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No. 28 Vol. 1Sat 13 November 2021Price: 0/0d

Fine times with the PineTime

>> How Did I Do >> Sat 13 November 2021 by Thran >> Last updated 2021-11-14 >>

Planting Pines

In this age of technological saturation we have many convenient devices, but they often come at great cost to privacy. They are often designed to last the length of a warranty before coaxing the owner into an unnecessary upgrade. There is a need for ethically better gadgets that don't insult their owners, similar to how Linux and other Free Software projects treat their users much better than the offerings from Microsoft, Google or Apple.

One such company attempting to create an open hardware community is Pine 64. From them we have the PineBook Pro laptop, PinePhone, Pine Rock64 single board computer, PineTab, even a Pinecil programmable soldering iron. I own some of these devices. Last of all is the PineTime.

I finally acquired a PineTime smart watch. After two months I've gained enough experience to form an opinion. Overall impression is very positive but I've noted some minor snags. I'd recommend these watches for moderate to heavyweight techies, i.e. anyone who is wondering what this generation's Casio CA-53W will be. These watches aren't quite ready for the everyman yet, if they are ever meant to be. Notwithstanding that, the hardware and software is loaded with promise. Read on if you're curious to know why.

The Hardware

Construction

Very solid. No compromises were made in the construction. The PT is made from a solid metal body, the strap adjustable to a wide variety of wrist sizes and made from rubber as decent as any I've worn on a watch. Here is a photograph of mine (click to enlarge):

PineTime running InfiniTime

The PT has just one button at the side. All control is through the touch screen UI. The display is clear and bright. It has a sold, tactile feel. I wouldn't want to drop it, mind you, but neither would I drop a Rolex if I had one.

The PineTime comes well-packaged (good enough for a gift), with a small getting started tract and a USB charging cradle.

The Specs

  • CPU: 64MHz ARM Cortex-M4F NORDIC nRF52832
  • RAM: 64KB (all it needs)
  • STORAGE: 512KB + 4MB Flash Storage
  • SCREEN: 65K colours, 240x240px, 1.3" capacitive touchscreen
  • CONNECTION: Bluetooth 5 with Low Energy support.

The Software

For the PineTime itself we have a choice of operating systems. The retail PineTime comes with InfiniTime OS preinstalled. This OS looks to be most robust and feature complete. The software is built atop a C++/RTOS core.

The UI is rugged, sparse, but not minimalistic. Functional but not bland. Colour is used subtly. This reminds me of the better UI patterns from the past and not the current ugly and shallow flat-monochrome designs. A credit to the implementer's taste.

Ready your phone

Currently the best software support is on Android phones. The PineTime doesn't have a means of talking to iPhones - yet. However I'm aware that work is underway on an iOS app called InfiniLink. Follow the work on InfiniLink for iOS here.

Pair with Android

It is possible for any Bluetooth device to pair with a PineTime, all that is required is the right software on a host to pass it the right messages. This software is termed a companion app; the companion app on Android is known as GadgetBridge. It will link your Android phone to your PineTime.

Now, given we are in the world of Free/Open Source software, GadgetBridge is an F-Droid store exclusive. Should you search for 'GadgetBridge' on the official Google Play Store you'll find an unrelated news app, which is very much incapable of syncing with your PineTime.

F-Droid Store

If you haven't already installed the F-Droid store, you should. It is an alternative to the official Google Play Store and features a slew of free & open source Android software. It may be installed on any Android phone, though it must be 'sideloaded' through a manual installation. This isn't hard to do.

Get the F-Droid Store Here. You will have to 'Allow installation from unknown sources' (or similar) in Android. Once F-Droid is installed, it is easy to search for and install the GadgetBridge app.

If you have any questions of trust, remember open source software is just that. The source code may be audited by anyone. You should have much more serious questions of trust with the closed-source Google Play Store.

Pairing with your PineTime

With the GadgetBridge app installed and ready, enable Bluetooth and Location on your Android Phone. It is necessary to enable location for paring with your PineTime, but it is not necessary to leave Location enabled after pairing. I am not certain of why, and will update this entry if I learn the reason.

In GadgetBridge, configure a few options to make life easier. Open the side menu tap into 'Settings'. There is a long list but among it I recommend you enable the following:

  • Connect to GadgetBridge device when Bluetooth is turned on
  • Reconnect Automatically
  • CompanionDevice Pairing (Scroll to the very bottom to find it. Enable this if you are on Android 8 or above)

Then, go back to the Gadgetbridge home screen and tap the blue plus + to begin scanning for your PineTime. All being well, the PineTime will appear named as 'InfiniTime' and you may then connect.

Update the PineTime's Firmware

You will certainly want to update the firmware. The retail PineTime has InfiniTime 1.0 ready-installed, which is an outdated release as of this publish date. Release 1.6.0 supposedly fixes connection problems (more on that later).

To update the firmware, download the latest firmware ending in dfu.zip from here on your Android phone. Be sure to download the dfu.zip and not the file ending in .bin. In your Android OS' 'Open With' prompt choose to open it in Gadgetbridge. The firmware will be uploaded and installed.

Verifying the firmware

On the PineTime itself it is necessary to 'validate' the update so it persists after restarts. Otherwise, your PT will revert to the original firmware after a reboot. To do this:

  • Swipe rightwards on your PT
  • Press the gear icon, to enter the settings page
  • Swipe upwards to get to the next page in the list
  • Tap 'Firmware' and tap the button to validate your firmware update

Using InfiniTime & Recommendations

First, the obvious things: The OS is very intuitive for anyone who has used Android, iOS, or even Palm OS. Navigation is achieved by swiping. Actions are executed by tapping anything that looks like a button.

