Hacking An Android Laptop To Run Linux

A few years ago, someone at Lenovo realized they could take an Android tablet, add a keyboard, and sell a cheap netbook that’s slightly more useful than a YouTube and Facebook machine. Since then, Lenovo has stopped making the A10 notebook and has moved on to manufacturing Chromebooks. That doesn’t mean this little Laptop doesn’t have some life left in it: it still has a Cortex A9 Quad core CPU, is reasonably priced on the ‘defective’ market, and can now run a full-blown Linux.

When the A10 notebook was released, there was a statement going around saying it was impossible to install Linux on it. For [Steffen] that was a challenge. He cracked open this netbook and took a look around the Flash chips. There were two tiny pads that could be shorted to put the device in recovery mode, and the entire thing can be booted from a USB stick.

[Steffen] ran into a problem while putting a new kernel on the netbook: there was a null pointer reference in some device during boot. The usual way of diagnosing this problem is to look at the console to see what device failed. This netbook doesn’t have a UART, though, and [Steffen] had to use an FTDI chip and set the console to USB to see why this device failed.

Just about everything on this tiny laptop works right now, with a few problems with WiFi, webcam, and standby mode – all normal stuff for a putting Linux on a random machine. It’s worth it, though: the quad-core ARM is a very good chip, and [Steffen] is running x86 apps with qemu. Not bad for something that can be found very, very cheap.

22 thoughts on “Hacking An Android Laptop To Run Linux

      1. Which Google could easily buy and release as open if they were REALLY in favor of Open Source.
        Unfortunately Google _in this context_ is no different from Apple or Microsoft: they want you to use their services give your personal data to their databases, store your documents in their cloud. Forget any help from them if you want to install anything else on any Android device.

        1. It’s actually not that simple. When for example Allwinner makes the A9 they buy the graphics core (Mali) from ARM Norway (There’s also Adreno by Qualcomm, PowerVR by Imagination Technologies etc). The graphics core comes with a license though that doesn’t allow opening the driver. Google would have to buy all these companies, including monsters like Nvidia (Tegra) and AMD (amd mobile apu). Expensive, let alone monopole prevention departments wouldn’t permit it.

          The reason why these companies take the effort to maintain their shitty proprietary drivers instead of putting it in the kernel and have it maintained by the community (or just open the specs how to communicate with the gpu) it mostly speculation. One reason might be that they fear other companies could steal their ‘brilliant’ designs. That is not very thought through since there are a lot of open drivers for all kinds of gpus (on desktop as well as e.g. freedreno for adreno and lima for mali) that just lack a few bits to deliver full performance, so you could just have a look at those.

          There was an Ask Me Anything on Reddit some time ago where an Imagination employee tried to explain why they don’t go open source. I tried to find it but failed, instead I found this: https://www.reddit.com/r/hardware/comments/37h2a9/i_work_for_imagination_technologies_mips_powervr/crn232h

          Apparently Imagination Technologies is working on an open driver – wouhuu :D

          1. “instead of putting it in the kernel and have it maintained by the community (or just open the specs how to communicate with the gpu) it mostly speculation”

            If they did, they’d be relying on 3rd parties to actually make their products work. That would open them to a host of political shenanigans where the people who write the drivers actually decide which products succeed in the market. So they rather ignore the open source “community” – which would cease to be a community the second it would have any actual power over anything – and maintain the drivers themselves.

            Since the Linux community and especially the kernel community are hostile to outsiders writing drivers, they’re really just digging their own graves.

            The other reason is that the OS community is really incompetent in maintaining the stuff. Not because they can’t code, but because they’re trying to hold the strings millions of different software packages and largely duplicating the effort over 400 different distros. They simply can’t do it, and the result is that on the drivers side as well, you simply get “generic” packages that half-implement the features of particular products because nobody just gives a shit.

          2. I mean, AMD opened up the specs for a host of their GPUs back in the day, not too many years ago – and look what the community did with it?

            Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The open drivers were still a bunch of boogers.

  1. As the great Bender would say “Neat!!” This could possibly put the Eee PC to shame. Although, I could have swore Lenovo already had a ultra-light with Linux installed. Or did I drink too much stale beer again?

    1. That’s what I wanted to say/write when I read the article. But then I realized: The “impossibility” was not installing LINUX, but INSTALLING linux (in the sense that a new install from scratch or disk or USB was made more than difficult).
      The article has just been written in a somewhat rushed way, it seems. The information is there, it’s just not visible :-D

    1. That is what I am finding as well, unless these things are $50, it’s not cheap. some of the easier to hack chromebooks are going for $150 in a like new state and those are trivial to install ubuntu on.

  2. I just put debian on a chromebook with seabios not the exact same thing but the acer c710 i used has expandable ram ans sata and was only £45 on ebay. Not the same as an android device but for anyone looking for a capable cheap light linux laptop there a good shout.

      1. they turn up from time to time, im typing my reply on it justnow and only bought it last week, put a 128gb ssd in and will fit some extra ram when i find some and it fair flys along. trackpad is shit tho. but everything seems to work out the box, wifi, sound, etc.

  3. “Just about everything on this tiny laptop works right now, with a few problems with WiFi, webcam, and standby mode – all normal stuff for a putting Linux on a random machine”

    Aka. it’s practically useless.

    It’s 2015 now. Linux distributions have been around for 24 years. This is still the case for most perfectly ordinary hardware that isn’t obscure and obsolete. Why?

    1. It’s been a while I haven’t got any problems with Wifi, webcam and standby mode. Can you give an example please ? And as for why, it’s probably because there is no drivers because manufacturers are being bitchy when it comes to make drivers for others OSes than Windows.

      But I agree, no wifi, no webcam and standby mode, this thing is pretty useless. Plus these things doesn’t seems to have Ethernet. I guess you can at least type some text.

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