PinePhone Keyboard First Impressions

posted January 10th, 2022

On new year’s day, Pine64 released the PinePhone keyboard case and fingerprint reader case (along with others) on their store. I ordered them that afternoon, and they arrived just over a week later, which was surprisingly fast compared to my past orders from them. I’ve been playing with it for a couple of hours and wanted to jot down some of my initial thoughts.

I haven’t tried the fingerprint reader case yet, but I’m looking forward to trying it soon!

The box for the PinePhone keyboard case and fingerprint reader case

T H I C C

The first thing that stood out to me was the form factor - this thing is massive.

Obviously there’s plenty of pictures online that show how big it is, but it’s difficult to get a sense of the scale until you’re actually holding it in your hands. It’s large enough that, if you have smaller pockets, you might have to throw it in your bag.

This is due to it being both wider (by about 1 - 2 cm) than the PinePhone, but also being more than twice as thick. It’s also way heavier, thanks to the built-in battery.

I don’t dislike the form factor, but you have to keep in mind that it changes what type of device the PinePhone is. The Pine64 store page has a good way of putting it: “This add-on effectively turns the PinePhone (Pro) into a PDA with an in-built LTE modem”.

Thee PinePhone keyboard case next to a Nintendo 3DS XL.

The keyboard case is a bit larger than a Nintendo 3DS XL

Like most Pine64 products, the branding is fairly minimal. On the front, the Pine64 logo next to the PinePhone’s camera is visible through the cutout. On the back is the Pine64 logo and product model.

The front and back of the PinePhone keyboard case

The front and back of the keyboard case. The only change I would make is to expand the speaker grille so it looks centred…

Specs

The PinePhone keyboard case has an ISO layout, with rearrangeable key caps. It connects to the PinePhone using the pogo pins on the back, and it has an internal 6000 mAh battery that significantly extends the phone’s battery life. There’s a USB-C charging port on the right side, as well as a button to toggle case charging on and off.

The phone’s power and volume buttons are still accessible, along with cutouts for the phone’s headphone jack, USB-C port, back camera, and speaker.

The battery inside the bottom half of the case also weighs it down, so that you can set the case down on a table and keep the screen upright.

Keyboard

The most important part is, obviously, how typing on the keyboard feels, and I’m happy to say that it feels great! The keys are easy to press, but the still have a good amount of travel and clickiness.

The layout takes some time to get used to. At first, the keys feel really small, and it’s difficult to press them accurately, but after trying some typing tests, and writing this blog post with the keyboard, I can type around 60 WPM fairly consistently.

There are some issues though. I’m not sure if my unit is defective, but the keys in the number row (including escape and backspace) require more force to press than the other keys. This is especially annoying while learning the layout, since I need to use backspace to erase mistakes, but often I don’t press it hard enough, then continue typing before realizing I didn’t actually erase something.

I’m going to wait and see if others have the same issue, and if there’s some kind of fix, but if it is a defect, hopefully Pine64 can replace it.

Software

Getting the keyboard up and running was super simple. Using the latest Arch Linux ARM image, the keyboard works without any additional configuration after a system update. According to the Pine64 store page, the keyboard is also supported in PostmarketOS, Manjaro, and Mobian.

I’m using Phosh, and the only setting I changed was to disable the on-screen keyboard. The on-screen keyboard still pops up even with the keyboard connected, and it was annoying to have to keep closing it (especially in landscape orientation, where the keyboard takes up most of the screen).

One nice touch is that, while the phone is sleeping, you can start typing and the phone will wake up and start entering your passcode. It makes it really quick to unlock the phone and get back to what you were doing.

Unlocking the PinePhone using the keyboard case

Next Steps

Having a keyboard has improved the experience of using the PinePhone a lot. Not only because physical keyboards are nice, but also because a lot of apps haven’t been fully optimized for the mobile Linux desktop yet. For example, on the PinePhone, Firefox is just the desktop version with some tweaks. It gets the job done, but having access to all the keyboard shortcuts makes it a lot more usable.

The more I use the keyboard, the more stuff I wish I could do with it. It makes me want to get rid of the home screen entirely and use a tiling window manager - and luckily, it seems like this is exactly what SXMO/SWMO is. I’ll have to give it a try sometime in the future, it seems like the keyboard is perfect for that kind of interface.

I also want to try optimizing my writing experience. I wrote the majority of this blog post by SSHing into my desktop and using Neovim. This works great, but there are still improvements that could be made, like hiding more Phosh UI to open up more screen space, and having a local setup so I can write without SSH.

Gaming could be another interesting area to explore. Having a keyboard for input could be great for retro game emulation, or streaming games from another desktop.

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