Running Linux on the Samsung Q1U UMPC

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by Anne Lyle

Linux on the Samsung Q1U

Back in October 2007 I reviewed the Samsung Q1U UMPC for TabletPCReview.com. While I love some features of XP Tablet, such as the handwriting recognition software, I’m not a regular user of Windows and I’ve been looking forward to converting the Q1U to my preferred operating system, Linux.

There are many different distros (distributions) of Linux. Some of the better-known ones include Red Hat, Debian and SUSE, but in this article I’ll be concentrating on a relative newcomer, Ubuntu. Ubuntu has a reputation for being user-friendly, but still flexible enough to satisfy most power users and as we’ll see below, the project has links with the Samsung Q1U that potentially make hardware support better than average.

Desktop vs Mobile

There are two main choices for anyone looking to convert a Q1U to Linux: the full desktop version of Ubuntu or Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded (UME). The latter is very similar to the operating system used by the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet, and is designed for devices with a screen size of 7” or less. The included software is focused on Internet and multimedia: web browser, email, chat, MP3 and video playback and a photo gallery.


Linux on the Q1 Ultra. (view large image)

If you’re looking to convert a Q1U to something resembling the N800′s big brother and don’t mind losing Windows in the process, UME may be for you. The advantage is that the Samsung Q1U is the main test platform for this project, so hardware support is good. Since it’s a very new OS, having launched its first stable version in October 2007, there is no pre-compiled installer available to download. You will need to build your own using a Linux desktop computer: https://wiki.ubuntu.com.

If you want to go this route, I would recommend building a “live” USB image and running it from a thumb drive to see if you like it. The install version will wipe the target hard drive before installing UME. Having tried the beta version, I have to say it looks great on the Q1U’s crisp (1024 x 600) screen, but its functionality is more limited than I want out of a device this expensive!

Instead I’ve decided to install a full Ubuntu distro alongside Windows so that I can boot into either OS. The latest version at the time of writing is 7.10, or "Gutsy Gibbon" as it is more commonly known.

Installing Ubuntu

Since the installation process is quite long and technically complex, I won’t go into it here. If you want to play along, you can find all the gory details on my website. The tutorial is aimed at users who have some familiarity with Linux but don’t want to spend hours combing the web for up-to-date instructions that will work with this particular device, and it covers everything you’ll need to get a basic Ubuntu Gutsy system up and running.

To summarize, I created a bootable USB pendrive (since the Q1U lacks a CD drive) using my MacBook and a CD of Ubuntu, partitioned the hard drive 50/50, and installed Ubuntu in the empty space. The installation process went smoothly, and I was soon looking at a familiar Linux desktop.

Hardware working "out of the box":

  • Graphics drivers (screen was automatically configured to 1024 x 600)
  • Sound
  • Built-in keyboard, mouse pointer, Enter and mouse R & L buttons
  • Ethernet and Wi-Fi cards
  • USB and SD storage devices

Not working:

  • Touchscreen
  • 4-way navigation buttons
  • Suspend/hibernate
  • Other dedicated hardware buttons (menu, volume, etc.)
  • Cameras

Desktop

One of the problems with Windows XP on a device this small is that the interface doesn’t scale well. There are accessibility options which allow you to increase the font size in documents, the width of the scroll bars and so on, but they’re not designed to cope with a small high-resolution screen. The ‘close window’ button for example, stays the same size, which makes it quite difficult to pinpoint with the built-in mouse.

Ubuntu on the other hand uses the Gnome desktop, which allows you to change all font sizes and if you increase the font size for windows title bars, the buttons increase in size as well, making them much easier to click on. Also the taskbar equivalents, called panels, are highly configurable. They can be moved around the screen and resized, as well as having the usual ‘hide’ options. All this configurability makes Ubuntu feel much more at home on a 7" screen, and less like a desktop OS squeezed into too small a space.

Multimedia

Although, the sound card works without any configuration needed, the same is not true for the multimedia software provided. This is not the fault of the software itself, but an outcome of the Ubuntu project’s dedication to the open source philosophy. Most of the popular music and video formats are not open source, including MP3, which means that you have to install codecs for them yourself. This is not terribly difficult, indeed the movie player Totem will install them for you if you try to open an unsupported format, but it is an extra hurdle to ease use. Unfortunately I don’t see a way around this issue; once again the ordinary user is the football in the battle between corporate interests and those who oppose them. For now, if you want open source software, you have to be prepared to do a bit of work yourself.

On the plus side, movie playback under Totem was a good deal smoother than using VideoLAN on Windows, and music playback was pretty much the same on both operating systems. However I’m no audiophile, so I may be missing nuances of quality that others would find irksome.

Wi-Fi

Drivers for the Atheros Wi-Fi card are now installed as standard in Ubuntu 7.10, so no extra configuration was required. It took a little trial and error to get a connection to my home network, mainly because there seem to be several different ways to configure network connections and at one point I had conflicting settings. However, once I got rid of the unneeded configurations the Wi-Fi worked nicely, and I was pleasantly surprised by the speed (see Performance below).

