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Dual Booting Android and Linux on Asus Transformer Part Two

November 24, 2011 19 comments
Linux Dual Booted on Asus Tranformer

LXDE Desktop on Ubuntu 11.10 on Asus Transformer

A few months ago I wrote a post detailing how to dual boot Android 2.3 and Ubuntu 11.04on the Asus Transformer TF101 tablet. This has become by far the most popular content on this blog. However, development has moved on and the process is now much, much easier than previously.

I am not going to go through all the steps required again, which may make this a short update. Basically, go to the Wiki page and follow the very good instructions there.

I did not care very much about the data already on my Android tablet, so I ignored the Backup sections, skipping straight down to “Installing Ubuntu.” Well, I did take the time to read the earlier sections very carefully, and one thing to note is that the described method is designed to be completed from a computer running Linux. Apparently it is possible with Windows too, the Wiki has a very short section on this, but if you want to run Linux on the Transformer, it is assumed you already have a machine with this operating system available. If you don’t, it may be best to create a bootable USB stick with Linux on it.

The new version of this process is as simple as downloading one 850MB file, extracting it, connecting your Transformer, running a script from the command line and following the presented instructions. The total time taken to have a dual bootable device ready for use depends on your available bandwidth for the download, but I was finished within an hour late one evening.

Despite what the Wiki intimates, I didn’t bother with building a custom kernel to activate the mousepad, this all seemed to work correctly using the OLiFE Prime download.

In terms of performance, I found Ubuntu 11.10, with the new Unity interface to be a bit slow and unresponsive at times. Instead, I installed the Lightweight Desktop Environment (LXDE). After making a few changes to the default apperances and theme, I now have a very nice looking Linux installation which performs admirable when compared with my three year old Asus eeePC netbook.

All default installed Ubuntu applications are available from the menu, and I am writing this within Firefox running in Linux on the Transformer. I have not yet tried all functions – webcam, mini-HDMI port, keyboard shortcuts etc – but I am assuming some will work, some won’t. The key thing to remember is that the Asus Transformer has an ARM processor and Linux development for this is still in its infancy.

Overall, this new process is a tremendous improvement over the old method. Steve Barker and associated developers have done a great job in making this whole thing much more accessible. And development hasn’t stopped yet! I wonder what the new Asus Transformer Prime, recently announced, will bring to the table.

Android Tablet Likes and Annoyances – Asus Transformer TF101

November 24, 2011 3 comments

I have had my Asus Transformer TF101 Android tablet, with dockable keyboard for a few months now and this article is primarily my findings with regards to trying to using it as my day to day computing device. I specifically bought this machine to try and replace a much larger 17-inch laptop and an older Asus eeePC netbook.

From day one, it was pretty clear that my dream of using just this device was unlikely to happen. There are some things that Android does not do well. I have rooted the device and installed Prime 2.1.1 , an Android 2.3 Gingerbread based ROM, which has resulted in a number of performance gains. However, my crucial reason for doing this was so that I could install the 3GToggler application, which would allow me to access a Huawei 3G Internet dongle.

Android Gingerbread doesn’t do office productivity. Editing word processor documents or spreadsheets is laborious and time consuming with the supplied Polaris Office. It’s just really clunky. Don’t even think about trying to create a presentation. I then also tried the Google Documents App from the Android Market, which is so clearly focused at mobile phone devices, again the user experience was terrible on a tablet. Lastly, I attempted to use Google Docs online to edit documents. Sadly this was also less than a compelling experience, but I believe this was down to the web browser itself, which neatly brings me to my next point.

