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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Install Linux on your x86 tablet: Five Distros to Choose from

The top distros for x86 tablets
We live in a world where the tablet or smart device dominates - both on the high Street and online. Instead of people going out at Christmas to buy a shiny new laptop, they opted for one of the many 10-inch tablets that appear to be everywhere at the moment.
It's funny really - 15 years ago the only tablet device was Captain Jean-Luc Picard's DataPad on the Enterprise: the old axiom of science fiction becoming science fact has never been more true.
We're now almost midway through 2013 and the tablet is still growing, in numbers and in strength, and regardless of whether it's an Android or Apple device. So, as the old saying goes, if you can't beat them, join them.
We had a clever idea (which just proves that it does happen now and then): why not get hold of an x86 tablet, and install Linux on it? After all, if it's x86-based then we can install pretty much anything on it, right? So, here's our roundup of tablet-ready distros.

How we tested...

We managed to get our hands on a rather nice Acer Iconia W500, with a dual core 1GHz AMD-C50 CPU, 2GB DDR3 RAM, a 1280 x 800 10.1-inch WXGA capacitive screen, an AMD Radeon GMA 6250 and a 32GB SSD. It all comes with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, dual cameras (front and rear), USB ports and MicroSD - so in essence it's not a bad little bit of kit.
In addition, there's also the accelerometer function which, among other things, allows the tablet to flip the screen when it is turned on its side.
We wanted an all-out distro to satisfy the needs of every function the tablet has to offer, preferably straight out of the box, so we picked five recent releases - Ubuntu, Android x86, Fedora, Kubuntu Active and OpenSUSE - and put them through their paces, as either a live USB, or installed, to see just how far we could go with this interesting little endeavour.


Did everything actually work?
We're fairly sure you don't need to be told how to install a Linux distro - most now use an identifiable and easy-to-navigate installer - but we thought it would be interesting to see how well they coped, first as a live image, via a bootable USB, then secondly as a fully installed OS.
Ubuntu doesn't need much introduction. It's the most popular Linux distro and you probably already know that Canonical is releasing an Ubuntu for smartphones, so the latest edition of its desktop OS seems like a pretty good place to start.
The boot up into a live session went well, as did installation onto the Iconia's SSD. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, both sets of cameras, the touchscreen and sound all worked out of the box. Unfortunately there was no onscreen keyboard access when we tapped in a text box, but we solved this by fiddling with the Onboard settings (opened from the Dash) and the keyboard then appeared when we started typing.
The x86 Android port wouldn't install (it kept rebooting the Iconia), but the live session went very well. Everything worked, including the flip-screen, but there wasn't an onscreen keyboard, so we had to plug in a wireless version. Within minutes, though, we were logged in and playing games.
Kubuntu Active was the first of the Plasma Active environments, and although it looked impressive, not much worked in the live environment. The installation went pretty smoothly - everything worked apart from the flip-screen - but after less than a minute it ground to a halt. The same thing happened after a reboot.
Fedora 18 runs Gnome 3.6.3, which in some ways makes the touchscreen look and behave better than earlier versions of Gnome. The hot corner is easily activated, scrolling is as good as anything Android has to offer, and the program icons are big enough to launch without hitting everything else around them.Sound, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the cameras worked out of the box, and we could activate the built-in onscreen keyboard by touching the Accessibility icon on the top of the desktop (it also appears when you tap in a text box).
The live session of OpenSUSE 12.2 KDE worked perfectly, with the usual hardware running out of the box. The touchscreen, although it responded, didn't rotate, but when we selected the TabletPC installation pattern, after installing to the SSD from Yast, it opened up a whole new level of usability for Linux. The multi-touch capabilities of the touchscreen worked, as did the rotation, and when we tapped inside a text box the default virtual keyboard launched and we were able to use the tablet as well as any Android or Windows 8 version.
Ubuntu - 4/5
Android x86 - 3/5
Fedora - 4/5
Kubuntu Active - 3/5
OpenSUSE - 5/5

