Pine64 development box fun: welcome to the wonderful world of software freedom

As part of my evangelism around free software, I have provided several of my friends and comrades with one of two Pine64 devices with Linux pre-installed. These boxes are to introduce people to this world of free software (and the freedom it brings) and to provide a useful and (hopefully) a little fun computer/server/gaming platform to tinker with. While you may not be on my list of people who get one of these, you can always buy one from Pine64 (or another single board computer company) and take them out for a spin.

Pine64 development box fun: welcome to the wonderful world of software freedom
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As part of my evangelism around free software, I have provided several of my friends and comrades with this device. To read more about why I care about this, please see these articles.

These boxes are to introduce people to this world of free software (and the freedom it brings) and to provide you with a useful and (hopefully) a little fun computer/server/gaming platform to tinker with.

While you may not be on my list of people who get one of these, you can always buy one from Pine64 (or another single board computer company) and take them out for a spin.

What is this little box?

It is a general purpose computer running the GNU/Linux operating system on ARM architecture. ARM is different from x86 that standard laptops and desktops run. ARM architecture is found in phones, tablets, single board computers/controllers, and the new Apple computers running the M1 chips. ARM architecture will not run x86 software, so this means some apps you may want to run are not available for this computer.

There are two varieties distributed to people depending on interest and requested (or unluckily gifted without request) requirements:

  1. Linux Inside Black Box:

  2. Small credit-card sized open clear box:

These little computers are running the GNU/Linux operating system as one of several distributions:

The Black Box is running either:

  • TwisterOS

  • Armbian Linux (Debian Buster Legacy Media Edition)

  • Manjaro Linux (KDE or XFCE)

The small clear cube is running either:

  • Armbian Linux

  • Manjoro Linux

  • Kodi OS

Yeah, but what is it?

A true general purpose computer.

The small clear cube can be a:

  • Server for email, file storage sync (using Syncthing), database, backup server (using rclone, website hosting, remote access (using ssh and nsupdate).

  • Audio conference platform using Mumble and a speakerphone or headset.

  • Media server and smart TV (using Kodi) to play and serve music, videos, pictures, books, documents, and other types of media files.

  • Light development platform.

  • Distraction-free writing platform.

  • Secure Smart Home service.

  • Torrent server.

  • Ad Blocker (using PiHole).

  • Platform for learning to code.

  • Weather and/or news station.

For the Little Black Box, it can be whatever you want it to be and with different "attachments" it can be different things:

  • A rather powerful (for its power use) general purpose computer with a keyboard and mouse.

  • It is game platform with a PC gaming controller (running retroarch or TwisterOS).

  • It is a video conferencing system with a cheap speakerphone and camera (Jitsi works great).

  • It is a conference call unit using mumble and a cheap speakerphone/headset.

  • It is music server, a movie server.

  • A picture backup and sharing system.

  • A file sync system.

  • A backup server with an external hard drive attached.

  • A server to a thin client for the road warrior.

What programs does it run?

The Linux distributions that these computers are running have many programs in an application store that you can look at. It will depend what you want to do and the limits of your processor power what is possible to run on your device.

While there is an app store for these distributions, the command line is much faster in Linux. I have provided links to the commands to use the terminal if you prefer that way.

The app store programs are named different things depending on the distribution, but they are usually called "package manager" in the menu.

  • TwisterOS or Armbian: Synaptic Package Manager

  • Manjaro: Pamac

Firefox

Simple, privacy focused open source web browser. Suggested additions:

  • Addon: uBlock Origin.

  • Turn off Picture in Picture under settings.

  • Turn on HTTPS everywhere under settings.

Firefox takes browsing securely to a new level. Use as the default browser and use Chromium (or Vivaldi) as a backup when Firefox doesn't work well.

Chromium

Simple open source web browser that is the basis for Google's Chrome browser. Good for some web pages that operate like applications, but Firefox is a better browser for simply browsing websites on the internet.

Vivaldi (on TwisterOS) is a version of Chromium that is tailored to the RockPro64's specific video processor.

Chromium Media Edition (through Docker)

It is only available on the Black Box version as it take a lot of processor power to decode these streams.

This allows you to watch DRM protected video services like Netflix, Prime, Disney, DAZN, etc..

Only use this browser to view these video sites as it is not secure or stable for other types of browsing. For example, it is not recommended that you check your email through this browser.

Syncthing

Syncthing is a continuous file synchronization program. It synchronizes files between two or more computers in real time, safely protected from prying eyes. Your data is your data alone and you deserve to choose where it is stored, whether it is shared with some third party, and how it's transmitted over the internet.