Web browsing on an Android tablet is a horrible experience, when compared to a laptop or desktop. The default browser is slow and doesn’t render some pages correctly. I have also installed Firefox Beta (no Flash support), Opera Mobile and Dolphin HD. Between these four browsers, I can usually make most web pages display. But why should I need four different browsers to achieve this? Javascript handling is pretty poor across the board. Most of these browsers have the ability to set the User Agent as Desktop, yet some websites still seem to deliver only their mobile version. One service I use a lot is called Hootsuite. This is a tool to manage multiple identities across multiple social networking sites. Using Hootsuite in a desktop/laptop browser is a joy. Using Hootsuit in any of the aforementioned Android browsers is a total failure. There is a Hootsuite application in the Market but….

Many of the Android Market applications are targeted squarely at the mobile phone user. That is usually someone with limited screen real estate, using their device in portrait mode. Trying to use these application on a docked tablet is a lesson in disappointment. Hootesuite for example, lacks the consolidated view across messages and requires many taps to navigate around. Other applications lack the key functionality that is usually available via the normal website. For example, if using the Google+ application, I found it impossible to access a Company Page I had created. This is simple enough from a drop down box on the Google+ website when viewed through a browser.

Just so this piece is not all doom and gloom, it is certainly worth mentioning what an Android tablet does well. Email for a start. The Gmail application is a joy, and I find it much more user friendly than the recently redesigned Gmail website. The other default mail client also does a great job of unifying a number of other accounts I have, including an Outlook Exchange Inbox. This is a much better experience than trying to use Thunderbird for this. There are also a few other email clients in the Android Market that are worth looking at, such as the Open Source K-9.

I’m sure Android tablets would be great for consuming media, if I did much of that. The only thing I have really tried is to watch a film through the LoveFilm website, but this was done via Flash in a web browser so was acceptable without being wonderful. The UK’s Sky Broadcasting has a catch-up TV player, which requires Silverlight, so again not happening on an Android tablet.

I love the battery life! A battery in the keyboard dock and one in the tablet itself provides for around 15-16 hours of cable free use. This is brilliant.

I have also quite successfully used the tablet to present PDF documents in one-on-one meetings. It’s quite a bit better than remembering to print out reams of paper. If I connected the device to a larger screen using the mini-HDMI connector, I’m sure this same process would work for larger group presentations.

Overall, without the docked keyboard of the Asus Transformer TF101, I would find the device practically useless. My main use of the tablet is to write emails, fortunately this is something Android does very well, and the keyboard enhances that experience. I would probably be much more productive with the Transformer if I didn’t want to stick needles in my eyes every time I tried to edit a spreadsheet or create a new document.

Dual Booting Android 3.2 and Ubuntu 11.04 on an Asus Transformer

August 10, 2011 31 comments

Ubuntu TransformerUPDATE: This post is now out of date. The process has been enhanced and made much, much easier. See new blog post here.

Since purchasing my Asus Transformer tablet, now complete with docking station, I’ve had a hankering to install Linux as a dual boot operating system. This was unlikely to be an easy task, as there weren’t really any builds for Nvidia’s arm based Tegra2 CPU. However, Nvidia has released nvflash and a base kernel build for Linux, so it was just a matter of time until someone worked out how to dual boot this with Android. It has been the people on the XDA Developers website that have really taken up the challenge on this.

I am currently writing this post on my Transformer while booted into Ubuntu 11.04. It does work, although there are a few things not yet entirely up and running.

Before going any further, I need to point out that the steps I will outline below will destroy EVERYTHING currently on your Transformer. It will reformat and repartition your storage. You will have all current data wiped, so back everything up. I should also point out that there is some risk of bricking your lovely, shiny tablet.

At the end of all these steps you will hopefully have a dual boot machine with Ubuntu 11.04, a rooted Android Honeycomb 3.2 running the Prime 1.7 ROM and Clockworkmod (CWM) Recovery installed.

Equipment you will need:

  • Another computer running Linux
  • An SDCard for external/removable storage in the Transformer
  • The Transformer USB charging cable.

The XD Developers forum thread dealing with this topic is already over 21 pages long. I did not follow the instructions exactly as they are printed in the first post, so I will be deep linking directly to various posts in an effort to make things clearer.

