I’ve not done a tech post for a little while and having spent some of yesterday getting my laptop up and running with Linux I thought I would share my experience in case it’s helpful to another person.
I’ve used Linux as my main operating system and off for a large chunk of the last 20 years. There have been a number of reasons why, incorporating enthusiasm for meddling with tech, but also frustration and annoyance with the Microsoft Windows approach during that time. As it happens Windows 7 brought me back into the Microsoft world, with a computer system which was predominantly stable and well-behaved, something which prior to that could not really be said. However, I tend to run lower-spec machines which choke on the heavy-weight world of up to date windows software making them slow and unwieldy to use. Coupled with the fact that at each new windows launch they seem to obsolete hardware I have at my disposal, their progress forward isn’t always reflected in mine!
I had a trusty old Samsung netbook N210 which had foolishly come pre-installed with Win 7 and was akin to an ant trying to shoulder-carry a tortoise. It sort of worked, but was hideously slow. A swap to Linux and an extra gig of memory gave me a portable machine which worked.
Alas, as with anything electronic, they can go wrong over time, and due to the age/cheapness of it, it was not practical to repair.
A New Machine – the HP Stream 11
I went searching for an up to date equivalent machine and found the HP Stream 11 with good reviews. It is lightweight, fan-less (read quiet) and great value for money. It comes with Windows 8.1 Bing Edition – basically it’s a free-to-suppliers copy of windows 8.1.
Now I will say that I’ve not played with a windows-based mobile phone with touch-screen so I can’t say how good that aspect works. What I can say is that for a non-touchscreen laptop, the way ‘apps’ appeared taking over the screen, sometimes switching between each other and having duplicate versions of Internet Explorer depending on whether it was launched from the task bar or from the email program, it really acted as a source of major frustration to me. The native Start menu was replaced by the new tiles-based arrangement which again, from the point of me using a laptop, slowed me down trying to find my apps.
And to top it off, my trusty USB Canoscan scanner was now obsolete in the Windows 8.1 world!
So, my attention was turned to making this device more to my liking, which would ultimately involve Windows 8.1 exiting stage left, and Linux replacing it.
Preliminary Steps – Back up the Stream 11 to USB
This guide is to set out what I did in the hope that it will help someone else looking to install Linux onto an HP Stream 11 as it’s not as simple as it could have been. However I’m not taking any responsibility for you following this and something going horribly wrong, I’d expect this to be looked at by people with a little bit of Linux background who know what they’re taking on. If you do this and your computer stops working or you lose data, your freezer defrosts unexpectedly or your VCR starts eating jam sandwiches, it’s the risk you take.
Now the HP Stream 11 has a very healthy backup system on it. As well as having a hidden partition to restore from the HP software will allow a full external backup to a USB device. Before you start messing around with the software, do this.
Do this now! You will need an 8GB or larger USB storage stick and go to the HP Support app on the computer and follow the recovery media instructions – it will wipe the USB stick to do this so don’t use one with other data on that you want to keep. What this is actually doing is copying the hidden recovery partition to the USB stick such that if the internal drive was erased, you can get the machine back to factory conditions again. To be honest, it’s well worth doing this regardless of if you are going to do something to the computer system as it’s the only external backup you will have.
Once completed the USB stick will be machine-bootable. That means that if it is plugged into the machine when you start it up and the machine reads the USB stick, it will start up from the USB stick itself, allowing the restore option to become available.
Before I did anything else, I made sure that the USB stick would boot the machine. Better to find out now!
As the machine starts from being switched off, press the Escape key several times to bring up a menu which will allow boot options and access to the BIOS. F9 should provide a list of bootable devices including your USB stick and if you select that it should start the program whilst ultimately asks if you want to restore your machine. If that all works, the USB is good to go and can be stored somewhere safely.
Choose your flavour of Linux
For as long as I’ve been using Linux, there have been many different options each with their own advantages and disadvantages. My current preferred option is Linux Mint, which is based on Ubuntu (itself derived from Debian) but is lightweight, robust and pretty. Gone are the days of text-based installation routines and if you’ve installed windows before, this will not phase you too much. Helpfully, Mint (and others) can be run as a ‘live’ session from the USB stick allowing you to try it out without installing on the computer or making any changes. So that’s good too, if you try it and don’t like it, you’ve not done anything other than downloading it in the first place, and it doesn’t cost anything.
You can find Linux Mint here.
