Using My New Chromebook

I got my first Chromebook for my birthday a few years back. It was an Acer C720, a darling of the Chromebook world and a great machine. I used it in it’s stock configuration for quite a while and then I realized i could enable dev mode and run a Linux environment via Crouton. Linux is my OS of choice for everything and being able to run it on my Chromebook was awesome. I soon got tired of crouton and began to search for other options. In dev mode, I could boot from USB so I got a 64GB USB 3 flash drive and installed Xubuntu Linux on there. That way, I could essentially “dual boot” with ChromeOS. I ran the machine that way for years. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t booting into ChromeOS ever and decided to take the plunge and wipe ChromeOS off the system, entirely. I opened up the case. I replaced the 16GB ssd it came with with a much larger one. I removed the write-protection screw and installed Gallium OS. It works flawlessly and I use it often. It’s much lighter than my Thinkpad and most of what i need is a terminal, a web browser and VS Code. But, the C720 only shipped with 2GB RAM and it is hard soldered to the motherboard. Gallium OS runs great; I even wrote an article about it; but I’m a geek, right? New hardware is always on the horizon. I have never been a tablet guy, per se. I have an Amazon Fire Tablet hacked to run apps from Google Play, but I really need a keyboard. Writing markdown or ssh-ing into a server are both difficult tasks for a touchscreen keyboard. My wife has a 2-in-1 Chromebook from Asus and it is great for watching Netflix/Hulu/Disney+. I have also been following the development of Chrome OS and the addition of Crostini, a technology for running Linux apps in a sandbox. I decided I wanted to try my hand at a new Chromebook.

So, for Christmas, I got a Lenovo C340-11. This is a 2-in-1 with an HD (720p) IPS touchscreen, a 64GB SSD, and 4GB of RAM. (lenovo site). This particular machine also has the Intel N4000 series Celeron processor which is, IMHO, a better choice than the MediaTek processors found in other Lenovo Chromebooks. The build quality is not mind-blowing, but the lid is aluminum and the body is tightly integrated plastic. My only real complaint about this machine is the touch pad. It feels a little “plastic-y”. I can solve this with a bluetooth mouse or, more likely, I will just get used to it. I am currently running Chrome OS 79 and I’m on the stable channel. I have enabled dev mode and I have enabled the Linux Apps Beta.

So, how do I use this little guy? It’s really great, actually. Even for a full-time linux user like myself. I have made great use of the android app support and the Linux app support. Because I have enabled dev mode, I can install .apk’s from outside sources. First thing I did was install fdroid and used that to install the Nextcloud (Dev) Sync client for Android. I also installed DAVx5 to sync my Calendar and Contacts from my Nextcloud server. Using the Linux terminal, I installed Firefox and VSCode, my preferred text editor. We can get into editor wars at some point, but for now, this is my editor of choice and I can use it ANYWHERE. The other main linux app I use constantly is Keepassx; Keepassx is a cross platform password manager and I use it for all my login passwords across all my accounts. Being able to run the native linux version is awesome, although there are several compatible apps for Android, as well.

So, I have been using this machine for about 2 weeks now. It has been rock solid doing the day to day tasks like email, web, media consumption and writing. In a future article, I will talk a little more in-depth about how I use VS Code and why i like it. As always, if you have any questions about anything in this article, hit me up on twitter: @norcalgeekdad; on Telegram: @g33kdad; or newly on Mastodon: @norcalgeekdad@mastodon.social.

Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you soon!

Cheers!

