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Hardware Linux

Installing Linux On ARM-Based Netbooks? 179

An anonymous reader writes "I am sure that many other Slashdotters have noticed an increase in ARM-based netbooks over the past several months. For example, the Augen E-Go. It is a widely touted theory that it is impossible to install Linux on one of these notebooks, replacing the commonly installed Windows CE operating system. The sub-$100 netbooks carry decent specs, including 533MHz ARM processor; 128MB DDR RAM; and a 2GB Flash drive, as well as most expected netbook components (USB, Wi-Fi, etc.). I find it hard to believe that a computer with these specs is impossible to hack and install Linux to, but Google searches have been largely unsuccessful in finding proper information. Do any Slashdot readers have experience in installing ARM Linux distros to these cheap netbooks like this? If so, what distros do they recommend?" (In particular, I wonder if anyone can comment on Ubuntu on ARM.)
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Installing Linux On ARM-Based Netbooks?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 21, 2010 @07:45PM (#32300894)

    Debian GNU/Linux on ARM []

    Indeed. I wouldn't recommend Ubuntu for these simply because it's designed for typical desktop machines with gigs of memory, and all the "pretty" is no good when all you've got is 128MB. But Debian with an appropriately lightweight window manager should be up to it.

  • by crow ( 16139 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @07:56PM (#32300988) Homepage Journal

    Sure, Linux runs on lots of CPUs, and would have no problem on ARM, and probably even supports all the devices on the systems in question. The trick is finding a way to install it, and that's where the hacking comes in. How does the system boot? Can you modify the boot image to install Linux? Does the BIOS (or whatever equivalent) insist on only booting digitally-signed boot images like video game consoles do? Those questions may have different answers for each device.

    In most cases, I would think it shouldn't be too hard, as they aren't likely to bother with digital signatures, and they probably have some mechanism for installing an upgraded or patched operating system (for bug fixes, if nothing else). Someone has to buy one and figure out how to do it.

  • Re:Amazing! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @08:07PM (#32301098) Homepage

    Yet, that does not actually solve the problem. If you think it does, you don't understand the problem.

    These devices only have 128M of RAM. That's not much: you won't be running X terribly well, nevermind a modern desktop. And the available packages for 'lightweight' stuff is woefully unequipped for something like this.

    What the OP really should be looking at is MeeGo/Moblin or Maemo - though with only 128M of RAM, they might be a bit under powered for even that.

  • Re:Amazing! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Concerned Onlooker ( 473481 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @08:07PM (#32301102) Homepage Journal

    Perhaps. But consider that if the user hadn't submitted the story there would have been other effects lost. For instance, by reading this article I found out about the E-Go, which I'd never heard of before. I also found out about Angstrom for the ARM architecture.

    If we all kept as quiet as you appear to want then the spread of ideas and information might happen at a much slower pace.

  • Re:Amazing! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Larryish ( 1215510 ) <> on Friday May 21, 2010 @08:14PM (#32301168)

    Debian with IceWM was perfectly usable on a p200 with 64 megs of RAM back in the late 90's, it should do very well on an arm533 with 128 megs of RAM.

  • Re:Amazing! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by CityZen ( 464761 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @08:24PM (#32301242) Homepage

    Mod parent up. The biggest limitation is the amount of RAM. Sure, 128MB may be fine for certain limited applications, but it'll be the bottleneck for any decent web browsing or any kind of multitasking. I think 256MB may be the bare minimum for comfortable web browsing, mostly based on the fact that any device I've used with only 128MB seemed to just fall a bit short of being really usable. Perhaps someone with a 192MB device (T-Mobile G1?) can chime in with their experience.

  • Why bother? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kitserve ( 1607129 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @08:30PM (#32301294) Homepage

    Looking at the specs given by the OP, I am wondering why you would go to the trouble of installing Linux on one of these machines (other than geek cred) when you could just get a MIPS based netbook with similar specs that comes with Linux, e.g. the CnMbook. I got one for £90 last year, it's slow as hell but does the job for basic web access etc when I don't want to carry around a full sized laptop.

    I might add that putting a full-featured Linux distro (e.g. replacing the basic Linux install it ships with with Debian or the like) on the CnMbook doesn't seem too plausible at the moment, there's just too much tweaking necessary, and this is a machine that ships with a Linux variant installed. Trying to put Linux on one of the ARM machines mentioned by the OP when it isn't even supported by the manufacturer seems like more pain than it's worth to me...

  • bottleneck? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by reiisi ( 1211052 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @08:43PM (#32301376) Homepage

    If it's a bottleneck on Puppy or basic Debian, it's going to be a bottleneck on MSWinxxx.

    The RAM is not the problem. The problem is the wetware of engineers who deliberately throw up roadblocks to using a decent OS.

  • Re:Amazing! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @08:58PM (#32301476) Homepage

    "Should" work?

    Yeah, I've got a MobilePro 780 - it has 32MB RAM; I've got X running on it with ion3 under NetBSD. NetBSD 2.0. It barely runs - and this is an old TinyX (nanox? I can't recall) X server.

    I had a P133 with 16MB of RAM, too. That ran icewm well.

    The problem is that this isn't 1997, and X implementations are significantly bloated these days compared to back then. There have been a lot of changes - many have which have been acceptable improvements (memory use for performance improvements, support, etc.). Even the 'tiny' X implementations have this problem.

  • trolls (Score:3, Insightful)

    by reiisi ( 1211052 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @09:00PM (#32301490) Homepage

    semi-intelleigent sounding stuff that presumes INTEL has already won.

    Shoot. Why not just give in to the BORG entirely?

  • Re:trolls (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @09:19PM (#32301586) Homepage

    "Intel has already won"?

