Any modern computer with an x86 processor, whether it’s Intel or AMD, is a lost cause for software freedom and privacy. We harp on this a lot, but it’s worth repeating that it’s nearly impossible to get free, open-source firmware to run on them thanks to the Intel Management Engine (IME) and the AMD Platform Security Processor (PSP). Without libre firmware there’s no way to trust anything else, even if your operating system is completely open-source.
The IME or PSP have access to memory, storage, and the network stack even if the computer is shut down, and even after the computer boots they run at such a low level that the operating system can’t be aware of what they’re really doing. Luckily, there’s a dark horse in the race in the personal computing world that gives us some hope that one day there will be an x86 competitor that allows their users to have a free firmware that they can trust. ARM processors, which have been steadily increasing their user share for years but are seeing a surge of interest since the recent announcement by Apple, are poised to take over the personal computing world and hopefully allow us some relevant, modern options for those concerned with freedom and privacy. But in the real world of ARM processors the road ahead will decidedly long, windy, and forked.
Even ignoring tedious nitpicks that the distinction between RISC vs CISC is more blurred now than it was “back in the day”, RISC machines like ARM have a natural leg up on the x86 CISC machines built by Intel and AMD. These RISC machines use fewer instructions and perform with much more thermal efficiency than their x86 competitors. They can often be passively cooled, avoiding need to be actively cooled, unlike many AMD/Intel machines that often have noisy or bulky fans. But for me, the most interesting advantage is the ability to run ARM machines without the proprietary firmware present with x86 chips.
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.
Sometimes when you are browsing randomly through the tech feeds, up pops an article that just crystallizes a nascent thought that had been simmering below the surface for a long time, and is enough to make you sit up and say “Yes! I agree completely with that!”. Such a moment came with [Cheapscatesguide]’s post: “My Fantasy: A Cellphone I can Use as a DesktopComputer“, in which the pertinent question is asked that if smartphones are so powerful, why are they not much better at being more than, well, smartphones?
Readers with long memories may recall that the cellphone-as-computer idea is one that has been tried at least once before. The Motorola Atrix appeared in the early years of this decade, and was a high-end smartphone that could be slotted into both desktop replacement and netbook-style base stations and used as a Linux-based personal computer. Unfortunately it was both eye-wateringly expensive and disappointingly slow due to a hobbled operating system, so it failed to set the market alight. There was a brief moment when unsold Atrix netbook docks were available on the surplus market and became popular platforms as a Raspberry Pi desktop interface, but this experiment seems to have put paid to the idea of one device to truly rule them all.
If we had to hazard a guess as to why this has failed to happen, we’d finger both the manufacturer’s desire not to undermine their lucrative sales in other sectors, and both their and the carriers’ desire to lock down the devices as much as possible. A manufacturer such as Apple will for example never produce an iPhone that can replace a desktop, because it would affect their MacBook sales. Oddly in another form we’re nearly there, this piece is being worked on with a Chromebook, a device that has a useful browser, a functional Android layer, and (because it’s a 64-bit model) an officially supported and useful Debian layer. We don’t expect this to translate into a phone any time soon though.
There are a number of companies now providing turn-key computers that meet the Free Software Foundation’s criteria for their “Respects Your Freedom” certification. This means, in a general sense, that the computer is guaranteed not to spy on you or otherwise do anything else you didn’t explicitly ask it to. Unfortunately these machines often have a hefty premium tacked on, making it an unpleasant decision between privacy and performance.
Freedom-loving hacker [SolidHal] writes in to tell us about his quest to create a FSF-compliant laptop without breaking the bank. Based on a cheap Asus C201 Chromebook, his custom machine checks off all the appropriate boxes. The operating system was easy enough with an install of Debian, and the bootloader was rid of any Intel Management Engine shenanigans with a healthy dose of Libreboot. But there was one problem: the permanently installed WiFi hardware that required proprietary firmware. To remedy the issue, he decided to install an internal USB Wi-Fi adapter that has the FSF seal of approval.
As the Chromebook obviously doesn’t have an internal USB port, this was easier said than done. But as [SolidHal] is not the kind of guy who would want his laptop taking pictures of him in the first place, he had the idea to take the internal USB connection used by the integrated webcam and use that. He pulled the webcam out, studied the wiring, and determined which wires corresponded to the normal USB pinout.
The FSF approved ThinkPenguin Wi-Fi adapter he chose is exceptionally small, so it was easy enough to tuck it inside some empty space inside of the Chromebook. [SolidHal] just needed to solder it to the old webcam connection, and wrap it up in Kapton tape to prevent any possible shorts. The signal probably isn’t great considering the antenna is stuck inside the machine with all the noisy components, but it’s a trade-off for having a fully free and open source driver. But as already established, sometimes these are the kind of tough choices you have to make when walking in the righteous footsteps of Saint Ignucius.
Here’s a worthwhile Kickstarter for once: the Prishtina Hackerspace. Yes, that’s a Kickstarter for a hackerspace in Kosovo. Unlike most hackerspace Kickstarters, they’re already mostly funded, with 20 days to go. If we ever get around to doing the Istanbul to Kaliningrad hackerspace tour, we’ll drop by.
Codebender is a web-based tool that allows you to code and program an Arduino. The Chromebook is a web-based laptop that is popular with a few schools. Now you can uses Codebender on a Chromebook. You might need to update your Chromebook to v42, and there’s a slight bug in the USB programmers, but that should be fixed in a month or so.
The FAA currently deciding the fate of unmanned aerial vehicles and systems, and we’re going to live with any screwup they make for the next 50 years. It would be nice if all UAV operators, drone pilots, and everyone involved with flying robots could get together and hash out what the ideal rules would be. That’s happening in late July thanks to the Silicon Valley Chapter of AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International).
He started by cracking open the Qi charger — it’s held together by adhesive and four phillips screws hiding under the feet pads — all in all, not that difficult to do. Once the plastic is off, the circuit and coil are actually quite small making it an ideal choice for hacking into various things. We’ve seen them stuffed into Nook’s, a heart, salvaged for a phone hack…
Anyway, the next step was opening up the Chromebook. The Qi charger requires 5V at 2A to work, which luckily, is the USB 3.0 spec — of which he has two ports in the Chromebook. He identified the 5V supply on the board and soldered in the wires directly — Let there be power!
While the coil and board are fairly small, there’s not that much space underneath the Chromebook’s skin, so [Jason] lengthened the coil wires and located it separately, just below the keyboard. He closed everything up, crossed his fingers and turned the power on. Success!
It’d be cool to do something similar with an RFID reader — then you could have your laptop locked unless you have your RFID ring with you!
[Michael Kohn] only accomplished about half of what he set out to, but we still think his TV channel switcher from a Chromebook turned out nicely. When starting the project he wanted to include a grid of listing so that he could choose a specific program, but decided that scraping the data was too much work for this go-round.
The Chromebook doesn’t include an IR transmitter so he built one using an MSP430 chip. He had previously built a little transmitter around an AVR chip and was surprised to find that the internal oscillator on that was quite a bit more accurate than on the MSP430. Timing is everything with the Manchester encoded signals used for IR remote controls so he used his oscilloscope to tune the DCO as accurately as possible.