It being so close to St Patrick’s Day, I decided to finally deal with the non-working music on hold at work since it gave me a good excuse to put Irish music on. Many years ago I had set up an ancient PC running Damn Small Linux (DSL) with mp3blaster running in shuffle / repeat mode connected to the PBX (private branch exchange) phone system. I had created a bunch of short audio tracks with little advertisements that would play while callers were on hold and it worked pretty well. The PBX has a wire with a standard 1/8″ male jack that can be plugged into a music player, and so I had just plugged it into the speaker port of the PC. That machine (a Dell Dimension L400c) definitely had a good run. After it died I realized that it had been built in 1999.
To get some music playing again I looked around the office to see what I had available and my eyes fell on an old Acer A500 tablet (running Android 4.0.3 which I think is the most recent version of android Acer had pushed out to it). I didn’t want to set up a gmail account on the tablet, so I used the android browser to navigate to: https://f-droid.org/
and downloaded and installed the .apk for F-droid (you have to change your security settings to allow from unkown sources to install). F-droid is an alternative “app store” for free and open source android applications which I’ve used in projects like this in the past.
Once I had f-droid installed I was able to install two key applications: OpenExplorer Beta which is a file manager that can operate on files located on an external USB drive (the A500 has a USB port which I intended to use to load music files). After copying over a bunch of albums to the Music folder, I installed Vanilla Music Player which I’ve read is very stable. I loaded it up and it found all the music files and seemed to parse them correctly into albums or artists. I created a new playlist for St Pattys Day and added each album to the playlist. I was able to set the playlist to shuffle and repeat and set it to play and its been running good all day!
Ever since I first got an android based ASUS Transformer model TF-101 back in 2011 I’ve been a fan of the tiny netbook sized laptop form factor. The Transformer could be separated from its (optional) keyboard but I never used the Transformer in tablet mode anyway, and the few times I did it wasn’t for very long. The Transformer was quite heavy – a solidly built device that certainly outlived its usefulness – and tablets always have to be held or propped up in a suitable position, my hands would tire using it that way quickly. Besides, the keyboard had an integral battery which would keep the thing going for about 12 hours! The post linked above goes into detail about Android as a choice for OS if you’re wondering.
I kept the Transformer relevant for as long as I could by flashing it with custom ROMs. After a couple years most manufacturers of android phones and tablets stop updating software for their older devices and users are left to fend for themselves against an onslaught of security breaches and malicious websites. The folks working to build custom ROMs for these older devices are doing so mainly because they want to use the latest software on their older devices and at least with Android (an open source project at its core) this is possible. I had very good luck running the Transformer on KatKiss ROMs and its still working fine running KatKiss 5.1.1.
note: Since Apple has monopoly over their devices, Apple users can usually keep their devices current longer – but ironically Apple has also successfully promoted a culture which encourages tossing the old devices and buying new ones every couple years even though the new devices are so similar to the older ones its almost incredible they are able to make the case! Customization, the removal of Apple’s bloatware, or installation of open source apps isn’t possible on these devices though.
The web is slowing me down!
An old Gateway gets refurbed
A friend at work brought in a netbook sized Gateway from around 2009 which looked perfect. The processor was sorta slow, but compared to the nVidia Tegra2 in the transformer it was lightning. My friend had brought it in for help replacing the hard drive which had failed, and when I stuck an SSD in that machine and slapped Ubuntu on it I instantly knew I could use that machine. I was thinking about looking for a used one online, but didn’t get very far and gave up.
The RCA Viking Pro (2015)
I’ve been using android in this format (a 10″ tablet with attached keyboard) for so long that when I started looking around for a replacement thats what I went looking for. There really wasn’t very much of a selection. I was, however, amazed to find a line of cheap Chinese tablets branded with the RCA trademark. I’m well aware that RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, went out of business in 1986 because that was a fairly big deal at the time. The trademark is maintained and licensed out to various manufacturers today, including rcaav.com which markets tablets made in China by Venturer Electronics in Shanghai and ALCO Electronics in Hong Kong. The tablets are very low cost and can be found in Wal-Mart or on Amazon (where I got mine) for under $100.
I think it was the cost that hooked me. Here’s a device that looked a *lot* like the Transformer I loved, with a faster processor and twice as much flash disk space. It had a detachable keyboard (though I wouldn’t need to detatch it as I’ve already explained), miniSD and USB ports, and it ran android 5. I didn’t realize at first that it would be running an older version of android (5.0) than I was running on my Transformer via the custom ROM, but it wasn’t too ancient and since it was fairly new there was some hope that it would get an update.
I used it for only a short time before I realized I would really need some kind of case for it. The Viking Pro is very cheap plastic and slippery – this was no over-designed and heavy duty ASUS Transformer. I opted for a faux leather folio cover which the page on Amazon describes as “Vegan leather” which got more than a laugh or two! The case keeps the keyboard and tablet snugly together as its carried and used, and while it makes it more difficult to detatch if you wanted to use the tablet on its own (which I have done more often than I did with the Transformer because its so light) you can still do it once you figure it out.
I’ve been using the Viking Pro for a few months now and I can say that I don’t like the ultra cheap keyboard as much as I liked the ASUS Transformer keyboard, but at about 1/5 the price what do you want, really?
Lots of the programs I use on the Viking Pro are the same ones I used on the Transformer. I’ve discovered new apps over time – perhaps I’ll list them out here soon – but I’ve been able to get most of my day to day work done on it. I can check email and calendars from lots of accounts, surf the modern web with some limited sluggishness on some sites, watch videos and stream them to the chromecast (which we keep plugged into the TV) with ease. I take notes on it at meetings, and play some light games. I play music on it from time to time but the sound quality of the speaker is horrible so only if I’m going to plug it in to a speaker.