    Let's see: you can currently buy a capable Atom based mini-ITX board with a dual core processor for under $70 - sufficient system for a small office network server, workstation, and pretty much any common task. It's got lower power use than the competitors in the same price range as well as more performance. (In fact, the Atom boards are a bit cheaper than the cheapest Via and AMD board/CPU combos - and mostly fanless.)

    Now consider that the latest Atom has a TDP of 2 watts, and in-use power utilization about average for existing smartphone platforms. It might not immediately/seamlessly boot Windows 7, but I'd wager a bet that someone will figure out how to get it to work on account of it being an x86 chip. And a common Linux distro might very well be able to install without too much kludgery, too.

    This is something that just a couple years ago (when Atom first came out, there about) everyone said was impossible: Intel would never have anything that would compete with ARM processors on power utilization and performance. Yet these Mooreland CPUs appear to have just as much (if not more) performance than the latest, greatest Snapdragon and the iPad's SoC. Also consider how incredibly fast Intel came to market with this CPU (vs. the much more linear progression we've seen in the ARM platforms over the past decade).

  • Re:Amazing! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CronoCloud ( 590650 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [noruaduolconorc]> on Friday May 21, 2010 @09:19PM (#32301588)

    It comes from the "ZOMG, you want to run Linux, therefore you want to run a server/are a sysadmin/are a programmer" mindset. Of course, if they didn't include Apache, sendmail, bind, etc by default, you'd have all those programmers/sysadmins saying how Distro-foo is dumbed down for the masses.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @09:32PM (#32301662)

    You're on the wrong site. Go back to digg or where ever you should be.

  • Re:Amazing! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by slartibartfastatp ( 613727 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @09:34PM (#32301680) Journal
    Well, then you'll be stuck on static pages, and will be impossible to render and navigate through "modern" pages.
  • by causality ( 777677 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @09:57PM (#32301788)

    And if all else fails, you can always try here []. Only problem you'll have then might be the drivers, although in that case there still may be help for you [].

    I have been using Gentoo (and love it) for several years now. I have not actually tried LFS although I am familiar with its basic concepts. Can you advise why you would prefer LFS over Gentoo? It seems you'd be giving up the ease of long-term administration that Portage offers, and so far as I know Gentoo does support the ARM platform.

  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @11:30PM (#32302344)

    The problem with portable computing devices -- at least the ones that aren't tied to an expensive cell plan -- is that they are such narrow margin markets that few manufacturers are interested in them. Let's say that you want a lightweight, long battery life, portable computer with a full-sized keyboard to do actual work on: word processor, spreadsheet, or for the more technically inclined, a text editor and a copy of gcc, and you don't give a shit about watching video or browsing Flash-heavy sites.

    Good luck with that.

    It's not that there's any technical barrier involved here. You could do all of that just fine on a 90MHz Pentium fifteen years ago, or even a 50MHz 80486 twenty years ago. Odds are that the processor and memory in a third-rate cell phone could blow those specs away. Add a real screen and a keyboard, and you've got a device that could retail under $100. Of course, that means that it would probably wholesale for around $40, and the manufacturer's profit would likely be a couple of bucks, but only for the month or two it would take every factory in Taiwan to rush out clones. And that's provided it wasn't stillborn because every clueless tech "journalist" started bitching about how you couldn't watch video or play the latest games on it. Frankly, you can't really blame the manufacturers for not wanting to jump on that wagon.

    So instead, we get the overpriced toys of the netbook world which, while capable computing platforms in the abstract, are so crippled by their toy keyboards that they're basically DVD viewers with built-in web browsers. It's like the final, terrifying revenge of WebTV.

    I suspect that if you want something else, you're going to have to find an otherwise suitable netbook and substantially modify the hardware yourself. Personally, I've been giving serious thought to stuffing the guts of a netbook inside of a vintage IBM Model M keyboard and building a custom cover for it.

  • Re:trolls (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @11:36PM (#32302382) Homepage

    You're grealty underestimating Atom power usage and overestimating ARM one; they are typically at least an order of magnitude apart, quite often two.

    Now consider that in my damn Wintel PC ( those Atom ones you mention) there is most likely more ARM cores than x86 ones; to say nothing of all the devices around me.
    Heck, virtually all mobile phones are built around ARM. Even that is, at worst, around the number of all PCs in existence...but annually.

  • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot&worf,net> on Saturday May 22, 2010 @01:05AM (#32302754)

    is because ARM systems so far are embedded systems.

    PCs are easy because their behavior is very simple and effectively, hasn't changed much since the beginning. But ARMs are a dime a dozen and used in various things from lightweight controllers to cellphones. Your PC might very well have several ARM processors inside it.

    As a result, every ARM system is different - the memory map is different, the interrupt controller is different between SoC vendors, peripherals are located at different spots, etc. The only real constant is that ARMs boot at 0x0, but many SoCs have boot ROMs that are mapped at that area, which load a bootloader off storage at some arbitrary memory location and jumps there. End result, on ARM, you need to build a kernel/bootloader that's specific to your hardware.

    On a PC, it's pretty much a monoculture and you know where things are in physical memory space. Things are located at well known addresses. On a PC, then, it's effectively the same architecture. That's why there's so many OSes available because the basic kernel needs are all the same across every PC, ranging from low power embedded systems to super 128-core behemoths - you know where RAM starts, how the BIOS will load you and where, how the interrupt controller, timer hardware, etc., work, and how to talk to more advanced peripherals via interfaces like ACPI. Hell, about the biggest change in PCs is the slow move to EFI based firmware, but they implement a BIOS compatibility module for backwards compatibility.

    Try writing a program where you don't know where you're going to be located in memory, hardware you don't know where it might be located, interrupt controllers that can change wildly, etc without requiring reconfiguration and recompilation, and it's impossible. That's the current state of ARM systems...

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp