Affordable Linux: A Quest

As most readers know, we here at Chaos Central are a Linux establishment for our primary computing.  We use Apple iPhones and iPads for mobile convenience and casual surfing, but depend on Linux for everything else–with the exception of what has become known at CC as “The Screaming Season,” where we are dependent on Windows to run Turbotax to render unto Caesar.

As much as we’d like to be on a 3 to 5-year cycle for computer upgrade/replacement, retirement, and before that, negotiated fee schedules, have reduced that to “when it breaks, MacGyver it.”  The result has been dismal.  When Judy’s desktop Linux machine died last year, having already received a CPU cooling fan transplant several years ago, salvaged from an old machine before it went to the recyclers, we pressed our old 2007-vintage laptop back into service, restoring her files from backup.  That machine had had a new hard drive and more memory installed during its last incarnation, but the extra memory had faded away, and the CPU not up to the demands of the 2016 version of Ubuntu Linux, so it was running slowly with the reduced-capability desktop.

Since the current crop of machines with pre-installed Linux are aimed at developers rather than standard office use, we couldn’t justify a new laptop from one of the few vendors who supply them.  So, as in the “bad old days,” we went shopping for a cheap Windows laptop on which we could install Linux.  The “cheap” machines are now essentially Microsoft’s answer to the iPad and Android tablets they see as main competition–a light-weight, small-screen device with as small (32GB) flash memory (EMMC) instead of a hard drive, and no optical drive.  Not to worry, I loaded a light-weight version of Linux (Lubuntu) on a 64GB flash drive and it became her new machine, with the added advantage of being portable.  The big disadvantage was the need to plug in the Linux memory stick to run it.  The biggest problem was the short life span of flash drives when used as the primary drive on a Unix-like system.   And, the system was incredibly slow.

Well, in only a few months, the flash drive expired.  No problem, I thought, just build another and restore.  But, as many others have found, the ability to install in the first place was a fluke: these little Windows tablets masquerading as a laptop by having an attached keyboard are finicky: try as I might, I could not get it to boot from the install memory stick again.  So, the little blue Dell machine has become the new Turbotax home, effectively retiring the $80 refurbished Vista->Windows7->Windows10 desktop we acquired a couple years ago and built up (another $40 video card) to run Win10 (badly).

So, Judy was back to the old laptop.  This time, we pressed her old 2010 HP Netbook back into service, even slower and more clunky than the older Compaq (which she also used during this evolution), running a light-weight version of Mint Linux.  The office was beginning to look like the computer labs of the early 2000s, where we pressed piles of recycled obsolete machines into experimental compute clusters to get 21st-century performance out of 20th-century machines, a distributed computing architecture conceived in the mid-20th century but not economically feasible until there was a huge supply of retired machines awaiting landfill space.

A comprehensive check of Linux-capable systems was not promising.  The custom-built laptops (our new criteria is portability to fit our mobile retirement life-style) are expensive and beyond our budget with no current paying clients.  My own laptop, which was high-end (and expensive) in its day (2010) is showing its age, with a too-small disk, weak battery and some screen burn-in.  But, the equivalent new models are in excess of $2000, difficult to justify on a pension without contract income to support it.  Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time before it wheezes its last, so we need to first find an affordable and long-term solution for Judy’s immediate need while keeping in mind the future budget hit for a developer machine.  The other option for affordable Linux-ready or pre-installed laptops are refurbished machines proven to be compatible.  The disadvantage there is the same facing my situation: the batteries are in mid-life, so long-term reliability is an issue,as well as mobile portability.  Older machines are also heavier than desired.

So, we finally settled on a fourth option: installing Linux on a Chromebook.  Chrome is a laptop operating system from Google, a variant of the Android system used on smart phones and tablets.  Since Chrome and Android are basically embedded Linux, it is relatively easy to add Linux to them as a container, using Crouton, a management system similar to the Docker system used to install and manage containers on native Linux machines.  I say relatively, but that assumes some heavy-duty skills in system administration, since Chrome is a locked system.  First, the system must be unlocked into Developer mode, which basically voids the warranty and security protections.  At least, Google does not provide support for a machine in this state.  The hacker community, then, is at the mercy of well-intentioned, but not always well-informed peers for advice.

I followed the available advice in the hacker forums into the corners that most others had painted themselves, finally figuring out an important missing step.  To use the Crouton system, the wily hacker must first use the official Google developer shell to set the root and administrator passwords.  Then, Crouton can access the administrative account to install the Linux container.  The less-helpful solutions offered essentially required reinstalling Chrome and starting over, which was not necessary at all, but the default obvious solution to developers and admins raised in the Age of Windows, where frequent rebooting and periodic reinstalling is considered a normal operational necessity.  Unix and Linux admins only reboot after installing a new kernel, which may be months or years, depending on the stability of the system and whether the management decides to incorporate the latest patches when they are released (many don’t, for fear it will break fragile applications, despite the security risk of not upgrading).

So, now Judy has a brand-new system that, hopefully, will be stable for a reasonable time.  The advantage of this system is that it is still Chrome, so she can use the user-friendly desktop apps available to Chrome, similar to the ones on Apple iOS, and switch to the Linux desktop with a simple key-combination to run the Linux applications we depend on.  A similar key-press combination switches back to Chrome.  And, the Chromebook, though large enough to have a full HD display, is light enough to be highly portable, with a very long battery life.  The minor concession to our ill-advised attempt to co-exist with Windows is that we now have a portable tax preparation machine.  During the rest of the year, we may turn it on once in a while to let the updates install and top off the battery, so that it won’t take three days to update next tax season.

Chromebook, running Chrome with Crouton in a browser window.


Chromebook, running Ubuntu Linux with LXDE, with a simple browser, and essential apps, including Fiberworks Bronze weaving software running under WINE. (a Windows emulator running in a Linux container under Chrome–boggles the mind, no?)