Could a chromebook become my ultimate netbook?
It seems, however, that it has only taken some time for the rest of the world to catch up to what I already knew – in May Google announced plans to make the Play store available on chromeOS later this year which would bring android apps to the form factor I’d already been using for four years in a real way but for now this is only available in the development versions of ChromeOS.
I like the Viking Pro, but I really wanted something a bit nicer, preferably a netbook sized laptop no bigger than 11″ with attached keyboard and good battery life. I came across the ASUS Chromebook C201 and was instantly struck by its classic Macbook styling (though, in miniature) and when I looked into it I was able to find a bunch of them USED on Amazon some for as low as $140. Since Chromebooks don’t run Android and instead everything you run revolves entirely around the Chrome browser, I knew I wouldn’t be happy with it unless I could get around that limitation. At that price I’d be willing to do a bit of work to see if I could get Linux running on it.
With Google’s announcement of the Play store coming to Chromebooks (and this one is on the list) I figured that at least I’d be able to run some of the apps I love on it eventually. I didn’t realize when I was looking into them that this model doesn’t come with a touchscreen though so its unclear how much fun those android apps are going to be on the C201. Since I prefer to use a wireless mouse anyway hopefully it won’t be too bad. This Google I/O talk describes what this wedding of ChromeOS and android might look like:
I was able to get Ubuntu Linux (with XFCE4) running with ease using crouton and have been enjoying using all the tools I’m used to using on my big boy rigs and switching back and forth between ChromeOS and Linux. Some cases in point: ChromeOS doesn’t let you run Firefox which I prefer (for reasons I won’t go into here), but I can use it fine under Linux on this device. ChromeOS requires you to have a cloud printer (which I don’t have) to print. I was able to set up my printer just fine from Linux. There are just tons of tools I use every day that are free and open source – they don’t work under ChromeOS but run fine on this Chromebook under Linux. The Chromebook side is fine for checking email and playing some videos (though casting them seems a lot clunkier than on android), but for anything more than that I’ll be using this in Linux. I was *not* able to get desktop Minecraft running on it (I got close) because crouton doesn’t support 3D hardware acceleration on Arm (the Rockchip is an Arm processor).
So far the ASUS C201 Chromebook seems well made (certainly more so than the Viking Pro, though nothing has broken on that device as yet), though nowhere near as sturdy as the old Transformer. The C201 is really thin and light (which is nice) but definitely flexes when you put some twisting pressure to it. My advice: treat it with kid gloves. Its Rockchip Cortex‑A17 (some claim its actually A12) RK3288 CPU is no slouch and its able to run ChromeOS and a bunch of Linux applications with ease. It has two USB 2.0 ports (USB 3 would have been nice, but really I don’t think it is necessary since it has a miniSD slot which can be used to run an alternate OS). Since I have an Arch Linux 64GB USB drive which gets a lot of use I was able to stick that into one of the USB slots and make symlinks over for some folders so I can store files and images over to that drive instead. Linux initially took up only about 1.5GB of my 16GB internal drive but with it set up with all the tools I like its up to about 3GB now. I’ve had no issues closing the lid and having it wake from sleep even with Linux running. I do have to deal with the annoying Development screen at boot, just hit Ctrl-D to bypass but if someone accidentally hits the space bar its “game over man, game over!”
I was running Cyanogenmod 11 (android 4.4.4) on my Samsung S3, using a SNAPSHOT from Aug, 2015 and not getting any more updates. Finally looking into why it turns out they had moved on to developing for Lolipop (5.x) so to upgrade I’d need to wipe and install from recovery. I decided to go with a Nightly build this time because life is short. Besides, recently I noticed that mobile data (LTE) no longer worked and maybe an upgrade would fix it. I usually only use wifi, but when I’m out and about and need connection someplace I’d like it to work! Also, having recently gone to 5.x (android lollipop) on my tablets I thought it was time to upgrade the S3 as well!
I use PSI, an open source desktop chat client to connect to a jabber server I run at work, and also to connect to Google Talk (aka Google Chat, Google Messenger, Google Hangouts – whatever they are calling this XMPP based instant messenging service this week). I’ve used this setup for years, PSI accepts connection to my PGP key so I can chat over encryption for conversations I wish to remain private (sending passwords or discussing finance, etc.) and still have the rest of my chats stored in gmail for searching as needed. This way I don’t need to keep a browser window open and be logged into gmail all the time just to stay connected for chat.
The wife has an older LG Optimus S (LS670) (late 2010 vintage) which she got when we first signed up for Ting.com service (phone service based on Sprint run by the Tucows folks in Canada and their pricing is great compared to the major carriers). Its an old phone as android phones go, only sporting a 600MHz ARMv6 processor, but it works. The major problem with this phone, as with all android devices is that the OEMs tend to abandon them after about a year and users never see another update (until they root and throw on a custom ROM). To add to that, the Optimus S came with an incredibly small amount of available internal memory which was mostly just wasted on useless Sprint apps which couldn’t be removed, and over time as Google’s apps grew in size (and number) it became a challenge just to keep the thing running at all. Yes we’ve discussed getting something newer but she really doesn’t want much more than basic phone functionality, and personally having used a Palm pilot for years I couldn’t see how something which is so incredibly more capable than that could possibly be less useful. I’ve been saying that I’d root the Optimus and put a custom ROM on it for a while and since we’re home for the holidays it seemed a good time.