Final Thoughts on Elementary OS

How I Use elementary os (Applications and Tweaks)

In my last post, I described my journey of moving off of OpenSUSE Tumbleweed and installing elementary os. This week, I want to describe the apps I have installed and use and what modifications I’ve made to make the workflow fit just a little better to my muscle memory.
The first thing I did was poke around a bit and see what the default set of apps installed from the iso had to offer. I got Mail setup to use my google suite mail. That was fairly straight forward, however, because I use my own domain with google apps, I had to use the manual set up. The documentation from google was helpful. I use two-factor authentication on my google apps so I also used this article on setting up Apple’s Mail to use google 2FA and applied it to the elementary Mail app ; if there is interest I could do a tutorial post or video on how to do this. I am using Files, Terminal, and AppCenter out of the box as intended and everything just works. The pantheon desktop itself is a huge departure from my beloved XFCE, but I am addressing the challenges head on. Here are some of the things I have done to ease my transition.
In XFCE, the desktop has a setting for randomly changing the wallpaper from a specified folder of images. Over the years, I have collected a set of wallpaper images I like and I like to have them change regularly. Pantheon does not have this feature built in, but I installed Variety, “an open-source wallpaper changer for Linux.” Variety can pull images from various online sources and your local filesystem to create wallpaper slide shows which change the background on your specified schedule.
In addition to XFCE, I have used the i3 window manager quite extensively. My time in i3 has really broken me of my ‘mouse addiction’ and I am used to using the keyboard to do most things on my system. The default key combination to launch a terminal window on i3 is Super+Enter so the first thing I do on a new desktop in find the keyboard shortcut control panel and add that combination. On elementary, pressing Super+Space opens the applications menu. This menu provides search to launch applications but again, due to my time spent with i3, I am used to using dmenu to launch apps. dmenu is available in the default repos and I set it’s keyboard shortcut as Super+d. (Actually, I use j4-dmenu-desktop from the repos. Google is your friend here.). My one big complaint is that elementary has done away with app indicators in the Wingpanel. I have read their explanation of this and I get where they’re coming from. However, I still use applications like Nextcloud which rely on a panel indicator to access their settings and to monitor syncing. In addition, I do not like the stock sound settings / control panel. I am used to pavucontrol which provides many levels of control over which interface does what. The Sound Settings in elementary os leave much to be desired on that front.
However, much more than that, I haven’t changed elementary very much. I have populated my dock with many apps and I have enjoyed the experience. But, it’s time to move on. Time to scratch that distro-hopper itch. It took me a while to decide, but I am going to revisit Gnome shell. I haven’t used it in several years and I want to see what the hype is all about. I have decided to try Pop_OS! from System76. I hope you will check back later to see how it goes!

Two Weeks With elementary OS

About two weeks ago, after almost a year on OpenSUSE Tumbleweed, I installed elementary os Juno on my ThinkPad T430.

I installed Tumbleweed last year ahead of attending and giving a talk at the OpenSUSE Summit at ScALE 17x. I am a fan of OpenSUSE and I really enjoy having a rolling release distro, but I had been challenged. I have always been something of a ‘distrohopper’ and I have used lots of different OS’s in my 10+ years full-time on Linux. At some point during that time, I had come to the belief that distro hopping was, well, childish, not to put too fine a point on it. I had convinced myself that some combination of “the grass is always greener” syndrome and commitment issues was a detriment to my use of Linux and I just needed to put down some roots. As I have always had something of an anti-establishment streak, I couldn’t settle on Ubuntu or Fedora and Arch and it’s derivatives have posed challenges to me in the past. So, OpenSUSE it was. I installed my beloved XFCE desktop and was very happy.

However, I was listening to a talk from some Linux conference or another and a gentleman, whose name escapes me, said that distro hopping was preferred for Linux evangelists and those of us who are in a position to recommend distros to civilians (my word choice, not his). His point was, how can you answer the question, “But, which distro should I choose?”, if you haven’t tried LOTS of distros. He went on to say that trying different distros will increase the breadth of your knowledge of Linux, in general. It makes you more flexible. It enables you to slide into many different scenarios and be successful.

I was floored. I was, to be honest, a little insulted. This was because I had convinced myself that hopping was a behaviour to be avoided. However, I continued to ruminate on his words. I re-examined my opinion. I began to agree. I decided to take up his challenge to live in different distros, in different environments, for my own benefit and education. I decided to abandon OpenSUSE Tumbleweed. But, where to go?

I mentioned previously that I had been using XFCE on Tumbleweed. Truth is, I always used XFCE. I was in a rut, to be fair. I am, by nature, a minimalist when it comes to technology. I also like to be in charge of everything. I don’t like desktop icons, I don’t like huge header bars on my windows, I don’t like relying on a mouse when a keyboard chord will do. Gnome Shell and KDE Plasma are big and resource intensive. Other distros, like elementary were locked down and not customizable. How could I ever ditch XFCE?

After listening to Daniel Fore (founder of elementary) on various podcasts over the years and following along the development of elementary os, I decided elementary would be as close to the exact opposite of everything I had been doing in Linux for the last 5 years. So, I committed. I installed elementary and I promised I would do everything the “elementary way”. I would use the AppCenter, not my usual command line tools (apt, zypper, yast, etc). Also, my preference for apps would be those written and curated specifically for elementary.

And, I have loved it! I am writing this article in Quilter, a markdown editor. I am using Mail, Terminal, Ciano, Taxi, and several other elementary-first apps. When I have needed an app outside of the curated list, I have tried to find it through the AppCenter first, then turning to Flathub and the Snap Store. My experience has been pretty great and I am very happy with the resulting setup. In my next post, I will go into more details on the apps I have installed and how I have attempted to customize elementary to my preferred workflow, when possible; and how I have attempted to customize my workflow to the nuances of elementary.

Thanks for reading this article and check back for follow up articles as well.

GalliumOS – Linux Designed for your Chromebook

There are a couple different ways to get Linux apps running on your Chromebook. For most recent models and, as far as I know, all new models; you can simply enable Linux app support and install your favorites directly into Chrome OS. These apps then run in a container and integrate directly with Chrome OS. However, if you are like me, you have an older Chromebook which does not now, nor will it ever, support Linux apps natively

.I have an Acer c720. In fact, I’m writing this post on it right now. Older Chromebooks can utilize a free utility called ‘crouton’ (https://github.com/dnschneid/crouton) to run Linux applications or even a full linux desktop within or along side Chrome OS. I have used crouton in the past on this C720 and it works great. However, I quickly got tired of switching back and forth between Chrome OS and Linux.

This particular laptop was shipped with SeaBIOS installed. SeaBIOS behaves like a typical x86 bios, allowing you to select your boot device at boot time. By enabling developer mode and setting a few firmware flags, I was presented with a boot menu at startup. I plugged a USB 3 flash drive (64g) into the USB 3 port on the C720 and a xubuntu (http://www.xubuntu.org) install usb stick in the other port and installed a full version of xubuntu to the flash drive. With this configuration, I could essentially dual-boot. I could select the internal boot drive to load Chrome OS or select the flash drive to boot xubuntu Linux. I used this set up for a long time and it worked well. I had a “best of both worlds” scenario. I would boot Linux to work and Chrome OS for media consumption (netflix, youtube, etc) or to quickly browse the web and check email.

As time went on, however, I became frustrated with the speed running off of the usb drive. I also found that I was booting to Linux 90% of the time and using my tablet or phone for the odd email or youtube video. I decided to sacrifice Chrome OS and use linux only. I cracked open the laptop case, removed the write-protect screw, and installed Linux directly to the internal drive. It went perfectly and worked great. The C720 ships with a 16gb MVNE drive and I quickly filled it up. I replaced it with a 120g drive and solved that problem. The only issues were some hardware related things that result from the specialized Chromebook hardware. It wasn’t impossible, but there were some rough edges. The main pain point was the fact that the media keys (volume/brightness/etc) that make up the top row of the keyboard were not functional as intended. I tried to do some creative key mapping in xfce to work around this, but it was kludgy. I started looking for something new.

I tried several different distros with varying degrees of success until I finally came upon Gallium OS (https://galliumos.org/). Gallium is a specialized distro (based on my beloved xubuntu) that is tweaked to run on Chromebooks/Chromeboxes. I installed it a few weeks ago and I have been using it almost every day.

All in all, GalliumOS has been everything I want it to be. My only small kludge is a tiny, one line .Xmodmap script to set the Chromebook’s “Search” key to a CapsLock. (keycode 133 = Caps_Lock). I highly recommend using Gallium on your Chromebook. It has restored usefulness to my C720. Go give it a try.

