Seeed Studio Odyssey X86J4105 Has Good ROS2 Potential

If I were to experiment with upgrading my Sawppy to ROS2 right now, with what I have on hand, I would start by putting Ubuntu ARM64 on a Raspberry Pi 3 for a quick “Hello World”. However, I would also expect to quickly run into limitations of a Pi 3. If I wanted to buy myself a little more headroom, what would I do?

The Pi 4 is an obvious step up from the 3, but if I’m going to spend money, the Seeed Studio Odyssey X86J4105 is a very promising candidate. Unlike the Pi, it has an Intel Celeron processor on board so I can build x86_64 binaries on my desktop machine and copy them straight over. Something I hope to eventually be a painless option for ROS2 cross compilation to ARM, but we’re not there yet.

This board is larger than a Raspberry Pi, but still well within Sawppy’s carrying capacity. It’s also very interesting that they copied the GPIO pin layout from Raspberry Pi, the idea some HATs can just plug right in is very enticing. Although that’s not a capability that would be immediately useful for Sawppy specifically.

The onboard Arduino co-processor is only useful for this application if it can fit within a ROS2 ecosystem, and the good news is that it is based on the SAMD21. Which makes it powerful enough to run micro-ROS, an option not available to the old school ATmega32U4 on the LattePanda boards.

And finally, the electrical power supply requirements are very robot friendly. The spec sheet lists DC input voltage requirement at 12V-19V, implying we can just put 4S LiPo power straight into the barrel jack and onboard voltage regulators will do the rest.

The combination of computing power, I/O, and power flexibility makes this board even more interesting than an Up Board. Definitely something to keep in mind for Sawppy contemplation and maybe I’ll click “Add to Cart” on this nifty little board (*) sometime in the near future.


(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Samsung 500T Disappointments

I pulled out my old Samsung 500T to see if it could run ESA’s ISS tracker. It could, and quite well, so I think the role might be the best use of this machine. Because it has proven to be a huge disappointment in so many other ways.

I knew of the machine when it launched alongside Windows 8. This was when Microsoft also launched the original ARM-powered Surface tablet to demonstrate what’s possible by using ARM chips: look at how thin and light they are! Samsung & friends launched the 500T as counterpoint: just as thin and light as the Windows RT tablets, but with an Intel CPU for full x86 compatibility. Judging by the spec sheet, it was a spectacular device to undercut and humiliate the “Windows on ARM made thin and light possible” story.

But that’s only on the spec sheet and not on the price tag. The 500T was expensive and Surface tablets sold for far less. Due to that fact, I didn’t get my 500T until much later when it showed up as a secondhand refurbished unit on Woot. When it arrived, I was sure there was something wrong with the machine. Maybe it somehow slipped past testing in refurbishment? It was completely unusable, taking several minutes to boot and user commands took many seconds (5-10) to respond or were ignored entirely. I went online and found a firmware update, which took all night to apply and upgraded performance from “disastrous” to “merely horrible”.

The screen was another cool feature that didn’t panned out. Not just a touchscreen for fingers, it was also a pen digitizer. Compatible with passive Wacom stylus used by the much thicker Surface Pro tablet, the 500T also had a tiny stylus holder built in. It held the promise to be a digital sketchpad with pressure sensitivity making it superior to a contemporary iPad. But slow system response killed that dream. Who wants to sketch on a pad when strokes don’t show up until a few seconds after we draw it?

Judging by Windows Task Manager, this device’s major implementation flaw was its eMMC flash storage, constantly showing 100% activity. The Atom CPU was not exactly a stellar performer, but it wasn’t the reason for delay as the 500T was constantly waiting to read from or write to storage. Generally ruining user experience across the board.

Not to let Intel entirely off the hook, though, as its Atom Z2760 CPU turned out to be a long term liability as well. This CPU was part of Intel’s Clover Trail family, and they had problems running Windows 10 features newly introduced in 2016. Intel had discontinued that line and declined to do anything about it, so Microsoft blocked Clover Trail devices from advancing beyond Windows 10 build 1607. They will still receive security fixes until January 2023, but features are stuck at July 2016 levels forever.

All of the above are things that I might be able to overlook as unfortunate result of things outside Samsung’s control. The eMMC storage might have performed well when new but degraded with time as solid state storage sometimes do. (The TRIM command could help, but they had to make use of it.) And Samsung had no way of knowing Intel would just abandon Clover Trail.

But let’s talk about what Samsung have chosen to install on the machine. As is typical of machines around that age, there was the usual useless bucket of trials and discount offers. There are also Samsung features that duplicate existing Windows functionality, others thinly veiled advertisement for Samsung products, and more. The worst part? I could not get rid of them. I thought they would be gone once I wiped and installed Windows 10, but they were bundled with critical device drivers so I had no choice but to reinstall them as well. Holding device drivers hostage to force users to accept unrelated software is consistent with Samsung’s anti-user behavior I saw across the board.

The image at the top of this post is just one example. SWMAgent.exe appears to be some sort of Samsung software update engine (What’s wrong with Windows Update?) and it asks for elevation. If the user declines to grant elevated privileges, the software is supposed to respect that choice and go away. But not Samsung! We see a black border visible around that dialog box, which might look strange at first glance. Windows 10 adds a subtle dark shadow to dialog boxes, why this ugly black thing? It is because we’re not looking at a single SWMAgent.exe dialog box, but a huge stack of of them. Each popping on top of the last, and another one added every minute or so. The thick black border is a result of that subtle dark shading stacked deep and combining, because Samsung would not take no for an answer.