Let’s begin….

1. On your Linux machine, download and extract the 900MB+ ubuntu.img rootfs file found towards the bottom of this post.

2. On your Linux machine, download and extract the zip file from this post, containing a flash kit and installation script.

3. From the flash kit just downloaded, you will find a directory called “Bootloaders.” In here are two files – Android.zip and Ubuntu.zip. These two files need to be moved (but not extracted) to the top level directory of the external SDCard you will be putting in your Transformer. If you don’t have a card reader on your Linux machine, it may be easier to download this file a second time on your Transformer and move the files across to the “Removable” SDCard.

4. Copy or move the ubuntu.img from Step 1. into the same directory as the extracted flash kit files from Step 2.

5. Turn off your transformer. Connect the power cable. Connect the USB end of the power cable to your Linux machine.

6. Enter APX mode. To do this, hold down the Volume UP button and the Power button together, for around 10 seconds. The screen will remain black. It will appear that nothing has happened, but don’t worry this is as expected. If something does appear on the screen, you’re doing it wrong.

7. Open a terminal window on your Linux machine and navigate to the folder where the downloaded and extracted nvflash package (from Step 2.) is located. Run the download-ubuntu.sh script. You may need superuser permissions to do this. At this point, there should be lots of stuff happening in your terminal window – partitions being created, .img files being copied across. If you look at the screen of your Transformer, there should be some small white text in the top left corner about being in nvflash mode.

Hopefully everything will copy across correctly, and ostensibly Ubuntu is now installed. If you now power off your Transformer, unplug the USB power cable and power back on, it should boot into Ubuntu. However, there are a few more steps worth doing.

8. Power your tablet off again. Now, hold the Volume down button and the power button at the same time. The machine will start to boot, but there will be some small white text in the upper left corner of the screen. When this appears, let go of the two buttons and press the Volume up button. This will now take you into the CWM recovery mode.

9. Navigate through the menus here to install a zip from SDCard. Choose the Android.Zip file and install. Then reboot the Transformer. You will boot into Android.

This is how you dual boot at the moment. Every time you wish to switch operating systems, you will need to go into CWM recovery, and install the alternate zip file. Slightly painful, but the good news is that all data and settings are saved in the actual operating system. All you are really doing each time is installing a new boot sequence.

There are still a few other things worth doing. One of these is installing some additional firmware so that WiFi actually works in Ubuntu. To do this you will need to enter ADB mode.

10. Follow the tutorial on this page, including downloading the Android SDK, and additional Platform Tools file (read the documentation included in the SDK download).

11. Download and extract the flash kit found in this post.

12. Connect your Transformer to your Linux computer again using the USB power cable. Turn the transformer on, allowing it to boot into Ubuntu. Wait at the login prompt.

13. On your Linux computer, you should be in ADB mode. From the regular command prompt run the firmware injector script from the downloaded flash kit in Step 11. If all goes well, and your are successfully in ADB mode, there should be no errors reported by the script while copying the files across.

14. After now booting into Ubuntu and setting up the general parameters, WiFi will need to be configured using WPA Supplicant. Currently Network Manager doesn’t seem to work, so this is the only known way. Follow the instructions here with regards to how to do this. You may need to change eth0 references to wlan0. You could also try the guide here, but there are lot of places online to find WPA Supplicant help.

With luck and a following wind, everything should be working correctly. The experience is a little slow, as hardware acceleration is not yet working. I am thinking of trying Openbox as an alternative window manager to see if that improves things any. Also worth noting is that the docking station trackpad does not work, nor does sound, Bluetooth or HDMI out. The touchscreen works for mouse clicks and scrolling is achieved by moving the application scroll bars (not from anywhere on the screen, like in Android). I am sure these things will be rectified or improved in the coming months, just keep an eye on the XDA Developers thread about this for up to date details.

