A review of postmarketOS on the Xiaomi Poco F1 August 25, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

I have recently had cause to start looking into mainline Linux phones which fall outside of the common range of grassroots phones like the PinePhone (which was my daily driver for the past year). The postmarketOS wiki is a great place to research candidate phones for this purpose, and the phone I landed on is the Xiaomi Poco F1, which I picked up on Amazon.nl (for ease of return in case it didn’t work out) for 270 Euro. Phones of this nature have a wide range of support from Linux distros like postmarketOS, from “not working at all” to “mostly working”. The essential features I require in a daily driver phone are (1) a working modem and telephony support, (2) mobile data, and (3) reasonably good performance and battery life; plus of course some sane baseline expectations like a working display and touchscreen driver.

The use of mainline Linux on a smartphone requires a certain degree of bullshit tolerance, and the main question is whether or not the bullshit exceeds your personal threshold. The Poco F1 indeed comes with some bullshit, but I’m pleased to report that it falls short of my threshold and represents a significant quality-of-life improvement over the PinePhone setup I have been using up to now.

The bullshit I have endured for the Poco F1 setup can be categorized into two parts: initial setup and ongoing problems. Of the two, the initial setup is by far the worst. These phones are designed to run Android first, rather than the mainline Linux first approach seen in devices like the PinePhone and Librem 5. This means that it’s back to dealing with things like Android recovery, fastboot, and so on, during the initial setup. The most severe pain point for Xiaomi phones is unlocking the bootloader.

The only officially supported means of doing this is via a Windows-only application published by Xiaomi. A reverse engineered Java application supposedly provides support for completing this process on Linux. However, this approach comes with the typical bullshit of setting up a working Java environment, and, crucially, Xiaomi appears to have sabotaged this effort via a deliberate attempt to close the hole by returning error messages from this reverse engineered API which direct the user to the official tool instead. On top of this, Xiaomi requires you to associate the phone to be unlocked with a user account on their services, paired to a phone number, and has a 30-day waiting period between unlocks. I ultimately had to resort to a Windows 10 VM with USB passthrough to get the damn thing unlocked. This is very frustrating and far from the spirit of free software; Xiaomi earns few points for openness in my books.

Once unlocked, the “initial setup bullshit” did not cease. The main issue is that the postmarketOS flashing tool (which is just a wrapper around fastboot) seemed to have problems writing a consistent filesystem. I was required to apply a level of Linux expertise which exceeds that of even most enthusiasts to obtain a shell in the initramfs, connect to it over postmarketOS’s telnet debugging feature, and run fsck.ext4 to fix the filesystem. Following this, I had to again apply a level of Alpine Linux expertise which exceeds that of many enthusiasts to repair installed packages and get everything up to a baseline of workitude. Overall, it took me the better part of a day to get to a baseline of “running a working installation of postmarketOS”.

However: following the “initial setup bullshit”, I found a very manageable scale of “ongoing problems”. The device’s base performance is excellent, far better than the PinePhone — it just performs much like I would expect from a normal phone. PostmarketOS is, as always, brilliant, and all of the usual mainline Alpine Linux trimmings I would expect are present — I can SSH in, I easily connected it to my personal VPN, and I’m able to run most of the software I’m already used to from desktop Linux systems (though, of course, GUI applications range widely in their ability to accomodate touch screens and a portrait mobile form-factor). I transferred my personal data over from my PinePhone using a method which is 100% certifiably absent of bullshit, namely just rsyncing over my home directory. Excellent!

Telephony support also works pretty well. Audio profiles are a bit buggy, and I can often find my phone using my headphone output while I don’t have them plugged in instead of the speakers, having to resort to manually switching between them from time to time. However, I have never had an issue with the audio profiles being wrong during a phone call (the modem works, by the way); earpiece and speakerphone both work as expected. That said, I have heard complaints from recipients of my phone calls about hearing an echo of their own voice. Additionally, DTMF tones do not work, but the fix has already been merged and is expected in the next release of ModemManager. SMS and mobile data work fine, and mobile data works with a lesser degree of bullshit than I was prepared to expect after reading the pmOS wiki page for this device.

Another problem is that the phone’s onboard cameras do not work at all, and it seems unlikely that this will be solved in the near future. This is not really an issue for me. Another papercut is that Phosh handles the display notch poorly, and though pmOS provides a “tweak” tool which can move the clock over from behind the notch, it leaves something to be desired. The relevant issue is being discused on the Phosh issue tracker and a fix is presumably coming soon — it doesn’t seem particularly difficult to solve. I have also noted that, though GPS works fine, Mepo renders incorrectly and Gnome Maps has (less severe) display issues as well.

The battery life is not as good as the PinePhone, which itself is not as good as most Android phones. However, it meets my needs. It seems to last anywhere from 8 to 10 hours depending on usage, following a full night’s charge. As such, I can leave it off of the juice when I go out without too much fear. That said, I do keep a battery bank in my backpack just in case, but that’s also just a generally useful thing to have around. I think I’ve lent it to others more than I’ve used it myself.

There are many other apps which work without issues. I found that Foliate works great for reading e-books and Evince works nicely for PDFs (two use-cases which one might perceive as related, but which I personally have different UI expectations for). Firefox has far better performance on this device than on the PinePhone and allows for very comfortable web browsing. I also discovered Gnome Feeds which, while imperfect, accommodates my needs regarding an RSS feed reader. All of the “standard” mobile Linux apps that worked fine on the PinePhone also work fine here, such as Lollypop for music and the Porfolio file manager.

I was pleasantly surprised that, after enduring some more bullshit, I was able to get Waydroid to work, allowing me to run Android applications on this phone. My expectations for this were essentially non-existent, so any degree of workitude was a welcome surprise, and any degree of non-workitude was the expected result. On the whole, I’m rather impressed, but don’t expect anything near perfection. The most egregious issue is that I found that internal storage simply doesn’t work, so apps cannot store or read common files (though they seem to be able to persist their own private app data just fine). The camera does not work, so the use-case I was hoping to accommodate here — running my bank’s Android app — is not possible. However, I was able to install F-Droid and a small handful of Android apps that work with a level of performance which is indistinguishable from native Android performance. It’s not quite there yet, but Waydroid has a promising future and will do a lot to bridge the gap between Android and mainline Linux on mobile.

On the whole, I would rate the Poco F1’s bullshit level as follows:

I have a much higher tolerance for “initial setup” bullshit than for ongoing problems bullshit, so this is a promising result for my needs. I have found that this device is ahead of the PinePhone that I had been using previously in almost all respects, and I have switched to it as my daily driver. In fact, this phone, once the initial bullshit is addressed, is complete enough that it may be the first mainline Linux mobile experience that I might recommend to others as a daily driver. I’m glad that I made the switch.

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