I don’t need that in my life. The upside of this machine being disappointing was that I had no motivation to put up with it. Into the unused bin it went, and I haven’t bought a Samsung computer since.

HP Stream 7 Power Problems

I wanted to see if I can employ my unused HP Stream 7 as an International Space Station tracker at home, displaying ESA’s HTML application. The software side looks promising, but I ran into problems on the hardware side. Specifically, power management on this little tablet currently seems to be broken.

The first hint something was awry is the battery runtime remaining estimate. It is unrealistically optimistic as shown in the screen image above: 46% battery may run this little tablet for several hours, but there’s no way it would last 4 days 4 hours. At first I didn’t think it was a big deal. Battery-powered devices that I’ve dusted off would frequently give wildly inaccurate initial readings on battery. It is common for power management module to require a few charge-discharge cycles to re-calibrate.

In the case of my tablet, a few battery cycles did not help. Battery estimates remained wildly inaccurate after multiple cycles. But I was willing to ignore that estimate, since battery life is not a concern in a project that intends to run tethered to power around the clock. The bigger problem was the tablet’s behavior when plugged in.

HP Stream 7 plugged in not charging

Once power is plugged in, the battery life estimate disappears and (plugged in) was added to the description. This is fine, but I had expected to see something about charging the battery and there was nothing. Not “charging”, not “2 hours until full”, not even the occasionally infuriating “not charging”. There is a complete lack of information about charging in any form.

Still I wasn’t worried: if the tablet wants to run off plug-in power and not charge the battery, that’s fine by me. In fact I am happy to leave the battery at around 50% charge, as that is the healthiest level for long term storage of a lithium chemistry battery. But that’s not the case, either: the tablet will run mostly on plug-in power, but still slowly drain the battery until it was near empty, at which time the tablet would power down.

Only after shutting down did this tablet begin to charge its battery. Now I am worried. If I can’t run this tablet on plug-in power alone, requiring a battery that can’t be charged while it is turned on, that combination would make it impossible to build an around-the-clock ISS tracker display.

What I wanted to do next was to poke around with the hardware of this tablet and see if I can run it without the battery. Fortunately, unlikely most modern compact electronics, the HP Stream 7 can be opened up for a look.

ESA ISS Tracker on HP Stream 7

After I found that Amazon Fire HD 7 tablet was unsuitable for an always-on screen to display ESA’s HTML live tracker for the International Space Station, I moved on to the next piece of hardware in my inactive pile: a HP Stream 7. This tablet was an effort by Microsoft to prove that they would not cede the entry-level tablet market to Android. In hindsight we now know that effort did not pan out.

But at the time, it was an intriguing product as it ran Windows 10 on an Intel Atom processor. This overcame the lack of x86 application compatibility of the previous entry level Windows tablet, which ran Windows RT on an ARM processor. It was difficult to see how an expensive device with a from-scratch application ecosystem could compete with Android tablets, and indeed Windows RT was eventually withdrawn.

Back to this x86-based tablet: small and compact, with a screen measuring 7″ diagonally that gave it its name, it launched at $120 which was unheard of for Windows machines. Discounts down to $80 (when I bought it) made it cheaper than a standalone license of Windows software. Buying it meant I got a Windows license and basic hardware to run it.

But while nobody expected it to be a speed demon, its performance was nevertheless disappointing. At best, it was merely on par with similarly priced Android tablets. Sure we could run standard x86 Windows applications… but would we want to? Trying to run Windows apps not designed with a tablet in mind was a pretty miserable experience, worse than an entry level PC. Though to be fair, it is impossible to buy an entry level PC for $120 never mind $80.

The best I can say about this tablet was that it performed better than the far more expensive Samsung 500T (more on that later.) And with a Windows license embedded in hardware, I was able to erase its original Windows 8 operating system (locked with a password I no longer recall) and clean install Windows 10. It had no problems updating itself to the current version (1909) of Windows 10. The built-in Edge browser easily rendered ESA ISS tracker, and unlike the Kindle I could set screen timeout to “never”.

That’s great news, but then I ran into some problems with power management components that would interfere with around-the-clock operation.

Inviting My FreeNAS Box To The Folding Party

Once my Luggable PC Mark I was up and running, I have one more functional desktop-class CPU in my household that has not yet been drafted into my Folding@Home efforts: it was recently put in charge of running FreeNAS. As a network attached storage device, FreeNAS is focused on its main job of maintaining files and serving them on demand. There are FreeNAS plug-ins to add certain features, such as a home Plex server, but there’s no provision for running arbitrary programs on the FreeBSD-based task-specific appliance.

What FreeNAS does have is the ability to act as a host for separate virtual environments that run independently of core FreeNAS capability. This extension capability is a part of why I upgraded my FreeNAS box to more capable hardware. The lighter-weight mechanism is a “jail”, similar in concept to the Linux container (from which Docker was built) but for applications that can run under the FreeBSD operating system. However, Folding@Home has no native FreeBSD clients, so we can’t run it in a jail and have to fall back to plan B: full virtual machine under bhyve. This incurs more overhead as a virtual machine will need its own operating system instead of sharing the underlying FreeBSD infrastructure, consuming hard disk storage and locking away a portion of RAM unusable by FreeNAS.

But the overhead wasn’t too bad in this particular application. I installed the lightweight Ubuntu 18 server edition in my VM, and Folding@Home protein folding simulation is not a memory-intensive task. The VM consumed less than 10GB of hard drive space, and only 512MB of memory. In the interest of always reserving some processing power for FreeNAS, I only allocated 2 virtual CPUs to the folding VM. The Intel Core i3-4150 processor has four logical CPUs which are actually 2 physical cores with hyperthreading. Giving the folding simulation VM 2 virtual CPUs should allow it to run at full speed on the two physical CPUs and still leave some margin to keep FreeNAS responsive.

