Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Is there a Perfect Linux tablet

Will we ever see an awesome Linux tablet or Phablet? Ubuntu and many have been promising glimpse of an Ubuntu mobile OS to challenge Android and other players. I've seen countless dual boot devices that boot Android and a Debian. Yet, I have not been really impressed with anything I've seen. I'm hoping that changes in the near future.

Portable Linux has been the holy grail for me for the past 10 or so years. As far back as 2001, I wanted a portable UNIX like small form factor computing device. I've been using Windows CE as far back as 1996 and I had transitioned to UNIX in my career around that period. I wanted a UNIX version of  a Palm Pilot or HP Jornada. I've seen so many products failed in a span of ten years that I conclude that we may never see the perfect Linux MID (Mobile Internet Device). You can call it whatever you want, a phablet, a UMPC, a tablet,etc. I am talking about a small portable device that runs the Linux kernel and a full blown working distro with all the great GNU applications. Android doesn't really count. It uses the kernel but it adds so many layers that it doesn't really count. Basically, I want to run the great GNU open source applications that I've been running for over a decade: ImageMagick, FFMPEG, Postgres, MySQL, Apache.

The Sharp Zaurus was the first Linux based PDA that didn't gain any traction.

Nokia made a great line of PDAs. The N770, N800, N810. They were slider based PDAs with the potential but failed to gain any traction in the market place.
Chinese and Taiwanese companies like SmartQ attempted to make some Linux only PDAs. They also failed to gain any traction. The Stylus for a 5" form factor does solve a lot of problems.

The problem with these older devices is that they did not have an ecosystem in place.  Hence,they failed to gain any  mass consumer adoption. This doesn't bother me too much because I know I'm part of a fringe group on consumers - uber geeks.  Companies rather maximize profits and cater to the general public. Unfortunately, what really killed them for uber geeks like myself was the poor performance and the technology wasn't quite ready.

Well, the iPad changed a lot of misconceptions.  ARM architecture is now good enough for my needs.  It has a great app ecosystem and the hardware is fairly robust. Touch technology is pretty fast and we now have high-bandwidth cellular connectivity. Yet, it still isn't Linux. However, iOS is still based off OSX. If it gave end-users direct access to the Darwin kernel through an accessible interface, the iPad would be the perfect device.  We all know Apple will never open up iOS like that so I hunt for the alternatives.

I've been following the mod scene in Android for a while. There is CHROOT and Linux on Android projects but they are quite not native Linux. They run in a looped file-system and are accessed via VNC that makes them feel as if they are running in an emulated environment.

I got one of those HP Touchpads during the great $99 firesale and the first thing I did was install Debian LXDE to see if I could realistically run Linux on a tablet. It was a great exercise. I installed Debian and carefully picked the applications I wanted tailored for my needs. I had LibreOffice, GIMP, MySQL and a full DE (Desktop Environment). Look at the pictures below. Looks cool, huh?

Well, the reality soaked in. A modern Linux distro like Debian and Ubuntu simply sucks on a tablet. X Windows apps are designed for mouses. We are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.

I tried installing a few open-source multi-gesture and touch-screen input aides. Apps like Easystroke allows you to draw gestures to simulate mouse clicks and key commands. However, in practice, they never worked quite the way I like them to.

The console is the most important application in any *NIX operating system. This is the application where I spend 80% of my time in. Guess what? It is horrible with the onscreen keyboards I've used. I've downloaded quite a few of them to get my cursor and function keys. They don't quite work either.

This brings me back to my iPad. I need a console most of the time to SSH into remote servers. Applications on the iPad like iSSH solve most of the on-screen keyboard issues with tactile multi-gesture functionality and adjustable keyboard transparencies.

Still, the iPad isn't quite there for my needs. I still want to run GNU applications and install whatever I want.

So I concluded, a touch-screen only Linux tablet will never, ever be ideal. The fact remains, traditional *NIX Desktop Environments require a real keyboard and mouse/trackpad. CHROOTing Linux on-top of Android doesn't really cut it.

What now? I'm carefully eyeing out Transformer style X86 tablets running the ATOM Clover Trail. However, Linux doesn't run on Clover Trail yet. Acer makes a Windows 8 tablet, the W510, that has an attractive price point. This may be the foundation for a working Linux tablet in the future.
If Ubuntu can work on their UNITY UI , many of the general tasks applications can be served by that. And when I dock, I'd want a more traditional desktop UI like Linux Mint's Cinnamon or Gnome 2.

As a geek, I can only speculate. It will be interesting to see what 2013 and 2014 brings us. Pricing is also important as well. Some of these tablets are approaching $600-700 with keyboards. At that price, I would rather buy myself an 11" Macbook Air, keep my iPad for entertainment, and forget any hopes of an all-in-one Linux based ultra light device.

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