After set-up, go to IP.Address.of.box:8384 on any browser on your network on other computer, phone, or tablet and it should bring up the web interface. Having this run will give you a personal dropbox.

Thunderbird Mail Client

Thunderbird is a great graphical mail client. I only use mutt these days, but Thunderbird is a close second and a first for usability.

davmail for email conversion

Davmail will convert the data from the proprietary MS Outlook formats (that can only be connected to via the garbage Outlook Application) to IMAP and other open standards. This means you do not have to use Outlook to access work emails.

Why not use Outlook? It is a massive resource hog. Outlook is constantly sending and receiving information from the server clogging-up your internet and it is RAM and CPU intensive your machine. Davmail on your little box offloads this work and only connects to the email server when your email program checks for mail.

Live with focus, make your email check for new mail every 10 mins (or whatever time) and get a break from constant random reminders.

Basically, when you are home you can connect to the address of your box for IMAP and SMTP sync on any email client like Thunderbird or mutt.

Carddav can be set-up to access your contacts on the work server, but only once you have the email set-up.

Remote connection (outside your own wifi)

  • Connecting to your home services from outside your home requires dealing with your randomly changing public IP address and securely getting through your router's minimal firewall.

  • Setting-up an nsupdate account will allow you to communicate with your server and keep up to date on your change IP address.

  • This would allow you to connect to davmail outside your home wifi along with other services (a bit of a configuration process), but well worth it.

  • Syncthing works without doing this.

Games (TwisterOS)

  • TwisterOS has game emulators for many different game platforms installed.

  • Game ROMs can be downloaded from several sites on the internet.

  • Installing the ROMs depends slightly on which emulator you are using, but is fairly straight forward when you launch the emulator and open the downloaded ROM.

Audio conferencing

  • Mumble is an internet audio conferencing system

  • Must be use with either a headset or good noise canceling speakerphone.

  • CPress runs a mumble server, contact us to get access, and other can join using a browser which you can invite others to.

  • On your devices, use the mumble application installed. Set your own username.

  • Android (Mumla) and iPhone (Mumble client) also have mumble applications in their app stores and can be used to connect to these (again, using headphones or a headset).

Video conferencing

Your mileage may vary depending on several things, but these work best in TwisterOS and the latest Manjaro XFCE for the RockPro64 (Black Linux Inside Box)

  • Jitsi (and its paid network through 8x8) works well through Chromium.

  • Zoom works in Chromium or Firefox browser.

  • Skype work in Firefox.

  • Teams doesn't work well ever on anything, but you can get by in Chromium browsers.

Document Editing

LibreOffice can run on these devices, but it does not run that well. LibreOffice is a very large program and takes a lot of resources.

However, decent alternatives exist:

These are a little different from the MicroSoft alternatives people are used to, but I prefer them. Abiword has the basics for what you need for writing and editing if you like to see the final product as you are writing. It will open most .docx files without trouble.

Gnumeric is a fantastic and powerful spreadsheet software. If you are doing spreadsheet manipulation or importing and exporting csv files a lot, I recommend it. It is light, fast, and has most everything you need. The only think that it is missing is Pivot Table capability. For that, you can always use SQLiteBrowser. Sure, you will have to learn a little SQL, but there is nothing more important in life than learning a little SQL.

If you want distraction free writing, you can always use gedit or emacs and write in Markdown or Org-mode.

From these two formats, you can export to a variety of formats via pandoc including Word, PDF, or HTML for sharing or posting online.

Remote support

Of course, I offer remote support to CPress users at any time of day.

  • Remote support from me is possible with these devices via secure shell (ssh). I can send you a line to connect to my server that allows me to (briefly) connect to your device and do maintenance or fix something.

  • This remote support can only be turned on through your manual actions and through entering a password on my server and by giving me a password to access your device. It is only kept on for 1 hour intervals and can be turned off on your end at any time.

Regular text chat and remote support

  • I am available on the IRC network known as https://libera.chat on the #cpress channel. I use the handle "vurlex" or "grahamcox" on IRC.

  • Enter through an IRC client: irc.libera.chat:6697 and add #cpress as the channel. Use whatever username/handle you want.

  • Enter through any of the XChat, HexChat, Konversation, Thundirbird applications that connect to IRC server.

  • Complaints, fixes, regular chat is available on this channel about these devices from me. Use this because it is easier than loading Slack or whatever other heavy chat interface.

  • I am mostly always on there and check sporadically if there have been any questioned asked, but if you want me to join you for a real time chat, ping me through Signal first just to make sure I am not out windsurfing instead.