Once the VM was up and running, FreeNAS CPU usage report does show occasional workload pushing it above 50% (2 out of 4 logical CPU) load. CPU temperature also jumped up well above ambient temperature, to 60 degrees C. Since this Core i3 is far less powerful than the Core i5 in Luggable PC Mark I and II, it doesn’t generate as much heat to dissipate. I can hear the fan increased speed to keep temperature at 60 degrees, but the difference is minor relative to the other two.

Old AMD GPU for Folding@Home: Ubuntu Struggles, Windows Win

The ex-Luggable Mark II is up and running Folding@Home, chewing through work units quickly mostly thanks to its RTX 2070 GPU. An old Windows 8 convertible tablet/laptop is also up and running as fast as it can, though its best speed is far slower than the ex-Luggable. The next recruit for my folding army is Luggable PC Mark I, pulled out of the closet where it had been gathering dust.

My old AMD Radeon HD 7950 GPU was installed in Luggable PC Mark I. It is quite old now and AMD stopped releasing Ubuntu drivers after Ubuntu 14. Given its age I’m not sure if it even works for GPU folding workloads. It was designed and released near the dawn of the age when GPUs started finding work beyond rendering game screens, and its GCN1 architecture probably had problems typical of first versions of any technology.

Fortunately I also have an AMD Radeon R9 380 available. It was formerly in Luggable PC Mark II but during the luggable chassis decommissioning I retired it in favor of a NVIDIA RTX 2070. The R9 380 is a few years younger than the HD 7950, I know it supports OpenCL, and AMD has drivers for Ubuntu 18.

A few minutes of wrenching removed the HD 7950 from Luggable Mark I, putting the R9 380 in its place, and I started working out how to install those AMD Ubuntu drivers. According to this page, the “All-Open stack” is recommended for consumer products, which I mean to include my consumer-level R9 380 card. So the first pass started by running amdgpu-install. To verify OpenCL is up and running, I installed clinfo to verify GPU is visible as OpenCL device.

Number of platforms 0

Hmm. That didn’t work. On advice of this page on Folding@Home forums, I also ran sudo apt install ocl-icd-opencl-dev That had no effect, so I went back to reread the instructions. This time I noticed the feature breakdown chart between “All-Open” and “Pro” and OpenCL is listed as a “Pro” only feature.

So I uninstalled “All-Open” and installed “Pro” stack. Once installed and rebooted, clinfo still showed zero platforms. Returning to the manual, on a different page I found the fine print saying OpenCL is an optional component of the Pro stack. So I reinstalled yet again, this time with --opencl=pal,legacy flag.

Running clinfo now returns:

Number of platforms 1
Platform Name AMD Accelerated Parallel Processing
Platform Vendor Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.
Platform Version OpenCL 2.1 AMD-APP (3004.6)
Platform Profile FULL_PROFILE
Platform Extensions cl_khr_icd cl_amd_event_callback cl_amd_offline_devices
Platform Host timer resolution 1ns
Platform Extensions function suffix AMD

Platform Name AMD Accelerated Parallel Processing
Number of devices 0

NULL platform behavior
clGetPlatformInfo(NULL, CL_PLATFORM_NAME, ...) No platform
clGetDeviceIDs(NULL, CL_DEVICE_TYPE_ALL, ...) No platform
clCreateContext(NULL, ...) [default] No platform
clCreateContext(NULL, ...) [other] <error: no devices in non-default plaforms>
clCreateContextFromType(NULL, CL_DEVICE_TYPE_DEFAULT) No devices found in platform
clCreateContextFromType(NULL, CL_DEVICE_TYPE_CPU) No devices found in platform
clCreateContextFromType(NULL, CL_DEVICE_TYPE_GPU) No devices found in platform
clCreateContextFromType(NULL, CL_DEVICE_TYPE_ACCELERATOR) No devices found in platform
clCreateContextFromType(NULL, CL_DEVICE_TYPE_CUSTOM) No devices found in platform
clCreateContextFromType(NULL, CL_DEVICE_TYPE_ALL) No devices found in platform

Finally, some progress. This is better than before, but zero devices is not good. Back to the overview page which says their PAL OpenCL stack supported their Vega 10 and later GPUs. My R9 380 is from their Tonga GCN 3 line, which is quite a bit older than Vega, which is GCN 5. So I’ll reinstall with --opencl=legacy to see if it makes a difference.

It did not. clinfo still reports zero OpenCL devices. AMD’s GPU compute initiative is called ROCm or RadeonOpenCompute but it is restricted to hardware newer than what I have on hand. Getting OpenCL up and running, on Ubuntu, on hardware this old, is out of scope for attention from AMD.

This was the point where I decided I was tired of this Ubuntu driver dance. I wiped the system drive to replace Ubuntu with Windows 10 along with AMD Windows drivers. Folding@Home saw the R9 380 as a GPU compute slot, and I was up and running simulating protein folding. The Windows driver also claimed to support my older 7950, so one potential future project would be to put both of these AMD GPUs in a single system. See if the driver support extends to GPU compute for multi GPU folding.

For today I’m content to have just my R9 380 running on Windows. Ubuntu may have struck out on this particular GPU compute project, but it works well for CPU compute, especially virtual machines.

