New Daily Driver: the Odroid N2+

I have always had a soft spot for fanless ARM single-board computers (SBCs) because they are quiet, portable and consume very little power compared to a typical laptop or desktop machine. A typical desktop computer will consume from 100 to 500 Watts of power, while a typical laptop consumes 60 to 90 Watts. An ARM SBC can consume anything from 6 to 30 Watts, which is considerably less than either of the more common formats. They also have less in the way of hardware monitoring than intel-based CPUs, and can run linux, which is my preferred operating system.

Until fairly recently, however, these machines have been too slow to operate well as standard work computers because package availability was sloppy and memory and CPU availability were at the low end of what you would typically need to get the job done. Also graphic processor support, the bane of linux, is particularly bad for these devices, as they tend to have commercial GPU drivers (as phones are their main application market).

As I mostly use open-source software for my research, and my graphical needs are fairly simple, I have proved to my own satisfaction that I can use these boards to do real work, albeit with a performance penalty compared to a modern i5 or i7 intel chip laptop. My first arm machine was an Odroid XU4 which I brought with me on sabbatical and used for writing papers and reports over a 5-month period. The only problem I had with that machine was that it would get into funny states after updating the OS, and it required a fan. Subsequent to this, I purchased a Pinebook Pro, which I could use as a laptop but which was a slower than the XU4, making the experience a little too frustrating to persevere with in the longer term, though I still use it from time to time.

Now Hardkernal, the maker of the odroid machines, has a new ARM64 SBC which is more powerful than the XU4, the Odroid N2+. This device is marketed as an alternative to the Raspberry pi 4 (which I have not used), being more powerful and more expensive. I purchased mine for USD86 with a plastic case, wireless dongle, and 128 GB emmc card (note that if you are going to use a computer seriously, having as much solid state storage as possible is very helpful). The device comes with 4GB of memory which, as the old Rolls-Royce acceleration specs used to say, is `adequate’.

This device uses more power than the XU4, requiring 12V and 2 A, rather than 5V at 3A. But this is not so surprising given the extra speed of the newer device. It also is by default fanless, although a fan is available for high load applications. So far in using it for my work, the heatsink has not got much more than warm. Although the device can apparently be overclocked to 2.4 GHz, I have not attempted overclocking it.

Initially if you purchase the device from the hardkernel web site, the emmc chip comes with ubuntu mate installed as the recommended operating system. As I like manjaro better than ubuntu, after playing around a bit with the default I used etcher to implement a manjaro sway windowing environment that has been compiled specifically for this computer. After a successful install I noticed that the screen I was using with the N2+ (a QHD 32″ lenovo monitor) would flicker randomly, which was very irritating. In case it was a problem with the Wayland system, I installed manjaro XFCE, which uses X11 rather than Wayland, but when I tried the XFCE version of manjaro, the flickering still occurred. So after a couple of unsuccessful installs, I went back to the original Ubuntu mate installation, which does not cause the flicker problem on my monitor, presumably because hardkernel installed the correct graphics drivers.

I really like tiling window managers that you can control via the keyboard (hence my initial desire to use sway), so once I had mate installed and the default user account removed I installed i3. The i3 window manager seems to work really well under ubuntu, and I was able to set things up just the way I like them. One of the things I don’t like about ubuntu and other Debian-based distributions is the slow turnaround time, as several applications require very up-to-date versions to operate properly (like my University’s owncloud server). However I was pleasantly surprised this time that most programs installable by apt were able to work without causing me problems because of their age.

Here is a picture of what the configuration looks like. The image shows emacs, a translucent shell window (terminator, using powershell) and a web browser all open on the same workspace. The little icons on the bottom right show the other three workspaces that can be used.

Figure 1: i3 configuration

Because i3 is pretty lightweight compared to many window managers, the transition between workspaces and switching between applications is very fast. Using the emacs daemon makes editing very fast too. Once you get used to it, the keyboard-driven workflow associated with i3 and emacs is pretty hard to beat.

