Aborted Ubuntu Core Web Kiosk Adventure with HP Mini (110-1134CL)

I haven’t figured out how to get WiFi working on this HP Mini (110-1134CL) under Ubuntu Core 18, but that’s not the main objective of my current investigation so I’m moving on with wired Ethernet. What I wanted to do was to build an Ubuntu Core powered web kiosk appliance to show the ESA Live ISS Tracker web page. I thought this would be a pretty easy exercise, all I had to do is follow the steps I did earlier to build an kiosk appliance running on a Dell Inspiron 11 3180.

Nope! The tutorial I followed earlier is gone, its URL https://tutorials.ubuntu.com/tutorial/ubuntu-web-kiosk now forwards to https://ubuntu.com/tutorials/electron-kiosk which is a tutorial to build an ElectronJS application into a snap. I don’t have the ESA ISS Tracker in an ElectronJS app (yet) so I poked around trying to figure out what happened to the tutorial.

Both the earlier Chromium tutorial and the current Electron tutorial are built on top of the Mir Kiosk shell. I found a good collection of information on this page proclaiming itself “Configuring Mir Kiosk, a Masterclass.” That thread did mention the chromium-mir-kiosk snap used in the now-gone tutorial, but that no longer seems to run. I only get a blank screen instead of the earlier basic web kiosk.

Apparently that snap was always intended to be a short term tech demo and there was no effort to maintain it to keep it updated with latest versions of systems. This thread claimed replacement is wpe-webkit-mir-kiosk, but there’s a problem for my situation: there’s no 32-bit (i386) snap that would run on this old HP Mini’s CPU. They only had pre-built binaries for 64-bit (amd64) processors

It appears if I want to put the ESA ISS Tracker on this HP Mini as an Ubuntu Core appliance, I will need to learn how to build it into an ElectronJS application and compile a binary that would run on i386 architecture. I’m not sure how much work that will be yet, but if I put it up on Snap store I’m sure there are people who would appreciate it.

Which occurred to me… what if it is up there already? I had forgotten to check the easy thing first. I searched on the store and unfortunately didn’t see anyone who has done the work I specifically had in mind. I did find a snap termtrack that tracks ISS as well as other satellites, but there were two problems: First, it is a terminal (text mode) application so isn’t as graphically interesting. And second, it doesn’t have an i386 binary available, either. Darn.

$ snap install termtrack
error: snap "termtrack" is not available on stable for this architecture (i386) but exists on other architectures (amd64).

Oh well, so much for a low effort ESA HTML ISS tracker built on Ubuntu Core. Which reminded me to look at how it works on my other Ubuntu Core kiosk failure: the Dell Latitude X1.

Ubuntu Core WiFi Woes on HP Mini (110-1134CL)

Last time I played with Ubuntu Core, I followed through their tutorial for building a simple minimalist web kiosk whose state is wiped clean upon every reboot. At the time I had no idea why I would ever want to build such a thing, but now I have my answer: build an “appliance” for displaying ESA’s HTML Live International Space Station Tracker.

I had put Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu Core on this HP Mini (110-1134CL) earlier for a quick look to verify it works well for command line based usage. One thing I didn’t notice earlier was the fact Ubuntu Core only recognized the wired Ethernet port and not the WiFi hardware. It’s nice to have WiFi if I’m want to set up an ISS display away from my wired networking infrastructure.

I saw some red text flash by quickly upon boot. I had to retrieve the message after startup with the journalctl command to see what it complained about.

b43-phy0: Broadcom 4312 WLAN found (core revision 15)
b43-phy0: Found PHY: Analog 6, Type 5 (LP), Revision 1
b43-phy0: Found Radio: Manuf 0x17F, ID 0x2062, Revision 2, Version 0
b43 ssb0:0: Direct firmware load for b43/ucode15.fw failed with error -2
b43 ssb0:0: Direct firmware load for b43/ucode15.fw failed with error -2
b43 ssb0:0: Direct firmware load for b43-open/ucode15.fw failed with error -2
b43 ssb0:0: Direct firmware load for b43-open/ucode15.fw failed with error -2
b43-phy0 ERROR: Firmware file "b43/ucode15.fw" not found
b43-phy0 ERROR: Firmware file "b43-open/ucode15.fw" not found
b43-phy0 ERROR: You must go to http://wireless.kernel.org/en/users/Drivers/b43#devicefirmware and download the correct firmware for this driver version. Please carefully read all instructions on this website.

