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Low Cost Linux Notebooks

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Introduction

Theoretically, a notebook running Linux should be inexpensive, since you don’t need a Windows license and Linux runs well without premium hardware. In reality, buying a Linux notebook tends to be expensive on premium hardware. There are companies like Purism and System76 that produce Linux only laptops but these are high-end expensive. Similarly, companies like Dell seem to charge extra if you want Linux. In this article we’ll look at some options for running Linux inexpensively. We’ll look at the tradeoffs, including privacy and security.

Used, Refurbished or Discounted Windows Notebooks

Windows Notebooks have the advantage of mass-production and competition. There are tons of companies producing Windows notebooks. You can find great deals on sale, plus there is a huge market of refurbished lease returns that offer great deals. Also, companies take returns from retailers like Amazon, make sure they are ok and then sell them at a big discount. You then need to install your favorite Linux distribution and then you are up and running. You can even set it up so you can dual boot either Linux or Windows.

If you are concerned about privacy and security, then the downside of Windows notebooks is that they run the UEFI BIOS. This BIOS has backdoors built in so the NSA, and probably other governments, can remotely take control of your computer.

All that being said, if a notebook runs Windows well, it will run Linux better. A great way to bring an old slow laptop or notebook back to life, is to wipe Windows and replace it with Linux. I’m writing this on an old HP laptop which became slower and slower running Windows 10. Now with Ubuntu Linux, it runs great. No more Windows bitrot and it has a whole new life.

Chromebooks

Even cheaper than Windows notebooks, are Chromebooks. These are notebooks designed to run Google’s ChromeOS. These notebooks are cheaper because they don’t require a Windows license and they usually don’t include a harddrive. Instead of a harddrive they have a small memory card usually 16Gig or 32Gig. Chrome OS is based on a Linux kernel, but restricts you in a few ways. You need to sign on using a Google ID, then you install Apps (basically Android apps) via the Google Play store.

Earlier versions couldn’t run regular Linux apps; however, Google has been relaxing this and now allows you to install and run many Linux apps and run a terminal window. Over time Chrome OS has been slowly morphing into full Linux. From being just a portal to Google’s web apps to being a full client operating system. However, I find Chrome OS is still too limiting and there is the issue of having to sign on with Google.

Out of the box, you can’t just install Linux on a Chromebook. The BIOS is locked to only running Chrome OS. The BIOS in Chromebooks is based on Coreboot the open source which is good, however they modified it without providing the source code, so we don’t know if they added hooks for the NSA to spy on you. The Google BIOS does provide a developer mode, this developer mode gives you a root access terminal session and allows you to install and run flavours of Linux from inside Chrome OS using a set of shell scripts called crouton. Many people prefer this method as they get both Linux and Chrome OS at the same time.

Upgrade the BIOS

If you want to boot directly into an alternate OS, you usually need to upgrade the Chromebook’s BIOS to allow this. I bought an inexpensive refurbished Dell Chromebook 11 off Amazon for $100 (CAD). There are two ways to do this, one is reversible, the other isn’t and you run the risk of bricking your device. The Dell’s BIOS is divided into two parts, one is upgradable, and can be reversed using a recovery USB stick. The other requires disassembling the notebook, removing a BIOS write protect tab and then burning the whole BIOS.

I went the reversible route. I made a recovery USB stick and upgraded the BIOS to support booting other operating systems. This isn’t perfect as you are still using Google’s unknown BIOS and you have to hit control-L everytime you boot to run your alternate operating system.

The reason people will risk replacing their whole BIOS is to get a pure version of Coreboot that hasn’t been tampered with by Google. You then have full control of your computer, no developer mode and no control-L to boot. Perhaps one day I’ll give this a try.

Once you have your BIOS updated, you can install Linux from a USB stick. I chose to install GalliumOS, which is tailored for Chromebooks. It installs a minimal Linux, since it knows Chromebooks don’t have much disk space. It also includes all the drivers needed for typical Chromebook trackpads, bluetooth and Wifi. The Gallium OS website has great information, with links to how to upgrade your BIOS and otherwise prepare and complete a successful upgrade.

