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Nexus 7

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Bodhi Linux on Nexus 7

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Bodhi Linux is a Debian based distribution using the Enlightenment Window Manager. They have taken the effort to make a Nexus 7 image (ARM HF), and have gone for the very simple approach seen by the Ubuntu folks: Simply flash the boot and userdata partitions, and you’re ready to go.

The images can be found here. (Notice, there are actually two different kinds; boot and root, with different versions of the later). After unpacking, it boils down to:
sudo fastboot erase boot
sudo fastboot erase userdata
sudo fastboot flash boot boot.img
sudo fastboot flash userdata rootfs.img
sudo fastboot reboot

With the Enlightenment WM, they have actually managed to come further towards a UI which suits a small touch screen (compared to the Ubuntu and KDE Plasma Active UIs). The top panel features large buttons, and overall the interaction feels snappy. Now, they have of course not managed to cover all the upstream applications, which is now the next frontier for all of these distributions.

As it is Debian based, is uses the the Debian repositories, and just like the Ubuntu ones, a lot of applications have already been cross-compiled to ARM HF (Hard Floating point). As a crude test, Eclipse-JDT installed and started up fine, While Libreoffice-Writer was missing a package. glxgears installs, but does not start; possibly a driver issue. USB OTG with a hub, keyboard and mouse works out of the box.

So far, this is the best alternative GNU/Linux based distribution for Nexus 7 I’ve tested. However, as mentioned before, these are still early days, and there will be a lot of work for both upstream application maintainers and distributions to create a great UI experience suited for a touch screen.

KDE Plasma Active for Nexus 7

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On the heels of running Ubuntu on the Nexus 7, I thought I’d try KDE’s Mer based (partly derived from MeeGo) Plasma Active as well. As their documentation states: “Even though very much already works reasonably well, there are still some glitches. So, please don’t expect a 100% working system.” And it is indeed a bit more than small glitches which have to be fixed before it is a usable system.

Using Ruediger Gad instructions, I downloaded the boot and userdata images, and proceeded with the installation steps. Although not one-click like Ubuntu, it is reasonable straight forward, however, once it is time to boot the new OS, there are some problems: I only see a “dead” Android on its back with a red exclamation mark. (This is of course Google’s fault, who have hidden any useful information one might get a further clue from, and gone for a “IT for Dummies” mode). It seems Gad had anticipated some problems though, since he has provided a helpful fastboot command to load the boot image dynamically. This works, with the caveat that the MOSLO (MeeGo OS Loader) will go into a USB slave mode if a USB cable is detected. Therefore, I had to issue the fastboot command and then quickly jerk out the cable, and the OS would boot. (Skipping the MOSLO altogether failed to boot at all (Stuck on “Waiting for root device /dev/mmcblk0pX”)).

Once finally in the UI, I don’t seem to have the same luck as Gad. On the first try, even the most basic clicks and moves left the whole screen hanging for up to 30 seconds, and it failed to render the application icons seen on his blog. Trying to boot a second time, I got so far as to open the browser and terminal. Typing with the on-screen keyboard in the URL did not work, since it loses focus once another part of the screen is touched. Looking at dmesg in the terminal, I could see that my USB-OTG adapter, USB Hub, keyboard and mouse were detected correctly, however there seems to be drivers missing, since nothing happened when moving the mouse or typing. So yeah, some glitches, which hopefully will be ironed out in a new release.

What’s a bit more worrying, is the impression of the overall UI, and usefulness on a small touch screen. Just like the Ubuntu UI, Plasma Active is still stuck with a desktop centric view: Small icons and buttons, difficult to interact with. Setting up the Wifi dumped the user right in to an old desktop dialogue, complete with small text fields, and OK / Cancel buttons in the far bottom corner. This was probably the most disappointing bit, since I had expected the Plasma Active interface to be designed specifically for small touch screens. Clearly I was wrong.

Overall then, KDE Plasma Active is an interesting initiative, and one to watch in the future. However, just like Ubuntu, these are still very early days for new alternative OSes on tablets and phones. Given some more time, things will look a lot more promising, for sure.

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Ubuntu on the Nexus7

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I recently got my hands on an Asus Nexus 7 tablet. In it self, maybe not a groundbreaking device, if it wasn’t for the fact that Canonical will use it as their reference device for running Ubuntu on tablets and dual (or more) core mobile phones. Just to be clear, this is no dual boot, emulator, nor “chroot”-trick. The OS boots natively, and brings up the standard Ubuntu Unity desktop. The kernel is copied from (or based on) Google’s Android 4.1 kernel for the Nexus 7, which includes several non-committed changes, as well as binary drivers and firmware. See here fore more information.

A decent proof-of-concept build of Ubuntu 13.04 is already available, and it runs fine on the Nexus 7. If you’re running Ubuntu on your desktop, a pre-packaged installer is available from the a repository. Alternatively, download the boot and userdata images, and install using fastboot yourself. (All commands below need sudo).

fastboot devices
fastboot erase boot
fastboot erase userdata
fastboot flash boot raring-preinstalled-desktop-armhf+nexus7.bootimg
fastboot flash userdata raring-preinstalled-desktop-armhf+nexus7.img
fastboot reboot

Now, I said proof-of-concept, and what you get with this image is not really that handy on a tablet. So far, it just starts up a desktop Window Manager, which is not too comfortable with a touch screen. However, with a USB On-the-Go (OTG) adapter, you can plug in a USB hub, keyboard and mouse. Now it becomes usable like any other desktop. I got one of these compact ones from Deal Extreme, However, due to the rounded shape of the Asus Nexus 7, I had to chisel off a few millimetres to make it fit. The version with a wire would probably had worked better. Maybe also interesting to try would be a HDMI adapter (I’m not sure if that particular one works). Finally, the missing bit to have a fully functional docking setup would be charging while the OTG cable is connected. The Ubuntu FAQ mentions that this will be enabled, but you’ll probably need yet another special adapter cable to piece it all together.

What’s impressive about the current offering is that most, if not all, packages have already been compiled for the ARM architecture and are available in the Ubuntu repositories. This is very welcome, as it frees the tablet from the Android markets, and brings in an enormous selection of free and open source software. Not all of it is immediately suited for a small touch screen on a slow CPU, but that will change over time.

On a whim, I tried apt-get install emacs and eclipse. Both downloaded and worked fine, however, even with a four core CPU, ARM is not up to Eclipse quite yet. It should also be noted that the desktop UI has some unnecessary features which notably slows down the experience. For example, eye-candy like fading transitions when ALT-TABing between windows is enabled.

In conclusion, this is a very interesting first move from Canonical, and more GNU/Linux distributions will surely follow. With more alternatives and variety in this space, it will hopefully open people’s eyes up to the fact that the mobile phones and tablets they carry around are full-fledged computers in themselves, with no reason to remain restricted to a single OS from a single vendor. Maybe it will eventually turn stupid laws which makes it illegal to hack and experiment on these devices.