I like error messages that point me to instructions telling me what to do. Unfortunately http://wireless.kernel.org/en/users/Drivers/b43#devicefirmware is no longer a valid URL and returns a HTTP 404 error. Searching the web for combinations of “Broadcom WiFi b43 Linux driver” led me to this forum post by someone asking for help. A helpful response pointed to this Debian support page, and from there to Linux kernel information. Apparently there is a licensing issue, requiring extra steps to install these driver packages. Those extra steps are where I got stuck with Ubuntu Core as it only accepts software modules in the form of snaps.

First we need to identify the exact hardware to see if it is in the b43 or b43legacy package. The command is lspci -nn -d 14e4: but lspci is not part of Ubuntu Core. Flailing, I tried to snap find lspci and came up empty.

If I had been able to determine which hardware I had, I could look it up on this chart which determines if I should sudo apt install firmware-b43-installer or its legacy counterpart sudo apt install firmware-b43legacy-installer. But again Ubuntu Core does not allow installation of software via apt, only via snap.

For the moment I’m stuck on getting WiFi for Ubuntu Core on this HP Mini, but that is not the biggest obstacle: my showstopper is that the tutorial kiosk has gone away.

ESA ISS Tracker on HP Mini (110-1134CL)

I thought it might be fun to turn an obsolete computer into an International Space Station tracking monitor running full time somewhere in the house. I didn’t want to write the software myself from scratch, and a search for something that I could put on various hardware found a web-based HTML live ISS tracker published by the European Space Agency.

My first test platform is a HP Mini (110-1134CL) from my NUCC trio of machines looking for projects. As the least capable machine in the bunch, I thought it was the best candidate. I reinstalled Ubuntu Mate 18.04 on this machine for the first round of experimentation. Earlier I established Ubuntu Mate was unusable slow on this machine for interactive usage, but maybe it will be enough for passive ISS tracking display.

With Ubuntu Mate installed, putting the site on screen was straightforward. Firefox (which comes installed as part of standard Ubuntu) can be launched with a full screen --kiosk option. That command line is what I used for a systemd service, similar to how Google prescribed launching AIY Voice apps on startup. I had to modify the AIY executable with the Firefox command line, and that was enough for the ISS tracker to be automatically launched on boot. I still had to manually click the full screen button for now, one of the to-do items I might investigate fixing later.

I was not sure if a modern web application might be too much for this old piece of hardware to handle, but once up and running the ISS tracker is pretty lightweight on processor demands according to htop. To double check, I researched how to retrieve a laptop’s power consumption under Linux and found this page listing several options. I chose upower to tell me how much power the laptop believes it is drawing from its battery pack.

 

UPower says HP Mini 110 only needs 7.5 watts

Looks like running ISS tracker takes about seven and a half watts. That’s not bad, on par with a digital picture frame. Using this to calculate the cost of energy consumption: (7.5 Watts) * (24 hours) * (30 days) = 5.4 kilowatt-hours per month. I’m being billed roughly $0.25 per kilowatt-hour on my electrical bill, so running this laptop as ISS tracker 24×7 would cost me about $1.35 a month in electric power.

I’m willing to entertain that amount as-is, but I was curious if I could drop that even further. What if I could replace Ubuntu Mate with an even simpler operating system? Would that further drop power consumption? I played with the web kiosk demo for Ubuntu Core before, so I thought I’d revisit the experiment with this HP Mini 110-1134CL.

Key Press Timeline For Entering and Exiting Developer Mode on Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340)

When I got my hands on this Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340) its primary screen was cracked and unreadable. I was happy when I discovered I could use it as a Chromebox by an external HDMI monitor, but I quickly found the limitation of that approach when I tried to switch the device into developer mode: those screens were only visible on the screen I couldn’t read.

Google has published instructions for putting a Chromebook into developer mode, but they weren’t specific enough for use with an unreadable screen. It doesn’t say how many menus are involved, and it doesn’t say how much time to expect between events. Probably because these details vary from device to device and not suitable for a general document.

I looked around online for information from other sources and didn’t find enough to help me navigate the procedure. Most irritating are the sites that say things like: “And from this point just follow the on screen prompts” when the whole point was I couldn’t read those prompts at the time.

Now that I’ve installed a replacement screen, I can see what happens and more importantly, I can now document the information I wished I was able to find several weeks ago. The most surprising part to me was that it took roughly seven minutes to transition into developer mode, but less than a minute to transition out of it. Since all user data are erased in both of these transitions, I’m curious why the times are so different.

In any case, I’ve captured the process on video (embedded below) and here is the timeline for putting a Toshiba Chromebook 2 into developer mode even if the screen is not readable. Times are in (minutes:seconds)

  • Preparation: power down the device.
  • (0:00) While holding down [ESC] + [REFRESH], press [POWER].
  • (0:15) Press [CONTROL] + [D] to enter developer mode
  • (0:25) Press [ENTER] to confirm
  • (0:36) Press [CONTROL] + [D] to confirm
  • (6:52) Two beeps warning user the Chromebook is in developer mode.
  • (7:25) Chrome OS booted up into developer mode and ready to be mirrored to external monitor.

Following power-ups while in developer mode:

  • (0:00) [POWER] button as normal (no other keys needed)
  • (0:10) Press [CONTROL] + [D] to bypass 30-second developer mode warning screen, also skipping the two beeps.
  • (0:20) Chrome OS booted up into developer mode and ready to be mirrored to external monitor.

Exiting Developer Mode:

  • Preparation: power down the device.
  • (0:00) [POWER] button as normal
  • (0:08) Press [SPACE] to re-enable OS verification.
  • (0:15) Press [ENTER] to confirm
  • (0:48) Chrome OS booted up into normal mode and ready to be mirrored to external monitor.

Life with a Chromebook

Ever since I started looking at this Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340) I had been focused on how I can break out of constraints imposed by Chrome OS. Although I had occasionally acknowledged the benefits of a system architecture focused on the most popular subset of all computing activities, I still wanted to know how to get out of it.

Now that my research got far enough to learn of a plausible path to removing all constraints and turning this Chromebook into a normal Ubuntu laptop, I’m satisfied with my available options and put all that aside for the moment. I took the machine out of Chrome OS Developer Mode so I could experience using a Chromebook for its original intended purpose and seeing how well it fills its designated niche.

Reviewing all the security protections of Chrome OS during the course of my adventure made me more willing to trust one. If I didn’t have my own computer on hand and needed to use someone else’s, I’m far more likely to log into a Chromebook than an arbitrary PC. Chrome OS receives frequent updates to keep it secure, raising the value of continued support. Since my original session to fast forward through four years of updates, I’ve received several more just in the few weeks I’ve been playing with this machine.

On the hardware side, this lightweight task-focused machine has lived up to the expectation that it would be more pleasant to use than a bulky jack of all trades convertible tablet of similar vintage. Its secondhand replacement screen‘s visual blemishes have not been bothersome, and the keyboard and trackpad had been responsive to user input. Its processing hardware is adequate, but not great. During light duty browsing the estimated battery life stretches past eight hours. But if a site is loaded down with ads and tracking scripts, responsiveness goes down and battery life estimate quickly nosedives under 4 hours.

The biggest disappointment in processing power comes from the display department. This machine was the upgraded model with a higher resolution 1920×1080 panel instead of the standard 1366×768. The higher resolution made for more pleasantly readable text, but constantly updating those pixels was too much for the machine to handle. It couldn’t sustain web video playback at 1080p. Short clips of a few seconds are fine, but settling down to watch something longer would be frustrated with stutters unless the video resolution was lowered to 720p.