Default software 

What do you get, out of the box?
Default software

This is a bit of a difficult test to judge - full desktop distros create a complete package of default software - however, there are differences. Again, we don't need to say too much about Ubuntu: you get what you get and we all know what that entails.
Kubuntu surprised us most here: we imagined that the Kubuntu Active image would be fairly sparse, concentrating its size on the Plasma Active stuff, but we were pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong. Kubuntu comes packaged with the Calligra Suite, and with Krita and Kexi for images and database use.
It was a far bleaker picture with regards to Android x86's default software. There were a few games, a video player and a picture manager, but other than the usual settings, maps, Gmail and so on, it was little more than a development testbed.
As you would expect, Fedora and OpenSUSE were as jam-packed as Ubuntu, which made the tablet a more useful device out-of-the-box. However, we came across an issue with Fedora: whenever we opened Writer it crashed almost instantly, as did Impress. We reinstalled a few times, but it still didn't work. In all fairness, though, it could have been an issue with our install, as both tools worked fine when used in a Live USB environment.
Ubuntu - 5/5
Android x86 - 3/5
Fedora - 4/5
Kubuntu Active - 5/5
OpenSUSE - 5/5

Looks and usability 

Let's face it, we all like that sexy tablet look, right?
Tablets look flash, sleek and shiny. They come with cool animation and eye-catching icons. Whether they work or not is another matter - they look nice.
Installing desktop distros on our x86 tablet gives us the wealth of good looks, gadgets and widgets that you find on any flashy PC, but they still need to work on our lesser-powered tablet. As with most systems where graphical splendour outweighs functionality, there's a trade-off.
So although we wanted our distros to look good, we also didn't want to stretch the tablet's resources so far that the device became unusable. With a bit of work, we managed to find a balance so we could give each of the five distros a good run for its money.

Ubuntu - 4/5 

Unity still has most people's backs up, doesn't it? We added LiveWallpaper and enjoyed a nice swirling galaxy effect on our tablet. This gave us a very high looks rating but it did make the system crawl.
Other environments can be installed, but in all fairness to Unity, despite the animosity it receives, it worked very well indeed and it doesn't look all that bad.The usability of Ubuntu, and consequently Unity, on the tablet is perfectly adequate. With a little tweaking you can get the on-screen keyboard up, and there's nothing to stop you from having it as the full-time OS on an x86 tablet.

Android x86 - 3/5 

Android x86
Android x86 is not as well covered as the ARM version, obviously - it is just a port after all. And before we get into the whole 'Android isn't Linux' debate, it's worth mentioning that in this instance we regard it as such and since it is the most popular tablet OS, we'd be remiss in our duties if we didn't include it.
When it comes to appearances, Android did the job nicely. The available wallpapers stood out, the icons for the apps and the widgets looked the part, but we couldn't get the live wallpapers to work - they just seemed to stop the tablet dead.
The number of apps available in Android is enormous - for the ARM version. For our version, the x86 project, applications were sparse; what was available had a nasty habit of crashing everything but the core installed apps worked okay.

Fedora 18 Gnome - 4/5 

Fedora's use of Gnome 3.x prompted about as much animosity as Unity, but its weaknesses on the desktop could be strengths on the tablet. Gnome 3 looks really nice - we didn't even bother with anything as fancy as live wallpaper. The animations, such as the hot corner, were smooth and fluid, the scrolling looked great and the icons were nicely animated.
If you ever fancy giving it a go on another distro, Gnome 3 is a very nice looking tablet environment. As far as usability goes, Fedora is as good as you would expect a desktop distro with this many years of service to be. The only issue we have with it is the awful installation process.

Kubuntu Active - 5/5 

Kubuntu Active
We've already said how surprised we were with Kubuntu Active and its Plasma Active environment. In this instance, we used Kubuntu Active 12.10, which uses - as far as we know - Plasma Active 2. Although it's basically a joint project by the KDE team, its appearance differs significantly.
It's intended for use on tablets and smartphones, so it's hardly surprising that it looks really nice, especially with the Peek&Launch bar and the Plasma Widgets.When it comes to usability, once you get over the initial boot into the live environment (which starts off slow but then fires up to speed), and once the grinding to a halt issue is fixed (we installed a new image), the OS really opens up, becoming one of the best examples of a touchscreen system that we've used.A grand claim, maybe, but a well-deserved one.

OpenSUSE 12.2 KDE - 4/5 

You could regard OpenSUSE KDE as the poorer cousin of the Plasma Active environment - what with Active being the new kid on the block, as it were. But while it may not look the most tablet friendly, it makes up for that when it comes to usability.
OpenSUSE 12.2 is a great OS on the desktop, but when used on the tablet, and especially after using the Plasma Active environment from Kubuntu, it and KDE look a little worn. It's true that you can customise it significantly, and introduce a more tablet look, but Start buttons will soon be endangered species. Its usability, however, is wonderful and, as we mentioned right at the start, installing the TabletPC pattern really makes the operating system come to life.