Touchscreen

It is perhaps not surprising that the touchscreen is not automatically detected and configured. They are hardly standard on desktops or even laptops! Fortunately there were comprehensive instructions on the Ubuntu forums and only a little experimentation was required to get the touchscreen up and running. Calibration was fairly basic (only four sample co-ordinates), but produced accurate enough results for tapping on menus and icons.

The touchscreen does work "out of the box" on UME, which also has a more sophisticated calibration utility, so I would hope that in the future Ubuntu itself might incorporate the tools used by its baby brother.

Inking

Although Ubuntu lacks the sophisticated handwriting recognition software found in Vista and XP Tablet, there are Linux projects aiming to fill the gap. I’ve been trying CellWriter, a great little applet that mimics the character recognition and onscreen keyboard parts of the XP Tablet Input Panel (though it does not recognize cursive handwriting). It requires a short training session to learn your handwriting, but this has the advantage that it will then recognize your own idiosyncratic writing style, rather than expecting you to conform to a standard. I have found I have to write more slowly in Ubuntu and press a little harder, which may be down to the touchscreen driver rather than the handwriting software.

CellWriter is easy to install under Ubuntu: just download the Debian package and then open it from Firefox’s download window to start the GDebi installer. It will be added to Applications->Accessories, and when running, appears as an icon in the top panel.

In the screenshot below, characters in red are ones which the program is unsure about; a context menu allows you to select the correct letter.

Suspend/Hibernate

The supplied system shutdown tools do not seem to be compatible with this hardware, and a great many laptop users have had similar problems, according to the Ubuntu forums. After some research I was able to find a utility (uswsusp) that could be substituted, though I am not certain that it is working 100% either! However, it does reduce restart time by around two-thirds, so I am sticking with it for the time being.

Battery life

When reviewing the Q1U originally, I managed 2 hours and 52 minutes on the standard battery, running an MP4 movie at full screen brightness with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi turned on. The same test under Ubuntu gave a battery life of 1 hour 58 minutes, a reduction of almost a third. This is consistent with my observation that the device runs hotter under Linux, with the fan being on most of the time, even when the CPU is idling. Given Intel’s support of Linux as the operating system of choice for UMPCs, I hope this situation will be remedied in a future release of Ubuntu.

Performance

No TabletPCReview.com article would be complete without a few benchmarks. Since I was more interested in the user experience than in hardware metrics, I timed some common operations on both operating systems.

Test Response Time (m:ss)
  XP Tablet Ubuntu
Boot time* 1:21 1:40
Standby/suspend 0:27 0:41
Resume 0:10 0:34
Open a 100Kb OpenOffice document-Oo not running 0:35 0:05
Open a 100Kb OpenOffice document-Oo running 0:02 0:05
Open and load the Amazon.com homepage in FireFox 2 1:20 0:06

 

* from selecting the OS in Grub to the desktop fully loading (automatic login, all taskbars and icons present, no hourglass on pointer)

Boot time is undeniably longer on Ubuntu, but that has been true of Linux for as long as I can remember. The slowness of suspend and resume is because uswsusp writes to disk as well as RAM, in case of battery failure, so it’s more like hibernate in some respects. OpenOffice is also a little slower overall, because it has to be started each time instead of running in the background.

When it comes to web-browsing, the shoe is most certainly on the other foot. No, that Firefox figure is not a mistake. I did the test on each OS in turn (about ten minutes apart at most); I emptied the cache in each version of the browser, typed the URL in the address bar then timed the page loading from clicking ‘Enter’ until I saw ‘Done’ in the status bar, and the difference really is a factor of thirteen. I don’t know if IE on Windows is any faster, as I never use it and it wasn’t working for me on the day I tested it. However, past experience suggests it is no faster than Firefox and possibly slower.

Other hardware

The big disappointment for me is the lack of support for the four-way navigation button, which means that without an external keyboard you have to use the stylus to scroll through documents, and worse still there is no way of selecting anything except your default OS in Grub (the boot menu). This may be because the buttons are programmable in Windows and thus somehow separate from the rest of the keyboard, but I am pretty sure it works in UME, so the code is available.

Apparently it is also possible to get the cameras and internal mic working, but since I don’t have a pressing need for them, I have not looked into it.

Conclusion

Installing Linux on the Samsung Q1U has been something of a learning curve, but more successful than I had feared given the newness of the hardware. Performance overall is poorer, but still good enough to make the device perfectly usable for most tasks and the difference in browsing speed alone makes the change worthwhile. Overall, I’m very happy to have Linux on my Q1U, and will be using it as my main OS in future.

Pros

  • Ubuntu scales better to a small screen
  • Web browsing is much, much faster
  •  All the other Linux advantages: security, lots of free software, etc.

Cons

  • "Out of the box" hardware support is limited
  • Handwriting recognition is less advanced than Windows
  • Reduced battery time
  • Boot/suspend/resume times are longer



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