Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Choosing a Linux Distro for my Chromebook


I have been using Linux at home for over 10 years, and I used it at work for over 5 years.  At various times, either at home or at work, I have used Ubuntu, SUSE (or OpenSUSE), Red Hat, Fedora, Scientific Linux, Mandrake/Mandriva as well as a few others.  For desktops, I have used GNOME, KDE, Unity, as well as experimented with things like Xfce and LXDE.  More recently, in my crouton environment on my Samsung Chromebook, I tried enlightenment.

Prior to my experience with crouton, I had for quite a few years used Ubuntu on my home computers.  At times I used the KDE-based variant, KUbuntu and then switched back to regular Ubuntu. When Ubuntu moved away from using GNOME to using Unity, I decided to give it a try.  Those familiar with Ubuntu during that time know that there was a lot of controversy within the Ubuntu (and Linux) community about the switch.  Clearly there was politics (or control) involved.  Although it took time to get used to, over time it got better and better and I found it quite usable.  I currently still have Ubuntu with Unity on my older laptop.  I am somewhat ambivalent about it. I did try GNOME 3 Shell for a while, but found it buggy and went back to Unity.  My previous experience with KDE 4 was pretty positive. If I had a more powerful laptop I might be trying KDE again.  It continues to improve and has really nice eye candy.  

As I explained in previous posts, I liked the Samsung Chromebook because it was light, fan-less, and had a long battery life.  What it is not though, is a powerhouse.  Because of this, while looking at desktop environments for the Ubuntu running under crouton, I came across e17 (enlightenment) as one of the options.  It is very lightweight, compared to things like GNOME, KDE, and Unity.  After using so many desktop environments, it looked, well, different.  It is very configurable.  Unity has its taskbar on the left. With e17, you can put one anywhere. You can even have more than one. You can make them hidden (appearing when you scroll over the edge a la Mac) or not.  You can put various gadgets in them.  I liked the fact that if you clicked on the desktop, it brought up a main menu through which you could navigate to just about everything.  Maybe I was just in the mood for something different, but I liked what I saw. And as I used it for a while, I still liked it.

Bodhi Linux

Using e17 led me to the distribution that showcases it, bodhi. Bodhi builds on top of Ubuntu (except for ARM which I will get to later).  It is a minimalist distribution (at the start), and can run on old and/or low-power hardware.  While Ubuntu (or one of its variants) consistently ranks near the top of distrowatch, bodhi is barely in the top 20 (still not all that bad I guess).

As an experiment, I installed bodhi on an old Acer Aspire One netbook. This was one of the earliest netbooks and is clearly not powerful.  Although I didn't do a lot with it, it installed easily and seemed to work fine. Years ago I took this netbook on a vacation to Europe and it make take an event similar to that in the future for me to use it extensively.  However, based on my use of e17 and this netbook experiment, I decided I wanted to give bodhi more of a try. Oh, there was one other thing. Based on this, it seemed bodhi could be installed on the Samsung (ARM) Chromebook.

Limitations of Linux on ARM

In case I haven't made it clear previously, the Samsung Chromebook is ARM-based, not Intel-based. That is, it does not use the Intel architecture used by Intel (and AMD).  As I found out, this is quite significant.  Over the years, thousands of Linux packages (applications) have been written for Intel 32 bit and 64 bit architectures. For a long time though, there were issues with running a 64-bit version of Linux.  Recently, I probably should have realized that, given issues I had in earlier years on 64-bit linux, I would have similar (actually more) issues on ARM.  As I worked with crouton, I ran into certain packages I wanted (or needed) that were not available for ARM. Previous posts on this blog outline many of these issues.  Although they were not available at the time, based on my experiences, I would recommend someone wanting an inexpensive Chromebook with long battery life for Linux use should choose one of the new Chromebooks employing the (Intel) Haswell chip instead of an ARM based one.

Given, however, that I already had a Samsung (ARM) Chromebook, I decided to go ahead and install bodhi linux following the guide I mentioned earlier.  I will discuss this more in another post. I should point out that the very week I installed bodhi on my Chromebook (after quite a few trials and tribulations), it was announced on the bodhi forums that official support for ARM was being dropped.  Had I known this when I started I might not have gone down the path I did, but now that I have and have been pretty much successful, I am glad I did.

One other thing I alluded to earlier is the fact that unlike the x86 and x86_64 versions of bodhi, the ARM (armhf architecture) version is actually based on Debian, not Ubuntu.  As I will point out in a future post, this brought a few surprises, although to this point no real issues.  One needs to keep in mind that Ubuntu itself is largely based on debian as well.

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