Tablet features 

Screen rotation and handheld connectivity? What makes tablets so popular?
It's actually quite a good question. Ease of use perhaps? The ability to simply pick them up and surf the web? Maybe it's the wealth of free apps that are now available?
We think it's more to do with the features that a tablet offers. Features such as handheld connectivity, GPS location functions and the ability to turn the device on its side and use it as an eBook reader.
The screen rotation in Ubuntu was a little problematic at first, but after following these instructions we managed to get it working properly and it became nice eReader; likewise for the media and connectivity. With Bluetooth, HDMI and two USB ports it was easy to watch movies and play games.
The same can also be said for OpenSUSE after you have installed the TabletPC pattern, as that too adds the screen rotation function.
Kubuntu, sadly, was a different matter. The fix for the screen rotation didn't work, and for some reason the video output via HDMI was so distorted that we couldn't read it. In tablet mode the screen was fine.
Android x86's screen rotation worked perfectly adequately, but the USB ports and HDMI didn't. Fedora's fix for screen rotation actually killed the installation.Other than that, though, everything else worked as expected.
Ubuntu - 5/5
Android x86 - 2/5
Fedora - 3/5
Kubuntu Active - 4/5
OpenSUSE - 5/5

Gnome vs KDE vs Unity 

Which desktop environment works best on a tablet?
When we use the different desktop environments on a PC, they work as they should, even if we don't like them. On a tablet, though, we use swiping, tapping and pinching to navigate the desktop and if those don't work properly, it can be incredibly frustrating to carry out even simple tasks.
Unity, although tablet-orientated, soon got our backs up when we realised the effort required to simply close, minimise or resize open windows. It made up for it - partially - with swipes from the side bringing up the Unity Launch Bar.Switching between apps on the Android x86 desktop wasn't a problem, but it suffered from some particularly strange behaviour every now and then: some apps randomly closed and others launched, seemingly of their own accord.
Fedora and Kubuntu were an absolute joy to use: tapping, swiping and other tablet gestures made Gnome 3 and Plasma Active the best desktop environments we tested, despite the lack of screen rotation.
Poor old OpenSUSE proved to be a bit of a chore when it came to the Start button, however if you took the time to create an icon for the app, then a simple tap was all that was needed. It's worth mentioning again that OpenSUSE is dramatically improved with the TabletPC pattern installed. Once that fix has been added it becomes one of the best desktops for use on a tablet.
Ubuntu - 4/5
Android x86 - 3/5
Fedora - 5/5
Kubuntu Active - 5/5
OpenSUSE - 5/5

Day-to-day use 

How do the distros cope with everyday tasks?
day to day use
Trying out various distros on an x86 tablet is certainly good fun. As far as this project goes, though, we've only been using each distro for a set amount of time before moving on to the next. But what about long-term? Which of the five distributions tested here would be best for everyday use?
We thought long and hard about this section, because it depends on what you will be doing with your tablet. We eventually narrowed down everyday use to the following: catching up with work emails on the daily commute; writing documents; playing the occasional game - nothing too strenuous; surfing the web and checking Facebook/Twitter; video calling; and using it as an eBook reader and media playback device.
Ubuntu kicks off with its usual default programs. Firefox, LibreOffice and games via the Software Centre all worked as they should, providing us with the basics.For video calling we installed Skype 4.1 for Linux, which worked well enough, along with FBReader for eBooks (after screen rotation was fixed), and VLC and the various codecs for media playback.
Fedora and Kubuntu worked with the basics, except Skype kept crashing under Kubuntu, and the lack of screen rotation on both distros was an issue when it came to reading eBooks.
Android x86 was pretty useless as an everyday-use tablet OS. There were no working word processors, and the web browser didn't even launch. Games were okay, but media also failed and again, no kind of video messaging. Anything we did find either didn't work, or froze the tablet.
OpenSUSE turned out to be the most useful. Everything worked perfectly: LibreOffice, Firefox and a few games were all up and running. Skype was also easily added via the RPM from and again we used FBReader for OpenSUSE. The added benefits you get from the TabletPC pattern is the only reason OpenSUSE beats Ubuntu here - the gestures really help the OS to work properly.
What's more, although OpenSUSE took slightly longer to boot than Ubuntu, it was faster attaching to Wi-Fi points, starting-up from sleep and it lasted longer on a full charge, making it the ideal long-term option.
Ubuntu - 5/5
Android x86 - 1/5
Fedora - 3/5
Kubuntu Active - 3/5
OpenSUSE - 5/5