And finally, there’s the fact that when the network connection goes down, a Chromebook becomes largely useless. This is unfortunately more common than I would like at the moment as I’m having trouble with my new router. In theory Google offers ways for web sites to remain useful on a Chromebook in the absence of connectivity (like Progressive Web Apps) but adoption of such techniques has not yet spread to the sites I frequent. So when the router crashes and reboots itself, the Chromebook becomes just a picture frame for showing the “No internet” error screen. This is not a surprise since network connectivity is a fundamental pillar of Chrome OS, but it is still annoying.

All things considered, a Chromebook is a nice lightweight web appliance that makes sense for the right scenarios. Its focused scope and multilayered security provisions mean I would heartily recommend one for the technically disinclined. If they learn enough technology to find Chrome OS limiting, there’s always Mr. Chromebox. If I should buy one for my own use, I would want a high resolution panel, and now I also know to get a more powerful processor to go with it.

Chrome OS Alternatives On Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340)

If I couldn’t solve the challenges getting ROS up and running with Ubuntu 18 under Crouton in Chrome OS, there is yet another option: erase Chrome OS completely and install Ubuntu in its place. I understand this would remove the developer mode warning and menu, and the software startup can go straight into ROS via an Ubuntu service just like any other Ubuntu machine.

The internet authority for this class of modification is Mr. Chromebox. I don’t know who this person is, but all my web searches on this topic inevitably points back to some resource on https://mrchromebox.tech. Starting with the list of alternate operating system options for a Chromebook. Ubuntu is not the only option, but for the purposes of a robot brain, I’m most interested in the option of a full UEFI ROM replacement allowing me to install Ubuntu like any other UEFI computer.

In order to install Mr. Chromebox’s ROM replacement, the hardware must on the list of supported devices. Fortunately the Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340) is represented on the list under its Google platform name “Swanky” so it should be eligible for the firmware utility script that makes the magic happen.

Before running the script, though, there are some hardware modifications to be made. Firmware replacement can undercut security promises of a Chromebook, even more than developer mode, so there are protections that require deliberate actions by a technically capable user before the firmware can be replaced. For “Swanky” Chromebooks, this hardware write-protect switch is in the form of a screw inside the case that makes an electrical connection across two contacts on the circuit board. Before the firmware can be replaced, that screw must be removed and the two pads insulated so there is no longer electrical contact.

Having a hardware component to the protection makes it very difficult for a Chromebook to be compromised by software bugs. Yet the screw + PCB design is a deliberate provision allowing modification with just simple hand tools. Such provisions to bypass hardware security is not found in many other security-minded consumer hardware, for example gaming consoles. I appreciate Google’s effort to protect the user, yet still offer the user an option to bypass such protection if they choose.

For the moment I am not planning to take this option, but it is there if I need it. In the near future I took this opportunity to get some first hand experience living with a Chromebook with its originally intended (non developer) use.

First Few Issues of ROS on Ubuntu on Crouton on Chrome OS

Some minor wrong turns aside, I think I’ve successfully installed ROS Melodic on Ubuntu 18 running within a Crouton chroot inside a Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340). The first test is to launch roscore, verify it is up and running without errors, then run rostopic /list to verify the default set of topics are listed.

With that done, then next challenge is to see if ROS works across machines. First I tried running roscore on another machine, and set ROS_MASTER_URI to point to that remote machine. With this configuration, rostopic /list shows the expected list of topics.

Then I tried the reverse: I started roscore on the Chromebook and pointed another machine’s ROS_MASTER_URI to the IP address my WiFi router assigned to the Chromebook. In this case rostopic/list failed to communicate with master. There’s probably some sort of networking translation or tunneling between Chrome OS and an installation of Ubuntu running inside Crouton chroot, and that’s something I’ll need to dig into and figure out. Or it might be a firewall issue similar to what I encountered when running ROS under Windows Subsystem for Linux.

In addition to the networking issue, if I want to embed this Chromebook into a robot as its brain, I’ll also need to figure out power-up procedure.

First: upon power-up, a Chromebook in developer mode puts up a dialog box notifying the user as such, letting normal users know a Chromebook in developer mode is not trustworthy for their personal data. This screen is held for about 30 seconds with an audible beep, unless the user presses a key combination prescribed onscreen. How might this work when embedded in a robot?

Second: when Chrome OS boots up, how do I also launch Ubuntu 18 inside Crouton chroot? The good news is that this procedure is covered in Crouton wiki, the bad news is that it is pretty complex and involves removing a few more Chromebook security provisions.

Third: Once Ubuntu 18 is up and running inside Crouton chroot, how do I launch ROS automatically? My current favorite “run on bootup” procedure for Linux is to create a service, but systemctl does not run inside chroot so I’ll need something else.

And that’s only what I can foresee right now, I’m sure there are others I haven’t even thought about yet. There’ll be several more challenges to overcome before a Chrome OS machine can be a robot brain. Perhaps instead of wrestling with Chrome OS, I should consider bypassing Chrome OS entirely?

Ubuntu 18 and ROS on Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340)

Following default instructions, I was able to put Ubuntu 16 on a Chromebook in developer mode. But the current LTS (Longer Term Support) release for ROS (Robot Operating System) is their “M” or Melodic Morenia release whose corresponding Ubuntu LTS is 18. (Bionic Beaver)

As of this writing, Ubuntu 18 is not officially supported for Crouton. It’s not explicitly forbidden, but it does come with a warning: “May work with some effort.” I didn’t know exactly what the problem might be, but given how easy it is to erase and restart on a Chromebook I decided to try it and see what happens.

It failed failed with a hash sum failure during download. This wasn’t the kind of failure I thought might occur with an unsupported build, download hash sum failure seems more like a flawed or compromised download server. I didn’t understand enough about the underlying infrastructure to know what went wrong, never mind fixing it. So in an attempt to tackle a smaller problem with a smaller surface area, I backed off to the minimalist “cli-extra” install of Bionic which skips graphical user interface components. This path succeeded without errors, and I now have a command line interface that reported itself to be Ubuntu 18 Bionic.

As a quick test to see if hardware is visible to software running inside this environment, I plugged in a USB to serial adapter. I was happy to see dmesg reported the device was visible and accessible via /dev/ttyUSB0. Curiously, the owner showed up as serial group instead of the usual dialout I see on Ubuntu installations.

A visible serial peripheral was promising enough for me to proceed and install ROS Melodic. I thought I’d try installation with Python 3 as the Python executable, but that went awry. I then repeated installation with the default Python 2. Since I have no GUI, I installed the ros-melodic-ros-base package. Its installation completed with no errors, allowing me to poke around and see how ROS works in this environment.

Developer Mode and Crouton on Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340)

Having replaced a cracked and illegible screen with a lightly blemished but perfectly usable module, I can finally switch this Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340) into developer mode. It’s not a complicated procedure, but the critical menus are displayed only on the main display and not an external monitor. With the earlier illegible screen, there was no way to tell when I needed to push the right keys. I might have been able to do it blind if I had a timeline reference… which is a potential project for another day.

Today’s project was to get Crouton up and running on this Chromebook. Following instructions for the most mainstream path, I went through a bunch of procedures where I only had a vague idea of what was happening. Generally speaking it’s not a great idea to blindly run scripts downloaded from the internet, but Crouton is fairly well known and I had no personal data on this Chromebook, something enforced by Chrome OS.

Until I put this Chromebook into developer mode myself I hadn’t known that user data is erased whenever a Chrome OS device transitions into or out of developer mode. This meant whatever data is saved on a Chrome OS device can’t be snooped upon in developer mode. Also, any tools or utilities that might have been installed to view system internals in developer mode are erased and no longer usable once the machine is in normal mode. This policy increased my confidence in privacy and security of Chrome OS. I’m sure it’s not perfect as all software have bugs, but it told me they had put thought into the problem.

What it meant for me today was that everything I had put on that Chromebook was wiped before I could start playing with Crouton. Whose default instructions quickly got me up and running on Ubuntu 16 (Xenial) with the xfce desktop. Running two full user-mode GUI on top of a single kernel noticeably stresses this basic machine, with user response becoming a little sluggish. Other than that, it felt much like any other Ubuntu installation except it’s all running simultaneously with full Chrome OS on the exact same machine.

Raw performance concerns aside, it seemed to work well. And the wonder of chroot meant it’s pretty easy to erase and restart with a different configuration. Which is what I’ll tackle next, because ROS Melodic is intended for Ubuntu 18 (Bionic).

Secondhand Replacement Screen for Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340)

Once I discovered the support window for a Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340) extended longer than I had originally anticipated, I was more willing to spend money to bring it back to working condition. While I was shopping for a replacement screen earlier I saw several offers for new units and a few scattered offers for secondhand units. I presume these were salvaged from retired machines and resold, which is fine by me as it came at a significant discount. $47 with taxes and shipping (*), as compared to $75 (before taxes & shipping) for a new unit.

That ~40% discount also came with a caveat: I clicked “Buy” on a unit that was rated “Grade B: Fully functional but with visible blemishes.” It was a bit of a gamble, but my primary requirement is only to see enough to enter developer mode, so I decided I would tolerate visual blemishes to save a few extra dollars. There was also a bit of a gamble in shipping. from my disassembly efforts I knew this panel is very thin and fragile. This time around, I did not mind the extensive packaging of Amazon orders.

I saw no physical blemishes on the panel during installation. Once installed, I was happy to see Chrome OS boot up and run. I had to work hard to see the visual blemishes that earned this panel its Grade B rating. I had to set the screen to full black, and artificially increase contrast in a photo editor, before we can see the magenta smudges: Two light horizontal smudges, and two dots one of which look a bit smeared.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 used replacement screen defects

I’m not familiar with failure mode of LCD display modules so I have no idea what’s going on here. Perhaps these were manufacturing defects? In any case, these flaws are only visible if I strain to look for them and there is no physical damage to the screen so I’m satisfied with my purchase.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 recovery screen now readable

The visual blemishes are not at all bothersome in normal usage. This level of performance was more than good enough to be used as a normal Chromebook if I wanted to use it as such. But the reason I got the screen was to access Chrome OS recovery menu to enter developer mode, so I will try that first.


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

Old Chromebook Lifespan Longer Than Originally Thought

A cracked screen seemed to be the only problem with this Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340). I found no other hardware or software issues with this machine and it seemed to be up and running well with an external monitor. The obvious solution was to buy a replacement screen module, but I was uncertain if that cost would be worthwhile. I based my opinion on Google’s promise to support Chromebook hardware for five years, and it’s been five years since this model was introduced. I didn’t want to spend money on hardware that would be immediately obsolete.

I’ve since come across new information while exploring the device. This was the first Chrome OS device I was able to spend a significant time with, and I was curious about all the capabilities and limitations of this constrained-by-design operating system. While poking around in the Settings menu, under “About Chrome OS” I found the key quote:

This device will get automatic software and security updates until September 2021.

I don’t know how this September 2021 time was decided, but it is roughly seven years after the device was introduced. At a guess I would say Google estimated a two year shelf life for this particular Chromebook hardware to be sold, and the promised five year support clock didn’t start until the end of that sales window. This would mean someone who bought this Chromebook just as it was discontinued would still get five years of support. If true, it is more generous than the typical hardware support policy.

Whatever the reason, this support schedule changes the equation. If I bought a replacement screen module, this machine could return to full functionality and support for a year and a half. It could just be a normal Chromebook, or it could be a Chromebook running in developer mode to open up a gateway to more fun. With this increased motivation, I resumed my earlier shopping for a replacement and this time bought a salvaged screen to install.

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.