Naked HP Split X2 (13-r010dx) Sitting In A Breeze Runs Faster

Mobile computer processors must operate within tighter constraints than their desktop counterparts. They sip power to prolong battery life, and that power also eventually ends up as heat that must be dissipated. Unfortunately both heat management mechanisms and batteries are heavy and take up space, so finding the proper balance is always a difficult challenge. It is typical for laptop computers to give up its ability to run sustained workloads at full speed. But if we’re not worried about voiding warranties or otherwise rendering a mobile computer immobile, we can lift some of those constraints limiting full performance: run on an AC adapter to provide power, and get creative on ways to enhance heat dissipation.

For this experiment I pulled out the most powerful computer from my NUCC trio of research project machines, the HP Split X2 (13-r010dx). The goal is to see if I can add it to my Folding@Home pool. Looking over the technical specifications published by Intel for Core i3-4012Y CPU, one detail caught my eye: it lists two separate power consumption numbers where most processors only have one. The typically quoted “Thermal Design Power” figure is at 11.5W, but this chip has an additional “Scenario Design Power” of 4.5W. This tells us the processor is designed for computers that only expect to run in short bursts. So even if TDP is 11.5W, it valid to design a system with only 4.5W of heat dissipation.

Which is likely the case here, as I found no active cooling on this HP Split X2. The outer case is entirely plastic meaning it doesn’t even have great thermal conduction to the environment. If I put a sustained workload on this computer, I expect it to run for a while and then start slowing itself down to keep the heat manageable. Which is indeed what happened: after a few minutes of Folding@Home, the CPU clock cycle pulled back to roughly half, and utilization was pulled back half again meaning the processor is chugging along at only about a quarter of its maximum capability.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx thermal throttling

For more performance, let’s help that heat escape. Just as I did earlier, I pulled the core out of its white plastic case. This time for better ventilation rather than just curiosity.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx tablet internals removed from case

Removing it from its plastic enclosure helped only a tiny bit. Most of the generated heat are still trapped inside, so I pulled the metal shield off its main processor board. This exposed the slab of copper acting as CPU heat sink.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx CPU heat sink under shield

Exposing that heat sink to ambient air helped a lot more, but passive convection cooling is still not quite enough. The final push was to introduce some active airflow. I was contemplating several different ideas on how to jury-rig an active cooling fan, but this low power processor didn’t actually need very much. All I had to do is to set the computer down in the exhaust fan airflow from a PC tower case. That was enough for it to quickly climb back up to full 1.5 GHz clock speed with 100% utilization, and sustain running at that rate.HP Split X2 13-r010dx receiving cooling

It’s not much, but it is contributing. I can leave it simulating folding proteins and move on to another computer: my Luggable PC Mark I.

Desktop PC Component Advantage: Sustained Performance

A few weeks ago I decommissioned Luggable PC Mark II and the components were installed into a standard desktop tower case. Heeding Hackaday’s call for donating computing power to Folding@Home, I enlisted my machines into the effort and set up my own little folding farm. This activity highlighted a big difference between desktop and laptop components: their ability to sustain peak performance.

My direct comparison is between my ex-Luggable PC Mark II and the Dell laptop that replaced it for my mobile computing needs. Working all out folding proteins, both of those computers heated up. Cooling fans of my ex-Luggable sped up to a mild whir, the volume and pitch of the sound roughly analogous to my microwave oven. The laptop fans, however, spun up to a piercing screech whose volume and pitch is roughly analogous to a handheld vacuum cleaner. The resemblance is probably not a coincidence, as both move a lot of air through a small space.

The reasoning is quite obvious when we compare the cooling solution of a desktop Intel processor against one for a mobile Intel processor. (Since my active-duty machines are busy working, I pulled out some old dead parts for the comparison picture above.) Laptop engineers are very clever with their use of heat pipes and other tricks of heat management, but at the end of the day we’re dealing with the laws of physics. We need surface area to transfer heat to air, and a desktop processor HSF (heat sink + fan) has tremendously more of it. When workload is light, laptops keep their fans off for silent operation whereas desktop fans tend to run even when lightly loaded. However, when the going gets rough, the smaller physical volume and surface area of laptop cooling solutions struggle.

This is also the reason why different laptop computers with nearly identical technical specifications can perform wildly differently. When I bought my Inspiron 7577, I noticed that there was a close relative in Dell’s Alienware line that has the same CPU and GPU. I decided against it as it cost a lot more money. Some of that is branding, I’m sure, but I expect part of it goes to more effective heat removal designs.

Since I didn’t buy the Alienware, I will never know if it would have been quieter running Folding@Home. To the credit of this Inspiron, that noisy cooling did keep its i5-7300HQ CPU at a consistent 3.08GHz with all four cores running full tilt. I had expected thermal throttling to force the CPU to drop to a lower speed, as is typical of laptops, so the fact this machine can sustain such performance was a pleasant surprise. I appreciate the capability but that noise got to be too much… when I’m working on my computer I need to be able to hear myself think! So while the ex-Luggable continued to crunch through protein simulations, the 7577 had to drop out. I switched my laptop to the “Finish” option where it completed the given work unit overnight (when I’m not sitting next to it) and fetched no more work.

This experience taught me one point in favor of a potential future Luggable PC Mark III: the ability to run high performance workloads on a sustained basis without punishing hearing of everyone nearby. But this doesn’t mean mobile oriented processors are hopeless. They are actually a lot of fun to hack, especially if an old retired laptop doesn’t need to be mobile anymore.

Preparing Retired Laptops For Computing Beginners

I’ve just finished looking over several old laptop computers with an eye for using them as robot brains running ROS, a research project made possible by NUCC. Independent of my primary focus, the exercise also gave me some ideas about old laptops used for another common purpose: as cheap “starter” computers for people getting their feet wet in the world of computers. This intent involves a different set of requirements and constraints than robot building.

In this arena, ease of use becomes paramount which means most distributions of Linux are excluded. Even Raspbian, the distribution intended for people to learn in a simplified environment on a Raspberry Pi, can get intimidating for complete beginners. If someone who receives a hand-me-down computer knows and prefers Linux, it’s a fair assumption they know how to install it themselves as I had done with my refurbished Dell Latitude E6230.

Next, a hand-me-down laptop usually includes personal data from its previous owner. Ideally it is inaccessible and hidden behind password protection, but even if not, the safest way to protect against disclosure is to completely erase the storage device and reinstall the operating system from scratch.

Historically for Windows laptops such cleaning also meant the loss of the Windows license since the license key has almost certainly been separated from the computer in its lifespan. Fortunately, starting from Windows 8 there is a Windows license key embedded in the hardware, so a clean install will still activate and function properly. For these Windows laptops and MacOS machines, it is best to preserve that value and run its original operating system. This was the case for the HP Split X2 I examined.

If a Windows or MacOS license is not available, the most beginner-friendly operating system is Chrome OS. It is available for individuals to install as Neverware CloudReady: Home Edition. Putting this on a system before giving it to a beginner will allow them to explore much of modern computing while also sparing them much of the headaches. And if they dig themselves into a hole, it is easy to restart from scratch with a “Powerwash”. This was what I had done with the Toshiba Chromebook 2 I examined.

But modern computing has left 32-bit CPUs behind, limiting options for older computers lacking support for 64-bit x86_64 instruction set. It meant Neverware CloudReady is not an option for them either. It is possible the user can be served by a machine that is a stateless web kiosk machine, in which case we can install Ubuntu Core with the basics of web kiosk.

And if we have exhausted all of those options, as was the case for the HP Mini netbook I examined, I believe that means the machine is not suitable as a hand-me-down starter computer for a beginner. Computers unable to meet minimum requirements for all of the above would only be suitable for basic command-line based usage. And whether computing veterans like it or not, current convention wisdom says a command line is not the recommended starting point for today’s computing beginners.

So in order of preference, the options for a beginner-friendly laptop after wiping a disk of old data are:

  1. Windows (if license is in hardware) or MacOS (for Apple products)
  2. Either original Chromebook/Chromebox or Chrome OS via Neverware CloudReady.
  3. Ubuntu Snappy Core in Web Kiosk mode.
  4. Sorry, it is not beginner friendly.

[UPDATE: Since the time I wrote this up, I have discovered a lightweight Debian distribution suitable for old x86 computers made by the Raspberry Pi foundation. I put it on the HP Mini as well as an even older Dell Latitude X1 and it appears to be a valid option between steps 3 and 4 above.]

A Tale of Three Laptops

This is a summary of my research project enabled by the National Upcycling Computing Collective (NUCC). Who allowed me to examine three retired laptop computers of unknown condition, evaluating them as potential robot brain for running Robot Operating System (ROS).

For all three machines, I found a way to charge their flat batteries and get them up and running to evaluate their condition. I also took them apart to understand how I might mechanically integrate them into a robot chassis. Each of them got a short first-pass evaluation report, and all three are likely to feature in future projects both robotic and otherwise.

In the order they were examined, the machines were:

  1. HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): This was a tablet/laptop convertible designed for running Windows 8, an operating system that was also designed for such a dual-use life. Out of the three machines, this one had the longest feature list including the most modern and powerful Intel Core i3 CPU. But as a tradeoff, it was also the bulkiest of the bunch. Thus while the machine will have no problem running ROS, the mechanical integration will be a challenge. Its first pass evaluation report is here. For full details query tag of 13-r010dx for all posts relating to this machine, including future projects.
  2. Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): This machine was roughly the same age as the HP, but as a Chromebook it had a far less ambitious feature list but that also gave it a correspondingly lighter and slimmer profile. It is possible to run a form of Ubuntu (and therefore ROS) inside a Chromebook, but there are various limitations of doing so. Its suitability as a robot brain is still unknown. In the meantime, the first pass evaluation report is here, and all related posts (past and future) tagged with CB35-B3340.
  3. HP Mini (110-1134CL): This was a ~10 year old netbook, making it the oldest and least capable machine of the bunch. A netbook was a simple modest machine when new, and the age meant this hardware lacks enough processing power to handle modern software. While technically capable of running ROS Kinetic, the low power processor could only run the simplest of robots and unable to take advantage of the more powerful aspects of ROS. The first pass evaluation report is here, and all related posts tagged with 110-1134CL.

While not the focus of my research project, looking over four old laptops in rapid succession (these three from NUCC plus the refurbished Dell Latitude E6230 I bought) also gave me a perspective on preparing old laptops for computing beginners.

HP Mini (110-1134CL): First Pass Evaluation

This HP Mini netbook was the oldest of three laptops in this NUCC-sponsored research project. As a netbook, it was a very limited and basic machine even when new, and that was around ten years ago. A lot has changed in the computing world since then.

Today, its 32-bit only CPU limits robot brain applications, as only the older ROS Kinetic LTS released prebuilt 32-bit binaries. Outside of robot brain applications, any modern graphical user interface is sluggish on this machine. From Chrome OS up through Windows 10 and everything in between. When running Ubuntu Mate, it actually felt worse than a Raspberry Pi running the same operating system, which came as a surprise. Both had ~1GHz CPUs and 1GB of RAM. And even though a 10-year old Atom could outperform a modern ARM CPU, the 10-year old Intel integrated graphics processor has fallen well behind a modern ARM’s graphics core.

