elementary OS on Pinebook Pro

An experimental case of hardware enablement

In June, PINE64 reached out to see if elementary would be interested in experimenting with elementary OS on Pinebook Pro. We’d been loosely following PINE64 and the progress of Pinebook Pro, but hadn’t gotten our hands on one—so we expressed our interest. PINE64 was gracious enough to send a few devices out to members of our team, and our work began.

Pinebook Pro

First, a bit of a disclaimer: Pinebook Pro support is still considered an experiment for elementary OS, and it’s not something we have committed to officially support indefinitely. That said, the experience so far has been a lot of fun, and we’re happy with the current state. Second, this post isn’t going to get into a lot of details about the hardware itself; for that, see Cassidy’s recent personal blog post. Lastly, our work on bringing elementary OS to Pinebook Pro has been made possible by PINE64 generously providing the hardware as well as by funding from our Early Access sponsors. If you’d like to see more projects like this, consider backing us on GitHub Sponsors.

Bringing elementary OS to Pinebook Pro

The process of producing both functional and high-quality builds of elementary OS for Pinebook Pro has been long, but was made substantially easier thanks to help from PINE64 and the work of other projects.

Kernel & Bootloader

Thanks to the great work that the Manjaro ARM team have done in this field, getting a working kernel for the Pinebook Pro was relatively painless. We’ve simply taken a mainline kernel straight from kernel.org, applied a few patches copied from the Manjaro repository and used a configuration set similar to the Manjaro one. It needed tweaking slightly to be compatible with the way Ubuntu/elementary works. For example, we’ve had to disable kernel module compression in the kernel configuration as this isn’t compatible with the Ubuntu update-initramfs scripts yet.

As of this post, Ubuntu hasn’t released any kernels that are new enough or contain the necessary tweaks, options, and patches to run on the Pinebook Pro. So this is one major area where the Pinebook Pro builds differ from the regular Intel/AMD builds. We were initially using kernel 5.7, but have since upgraded to 5.8, which allowed dropping some more patches that have been mainlined.

elementary normally relies heavily on the fantastic work done by Canonical in testing and maintaining kernel releases. So maintaining our own kernel configuration and patchset is a bit of a departure from that. Ubuntu already releases specific kernels for the Raspberry Pi, perhaps we’ll see a ready made Pinebook Pro one in the future. In the short term however, we may consider packaging the Pinebook Pro kernel into a .deb and hosting it on a PPA, so we can push updates in future if necessary. For now, though, the kernel is just built into the image at build time and so does not currently receive updates.

The bootloader is a similar story. We needed a version that was new enough to support the Pinebook Pro and a few patches, so this has come directly from mainline u-boot and not yet packaged as an upgradable .deb.

Performance

Despite elementary OS being a relatively performant distribution, the experience still isn’t as good as you might hope given the capability of the hardware. This is down to GTK3 largely not using GPU acceleration, especially when running on Xorg. There are a number of tweaks we’ve applied to improve the experience somewhat, though there won’t be any big leaps in performance until we can move the stack to Wayland and to a greater extent GTK4.

One interesting point is that you can clearly notice the difference between the GPU accelerated animations (done by the Compositor) and those done largely on the CPU by GTK. For example, the AltTab animation feels pretty smooth compared to the animation used when opening the applications menu. So the potential of the hardware is there, the software stack just isn’t quite ready to take advantage of it yet.

The first performance tweak we applied was disabling the ondemand CPU governor which is forced on by default as a systemd unit on Ubuntu. This allows the kernel to use the schedutil governor which has been enabled and set as the default in our kernel configuration. The schedutil governor is a much newer governor with an awareness of the different performance/power utilization levels of the big.LITTLE cores in the ARM CPU. Switching to this gave an immediate noticeable gain in performance.

Both ondemand and schedutil scale the frequency of the processor cores in response to load. However, if they aren’t doing this efficiently or if the CPU has delays or slowdowns while it’s switching frequency, you notice a bit of latency while the frequency picks up, then things feel a bit more speedy for a few seconds and then they slow down again.

We’ve opted to increase the minimum frequencies of both the CPU and GPU to reduce some of this sluggishness. This has the downside of reducing the battery life slightly. But given the already excellent battery life, we felt it was a reasonable trade-off.

If you wish to disable these frequency tweaks and have longer battery life but worse performance instead, you can comment out the lines in /etc/tmpfiles.d/cpufreq.conf and reboot.

Keyboard and Trackpad Tweaks

We’ve applied three different configuration tweaks to get the keyboard and trackpad functioning better under elementary OS.

The first is some UDev configuration originated from Manjaro to correctly map the sleep (FnEsc) and brightness (FnF1/F2) keys on the keyboard. Some similar configuration tweaks could be used to essentially invert the Fn key (i.e. pressing the F1 key would turn the brightness down and FnF1 would function as F1), but we’re not sure if we will ship that by default.

