NZ Techonverse: PineTab, PinePhone, PineBook

First published on NZ Techonverse

Pine is a platform of multiple low cost devices, starting with a range of single board computers (things the size and functional level of a Raspberry Pi and in a similar sub-$100 price bracket), which has extended into a laptop, phone and tablet in the last couple of years. The distinguishing factor in the case of the phone and tablet is that both are capable of running Linux, with a suitable touch enabled release such as Ubuntu Touch or Plasma Mobile, which are respectively based on Ubuntu and KDE. This gives the end user the confidence they are the owner of their device and are capable of fully controlling what it does, rather than being subservient to a gigantic multinational like Google. The problem with commercial Android is not only that a phone ends up full of Google apps that can’t be uninstalled, but that having them running all the time in the background and unable to be disabled gobbles up a lot of battery use, which at the end of the day reduces the overall battery life as well as charge life. There are also grounds for concern about the vast volume of personal data Google collects from Android phones, including location data, Wifi access points nearby and audio constantly recorded by the always-on handpiece microphone, as well as gathering all available data from every app on the phone, including screen scraping.

The major concern that these devices are able to address is that user of Android and other mobile platforms are locked into using apps without any ability to see what an app is doing in the background, as it is known that a lot of apps like Facebook also suck up as much data as they can obtain, and users do have good grounds to be concerned about Facebook’s business model that relies on incentivising users to spend a lot of time on the platform and recording everything they do or see. It is for this reason that this author chose to install a non proprietary version of Android onto a Nexus 5X phone and use it every day, without giving Google any data except by choice. The Nexus 5X is now an ageing device that will eventually wear out, and the PinePhone looks like it might be a viable replacement, especially given Pine’s targeting of the middle cost end of the market and designing their device to be easily serviceable and to use a Samsung Galaxy J7 battery. Ubuntu Touch and Plasma Mobile are both free and open source software, developed by a community of volunteers, so Pine has been able to keep costs down on the devices as they don’t have to pay Google license fees. Whilst these operating systems are not Android and therefore can’t run Android apps, the communities that support them have provided their own apps and an existing range of standard software is available for them.

Pricing for the PinePhone and PineTab are similar; ranging between $US100 and $US200 depending on options. This indicates a possible price in NZ of around $300-400 depending on exchange rates and shipping costs. This would be quite reasonable when compared with better quality Android phones that have more capabilities, whilst being considerably cheaper than an Iphone. The PinePhone and PineTab are quite new devices and have initially only been available to developers, so it remains to be seen how effective or useful they are as consumer devices. It is certainly highly desirable that such devices become readily available and that they find a successful, viable niche in the market, given that most affordable handhelds are locked to commercial Android and therefore limit what the end user can achieve with them.

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