To lock and unlock the PineTime, press the hardware button.

To reboot the PineTime, hold in this button. During a reboot notice that 1.0 appears on screen, this is the bootloader version, not the OS version.

Some less-obvious things

On the homescreen swipe:

  • downwards for notifications. The 5 most recent notifications on your phone are available here.
  • rightwards for 'system tray': settings/brightness/silence
  • upwards for the 'app tray' where many fun and useful applets await

Swiping the opposite direction navigates backwards in the menu hierarchy. I.e., swipe upwards to go back to the homescreen when in notifications.

A new face

The update to 1.6.0 gives the option for a stylish and colourful new watch face. I recommend switching to this watch face, for the default is quite bland. To do this go System Tray (rightwards swtipe) -> Settings (gear) -> Watch Face -> PineTimeStyle.

You will also want to customise the colours. Go back to the settings menu and scroll down a screen. Tap PTS Colors and you may adjust the arrows back and forth to configure a colour scheme.

A convenience

In settings enable the following to make your life easier:

Settings -> Wake Up -> Raise Wrist

This will do as it says. The PT will wake up and show the current time when you raise your wrist, which saves you tapping or pressing the button to see the time. This makes it act quite a bit like a conventional watch.

Included applets

Inside the previously-mentioned app tray, we have the following applets:

  • stopwatch
  • music controls (controls for music/podcast apps on your phone)
  • navigation
  • step counter
  • heart rate monitor
  • countdown timer
  • drawing
  • pong
  • a number puzzle
  • stats
  • a metronome
  • alarm

Correct as of InfiniTime 1.6.0.

What is pulled from your phone

  • Recent notifications. If someone emails, texts or IMs you, the PT will vibrate and show a summary of what was sent and from whom.
  • Phone calls. If you are phoned, the PT will vibrate and give you the choice of answering or hanging up.
  • Now Playing. If any music or podcast is playing, it will be displayed in the music controls applet. It is possible to control your music with next/previous/play&pause buttons.
  • Navigation. I haven't tested this, but it seems the PT can recieve directions from a navigation app.

Some gripes

I have used the PineTime with InfiniTime on and off for two months. While my overall impression is positive, there are a few outstanding problems that need fixed. There are workarounds but eventually I hope to see these fixed. These are:

  • The current time doesn't update on first connect with GadgetBridge. Workaround: Disconnect and reconnect. This is done as follows: Long press the InfiniTime card in your GadgetBridge home screen to disconnect, then tap it once more to reconnect.
  • The PT doesn't reconnect when Bluetooth drops (still as of 1.6.0). I customarily switch off Bluetooth when going to bed. When I wake up the next day and switch on Bluetooth, Gadgetbridge says it is connecting to InfiniTime, but always fails even when I have the PineTime very near my phone. The solution is to delete the PineTime from GadgetBridge and pair it afresh. Hopefully the connection stability will be improved.
  • Vibrations continue when a call is answered on the phone. Having a steadily vibrating bracelet while trying to speak on the phone is an obvious annoyance, unless this is a particularly stressful call and you fancy a massage. The solution is to tap 'answer' on the PineTime even after you've already answered on your phone.
  • GadgetBridge needs your phone's location services enabled to pair for the first time. It doesn't need it thereafter. So I always turn it off after pairing. Were it possible to pair without location enabled, as is the case with other Bluetooth devices, I would prefer this.
  • The stopwatch doesn't work in the background. Because it must stay on screen to continue counting, the screen is easily tapped and time is lost. Or if I switch to use the heart rate monitor simultaneously, the stopwatch is reset to 0 next time I open it. Ideally, both these could be run at the same time, or as background tasks. This would make the PineTime perfect for exercise sessions.
  • There should be a 'reset to watchface' timeout. I've set the PT to unlock when raising my wrist. Sometimes my sleeve swipes the screen, which makes the InfiniTime enter a menu screen. The next time I raise my wrist, the PineTime is still showing the menu screen. What should happen is that InfiniTime will timeout and display the home screen after a configurable period of time, i.e. say 5s. This would make the raise to wake up feature even more convenient.

Some credit

These all work very well:

  • Notifications
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Time
  • The applets
  • Sound/media controls
  • Step counter

Day to day, I mostly use the media controls and notifications.

In closing, why this matters

I am eager to see how far the community spirit carries this humble electronic timepiece.

The PineTime matters because it is born of open source. It aims to be sustainable and supported for a long time with parts and easy repairability. The goal is to be 'hackable' but usable everyday.

In that spirit, the hardware specification is accessible to everyone, which makes for longevity. The software community founded is just as important, the produced source code will be used for other watches in the future. Ideally, the same spirit that gave rise to Linux on desktops and servers will give life to every kind of electronic device, bringing with it the same freedom.

This is something we much need with the ever-steady encroachment into our lives. We can't leave computing at the mercy of Big Tech. We also want to enjoy technological advancements and the conveniences they bring to our lives. But we don't want to yield our freedom for convenience. We don't want to lose good discretion and let our personal data be pillaged by myriad nebulous corporations and the ever-growing state. In the information age, freedom is only preserved through open hardware and software freedom.

Thus, the Pine64 project is well worth patronising. I sincerely hope this organisation never loses its scruples.

I want one

This is not a sponsored post. I am getting nothing from Pine64 except the joy of recommending something with great promise. Buy one or buy a dozen here.

A note on alternative operating systems

My review has concentrated on InfiniTime, but it would be to their detriment if I passed mention of the other operating systems that have been developed for the PineTime. You may read of them here.

Sources

I've found the following to be quite helpful. You may consult them to find more information on the PineTime. There is much I haven't covered, so delve away:

Tags for this writ:

open-hardware, gadgets, reviews, pine64,

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