Peace,
Matt McGraw
@NorCalGeekDad – twitter

SCaLE 17x – Southern California Linux Expo

It’s that time of year again! March 7-10, 2019 is the time and Pasadena, CA is the place for the 17th annual Southern California Linux Expo! This will be my 5th year participating in SCaLE. I started going in 2015 and I worked in the booth for ownCloud! I developed a relationship with Jos Poortvliet (community manager) and Frank Karlitschek (founder) and they asked me back to work the booth in ’16 and ’17. In mid 2016, Frank forked the ownCloud project and left the company he founded. He started a new project called Nextcloud and continued development. Today, Nextcloud is deployed around the world in installations with 10’s of users up to 1,000,000’s of users. I have continued to use Nextcloud daily and support Frank and Jos with my time and resources as I am available.
Last year, 2018, Jos and Frank were unable to make the trip from Berlin to join us at SCaLE, so I decided to host a BoF (Birds of a Feather) talk about Nextcloud. It was my first time leading a group at SCaLE and despite some hiccups, it went quite well. Towards the end of 2018, I emailed Jos to see if they were planning to come to California this year. Frank will be here but, sadly, Jos cannot make the trip.
One of the best things about how SCaLE has grown as a conference is the addition of other community events to the schedule. The Ubuntu project began holding an Ubucon each year at SCaLE and many other projects hold annual meetings/conferences/sprints as a part of the overall event. This year, openSUSE is holding an openSUSE Summit on Friday the 8th. Jos submitted a talk to the oS Summit which was accepted, but as he is unable to attend, he has asked me to fill his shoes. I will be presenting a workshop on installing Nextcloud on openSUSE Leap 15. Audience participation will be essential as I will be walking through the installation and setup of the Nextcloud server component so everyone who participates will have a working install by the end (I HOPE!!) I am very excited (and a little terrified) to present at this year’s expo. If you are going to be there, I hope you will come by and say, “Hi”. Thanks, Matt (@norcalgeekdad)

NaPodPoMo: Lessons Learned & What’s Next

Well… November came and went and I released… 8 episodes. The goal was 30 so, I hit 26% or so. Truth be told, I’m feeling pretty good about that. I have started 2 other podcasts and never made it to episode 8 before. I learned a lot about just sitting down and hitting that big red record button. The “fear factor” of just getting started can be enough to scare off potential and even semi-pro podcasters. I also learned a bit about recording software and the pluses and minuses of the various tools that are available. I produced some episodes on a Chromebook and some on my Linux laptop using the free software tool, Audacity (www.audacity.org) I used The Internet Archive (www.archive.org) to host my media files and I use WordPress (www.wordpress.org) to power my website. All of these tools work together well and make the production process very simple and straightforward. If someone came to me to talk about the technical side of starting a podcast, the tools I have used and the workflow I’ve created would be a good place to start.

So, do I want to continue to podcast? I do… but… I am not sure what form the GeekDadShow might take. I don’t have a ton of ideas for episodes, though I do keep a running list.  I have an idea for a different podcast, one that is very different from the “geeky” nature of the GeekDadShow. I don’t know what will come of that, but I’ll keep you all posted, for sure.

That’s all I have today. Thanks for reading. 

Matt

NaPodPoMo

November is National Podcast Post Month. This is a movement that is modeled after Nation Novel Writers Month. NaNoWriMo was conceived of to give writers a form of peer pressure/ motivation/ community support to get the first draft of a novel done. The idea is you write every day during the 30 days of November and by Dec 1, you have a rough draft of your novel.

In 2007, Jennifer Navarrete adapted this to the podcasting community. National Podcast Post Month was born and encourages podcasters (or wannabe podcasters) to record and post an episode every day in November. This can be a great way to build confidence and really get down to business creating a podcast.

I have decided to participate this year and will be launching special episodes of The Geek Dad Show! on Nov. 1st. There will be a separate feed for this podcast and you can subscribe at http://norcalgeekdad.com/category/napodpomo/feed/podcast/.

I hope you’ll check it out and feel free to reach out with questions or comments!

Thanks.