The second tweak is some LibInput configuration at /etc/libinput/local-overrides.quirks. This file tells LibInput that the Pinebook keyboard is “internal”, as it automatically assumes USB keyboards (the Pinebook Pro keyboard is on the USB bus) are external unless it is told otherwise. This has the effect of allowing LibInput to “pair” the keyboard with the trackpad, meaning that when the “disable while typing” setting is enabled for the trackpad, it functions correctly. External keyboards do not disable the trackpad.

The final tweak at the bottom of /etc/udev/hwdb.d/10-usb-kbd.hwdb disables a device that the keyboard firmware reports as a “keyboard mouse”. We assume that the keyboard firmware has some provision for a Trackpoint-style pointer that doesn’t physically exist on the keyboard, but the firmware still reports it. Having this device enabled resulted in the trackpad being disabled if you enabled the “disable when external mouse connected” option. The phantom “keyboard mouse” device was again assumed to be external, meaning LibInput assumed you had an additional external mouse connected and that you didn’t want the trackpad anymore.

It’s possible that some/all of these tweaks are not necessary/useful on distributions that use the Synaptics driver instead of LibInput for the trackpad, but elementary OS uses LibInput by default.

Power Management

The biggest and most time consuming issue we came across while porting elementary OS to the Pinebook Pro was a sporadic issue with shutdown not powering off the device. Sometimes the power light would go off, but the device was still secretly on, draining battery and you had to hard reset by holding the power button and then powering on again. Other times the power light would flash red (indicating a kernel panic), and on occasion, it would shut down properly/normally.

Using a UART cable for debugging resulted in some kernel warnings about the i2c code for handling the shutdown call to the PMIC (Power Management Integrated Circuit) not being “atomic”. This turned out to be an important hint, but it is a relatively normal message that you’ll also see on other distributions using a similar kernel.

After much digging, it turned out that something in our stack pulls in a package called irqbalance by default. This distributes the hardware interrupts among the CPU cores to try and get better performance. The fact that the i2c code in the Rockchip driver is not atomic means that it relies on interrupts to function.

During shutdown, the kernel disables interrupts on all but the first CPU core. The fact that irqbalance has potentially told a different core to handle the interrupts for the PMIC is the problem here. It also explains the random/sporadic behavior. Removing the package was enough to fix the issue as the kernel has its own interrupt distribution code and is smart enough to ensure the interrupts are handled on the first core during shutdown.

A lot of ARM platforms handle power management functions like shutdown and suspend in a low level firmware interface called PSCI (Power State Coordination Interface). Instead of communicating directly with the PMIC chip like the current kernel in the Pinebook Pro image does, the kernel can communicate with the standardized PSCI API.

Unfortunately, these shutdown and suspend interfaces are not yet implemented in the open-source ARM TF-A (Trusted Firmware-A) meaning these functions have been implemented in the kernel in a non-standard way. This is understandable given the amount of work required to implement these functions in the low level firmware. Hopefully, when these features are implemented in the firmware, it should be possible to drop these non-standard patches and hopefully have improved suspend power draw levels.

A lot of manufacturers of ARM platforms offer a BSP (Board Support Package), which can include closed source firmware and a custom kernel (which is now a relatively out of date version). Rockchip offers a BSP firmware image and kernel where the suspend performance is improved, but we’ve opted for up to date and more easily auditable versions of these components.

Looking Forward

Now that we’ve enabled builds for Pinebook Pro and have a few contributors using it on a regular basis, we’ll likely continue using and treating it as a sort of common benchmark platform. For example, the lower-powered nature of the hardware lends itself well as a performance baseline that we can use to improve elementary OS. This work can help us tune and improve performance across all platforms—not just Pinebook Pro.

More generally, this experience has also been the first time we’ve had a coordinated hardware enablement effort with multiple contributors using identical machines. This sort of workflow has significant advantages, and may inform our hardware decisions going forward.

Run elementary OS on Pinebook Pro

In its current state, we would not consider elementary OS on Pinebook Pro as polished of an experience as running on well-supported Intel-based hardware.

That said, the audience for Pinebook Pro is substantially more technical and Linux-savvy than your average computer user; as such, we’ve decided to publish our experimental builds under our Early Access builds program. This means dedicated sponsors of elementary OS who wish to run elementary OS on Pinebook Pro can download it from the same place as Early Access builds of elementary OS. As a note, all of this work has been focused on bringing the pre-release of elementary OS 6 to Pinebook Pro, so all the usual disclaimers about pre-release builds apply here as well.

Pinebook Pro on the elementary OS Wiki

Once you have access to Early Access builds, head over to the elementary OS wiki to get it installed on your own hardware. If you find and file any issues, please remember to specify the build of the OS you downloaded as well as that you are running on Pinebook Pro—it will help us validate and triage issues much more quickly.



Thank You

Thanks to all of our supporters, backers, and customers! Your contributions make elementary possible. If you’d like to help build and improve elementary OS, don’t hesitate to Get Involved.

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