning the System image file, results in Pinephone booting into PureOS, as expected also in case 1. I wasn’t able to do much here though as I got scared of the heat that was rising at the back of the phone.
    To turn the phone off, I had to open the back cover and remove battery.
    The SD card was too hot for what I would expect. Never had issues with SD card heating on phones before, not even on the BQ with UbuntuTouch.

Basically this test took about half an hour or so. Burn the image twice, boot the phone once (the other time wouldn’t boot). Take everything out just in case.

  • Battery life: not tested
  • Lag to launch applications
  • Gets VERY HOT! very quick
  • Interface (Phosh) feels snappier than UBPorts
  • Wifi, Data, Calls: not tested
  • Extra software: not tested

3>Fedora rawhide

Image used: fedora-rawhide-aarch64-mobile-04.img.zst

20200613:: I went through the Fedora rawhide image too, just after PureOS. Both sporting the Phosh interface. I went to Fedora as I use Silverblue as my daily driver and I’m quite happy with it. In my personal opinion, Silverblue’s approach is the best suited for a Linux phone having the OS isolated from the Applications seems like the way to go for any kind of updates, even more for a phone.

Silverblue is not yet available as an image for the Pinephone, so the closest thing right now from Fedora is Fedora rawhide, made by the community, and also having Phosh as the default interface.

First off, I couldn’t resize the image to fill the whole SD card. Gnome Disks wouldn’t allow it, so I just left it there like that.

It took some time to boot. Actually, until now, UBPorts is the slowest one in the booting process, and PureOS and Fedora rawhide go side by side on this.

Fedora rawhide didn’t show the heat issues noticed with PureOS, and overall performed quite snappy but when launching software. I wasn’t able to connect to the Wifi, nor using the SIM for calls nor for data so there was not much to be done there.

  • Battery life: not tested
  • Lag to launch applications
  • Interface (Phosh) feels snappier than UBPorts
  • Wifi, Data, Calls: not working, not configurable
  • Extra software: not tested

4>Plasma Mobile Neon

Image used: plasma-mobile-neon-20200621-132542.img.gz
Updated: almost every day since image deployment on SD card.

20200614:: After testing both Phosh images, I decided to go with Plasma, as Phosh does not have a “black mode” nor a way to change font size neither.

Plasma Mobile Neon OTA updates (increased font size and Dark Mode active)

Plasma Mobile Neon is based on Ubuntu, and is pretty much regular Ubuntu with the Plasma Mobile UI, with all the KDE software available, and all the software from the Ubuntu repositories, which is also an interesting matter.

Plasma Mobile Neon did install to SD card and then was resizable to take all the available space on the SD card. Also in this case the resized SD card did boot without issues.

Booting Plasma Mobile Neon isn’t fast, can’t lie here. The KDE logo and some animation appears on the screen before loading the whole system, then the phone asks for the SIM card pin, then we are in.

I presume all KDE users will feel at home when using Plasma Mobile Neon, and actually, it does look very nice. One of the first things I did is change the whole thing into “dark mode”, which is the closest thing to “black mode” that can be achieved anywhere. UBPorts does not have it, Fedora and PureOS don’t have it either, or if they do have it, I wasn’t able to find it.

We could go with the ergonomics of the “black mode” topic for a while, though this is not the place nor the time. The important thing is that a “dark mode” (better black) is a must in my case, and for now, only Plasma Mobile offered it.

After the dark mode was on, next step is change font size. The top bar in Plasma Mobile uses font sizes so small that I might need a microscope even to read the time… why? Fortunately, in the settings>appearance one can change the font size along with the dark mode. So I did, increasing the font size so that I could read the letters on the screen without glasses.

First Flaw: Increasing the font size reduces the size of the icons on the screen, and the line with four icons at the bottom of the screen only allows two.

Then added a widget with the clock (24h) and date (ISO: YYYY-MM-DD) formats, and taking the whole width of the screen so I don’t need to force my eyes to see the tinytime at the top bar. Good, the widget was resized and everything looked fine. Tried some of the preinstalled software and decided to go to the Discover Store to add more.

Updating also worked quite well. The notifications came up on the screen when the updates were available and here we go. Well, need to use a password to update anything. Also need the password to install anything. This, if you install everything once, might not be an issue, but having to enter the password each time an update comes out or any time you want to check if some software works, mmmm…. That does not make me that happy.

Restarting the phone or switching it of and on again results on all widgets disappear from the screen. Sometimes the system enters in lock state and can only trigger the settings from the top bar. Though the only way to solve the situation is switch off, wait, boot again.