Another choice is LUbuntu (Light Ubuntu), which is Ubuntu Linux optimized for low memory hardware. I didn’t like this distro as much, probably because it is so optimized for low memory, whereas I have 4GB memory, it is disk space I’m short of (only 16GB). So I didn’t really need the low memory desktop, and would have preferred LibreOffice being left out.

A great source of info on updating Chromebook BIOS’s is MrChromebox. Its interesting because they also have lots of information on how to install UEFI BIOS on a Chromebook, so you can use it as a cheap Windows notebook. You could install UEFI and then run Linux, but why would you want to? Unless you want to be helpful to the NSA and other government spy agencies.

Impressions/Summary

Sadly, running Linux on a converted Windows notebook gives the better experience. At this point, despite the privacy concerns, the UEFI BIOS works better with Linux than Coreboot. On the Chromebook, besides the nuisance of having to hit control-L every time it boots, I found some things just didn’t work well. The main problem I had was closing and opening the lid on the notebook, that Linux’s suspend function didn’t work properly. Often when I opened the lid, Linux didn’t unsuspend and I’d have to do a hard power off- power on which then resulted in a disk corruption scan.  Otherwise bluetooth, wifi and the trackpad work fine.

I also think the small memory cards are a problem. I think you’re better off booting from a regular SSD hard drive. These are inexpensive and give you way more space with better performance. I wish there was a cheap Chromebook with an M.2 interface. Or even one where the memory card isn’t glued to the motherboard and in an accessible location.

I really want an inexpensive notebook with privacy and security. The best option right now is to convert a Chromebook over to full Coreboot and then run a privacy oriented version of Linux like PureOS, but right now this is quite a DIY project.

 

Written by smist08

August 9, 2019 at 6:46 pm

Posted in Business

Tagged with , , , , , ,

Operating System Competition Heats Up

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Google announced they are going to release their own PC operating system called the ChromeOS. Basically the Chrome browser with a Linux kernel. They haven’t really said what else it will include. Many people have heralded this as a beginning of the end for Microsoft and their Windows monopoly. But I think the beginning of the end was MS’s failure to capture any meaningful piece of the mobile smart phone market. This has basically gone to Apple, Nokia and RIM. Google Android is a small but growing competitor as well. Basically small mobile devices are where the action is these days.

With Vista and Windows 7 being such large resource hogs, Google (and others) see a huge opportunity for small low cost notebook computers that they are calling netbooks. Basically notebooks that are under $500, where it doesn’t make sense to add another $100 for the price of Windows. Another development is that there is about to be a flood of even cheaper ARM processor based notebooks. These ARM notebooks will probably shave another $200 off the price. Windows only runs on Intel and Intel clone processors. It doesn’t run on ARM, nor can Windows easily be made to run on ARM. There is a huge opportunity here.

Microsoft is now feeling squeezed between Apple which owns the higher end of the market with easy to use and stylish Mac notebooks, and the low end soon to be dominated by mobile phone OS and Linux based OS notebooks. As Macs become cheaper and the low end notebooks and smart phones become more powerful, MS is being very strongly squeezed.

Google hopes to succeed where Linux has failed by offering a full suite of applications to go with the OS, namely all the Google web based productivity applications which include all the usual office type things along with some quite innovative new offerings.

Meanwhile what does that mean to us as business application developers? We are now faced with a plethora of platforms to support. Its not just Windows on Intel/AMD anymore. The only way to survive in this brave new world will be to write truely portable platform neutral standards based applications. Writing Windows desktop applications or fake web based applications based on ActiveX, Java Applets, Silverlight or Flash will no longer cut it. With the forthcoming new HTML 5 standard we have the opportunity to write truly platform independent applications that will run in any decent browser on any hardware/operating system. If we can be successful here and all these pieces keep falling into place, there is a really great opportunity to really provide much higher customer value.

Customers will be able to run their business applications on any variety of low cost devices with very high mobility (always connected via the cell phone network), better screens that current smart phones and batteries that will last days between charging. Ease of use will become much better as everyone standardizes on the HTML 5 standards and best practices. TCO will really become lower. You just need one of these low cost netbooks and the URL to connect to your application. No more workstation setups or program installations. Everyone will be up and running and productive very quickly. Definitely things to look forwards to.

Written by smist08

July 14, 2009 at 2:26 am