In total, with the blind alleys caused by trying the other distros, it took about 10 hours to completely set up the N2 the way I want it. Now I can use all the tools that I use on the intel laptop for my research work, and apart from taking a little longer to load programs, I don’t experience much lag at all compared to my i7 laptop. I was able to connect to my cloud service and to run all the codes I need to, either using snaps, apt, or in a couple of cases compiling from source. The experience is no worse than my usual linux installation experience (best described as me trying lots of permutations of random things based upon internet searches until something works). My existing i3 and emacs configurations were basically able to be transferred directly to the new computer with very few changes necessary. Because all my work in progress is on the cloud, this means that I can work on my project either on my laptop or on this SBC with seamless results, as I have the same applications installed on both machines.

In summary, I’m impressed. This blog post was written on it using emacs org2blog.  It’s possible that I might get bored or frustrated and stop using this machine for work, in which case it will be used as a lab device for transferring data from instruments, or as a connected diary device.  But at the moment I can’t much tell the difference between working on this machine and working on my laptop, and that’s a very good sign.  It’s really impressive how far ARM64 support has come in linux.  For a total outlay of less than AUD200, this is a really fun-to-use laptop replacement, provided you have access to a HDMI monitor and as long as you don’t mind shutting it down between moves (because it does not have a battery).  4GB is not a lot of memory, but in linux I have yet to reach a limit that affects my work in terms of available memory.

The small size of this machine means that, with a big rechargeable battery, it could be made into a very nice portable computer provided you have access to a TV or monitor with HDMI support, which is pretty much everything these days.  I have some ideas about form factors that I hope to have time to try out one day…

The Pinebook Pro

I bought a Pinebook Pro way back in November of 2019. For those who don’t know, the Pinebook Pro is an ARM64 laptop made by Pine64, a company that develops ARM64 devices and harnesses the open source software community to develop code that can drive the hardware. It’s a really interesting business model, allowing the company to focus on hardware that meets the needs of the community.

For a long time I had been keen to get an arm64 laptop. I had previously owned a couple of Odroid XU4 single-baord computers that functioned very well as a little linux box for doing basic work, but they always required an available monitor. A laptop was more convenient. For a long time, the only options were chromebook computers, which seemed to involved a lot of messing around to get Linux operating on. I bought a Teres laptop from Olimex and built it, but it was not really fast enough for my work and I had battery problems with it.  So when Pine64 announced the development of a USD199 laptop with an ARM64 processor that was designed to run Linux, and that promised a thin form factor, 4 GB RAM and 64 or 128 GB EMMC storage, I was interested.

I have been using the device for about 8 months now. As an early adopter, I had the usual problems one might expext with an ARM-based linux: the trackpad was inaccurate, the device would not sleep properly, problems with wifi etc. Eventually the trackpad problems were helped by a firmware update. This was great, because the trackpad was nearly unuseable. My biggest problem was that my config files were kept on an owncloud server that was newer than the Debian version for the pineboook I was using, so I could not access these files, which were essential for my workflow. I transitioned from Debian to Manjaro, and the rolling updates solved that problem. The Manjaro folks seem to have really taken to this device, and the OS seems to work well. Figure 1 shows what the login screen looks like.

The device is plain black, with magnesium top and bottom surfaces.  The bezel and palmrest parts are plastic (more on this below).  It’s very light and the hinge is a little stiff, but holds the screen in place well. I personally like the fact that there is no logo, other than the pine logo on one of the keys that operates in place of a Windows key on a windows laptop.

Currently I am using the xfce version of Manjaro, with the i3 window manager, and I really like this combination. The regular updates get rid of many of the software problems, and about the only thing I would like would be better power consumption in sleep mode. Leaving the machine overnight in sleep mode still consumes about 70% of the battery power, which isn’t great. While working, though, I can get at least 7-8 hours use out of the device without resorting to any power reduction tricks. That’s good enough for my needs.

Figure 1: The Pinebook Pro Manjaro login screen

A couple of surprising things about this laptop: the keyboard and the screen. For $199, my expectations were certainly not high. But the screen is pretty good, with clarity and nice resolution. Also, despite the wacgrning you get when you order one of these, there were no broken pixels on it. The screen is better than the elitebooks I have used in the past, which were a lot more expensive. The keyboard is surprisingly good also, for a chiclet keyboard. It’s not a thinkpad, but it’s a lot better than a lot of other chiclet keyboards I have used, or the keyboard on my Surface Pro 4.