Pressing the power button to suspend, does it cause a suspend? I’m not sure. The phone goes to sleep, and goes to sleep to an extent that the only way to wake it up is by forcing shutdown and then boot again. Something was wrong here.

Mirror mirror on the wall, I can’t read the text at all
Some isues are still present, even related to video

I noticed with Plasma Mobile Neon that when booting the phone one can hear a buzz during the booting process. Nothing was heard with the prior tested OSes. Why the buzz? What is going on there to make that noise?

I could install Telegram from Flathub and some other software from the Discover Store. Problem here is that some of that software is meant to work on a Desktop display, so on a small screen it gets tiny, and scaling the interface of Telegram to 110% or more results in the app to extend outside of the display, therefore, there is no way to do some things with it.

I also installed Xournal to “take” handwritten notes, and it does work with your finger, though menu is hard to reach at times. KStars, I wasn’t able to really do much with it as I did with Stellarium in UBPorts. KStars is fully desktop software, and even in landscape mode, I wasn’t able to to complete the first launch.

While there is the toggle to turn on 4G Data, it is locked and can’t be turned on, thus the only way to get access to internet is through Wifi. Changing the APN settings didn’t do any difference, so nope, no data available here.

It did get the name of the service provider and showed it on the top bar. SMS worked without issues, and I received the normal Telegram SMS with the code, as well as some other SMS from the provider.

So far is the distro I used most of the time.

  • Battery life: around 8 hours depending on the usage.
  • Touch gestures: yes, few.
  • Interface: laggy and choppy at times.
  • Wifi: working good.
  • Data: not working and not activatable.
  • Calls: seem to work
  • SMS: working
  • Extra software: installed through the Discover Store apps, and Telegram from Flathub
  • Suspend/Resume: not working. Need reboot.
  • Looses display settings.
  • Doesn’t get hot when idle and doesn’t get as hot as others.
  • Screen rotation: yes, auto.
  • Extra software: yes, several tested. Issues with some.

5>Arch ARM

Image used: archlinux-pinephone-20200318.img.

20200703:: WIP

Common to All

  1. Actually, I wasn’t able to take any screenshot with any OS, making it a bit of a hassle to get pictures for the review.
  2. Cameras, while many say they do work, I never got them to work, not the back camera, nor the front one.
  3. I’ve been trying to use mostly “desktop” software on a phone, and looks like this desktop software does not scale that well to a vertical screen. Most of the software available has been designed for desktop use, so… have to wait for software that scales well to the aspect ratio of a phone screen in vertical and horizontal layout. It will take time, I guess.
  4. All interfaces need a Black Mode. I really mean Black, not dark. Also, they all need a way to increase the font size, and increase the font size without breaking every single layout. Seems to work on Desktop, should work on the phone too.
  5. Gestures. The best one here, without doubt is UBPorts. Others, lag way behind.
  6. None of them seem to show up in File Manager on desktop computer running Fedora Silverblue. Meaning, no way to transfer files by USB between Desktop and Phone.

Other

I finally decided to protect the screen of the Pinephone with a 9H Glass Screen Protector, and according to Pine64, I went with the IPhone XSMAX that does fit on the Pinephone quite well.

Haven’t added a case yet.

Conclusions

2020.07.04

To be honest, I don’t use the phone for much more than calls, Telegram/Signal, Web browsing, Calendar, Contacts, Twitter, some picture taking and simple image processing and not much more, so my requirements are few. As of today, I can’t do all these with the Pinephone, just yet.

I’m trying to use the Pinephone on a daily basis, as a daily driver with my SIM. This is somewhat a bigger or lesser adventure depending on what distro is picked. To be honest, since the arrival of the Pinephone things have improved quite a lot, and still keep improving.

From all the available interfaces, I would go with Plasma Mobile Dark Mode, not sure if with Neon or Postmarket yet; or with Phosh’s dark version provided by Arch ARM.

For now, battery life is somewhat disappointing as can’t get a whole day lifespan. While my other phone, a Moto G5plus gets a lifespan of 2-3 days, I can’t get half day with the Pinephone yet, which is an issue if I want to go somewhere.

Right now I’m testing everything of an SD card, which has effects on performance, compared to the internal eMMC. I haven’t decided which distro to go with yet, so will wait a bit until I finally install a final distro onto the eMMC. Remember this.

Last word >> I'm quite enjoying the Pinephone, even it's not fully functional to fulfill my requirements at the moment. As soon as it does, and the battery life extends at least to a whole day, then it will make it as a daily driver, that's for sure!