Good luck!

Special thanks goes to XDA Developers forum members lilstevie, Jhinta and rdnetto for creating the files, scripts and instructions for making this possible.

Life with an Android Tablet One Week On

July 28, 2011 2 comments

I’ve had my Asus Transformer tablet for approximately one week now. I have endeavoured to use it fairly constantly and as my sole means of computing. It has worked to varying degrees of success. After the first couple of days, I discovered that if I actually wanted to achieve anything, I needed a proper keyboard. To that end, I have ordered the keyboard docking station for the Transformer, and I am also writing this post on my three year old netbook.

A word of warning though about the Transformer docking keyboard – buy the package of tablet and keyboard to start with! This only attracts a £50 premium over the tablet alone. Buying the docking keyboard separately has set me back almost £120. I purchased from Amazon and couldn’t find cheaper on eBay, Google’s shopping results nor Tottenham Court Road (where it was not possible to buy the keyboard as a standalone item). I’ll live and learn.

There are both good and bad points about this Honeycomb 3.1 tablet. Let’s start with the good.

The Gmail integration is stellar. It is a much better Gmail experience that I have ever had through a regular web browser. I suppose this is as you would expect from a tablet running Google’s Android operating system.

The tablet is great for having around on the coffee table, on the train, in bed etc. It’s very easy to simply pick it up to check email, read a website or research something of interest.

The “instant on” aspect, with massive hours of standby battery time, is much better than any laptop I’ve ever experienced.

Now for the frustrations….

There is another built in mail client, which can be used to connect to both IMAP and Exchange email servers. Unfortunately this has some limitations that frustrate me when trying to deal with business email. There’s no search functionality, it is only possible to synchronise up to one month of email from the server, it is impossible to create an HTML or Rich Text email signature and I also can’t figure out how to synchronise IMAP calendars (Exchange calendar works fine though).

The standard web browser is buggy and crashes regularly. I haven’t thoroughly tested, but I also think it may have a memory leak. Over time it simply slows down to a grinding halt. Using the back button to return to a Google search result often loads just a blank page and sometimes after entering a website’s URL, I am simply re-directed to Google’s search homepage. This browser has a user agent of “Android Tablet,” however many websites simply see this as “Android” and deliver a mobile version of their offering. I can change the user agent to “Desktop” instead, but that also creates a few rendering problems. Opera Mini and Firefox Mobile don’t seem to have this option, and thus you’re stuck with mobile webpage versions in some cases. I’m now trying the Dolphin HD browser. One would think, that with an excellent browser in Chrome/Chromium Google would have this area sorted out.

Some apps from the Market are OK, but it’s a bit hit and miss. Many of them are built only for Android phones, so don’t render brilliantly on the wider tablet screen. I haven’t bought any apps yet, as I haven’t found anything so compelling to warrant a purchase. I have found some nice free apps though, such as MapQuest’s OpenStreetMaps and FBReader for ebooks (I grabbed a lot of classics from Project Gutenberg).

The on-screen touch keyboard is reasonable, but still has some frustrations. For some reason at least 10% of the time my space bar presses do not register. There are also no forward and back arrows. The only way to jump to another part of the text is through very delicate and precise touches on the screen. This might improve when I have a mouse connected to the docking keyboard’s USB port, but for now so much for keyboard navigation. There’s also no Control key, which makes cutting, copying and pasting laborious.

I can’t find any virtualisation software for Android either, which I wanted to use to run a different flavour of Linux. Maybe I can do do something via dual booting, from a USB key in the docking keyboard. That will be the next project.

In summary, after a week’s solid use, I can’t see this being my sole computing device. I’m just not sure Android’s mature enough. It’s a good enough device, which I am sure I will continue to use regularly, but it is not the one device to rule them all.

