07 November 2015

Arch Linux + Chromebook

It has been a while since I have had the free time or motivation to play around with computers at home. I have been running Mac OSX computers for about four years now. The first one I purchased was a mid-2011 MacBook Pro in 2012, and soon after that I decided to give up my dual-booting PC/Ubuntu desktop at home for a 2010 Mac Mini Server. Both of these computers had identical specs, which is what I always aim for, with dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz processors, 4 GB of RAM in the mini and 8 GB in the laptop (upgraded). Both have served me very well over the years. So well, in fact, that I lost interest in playing with any type of Linux for serious home use.

When I started working at the FMRIB Centre, they very graciously purchased me a fancy new 2014 Mac Book Pro with Retina Display, with a dual-core i7 and 16 GB of RAM. This has been my only computer for the past year, and while it works extremely well, I felt that it was only prudent to have an actual "non-work" computer for use at home in case I don't feel like "lugging" a whole 2 kilogrammes (3 1/2 lbs) home with me after work. Or if it were ever to break or get stolen as it does get hauled around with me wherever I go, via bike, bus, and walking all over Oxford, London, and back home to the US.

My requirements were minimal: (1) Something cheap, preferably used off of Amazon or eBay, and therefore not a Mac, (2) something lightweight and easy to use in bed or on the road, and (3) something about which I wouldn't feel too bad if it were never really used.  This was the perfect opportunity to experiment with a Linux PC again!

I decided after a lot of research to go with the Dell Chromebook 11 2014 version. I found one on eBay with a scratched up outside shell, and slightly damaged power connector (NB: the power plug on these laptops is not soldered into the motherboard, but "floats" within the case, so even though the plastic holder was damaged the likelihood that it was non-functional was minimal). In general I do think that Dell is crap, but this particular machine received some good reviews. Specifically, these are made with the education market in mind, and thus feature some nice things like a more durable screen hinge and a "waterproof" keyboard. 4GB of RAM, a dual-core Haswell Celeron @ 1.4 GHz and a nice keyboard layout with durable keys. Not too bad. The laptop arrived and fortunately, the damage was minimal and just as described by the seller.

I decided within 10 minutes of using ChromeOS that this thing could do more. Again, I researched a huge number of GNU/Linux distributions to try out. I am, like most of my truly Geek friends, fed up with the glut and poor UI of Ubuntu. I thought about some alternative Ubuntu distributions like Xubuntu or Lubuntu, and even considered good old Debian. This is mostly because I am so familiar with the Debian-based Aptitude package manager, and in general very happy with the availability of good software repositories for those systems. Especially because the NeuroDebian repo has almost all of the neuroimaging software tools I use on a daily basis. I can't stand yum, so RedHat/CentOS/Fedora/Scientific were out.

However I really wanted something lightweight, and wanted this to be more of a project than a plug-n-play system. I started looking into some of the more "ground up" systems. Gentoo looked interesting, but the thought of compiling every single package from source on what is basically a glorified netbook seemed a bit intimidating. I looked into other options like LXLE or Bodhi, but these minimalistic approaches didn't seem to have the maturity I was looking for. The one distro that came up time and time again and looked genuinely interesting was Arch Linux. I have heard about Arch for a long time, but always dismissed it into the same category as Gentoo: small user base, obscure, too Geeky for my tastes, and (I assumed) not enough support for non-free software (e.g. Adobe Flash) or drivers (e.g. Intel).

However, Arch kept coming back again and again in searches. Especially in the context of a distro that plays well with Chromebooks. In fact, the Arch wiki had dedicated installation instructions for Chromebooks in general, and also detailed driver and config tips for the Dell Chromebook 11. I made up my mind -- Arch Linux would be my first attempt to re-install the Chromebook.

Next post: Arch setup, first impressions, 'Time Machine' with rsync.