I have three preparation tasks before I start my quest for certification:
1) Select Study Materials
2) Select a Linux Distribution for Study
3) Select a Target System for the Linux Distribution
Preparation – Part 3: The Target System
Disclaimer: What follows are my very personal and specific reasons for selecting a particular type of hardware to run Linux. Your needs and wants may be very different from mine. Use whatever hardware you want to run Linux, and don’t hold my choice against me. Choice is what Linux is all about.
When I set out to obtain a Linux certification, one of my primary goals was to make the switch to Linux full time. To make such a transition would be tough. My primary machine has many proprietary programs that are required by some of my other hobbies (Digital Photography, GPS and trekking, …), as well as software I use for work. Windows is hard to get away from. Since scrapping my primary machine was not an option, I had to think creatively to come up with a solution for a Linux system that I would use daily. The answer for me was a netbook.
The thought of having a small computer that could sit on my nightstand (or an end table) and be available whenever an inspiration strikes was quite appealing. Due to their small footprints, a netbook would be perfect for this. A netbook would be an excellent travel companion as well. Since they are so lightweight, I could bring it almost anywhere.
Choosing a Netbook / Mini-Laptop / Ultra-portable / Smartbook
Tiny notebooks go by many names, and with the rise of the “netbook” there are many choices out there. For my purposes a few factors would come into play:
- Cost. I wanted to budget around $250 for my purchase. My better half said $150. That meant I would more than likely need to look at used laptops. The myth of the (new) $100 laptop has not become a reality yet. I would have to look on the used market.
- Size. I wanted small, but with a keyboard I could type on. I can work down to about 90% full size without much issue. However, the larger the keyboard, the better. A screen with a resolution greater than 800x480 is another size factor.
- Memory. I wanted at least 512MB, enough to work with a descent light-weight Linux and have more than one application open at once. A lot of older ultra portables have 256MB or less, but most new netbooks ship with a minimum of 512MB.
- Processor. Not Important. I would prefer x86-compatible, but with ARM processors and some of the "soon-to-be-released" ARM-based smartbooks on the way I am open to any platform as long as conditions 1-3 are met. HD and streaming flash content are not needs for me. Productivity is the primary goal.
- Hard Drive. I want storage -- enough to store a fair amount of music and photos. The first generation netbooks with their 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB flash drives would not work for me. I wanted 30GB at the very minimum. Again, this requirement pushed me to the used market.
My search began with me taking stock of what I already had in my house. Over the years, I had accumulated several mini-notebooks: 3 Toshiba Librettos and 1 Soyo PW-9801. Unfortunately, none of these had enough horse power to run a modern Linux distribution. The Soyo, with its 128MB of RAM came close, but its Cyrix MediaGX processor was troublesome. I did try to find a distribution that would work these pieces of “atticware”. Other than DSL (which is too limiting), I could not find a suitable distribution. Absolute Linux 11.0.92 came very close. It runs everything well on an old Libretto 100CT (64MB) with one exception: web browsers. Even old versions of Firefox would take 30-60 seconds (or longer) to load. I tried lightweight browsers, but the experience was not all that great. None of these old minis would work as a side-table browsing and writing PC. I would need to search for something a little more modern.
There are so many netbooks on the market today, most with the Microsoft designated 1GB of memory and 160GB hard drives, that it can be a bit overwhelming trying to select a device. I chose to eliminate Windows-based netbooks (unless used) from my search and concentrate devices that came pre-loaded with Linux.
Laptops that come preloaded with Linux should:
- Run any Linux (the pre-load serves as proof-of-concept)
- Be slightly cheaper (at least in theory, due to no $20-40 Microsoft XP Home tax)
Here are a handful of the devices I considered:
- Dell Inspiron Mini – preloaded with Ubuntu Netbook Remix
- Everex Cloudbook or the Sylvania Netbook – preloaded with gOS
- Sylvania G Netbook Meso – preloaded with Ubuntu Netbook Remix
- HP 2133 Mini-note – preloaded with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED)
Try as I might, the only netbooks in this list that routinely would appear used for under $150 were the two laptops based on the VIA C7-m platform: the Everex Cloudbook and the original Sylvania Netbook. I had seen the Everex variant in the flesh at a Circuit City store (before they went out of business) and found them to be the perfect size. In fact, they reminded me a lot of my old Libretto 100CT. Only the screen resolution (800 x 480) kept me from taking the plunge. HP 2133 mini-notes, which have one of the best (if not thee best) netbook keyboards around, routinely appear for just under $200, but I wanted to break the $150 barrier.
I began to look at devices with odd hardware:
- The toy-like XBurst CPU netbooks (32-bit MIPS-based)
- Always Innovating’s Touchbook (ARM-based)
- Emtec Gdium Liberty 1000 (64-bit MIPS-based)
- Nohrtec’s Gecko Edubook (x86; modular; can use AA batteries)
The XBurst CPU is MIPS-based. While netbooks based on this platform are typically very cheap, and are a natural curiosity, the challenges of working on the unusual MIPS platform would not be conducive for studying for my exam. These netbooks -- with names such as the "Belco Alpha 400" and the "3k Razorbook -- were more a curiosity than anything else. They are cheap. I will give them that ("cheap" is why people are drawn to these toys). I’ve seen many of these netbooks sell used for well under $100. But the limits from the low hardware specifications and the lack available distributions for these were obvious: low memory (128MB), low storage (2GB or less), low resolution (800x480), no modern browser… and the list goes on.
Always Innovating’s Touch Book is a device I want, plain and simple. This device inspired “gadget lust” the moment I saw it. Early reviews of the beta units have not scared me away (“tippy”, software issues, etc.). This is a device based on the open source BeagleBoard platform, which features an ARM processor. It is a dockable tablet that can get amazing battery life (10 hours or more). You may have heard that ARM-based netbooks are coming (I believe “smartbook” is the term being applied to these). One technology prognosticator predicted that ARM-based netbook would make 2009 “the Year of Linux” (laughable… as Linux and ARM-based netbooks are still not on the market beyond beta). And if you follow “little laptop” trends, then you will most likely have already head about Ubuntu’s announcment to develop for ARM-based platforms. Slackware (my distro of choice) has an official ARM port as well (ARMedslack). Great, I had found the device that will allow me to transition to Linux. ARM is the future of armchair computing and development on the go. Not so fast! Being a first generation device, the A.I. Touchpad current runs $400 with the optional keyboard dock. Ouch! That puts this well out of my price range for the time being.
Finally available in the U.S., the EMTEC's Gdium Liberty 1000 netbook is another device that does things just a little bit differently. For one it runs the Loongson processor, which is a 64-bit MIPS CPU. Next, it runs everything from a form-fitting flash drive, dubbed the “G-key”. The theory here is that multiple users can run using the same base, but use different G-keys. So, a classroom could provide a netbook chassis to different students during different sessions. Or, for family use, each member could keep a personal key for the single family base. This is a very interesting concept. Laptop Magazine reviewed an early unit (not the final production unit) and basically thought the same thing: interesting concept; let’s see where they go with this. Right now, the Gdium Liberty is available from Amazon for $265 (or less) – not a bad price for a Linux netbook and one very unique piece of hardware.
If the name Loongson seems familiar, it may be because you have heard about its use in the open hardware netbook, the Yeelong. The Yeelong is the netbook that is (or was) used by FSF’s Richard Stallman. Unlike the closed hardware on the Gdium Liberty, the Yeelong is completely open, with an open source BIOS and full hardware specifications available. Add an FSF-supported operating system, like gNewSense and you would have the first completely “free” (as in non-proprietary) hardware AND software. If Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) are your religions, then right now the Yeelong is one of the only ways to go. Unfortunately, you’d have to import it, and it is not cheap to do so. With shipping from overseas a Yeelong will most likely run you $350-$400. In this case, freedom isn’t free, and it is also more than my budget will currently allow.
The Nohrtec Gecko Edubook is another interesting device. It is modular. It can use AA rechargeable batteries (of which I have a stockpile) and it is low cost -- currently $200, and less for the barebones version. Unfortunately, the Gecko is a unit designed to be sold in bulk, and shipping on a single units to the United State appears to be expensive. For example, on Nohrtech’s MicroClient and MicroServer products single unit shipping is over $50. If the same shipping rates apply, this would place the Gecko more in the $250 dollar range and there are better netbooks to be found at that price point. Still the idea of an upgradable and modular platform is quite intriguing.
The $123 Netbook – Cameron Maxmedia NB-1060
After searching for months for a suitable target netbook, I came across a very odd netbook on eBay that was originally designated for the Russian market. The "Cameron Maxmedia NB-1060" is a Geode-based (LX800) netbook with 512MB of memory and a 60GB. The netbook was being sold by a state-side seller (in Pennsylvania) and had a starting bid of $123 with free shipping. It was a very odd piece of hardware, but I threw a low-ball bid in on it and ended up winning the thing for the starting price. I now had my sub $150 netbook, but what did I just buy? Here are the listed hardware specifications (click specifications to enlarge view):
The Cameron Maxmedia NB-1060 marked all my important checkboxes:
- Price <= $150 – CHECK
- A keyboard I could type on – CHECK (approximately 90-92% full size)
- Resolution > 800x480 – CHECK (NB-1060 has the netbook “standard” 1024x600 screen)
- Memory >= 512MB – CHECK (NB-1060 has 512MB DDR; upgradeable to 1GB)
- Hard drive >= 30GB – CHECK (NB-1060 has a 60GB hard drive)
Further research revealed that the NB-1060 was most likely a rebranded OEM of the Malata PC-81002, a Chinese-made netbook. I managed to track down a Russian forum with links to drivers, disassembly instructions, Linux X-windows configurations settings, and other useful information too (I had to use Google to translate the pages). I would be ready when the little netbook arrived.
The laptop arrived with a 2007 version of NeoShine Linux Desktop (version 3.0) converted to English (a bit strange for laptop meant for the Russian market). NeoShine is based on some form of Red Hat and was very slow on this hardware. Items such as the wireless adapter were not functional and the fit and finish of the custom user interface left something to be desired (no task manager or tool bars, for example). Finding out exactly what hardware was in the NB-1060 was a task. The included manual just listed the basics and without the proper drivers setup in NeoShine, complete hardware was not visible. I ended up wiping the drive. I briefly loaded Windows XP (oh, the humanity!), loaded up all the Windows drivers, and then exported all the information in the Device Manager and System Information to text files. Now I had a clear view of the odd hardware in this system.
- Processor: AMD Geode LX800 clocked at 500 Mhz, coupled with a AMD Geode CS5536 “companion device” (x86 Family 5 Model 10 Stepping 2)
- Memory: 512 MB (with 24MB set aside for shared video)
- Video: AMD Geode custom driver (could be problematic)
- Audio: AMD Geode WDM Audio Driver (could be problematic)
- LAN: Realtek RTL8139/810x Family Fast Ethernet NIC
- WLAN: ZyXEL G-202 (ZD1211B) IEEE 802.11 b+g USB Adapter (could be problematic)
- PCMCIA: Texas Instruments PCI-1510 CardBus Controller
The system also features a “Geode GX3 AES Crypto Driver” which I guessed at the time would not be supported in Linux (later I would find that AMD did have a Linux version available).
Searching around various sites (AMD, ZyXEL, Maxmedia), I was able to obtain all the drivers for Linux, including the AMD Geode platform drivers, the ZD1211B drivers, and X.org configuration settings.
I now had all the pieces necessary to attempt a new Linux install on this odd netbook. The reality of creating a Linux study platform and end-table computer had come together. With my study materials selected, distribution picked, and target system acquired, I was ready to start my ‘Year of Linux”.
Links to More Linux and Netbook Information:
- Amazon - one of the best Netbook selections on the Internet.
- ARMedslack - Slackware for ARM processors
- eBay - allows for very customized searches (< $150, <>
- FSF Hardware - Free Software Foundation's list of supported hardware
- FSF Operating Systems - FSF's list of recognized "Free" operating systems.
- Gdium Community Page - for all things related to the Gdium Liberty.
- Liliputing - one of the better news sites for netbooks
- Little Linux Laptop - want to try an XBurst netbook? Start here.
- Russian Maxmedia Forums - not a lot of content; but what's there is good.