So it appears the best position for this machine is in running command line computing or data processing tasks that work well on old low-end Intel 32-bit chips. It would be a decent contender for the type of projects that today we would think of running on a Raspberry Pi. With the caveat of weaker graphics effects, it offers the following advantages over a Raspberry Pi:

  • Intel x86 (32-bit) instruction set.
  • Higher resolution screen than the standard Raspberry Pi touchscreen.
  • Keyboard (minus the N key in this particular example)
  • Touchpad
  • Battery for portable use
  • Actual data storage device in the form of a SATA drive, not a microSD card.

It is also the only one of the three NUCC machines to have a hard wire Ethernet port. As someone who’s been burned by wireless communication issues more than once, this is a pretty significant advantage over the rest of the machines in my book.

 

HP Mini (110-1134CL): Command Line Adept

So far I’ve determined a ~10 year old netbooks lack the computing power for a modern desktop graphical user interface, even those considered lightweight by today’s standards. Was it always sluggish even in its prime? It’s a little hard to tell from here, because even though computers have undoubtedly gotten faster, our expectations have risen as well.

But there’s more to a computer’s capability than pushing pixels around, so we fall back to the next round of experiments with command line interface systems. And since we’ve already established that a solid state drive was not a great performance booster on this platform, I put the original spinning platter hard drive back in for the next round.

This time instead of Ubuntu Desktop, I installed Ubuntu server edition instead. This minimalist distribution lacks the user friendliness of a graphical user interface, but it also lacks the graphics processing workload of displaying one as well. As a result this machine is quite snappy and responsive. I found it quite usable, especially now that I’ve learned about virtual consoles and use the Alt key plus F1 through F6 to switch between up to six different sessions. Simple tasks like running Python scripts and running a basic server were done easily and quickly.

I started experimenting with Ubuntu 16, because Ubuntu did not release prebuilt installation binaries for 32-bit Ubuntu 18. However, once Ubuntu 16 server was and and running, I was able to rundo-release-upgrade to move up to Ubuntu 18. From minor tinkering I didn’t notice any significant difference between them.

Then I remembered I had played with an even more minimalist Ubuntu earlier, on an even older machine. Ubuntu 18 Snappy Core is available for 32-bit i386 processors, and it installed successfully on this laptop. Now I have one more incentive to learn how to build my own snaps to install on such a system. I just have to remember to that I can only connect to an Ubuntu Snap machine via SSH, and the list of valid keys associated with an account do not auto-update. I typically generate a SSH key every time I reset a machine, and I no longer have the keys to access my previous snappy core experiment. I ended up reinstalling snappy core to pick up the current set of SSH keys.

HP Mini (110-1134CL): Ubuntu Mate and Chrome OS Slow Even With SSD

After a ~10 year old netbook was upgraded with a solid state drive, we can now confirm the hard drive is not the only thing holding back performance. The following experiments indicate the old Atom CPU at the heart of this machine lacks the power to run any modern operating system graphical user interface.

First up at bat was Ubuntu Desktop 16.04 i386. It ran sluggishly when loading from this machine’s original spinning platter hard drive, and it was not significantly better when loading from the upgraded solid state drive. Watching the HDD activity light earlier, I thought this might be the case, but wanted to verify firsthand, which I have.

Next candidate was Ubuntu Mate, which has a 32-bit installer for 18.04. (Mainline Ubuntu stopped supporting 32-bit in 18.) Even though Ubuntu Mate advertised itself as a lighter-weight alternative to mainline Ubuntu, it was unfortunately still far from pleasant to use. But if needed, one reason to run Ubuntu Mate 18.04 is for the longer supported timeframe of Ubuntu 18. According to Ubuntu releases list, 18 is supported until April 2023.

I then tried an even more constrained operating system: install Chrome OS and make a faux Chromebook out of this thing. I had known Neverware CloudReady as a build of Chrome OS that anyone can install on an old laptop to turn it into a Chromebook. I had trouble making it work before on an old machine before, and wanted to try again.

I noticed the minimum recommended amount of RAM has increased as I remembered it was 1GB, now it is up to 2GB. But that was just a recommendation and I was able to load CloudReady on this netbook with just 1GB RAM. Once launched and running, CloudReady proved to be about as sluggish as Ubuntu Mate 18.

But that’s not the biggest problem:

CloudReady 32-bit EOL

CloudReady, originally advertised to help give old machines new life, has been forced to leave 32-bit CPUs behind. After seeing this notification I went online to find their announcement, as well as confirmation that Chrome OS v76 was about the right vintage for this to happen.

For interactive graphical desktop use, it really doesn’t get any more lightweight than Chrome OS and this machine still struggles. It looks like we need to fall back to a text-based server edition of operating system software.

[UPDATE: I found an even lighter weight distribution of Linux for old 32-bit x86 machines that would be familiar to users of the Raspberry Pi.]

HP Mini (110-1134CL): SSD Upgrade

Installing Ubuntu Desktop 16.04 LTS on this ~10 year old netbook resulted in a very sluggish computing experience. Since it was not a speed demon even when new ten years ago, I doubt its performance was only held back by its old school spinner platter hard drive. As a quick experiment, I’ll perform a SSD upgrade and see how much of an performance improvement it would result.

Opening the door at the bottom revealed a memory module as expected. It appears to be a DDR2 memory module with a capacity of 1 GB. Unfortunately I don’t have any DDR2 laptop memory modules to attempt a memory upgrade, so I left it alone and continued trying to open the laptop.

HP Mini 110-1134CL remove easy stuff

There are clips around the perimeter. Trying to open them up, I find resistance at the corners due to screws hidden underneath each rubber feet.

