Netbooks: The Next Generation — Chromebooks

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.

Two Asus Netbooks and a ChromeOS tablet.
Behold, my netbook credentials.

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.

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Hackaday Podcast 071: Measuring Micrometers, The Goldilocks Fit, Little Linear Motors, And 8-bit Games On ESP32

Hackaday editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams fan through a fantastic week of hacking. Most laser cutters try to go bigger, but there’s a minuscule one that shows off a raft of exotic components you’ll want in your bag of tricks. Speaking of tricks, this CNC scroll saw has kinematics the likes of which we’ve never seen before — worth a look just for the dance of polar v. Cartesian elements. We’ve been abusing printf() for decades, but it’s possible to run arbitrary operations just by calling this Turing-complete function. We wrap the week up with odes to low-cost laptops and precision measuring.

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Netbooks: The Form Factor Time Forgot

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

An Asus EEE PC shown here running Linux. You could run anything on them! Because they were real, full-fat computers. No locked down chipsets or BIOS. Just good, clean, x86 fun.

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.

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A Real All-In-One Printer Should Have A Computer In It, Too

With printers generally being cheaper to replace than re-ink, there are plenty of cast-offs around to play with. They’re a great source for parts, but they’re also tempting targets for repurposing for entirely new uses. Sure, you could make a printer into a planter, but slightly more useful is this computer built into a printer that still prints.

This build is [Mason Stooksbury]’s earlier and admittedly useless laptop-in-a-printer build, which we covered a few months back. It’s easy to see where he got his inspiration, since the donor printer’s flip-up lid is a natural for mounting a display, and the capacious, glass-topped scanner bed made a great place to show off the hybrid machine’s guts. But having a printer that doesn’t print didn’t sit well with [Mason], so Comprinter II was born. This one follows the same basic approach, with a Toshiba Netbook stuffed into an H-P ENVY all-in-one. The laptop’s screen was liberated and installed in the printer’s lid, the motherboard went into the scanner bay along with a fair number of LEDs. This killed the scanner but left the printer operational, after relocating a power brick that was causing a paper jam error.

[Mason]’s Comprinter II might not be the next must-have item, but it certainly outranks the original Comprinter on the utility spectrum. Uselessness has a charm of its own, though; from a 3D-printed rotary dial number pad to a useless book scanner, keep the pointless projects coming, please.

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.

Fail Of The Week: WinCE Is A Noun And A Verb

A few years ago, [localroger] found some incredible hardware on sale: a very tiny laptop with a seven-inch screen, full keyboard, trackpad, Ethernet, WiFi, USB (with support for a lot of HID devices), and a battery that would last hours. They were on sale for $30 USD, and [localroger] bought four of them. A great deal, you say? These machines ran Windows CE. No, owning a WinCE device is not the Fail of the Week.

Figuring he should do something with these machines, [roger] thought, ‘a clock will do’, and began to figure out how to program or write an app for these things. These tiny netbooks did come with a programming language, JavaScript, in the form of the built-in IE6 web browser. This was actually a really, really good solution – WinCE apps formatted for portrait displays just didn’t work with the ‘widescreen’ laptop, and a hand-coded HTML table is probably the best solution anyone could have hoped for.

These machines – [roger] used three of them over the years as alarm clocks – did their job well, even if NTP had been left out of the OS image. The real fail here comes from buying a $30 WinCE netbook, and using it for something as mission critical as an alarm clock. The displays burned in, the batteries began puffing up, one unit somehow wouldn’t allow IE to run (probably a bad Flash chip), and the trackpad in another one sent the cursor on a random walk. You get what you pay for.

These WinCE netbooks have finally been put out to pasture, hopefully the same one laser printers go to. It’s all for the best, though; [roger] made a much better alarm clock with Nixies.

2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which runs every now and again. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your past failures and sending us a link to the story — or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.

The Tale Of Two Wearable Game Boys

We’re well past the time when Halloween costume submissions stop hitting the tip line, but like ever year we’re expecting a few to trickle in until at least Thanksgiving. Remember, kids: documentation is the worst part of any project.

[Troy] sent us a link to his wearable Game Boy costume. It’s exactly what you think it is: an old-school brick Game Boy that [Troy] wore around to a few parties last weekend. This one has a twist, though. There’s a laptop in there, making this Game Boy playable.

The build started off as a large cardboard box [Troy] covered with a scaled-up image of everyone’s favorite use of AA batteries. The D-pad and buttons were printed out at a local hackerspace, secured to a piece of plywood, and connected to an Arduino Due. The screen, in all its green and black glory, was taken from an old netbook. It was a widescreen display, but with a bezel around the display the only way to tell it’s not original is from the backlight.

Loaded up with Pokemon Blue, the large-scale Game Boy works like it should, enthralling guests at wherever [Troy] ended up last Friday. It also looks like a rather quick build, and something we could easily put together when we remember it next October 30th.

[Troy] wasn’t the only person with this idea. A few hours before he sent in a link to his wearable Game Boy costume, [Shawn] sent in his completely unrelated but extremely similar project. It’s a wearable brick Game Boy, a bit bigger, playing Tetris instead of Pokemon.

[Shawn]’s build uses a cardboard box overlaid with a printout of a scaled-up Game Boy. Again, a laptop serves as the emulator and screen, input is handled by a ‘duino clone, and the buttons are slightly similar, but made out of cardboard.

Both are brilliant builds, adding a huge Game Boy to next year’s list of possible Halloween costume ideas. Videos of both below.

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