The future 

Crystal balls at the ready…
The Future
Canonical is hoping to take over the mobile world in a few months' time - and from what we've seen so far of Ubuntu Touch, its dreams could become a reality.And other distros are following suit, developing their latest, or soon-to-be released, versions for the tablet and mobile world. So, what do the developers have in store for our five distros?
The Android x86 project is going from strength to strength but there's lots to do still before it's fully integrated with the ARM versions.
Fedora 19 (Schrödinger's Cat) promises to offer an improved tablet-centric experience in the form of more support for a multi-touch screen via the kernel, and better-designed packages for tablet users - so waiting for Fedora 19 might be a better idea than starting with Fedora 18.
Plasma Active, under Kubuntu, is moving along steadily. More OpenGL usage is on the horizon, and Plasma Active 5, based on KDE Frameworks 5, is going to be pretty special this year. In fact, 2013 is looking rather tasty for Plasma Active, but there's still a lot of work left to do.
OpenSUSE is continually under development, but there aren't any specific plans for a tablet version. Obviously the excellent TabletPC pattern will be developed further, but it won't be integrated into the core OS. We're not quite sure what the future holds for this distro - and those who do are keeping the details pretty close to their chests.
Ubuntu - 5/5
Android x86 - 3/5
Fedora - 4/5
Kubuntu Active - 3/5
OpenSUSE - 2/5

The verdict 

Compiling this roundup gave us quite an insight into the world of x86 tablets.Increasingly, they're looking like the long-forgotten, poor relations to the more successful ARM-based versions. It's a great shame really, as the potential for an x86 tablet is far better, in our view, than that of an ARM one.
For starters, there's a long history of developed software for x86 - the various tweaks, add-ons and extras that personalise our Linux desktops. The x86 tablet just has so much going for it.
Imagine installing the Linux Steam Client on a reasonably powerful i3/5 x86 tablet and getting to grips with the might of decent Linux gaming. Imagine still, your favourite distro, complete with personalised window decorations, heavily customised Conky, and DeviantArt wallpaper. An x86 tablet could be the bee's knees, there's little doubt about that.
So, where does that leave us with our selection of x86 tablet distros? Well, Ubuntu came out on top, but only just - OpenSUSE was snapping at its heels.Kubuntu Plasma Active and Fedora 18 Gnome were in third and fourth place, and the Android x86 project brought up the rear in fifth.

Tablet top 

As expected, all the distros had their good and bad points. Ubuntu is clearly leading the tablet march with its plans for the future, but at present it's still a very desktop-oriented OS.
OpenSUSE came second mainly due to the mighty impressive TabletPC Pattern - without that it would have scored a lot less. Kubuntu Plasma Active is - obviously - designed for the tablet, and it was nice to compare the stock KDE of OpenSUSE with the Plasma Active KDE of Kubuntu, but both still need some work to get anywhere near the market equivalent of Android on ARM-based tablets and smart devices.
Fedora is bending its will towards tablets, and Gnome 3 came as a nice element to the tablet desktop. Look out for Fedora 19 and beyond, though - in the futue we think Fedora will embrace the tablet more than any other distro.
Last but by no means least we have the Android x86 distro. You could say it's just a hobbyist project, but there's huge potential here and, with the right backing and development, Android could succeed in taking the x86 world by storm as well.

1st place: Ubuntu 12.10 

Licence: Free
Looks good and works well. Who knows what the future holds…
Score: 5/5

2nd place: OpenSUSE 12.2 KDE 

Licence: Free
OpenSUSE with its TabletPC pattern came a very close second.
Score: 4/5

3rd place: Fedora 18 Gnome 

Licence: Free
Fedora 19 could be the top x86 tablet OS - we'll have to wait and see.
Score: 3/5

4th place: Kubuntu Active 

Still needs work, but Plasma Active 5 looks like it could be great.
Score: 3/5

5th place: Android x86 

Licence: Free
Needs more work before it's as good as its cousin for ARM devices.
Score: 2/5

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