Bought my First Tablet – Asus eee Pad Transformer

July 21, 2011 2 comments

Finally I’ve joined the millions and purchased a tablet computer. Of course it was never going to be an iPad, and it didn’t necessarily have to be an Android based machine either. After much research and consideration, I’ve decided to go for an 10-inch Asus eee Pad Transformer. Why this one in particular?

My current situation is that I have a fairly new HP Pavilion dv7 as my daily work computer. While it’s a nice brushed aluminium shelled machine, it is quite big with it’s 17-inch screen and it is LOUD! The fan never shuts up. It’s currently running Linux Mint Debian edition, and I’ve tried everything to try and keep the temperature down, thus negating the need for constant fan blowing. I’ve had no luck so far. I also work in multiple locations, from my home office, to my central London office, to various client’s offices and finally quite often in Graz, Austria. Hauling this 17-inch behemoth around can be quite taxing at times. It means I always have to carry a reasonably big piece of hand luggage when flying to Graz, and even just on the train into central London, my backpack is pretty heavy. Therefore, my dream was to try and find a tablet that could be substituted for for my laptop as my daily work machine.

I don’t do much heavy lifting with my laptop anymore, in terms of transcoding video files and the like, therefore I don’t need a massively powerful i7 processor. I do a lot of web browsing, email writing, document creation, spreadsheet manipulation, presentation creation and still image manipulation. Pretty straightforward office type stuff. However, I do appreciate a large screen and decent keyboard. I already have a 10-inch Asus eeePC netbook, which is about 3 years old now. It does a decent job, but I found it difficult to work all day on it, and the single core Atom processor struggled with HD movie playback.

So my plan was to find a tablet that could be plugged into an external monitor at home, at my London office and in Graz. I realise purchasing said monitors will increase overall costs, but it’s the trade-off I was prepared to make for not having to carry around a massive laptop.

Asus Transformer ticks many boxes. It has a high quality IPS screen, the same as the iPad 2. It comes with Android 3.0 Honeycomb as standard. It has a built in mini-HDMI port, which means I can connect it to a larger screen quite easily should the need arise. It includes a memory card expansion slot, as is the case with most modern tablets. There is also an optional keyboard docking station, which includes its own battery, extending the overall battery life for this tablet to around 16 hours.

On the negative side, Asus has seen fit to include a proprietary charger, not the usual micro-USB found on most modern phones and many tablets.

I found that Currys in the UK were selling the Asus eee Transformer at prices around about the same as those found on eBay. Brilliant, I could have my new toy immediately. Picture the scene as I walk into my local Currys….

Sales Assistant: Can I help you, Sir?

Me: Yes, I’m looking for an Asus Transformer

Sales Assistant: Oh, I don’t think we sell them.

Me: It’s on your website and it says you have them in stock.

Sales Assistant: Let me just check with my colleagues. <time passes> No Sir, unfortunately we don’t sell them.

Me: I see.

At this point I wander around the shop for a while, until I find the general tablet display section. As I stand looking…..

Sales Assistant (same one as previously): Are you interested in a tablet device, Sir?

Me: Yes, I have already asked you about an Asus Transformer, but you couldn’t help me.

Sales Assistant: Oh, it’s a tablet?

Me: <incredulous> Yes.

Sales Assistant: Well, let me just go and check in our stock system. <2 minutes later> Good news, Sir, we have them in stock for just £379.

Me: That’s without the keyboard docking station. Do you have them for £429 with the docking station, as on your website?

Cutting a longer conversation short, no they did not have them with the docking station. I made them check twice. Ultimately I bought the tablet without the docking station, thinking I will pick one up later as they’re only an extra £50. How wrong I was. Once back at home and online, I discovered that as a standalone product, the docking station cannot be found anywhere for less than £100. I think buying the tablet without the docking station was my first mistake, but at least I will have the chance to assess whether an external keyboard is really a necessity.

Hopefully in the next week or 10 days I will be able to post an update regarding how this machine is working out as my primary day-to-day computing device.

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