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Pine64 PineNote: Initial Review

My PineNote I’ve now owned my PineNote for two weeks and figured it’d be a decent time as ever to share initial thoughts and general views of the project. The TL;DR is that the product category is cool, but the PineNote project is still too early for end users.

I’ve been following the PineNote and the Remarkable for a year or so now. I was a huge proponent of e-Ink displays and devices in the past, clutching my Kindle 4 until it finally seared its advertising image into perpetuity and the beyond. By chance, on a flight home a few weeks ago, I sat next to a lovely woman who allowed me to use her Remarkable 2 for about 20 minutes. I knew it was something I would enjoy: e-ink reader, handwriting tablet, and generic Android/computer.

Within a day of getting home, I checked out the Remarkable 2’s website and then checked out that their business model seems to be hanging on the subscription service called “Connect”. That just gave me a bad feeling about the device and product roadmap entirely. I shouldn’t have to subscribe to my tablet and be a second class citizen if I don’t subscribe. Then I went and checked out the PineNote, which last I checked was not shipping to anyone but developers.

Apparently, as of January 2022 they’ve been shipping to all who would like for the price of $399 ($100 more expensive than the Remarkable 2, but clearly no subscription model). It is important to note that they have ample warnings on their website pointing out that it’s still not ready for end users and anyone buying should feel comfortable developing. I have a hardware background, I’ve worked with linux devices quite a bit, I figure I could make this work. I plunk down my $399 and a week later am delivered what looks like a device from Apple. Pristine white box, minimalist design of the packaging and an unboxing that felt super professional. So far, the expectations are way higher than I’d expect for something that’s not meant for end users yet.

That’s pretty much where the professionalism ends, though. At this moment, there’s no quick start guide with the PineNote, nothing telling you how anything works or how to assemble the cover, nor what any of the accessories sent are. So, okay, maybe I’ll boot it up and there’ll be something on the device with some info.

Incredibly enough, the product boots up in a really professional looking default Android OS that has been given the PineNote logo and some graphics saying “Open. Friendly. Community Driven.”, but that’s all you get that is custom to the PineNote. The Android OS shipped is exactly the same as the OS used on the Remarkable 2, so it was cool to see I was already familiar with basic usage of the device.

There’re some definite quirks with the factory Android OS, though. For instance, there’s an app called “Book Reader” which flat out doesn’t work. You can’t “Import Books” and even if you do put PDFs or EPUBs on your device and try to load them via “Book Reader”, it panics and you have to reboot the device. Thankfully, if you open the Epub or PDF via the file manager, it does open them in the right app and you’re able to use the reader like you’d expect. Notes work perfectly fine, though I wish there was a bit more customization of the menu appearance. Finally, the browser works as you’d expect, but it’s definitely lacking many normal features you’d expect in a browser like bookmarks or a search via URL input. All things considered, what’s important is that the device is totally usable right now, I’ve used it every day for notes and reading.

On the front of the hardware, this is where it gets a bit more interesting. The pen that comes with the device has its own charging port on the end of the pen. I’ve charged the pen exactly once, when I first got it. I have to assume that the pen has some sort of wireless charging or doesn’t need charging, as ever since that first charge, I’ve never charged it again. Note, the pen is supposed to show its battery percentage left on the device and it did this initially, but it’s very intermittent. Additionally, it should show whether the pen is connected, but so far every time it is actually connected, whether or not that’s indicated. The device itself has been fine from a hardware perspective, though the battery life is quite suspect. The device charges rather slowly, which isn’t that big of an issue, but what is confusing is what it reports as its percentage battery. I’ve noticed that the device will last for days after a full charge and still show 75% battery, but then, maybe, the next day it drops to 30% or lower, somehow. Once, it’s completely died after being at like 70% the day before. Part of me suspects that it could be because I maybe used the browser and it running in the background caused it to drain. Additionally, I don’t completely trust standby when it’s inside the case, as I’ve noticed significant faster battery drop then in comparison to simply manually putting it into standby. I’m fairly well acquainted with ACPI issues in Linux, so this isn’t too big of a worry for me. So far, yet again, the hardware has overall been fine.

Where things get weird is the “Community Driven” part of their slogan. From a general outsiders perspective, it’s pretty hard to understand the “community” aspect Pine64 provides for the PineNote. They have a few wiki pages dedicated to the PineNote and those pages point to both a forum and a chatroom on Riot, but that’s it. The wiki itself at this moment is pretty disjointed, including a couple snippets about using adb and dual booting, but absolutely nothing about the project overall. The forum is very inactive, so the chatroom it is for finding answers. I’m still piecing it together, but as of now from what I’ve learned by various folks in the chat, there’s a loose group of people working towards having Linux on the device and working towards better hardware support for Linux, but that’s about as much info as I have gotten from the room. This is where I’m kind of confused about “Community Driven”, because there is not an easily recognizable ideal for the PineNote.

Are we building towards a really solid end-user e-reader/writer product? Are we building towards a versatile product that can be a full Linux tablet? So far, it’s unclear. The community doesn’t seem to have much spirit either, with no one really identified as a leader.

I’m cautiously optimistic for the PineNote. Mostly, because I firmly believe in this product category for people who’re looking for more distraction-free tech that is easy on the eyes. I hope it works our for Pine64 and if not, I really hope the Remarkable or other competitors continue innovating in the space.