HP Mini 110-1134CL screws hiding under feet

Removing them did not help release the top and bottom halves of the machine, so there are even more fasteners I have yet to see. Looking for what I might have missed, I found three screws with a keyboard icon inside the battery compartment.

HP Mini 110-1134CL keyboard retention screws

Removing those screws allowed the keyboard to be popped open, exposing the hard drive plus additional fasteners holding the laptop together. The focus at the moment is the SSD upgrade, so I’ll hold off on further disassembly for now.

HP Mini 110-1134CL keyboard removed

The bright piece of metal had the right shape and size for a hard drive cage, and it was also conveniently labeled with an instructional diagram. I thought that was great — it’s going to be as easy as 1, 2, 3! Except it wasn’t. For reasons I don’t understand, they neglected to mention two more screws that had to be removed before I could proceed with steps 2 and 3.

HP Mini 110-1134CL hard drive removal

Once removed, the stock hard drive was held to this cage with four standard mounting screws. From there it was straightforward to install a 2.5″ SATA SSD for further adventures in netbook computing.

HP Mini (110-1134CL): Slow At Ubuntu 16 Desktop

A quick hardware orientation tour of this retired netbook found that we should be able to run ROS Kinetic Kame on this computer. Getting a simple ROS Kinetic environment running would be a baseline test to see how it might perform as a robot brain. And for that, we’ll have to erase the Windows 7 Starter Edition on this hard drive with Ubuntu 16.04 “Xenial Xerus”.

A sticker at the bottom of the machine identified the default operating system as Windows 7 Starter Edition. Since this machine predated Windows 8 mechanism for embedded licenses, we know this hardware would not have an embedded license for Windows and erasing this drive would mean the loss of a Windows license. I decided a Starter Edition license was no great loss and proceeded to install Ubuntu Desktop 16.04 LTS, i386 (32-bit CPU) edition.

Installation was successful on this netbook, but it was annoyingly slow to use. Every action required a few seconds, starting from activating the logon screen to every single interaction after that. I don’t know if running Windows 7 Starter Edition was any more responsive on this computer, but I wouldn’t have wanted to run an end-of-life OS even if it was faster.

What was the bottleneck here? Was it the CPU? Was it the RAM? Was it the hard drive? Or perhaps a combination of the above, like a lack of RAM triggering virtual memory activity that is hampered by a slow hard drive? For diagnosis I appreciated the fact this little netbook had a hard drive activity light, a feature that has been dropped from most modern machine. Judging by the lack of activity on that light, I suspect the problem is a slow CPU and upgrading the drive to a SSD would have limited benefit.

Even with this pessimistic view, I wanted to give it a try. I had a spare SATA SSD already on hand so it shouldn’t take a lot of time to test.

HP Mini (110-1134CL): Hardware Specifications

After a quick check to make sure this machine comes to life after charging, I started researching its hardware specifications. A sticker below the machine identified itself as a HP Mini 110-1134CL.

Based on reviews online for the HP Mini 110 product line, this is roughly ten years old powered by an Atom N270 processor. This is a big strike against using this computer as a robot brain running ROS, as the N270 is limited to 32-bit software. The latest longer-term support distribution of ROS “Melodic Morenia” only officially supports 64-bit Intel/AMD chips. If this machine is to run ROS, it would be limited to the previous LTS of ROS “Kinetic Kame” which is not ideal, but at least it will be supported until April 2021.

According to BIOS readout, there is 1GB of RAM installed on this computer. An access door with a memory module icon is visible on the underside of the machine, so a RAM upgrade is probably possible. But I don’t have any old memory modules on hand and I’m not inclined to spend money upgrading a ten year old computer. A single gigabyte is expected to be very limiting, but it is possible to get a very basic ROS installation running on a Raspberry Pi 3, which also only has 1GB. It might get annoying but is probably not going to be a deal breaker.

The BIOS hardware list also describes the hard drive as an old school spinning platter type, which was as expected. Thankfully the Fujitsu MJA2160BH G2. A 2.5″ 160GB 5400 RPM is at least a standard SATA drive and not the compact variant that stumped me earlier. This means I have the option to try upgrading it with one of the SATA SSD drive I already have on hand.

Now that I’m oriented, it’s time to take on the first experiment: see if it can run Ubuntu 16, the basis for ROS Kinetic Kame.

HP Mini (110-1134CL): Relic of the Netbook Era

After I had completed my first pass at the Toshiba Chromebook 2, I moved on to the third and final machine in this research project made possible by NUCC: the HP Mini 110-1134CL. It is an example from “netbook” era, a category of computers launched by the Asus Eee PC. Netbooks were an early attempt to build minimalist computers for basic internet activity, years before Chromebooks defined their own product category.

Like Chromebooks, the first netbooks ran a custom operating system that offered a web browser and very few other basic applications. But unlike Chromebooks, netbooks quickly abandoned custom OS and started running a special “Starter Edition” of Windows. Was it due to customer demand? Manufacturer preference? Microsoft offering carrot and stick? I have nothing useful to contribute here.

Like the other two machines, when I received this machine the battery was flat. Nothing happened when I first pushed the power switch. Fortunately it could be charged with the “type I” tip for my Targus universal laptop AC power adapter, same as the Toshiba Chromebook 2 I looked at earlier.

While it was charging I looked over its physical condition. There is a missing “N” key on the keyboard, but nothing else was outwardly wrong. Once the battery was charged, I turned it on to take a quick look at its condition. I saw what I recognized as the Windows 7 boot up sequence, but after some time staring at “Welcome…” I never got to the login screen. It threw up an error of “failed to start” without any error codes I could investigate, and suggested “rerun installation” which I don’t particularly care to do as we’ve long passed the end of life for Windows 7.