The wireless is not strong, but it’s OK. The bluetooth also works as well as it ever does, at least for my bluetooth headphones, and the connection struggles at times if the CPU is being used for other tasks.  The device has USB A and C ports, with the latter providing ethernet with the appropriate USB C dongle.  One other neat thing is that the wifi and camera can be turned off in hardware with some key combinations.  For those with privacy concerns, this is useful.

There are some other problematic aspects of the Pinebook Pro. Even with the firmware update, the trackpad is not very good. It’s useable, but that’s about it. The speakers are poor, and are directed under the device. But the biggest problem is the structural integrity of the device itself. The plastic is thin and brittle, and after only about a month of gentle use, cracks started to form on the wrist rests, plastic started to break around the USB ports, and eventually the plastic around the trackpad, the power barrel, and near the hinges broke from the stresses generated when the cover was opened and closed. I had the ISO keyboard. Initially I superglued the cracks and sanded the case down, which helped with some of the problems, but they got worse and worse. Figure 2 shows the damage to my keyboard, with the cracks at the power port causing problems with opening the case. If you look carefully, there are some lighter lines at the bottom left that indicate where the superglue repairs were done.  Eventually I had to buy a replacement ANSI keyboard that I installed (with firmware update) because I read on the forum that it was a better quality plastic than the plastic on the original ISO keyboard. That remains to be seen: it does not look any different to me. I suspect that I’ll have to get another keyboard in the future. The magnesium bottom and lid parts seem quite resiliant. To replace the keyboard you have to replace every board and cable on the computer, as they are screwed to the keyboard. However, I managed it, so it cannot be too hard (remember to peel the plastic from the keyboard connector). I think the physical strength of the palmrest part of the keyboard is probably the single biggest problem with this device.

One other problem for users outside the USA is that they won’t send you a replacement battery.  I suppose when the time comes I’ll need to get one from another supplier and get the wiring right.  The problem with computer batteries needing to be sent inside a computer for overseas shipping seems to me to be a cop-out.  If we are to take e-waste seriously, users should be able to easily upgrade all the components of their device, and the batteries in particular, as even rechargeable batteries are consumables.  One of the best aspects of the Pinebook Pro is that components can easily be removed for replacement and upgrade.

Figure 2: Broken ISO keyboard after disassembly

So the question I set out to answer is ‘Can the Pinebook Pro be a useful everyday computing device?’ For me, the answer is yes. For you, it may not be. It’s not a fast machine, by any means. The Surface Pro i5 runs rings around it, for example. But my needs for a computer are pretty simple. It runs Emacs, Firefox, GIMP and Inkscape well, and internet video is reasonably fast and smooth enough for YouTube. The delay is noticeable in CPU-heavy activities like compilation, but it’s not that bad. In fact, using the i3 window manager, it’s pretty zippy for the most part, with easy keyboard-based swapping between workspaces. I really like i3, and have it configured to easily provide the programs that I use on a day-to-day basis.  Like all ARM64 devices, linux applications are not as well catered for as they are for Intel CPUs, but this situation will get better with time, in particular thanks to the popularity of single-board ARM computers like the Raspberry Pi.  Despite this limitation, I’m able to do all the programming and text development needed for my scientific work on this device. I wouldn’t recommend doing CAD or playing graphical games on it, but for the text-based tasks I use linux for, it works well enough for my needs, and I really love the long battery life.  My Surface Pro lasts about 1 hour on battery after 4 years of use, and it’s nearly physically impossible to replace the battery.  In terms of hardware accessibility, the Pinebook Pro is great.

I would definitely recommend the Pinebook Pro to tinkerers like me. It’s not for those who are nervous about taking a screwdriver to their laptop, or for those who want their operating system to ‘just work’ out of the box. It is a simple and easy-to-disassemble computer.  I’ve been using it for serious work for about 6 months, and can see myself for continuing to do so, at least until the keyboard breaks again. I hope Pine64 keep improving the design and fabrication processes, developing a more robust machine that evolves with time.  I love the modular design, and the Manjaro community are doing a great job making linux work for it.  For USD199 (plus postage) this laptop’s not a bad deal at all.