Ubuntu "Natty Narwhal" on the ExoPC (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 30 Apr 2011

Ubuntu "Natty Narwhal" on the ExoPC

Intel hosted a MeeGo developer camp on Friday where they gave out ExoPC tablets for developers, and I was lucky enough to get one.

Intel is making a big MeeGo push -- they want lots of apps available for this platform, so they're trying to make it as easy as possible for develoeprs to make new apps for their AppUp store.

Meego looks fun -- it's a real Unix under the hood, with a more or less mainstream kernel and a shell. I'm looking forward to developing for it; in theory it can run Python programs (using Qt or possibly even gtk for the front end) as well as C++ Qt apps. Of course, I'll be writing about MeeGo developing once I know more about it; for now I'm still setting up my development environment.

But on a lazy Saturday, I thought it would be fun to see if the new Ubuntu 11.04, "Natty Narwhal", can run on the ExoPC. Natty's whizzy new "Unity" interface (actually not new, but much revamped since the previous Ubuntu release) is rumoured to be somewhat aimed at tablets with touchscreens. How would it work on the ExoPC?

Making a bootable Ubuntu USB stick

The first step was to create a bootable USB stick with Ubuntu on it. Sadly, this is not as easy as on Fedora or SuSE. Ubuntu is still very CD oriented, and to make a live USB stick you need to take an ISO intended for a CDROM then run a program that changes it to make it bootable from USB.

There are two programs for this: usb-creator and unetbootin. In the past, I've had zero luck getting these programs to work except when running under a Gnome desktop on the same version of Ubuntu I was trying to install. Maybe it would be better this time.

I tried usb-creator-gtk first, since that seems to be the one Ubuntu pushes most. It installed without too many extra dependencies -- it did pull in several PolicyKit libraries like libpolkit-backend-1-0 and libpolkit-gobject-1-0. When I ran it, it saw the USB stick right away, and I chose the ubuntu-11.04-desktop-i386.iso file I'd downloaded. But the Make Startup Disk button remained blank. I guess I needed to click the Erase Disk button first. So I did -- and was presented with an error dialog that said:

org.freedesktop.DBus.Error.ServiceUnknown: The name org.freedesktop.PolicyKit1 was not provided by any service files

Dave (who's wrestled with this problem more than I have) suggested maybe it wanted a vfat partition on the USB stick. So I quit usb-creator-gtk, used gparted to make the stick into a single vfat partition, and restarted usb-creator-gtk. Now everything was un-greyed -- so I clicked Make Startup Disk and was immediately presented with another dialog:

Installation failed

No clue about what went wrong or why. Okay, on to unetbootin.

When I ran unetbootin, it gave me a helpful dialog that "unetbootin must be run as root." Then it proceeded to show its window anyway. I can read, so I quit and ran it again as root. I chose the iso file, clicked OK -- and it worked! In a minute or two I had a bootable Ubuntu USB stick.

(Update: unetbootin is better than usb-creator for another reason: you can use it to burn CDs other than the default live desktop CD -- like if you want to burn the "alternate installer" ISO so you can install server systems, use RAID partitions, etc.)

Booting on the ExoPC

[Ubuntu Natty running on ExoPC] Natty booted up just fine! I inserted the USB stick, powered on, leapt for the XXX button that shows the boot menu and told it to boot from the stick. Natty booted quite fast, and before long I was in the Unity desktop, and, oddly, it started off in a banshee screen telling me I didn't have any albums installed. I dismissed banshee ...

... at which point I found I couldn't actually do much without a keyboard. I couldn't sign on to our wi-fi since I couldn't type the password, and I didn't have any local files installed. But wait! I had an SD card with some photos on it, and Ubuntu recognized it just fine and popped up a file browser.

But I wanted to try net access. I borrowed Dave's Mac USB keyboard to type in the WPA password. It worked fine, and soon I was signed on to wi-fi and happily browsing the web.

"onboard" keyboard

What about an onscreen keyboard, though? I found one, called "onboard". It's installed by default. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to run it without a keyboard. Unity has a "+" button that took me to a window with a text field labeled Search Applications, but you have to type something there before it will show you any applications. I couldn't find any way to get a list of applications without a keyboard.

With a keyboard, I was able to find a terminal app, from which I was able to run onboard. It's tiny! Far too small for me to type on a capacitive display, even with my tiny fingers. It has no man page, but it does have a --help argument, by which I was able to discover the -s argument: onboard -s 900x300 did nicely. It's ugly, but I can live with that. Now if I can figure out how to make a custom Unity launcher for that, I'll be all set.

Unity on tablets -- not quite there yet

With onboard running, I gave Dave back his keyboard, and discovered a few other problems. I couldn't scroll in the file browser window: the scrollbar thumb is only a few pixels wide, too narrow to hit with a finger on a touchscreen, and the onboard keyboard has no up/down arrows or Page Up/Down. I tried dragging with two fingers, but no dice.

Also, when I went back to that Unity Search Applications screen, I discovered it takes up the whole screen, covering the onscreen keyboard, and there's no way to move it so I can type.

Update: forgot to mention that Unity, for all its huge Playskool buttons, has a lot of very small targets that are hard to hit with a finger. It took me two or three tries to choose the wi-fi icon on the top bar rather than the icon to the left or right of it, and shutdown is similarly tricky.

So Natty's usability on tablets isn't quite there. Still, I'm impressed at how easy it was to get this far. I didn't expect it to boot, run and be so usable without any extra work on my part. Very cool!

And no, I won't be installing Natty permanently on the ExoPC. I got this tablet for MeeGo development and I'm not welching on that deal. But it's fun to know that it's so easy to boot Ubuntu when I want to.

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[ 12:46 Apr 30, 2011    More linux/install | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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