Netbooks are dead, long live the Chromebook. Lewin Day wrote up a proper trip down Netbook Nostalgia Lane earlier this month. That’s required reading, go check it out and come back. You’re back? Good. Today I’m making the case that the Chromebook is the rightful heir to the netbook crown, and to realize its potential I’ll show you how to wring every bit of Linuxy goodness out of your Chromebook.
I too was a netbook connoisseur, starting with an Asus Eee 901 way back in 2009. Since then, I’ve also been the proud owner of an Eee PC 1215B, which still sees occasional use. Only recently did I finally bite the bullet and replace it with an AMD based Dell laptop for work.
For the longest time, I’ve been intrigued by a good friend who went the Chromebook route. He uses a Samsung Chromebook Plus, and is constantly using it to SSH into his development machines. After reading Lewin’s article, I got the netbook bug again, and decided to see if a Chromebook would fill the niche. I ended up with the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, codename Scarlet. The price was right, and the tablet form factor is perfect for referencing PDFs.
The default ChromeOS experience isn’t terrible. You have the functionality of desktop Chrome, as well as the ability to run virtually any Android app. It’s a good start, but hardly the hacker’s playground that a Linux netbook once was. But we can still get our Linux on with this hardware. There are three separate approaches to making a Chromebook your own virtual hackspace: Crostini, Crouton, and full OS replacement.
Long ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous and children in restaurants were quieted with awful games on iPads, there was a beautiful moment. A moment in which the end user could purchase, at a bargain price, an x86 computer in a compact, portable shell. In 2007, the netbook was born, and took the world by storm – only to suddenly vanish a few years later. What exactly was it that made netbooks so great, and where did they go?
A Beautiful Combination
The first machine to kick off the craze was the Asus EEE PC 701, inspired by the One Laptop Per Child project. Packing a 700Mhz Celeron processor, a small 7″ LCD screen, and a 4 GB SSD, it was available with Linux or Windows XP installed from the factory. With this model, Asus seemed to find a market that Toshiba never quite hit with their Libretto machines a decade earlier. The advent of the wireless network and an ever-more exciting Internet suddenly made a tiny, toteable laptop attractive, whereas previously it would have just been a painful machine to do work on. The name “netbook” was no accident, highlighting the popular use case — a lightweight, portable machine that’s perfect for web browsing and casual tasks.
But the netbook was more than the sum of its parts. Battery life was in excess of 3 hours, and the CPU was a full-fat x86 processor. This wasn’t a machine that required users to run special cut-down software or compromise on usage. Anything you could run on an average, low-spec PC, you could run on this, too. USB and VGA out were available, along with WiFi, so presentations were easy and getting files on and off was a cinch. It bears remembering, too, that back in the Windows XP days, it was easy to share files across a network without clicking through 7 different permissions tabs and typing in your password 19 times.
You’d figure a luxury car like a Jaguar would have a high-end infotainment system. [RichTatham]’s Jag did, but the trouble was that it was a high-end system when a cassette deck and trunk-mounted CD changer were big deals. So naturally, he saw this as a great reason to modernize the system by grafting a netbook into the Jag’s dash. The results are fantastic!
Even though the Jag’s original system didn’t have much left that made it into the final project — the navigation system, CD changer, phone and even the amps ended up on the scrap heap — at least the dashboard instrument cluster proved to be very amenable to his mods. By substituting a climate control cluster from another model into his car, he was able to free up tons of space for the netbook’s 8″ display. A custom bezel and some clever brackets completed the head-end of the new system, and the look is as close to a factory install as you’re likely to find in an aftermarket mod. With the netbook stashed in the bay vacated by the OEM system, a GPS dongle, and a USB sound card connected to a 5.1 amp using the original speakers this jag is ready to bump. We bet that the system sounds as good as it looks, and with the added functionality of a Windows PC to boot.
[Doragasu] got his hands on one of these WM8650 Netbooks for around 50 euros (~$63.50) delivered. They come with a version of Android preinstalled, but he wanted to use them more like a computer and less like an Android device. So he set out to load Arch Linux on the ARM-based Netbook.
This is possible because the hardware inside is actually pretty good. The 800 MHz SoC is accompanied by 256 megs of RAM. There’s 2 gigs of internal storage, a 7″ display, USB, Ethernet, WiFi, and an audio system. This is comparable to what you’d get with a Raspberry Pi (without video acceleration) but also includes all of those peripherals, a case, a touchpad and keyboard… you get the point. There are several patches that need to be applied to the kernel to get it working with the hardware. [Doragasu] covers each of them in the post linked above. You can also hear his presentation in the video after the break.
Looks like there’s a pretty easy way to install Ice Cream Sandwich, the newest version of Android, on your Netbook. Actually this is limited to a few types of hardware including netbooks like the eeePC. That’s because the ISO files used during installation have been tailored to the hardware used on those devices. As with other Linux distros, the ISO file can be loaded on a thumb drive using Unetbootin. From there you can give it a whirl as a Live CD (or USB as it were) or choose to install it on your hard drive. We haven’t given it a spin as the eeePC version doesn’t want to boot on our Dell Mini 9, but we don’t see a reason why this couldn’t be set up as a dual boot option.
Now why would you want to run Android on your netbook? We’ve already seen that there’s a way to run Android apps in Ubuntu. We bet some people just love Android, and others just hate the Unity desktop that Ubuntu now uses… especially when the Netbook Remix had a lot of good things going for it.
He previously purchased a set of surface mount RGB packages on eBay and thought that they were perfect for this hack. after removing the case he found that by using a flex PCB he would be able to fit the LEDs inside, and pass the connections through to the main computer housing. The leads connect to a Teensy board, which is held in place with a liberal application of hot glue. [Mathieu] removed the USB connector and soldered jumper wires to one of the computers ports. In the video after the break you can see that he uses the programming software to write some code to the Teensy, driving the LEDs. We’d like to see it set to listen for serial communications and react accordingly. That way you could use it for notifications, as an audio VU meter, to track torrent progress, etc.
[Vikash] was having trouble using his netbook in the dark so he added a keyboard light. He’s got a Dell Vostro A90 which is the same hardware as the popular Dell Mini 9. We agree that the condensed keyboard layout makes it hard to type without looking; just try to find the quotation mark, brackets, and tilde keys! He added an LED to the bezel around the LCD screen in order to shed light on the situation. Now the LED can be turned on using CTRL. An ATtiny13 microcontroller monitors pins 1 and 11 of the keyboard, waiting for the CTRL keypress, then turns on the light when it receives it. This hardware solution means it doesn’t matter if you’re running a Hackintosh (like he is), Ubuntu (like we are), or that other OS.