That’s a problem to be looked at later. For now, I’m glad the machine showed signs of life making it worthwhile to spend some time looking over its specifications.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): First Pass Evaluation

After I had my fun looking inside this retired tablet/laptop convertible, I put it all back together and verified everything still worked. As far as I could tell there’s no functional problem with this machine, no deviation from original designed performance. It’s even capable of running the latest release of Windows 10.

Why it was retired by its original owner? My personal opinion points to the nature of a tablet/laptop convertible. When this class of devices were introduced alongside Windows 8, they were advertised to be machines that combine the best of both worlds. But Windows 8 failed to deliver its promised revolution in touch-centric tablet computing. So machines that made design compromises instead found themselves saddled with the problems of both worlds.

Even though it offered bigger screen real estate than the standard iPad, it had inferior resolution and responsiveness is sluggish. It is also significantly heavier on account of having all the hardware of a PC inside the case, including the hard drive I failed to replace. For normal web browsing and content consumption, it isn’t any better than an iPad. Sure, it can be docked into the base to do things an iPad can’t, but that just brings in a different set of problems.

The laptop mode dock had to support the weight of a full PC inside the tablet module, whereas normal laptops only had to support the weight of the screen. This class of hardware became inherently top-heavy and required a lot of design work to keep from toppling over. Up to and including unfortunate additions of counterweights. The hinge and docking mechanism adds parts weight and cost, resulting in a laptop that is bulkier and more expensive than non-convertible counterparts. This machine is nominally a 13″ laptop but it is almost double the physical volume and weight of a 13″ Macbook Air from the same era.

The computer market of 2020 have some pretty compelling 2-in-1 machines, built with the advantage of several years of hardware advancement. High resolution screens, flash storage, and power-efficient CPUs that can run on smaller lighter batteries. They incurred a much smaller penalty for the compromises of a convertible design. Technology moved on, and first generation convertibles like this model were left behind.

But even if it is no longer desirable as either a tablet or a laptop, this machine is still capable of running latest generation of software. Including latest releases of Windows 10, Ubuntu, and both ROS 1 and 2. Despite being saddled by the performance of a hybrid hard drive, I’m confident some interesting use for this machine will be possible. I’ll set this promising machine aside for now to examine the next unit in line.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): Docking Base Internals

After I’ve poked around in the main tablet unit of this convertible laptop, attention shifted to the docking base. There were 9 screws, 4 of which were hidden under rubber feet which had to be removed.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx base

Once the screws were removed, only a few tabs held the panel in place. Since the base had functionality in addition to just hosting a keyboard and touchpad, it was not a surprise to find circuit boards near the USB ports, HDMI port, and SD card reader. But there is also a long, much larger than expected, circuit board. This base must be more sophisticated than what I gave it credit for.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx base unused connector

An unused connector caught my attention. Typically when a connector is not used, it is not even soldered to the board. (See earlier examination of a potential M.2 connector.) This connector is soldered, but unused. Perhaps supporting a feature of an upscale model or an optional upgrade, but I have no guesses on what it might be.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx base possible ballast

Another unusual point of interest are these two pieces of metal flanking the touch pad. They appear to serve no electrical or structural purpose, and I speculate they are here just to provide a few grams of weight. Convertible tablets like this device are top-heavy and it’s a challenge to prevent them from toppling over backwards when open. Clever geometry could solve most of this problem, but when all else fails, bolt some counterweight to the base far from the hinge for leverage. Some laptop shoppers compare by weight, motivating companies to go to great lengths to reduce overall weight. Adding counterweights negates the effort, so I would guess these were done as a last resort.

There was more inside this base than I had expected. Now that I’ve looked around the insides, it’s time to put this machine back together and write down some concluding thoughts before moving on.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): Tablet Innards

I took apart this convertible tablet/laptop with the goal of upgrading a SATA hybrid drive to a full SSD, but I was foiled. Since I had it open anyway, I took a look around. With the hybrid drive sitting directly in the middle and batteries on either side, circuit boards were necessarily scattered on either side with ribbon cables connecting them.

Most of the computing brains resided on a circuit board up top, and peripheral interfaces lived on the bottom. Including the microSD slot, headphone jack, charging port, and the docking connector. In between them were black speaker assemblies, one left and one right.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx wifi module

There were also provisions for interface cards to flank left and right of the main processing board. On one side is a WiFi interface module, with wires leading to antennae. The antenna is smaller than I had expected, but I don’t know enough to say if this necessarily meant reduced WiFi range. I also noticed the WiFi module didn’t occupy the entire width of the interface slot, leaving a few pins unconnected. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx unpopulated connector

The opposite side is even more interesting, with pads for an absent connector. This has roughly the pin counts to be a M.2 “B key” edge connector which could support a M.2 SSD. There’s also a hole cast into the chassis that’s roughly the correct distance to secure a M.2 2280 card. But like my previous experience with unpopulated connectors, several adjacent supporting components also seem to be missing from the circuit board so I am not confident I can just solder a M.2 connector and make things go.

I was curious if the 4GB RAM on this board could be upgraded. If a standard memory module is here it would be under the metal shield covering most of the processing board, but I didn’t want to dig that deep just yet. 4GB is enough to cover basic tasks and it is clearly not designed to be easily upgraded.

[UPDATE: I dug deeper and didn’t find memory modules.]

With curiosity about the tablet internals satisfied for the moment, I reassembled the tablet module and turned my attention to the docking base.