The latest version of Mint at this time is 17.1 “Rebecca”. Now there are different ‘looks’ to it, and I used the XFCE 32 bit version. XFCE is lightweight and clean and simple. Now I had to go for the 32 bit version because for some reason the 64 bit would not boot from the USB on my Stream – apparently there’s an issue with Gigabyte motherboards, but either way, that’s how I’ve ended up with that.
The image comes as an .iso file which needs to be transferred to another USB stick (not the recovery one that you used before!). Under Linux I use the USB Image Writer application. Looking at the Mint User Guide, they have recommended http://infrarecorder.org/ for windows users to create the USB live image.
BIOS changes and boot into the Live Image
Reboot the HP Stream 11 and use the Escape key to get to that menu you saw before and press F10 to go into the BIOS. You will need your Linux Mint USB stick in the USB port (I tend to use the USB 3.0 one). The BIOS is a place which gives the computer itself a number of settings and we are going to change a few here to make sure we can work from the USB.
Go to System Configuration and boot options. You will need to ENABLE LEGACY BOOT, DISABLE SECURE BOOT and under the legacy options at the bottom change the boot order to start with the USB stick (you’ll see below it is only in second place – F5/F6 keys change the order). Note that if you choose not to get rid of windows you will need to change these options back so it is able to boot again.
Save your options F10 and exit the BIOS, the computer should now boot from the USB stick and into a Linux Mint live session. note at this time no changes have been made to your internal disk on the computer.
Now at this stage you might find the internal trackpad to be well, useless! This can be fixed but at this point if you have a spare USB mouse I’d plug that in so you can mess around with the system to check it seems OK.
Liking Mint, want to go forward? Good, keep reading.
Installing your new operating system and going beyond the point of no return
OK this sounds a bit scary, and it’s supposed to be. Due to the small MMC drive and complications with this type of system and dual-booting, I have got rid of windows entirely and gone to Linux. By doing this all the data on the MMC drive is going. So if you have any personal data on there which isn’t backed up elsewhere it will go. Should it not work out for you, at least you have created the USB recovery stick (you have, haven’t you?!!) so you can restore the computer to factory settings, but that won’t include your data or programs you’ve installed on windows.
So if you’re happy to move forward, click on the ‘Install Linux Mint’ icon on the desktop and follow the on screen instructions. When you get to the point of formatting the disk, choose the ‘erase everything’ option and let Mint work out how it wants to structure the disk. It will use the wifi built in to download some extra stuff but the install should all go fine.
Once finished the install the machine will reboot, you’ll need to remove the USB drive and it will start up with your new Linux installation.
Now a word of caution here. There’s something on the eMMC drives which the Linux kernel is struggling to interpret and as such the boot time is longer than windows as it’s trying to do something (I’m not sure what). Once it’s gone through this there’s no other such a problem but just so you know, it may take 40 seconds or so to boot up.
Update the system
Once up and running there’s a few updates that are going to be required to make sure the machine is working as well as possible. It’s going to involve some downloads but it’s not complicated.
1) A new Kernel. Rebecca comes with the 3.13 kernel installed. A newer kernel will have stronger hardware support as this is a new machine. Kernel 3.19 enables the brightness function to work for example. To get this kernel we will run the Synaptic application. On XFCE this is on the system menu. I installed the following applications:
There’s something in one of the packages which without it being there the system cannot find the root partition on booting the new kernel. Let it do its stuff and then reboot and all being well the system will come up with the new kernel in operation. If there are problems, the old kernel can be accessed from the GRUB2 boot menu and that will work as before. I have found that on a cold reboot that the GRUB menu does not show on screen yet it does from a warm boot. I don’t know why this should be different.
2) Better Wi-Fi The Realtek drivers for the wifi are a bit flaky still, so lets get some better ones. I found this from the web which you will need to do from the terminal:
apt-get install gcc make wget https://github.com/lwfinger/rtlwifi_new/archive/master.zip unzip master.zip cd rtlwifi_new-master/ make sudo make install
Reboot your system
3) Trackpad woes The trackpad under Windows is a little frustrating to be polite about the matter. However in order to make it work properly under Linux, we need to change a couple of things. Again, do this in a terminal:
Copy the file /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-synaptics.conf to /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-synaptics.conf.
(I had to create the xord.conf.d folder under /etc/X11/ first)
Open the new file (under /etc/X11) and change the line “MatchDriver “synaptics”” with “Option “ClickPad” “on”” and the line “Option “SoftButtonAreas” “50% 0 82% 0 0 0 0 0” to “Option “SoftButtonAreas” “50% 0 50% 0 0 0 0 0”.
On rebooting, the trackpad works again, although it a little uber-responsive at times for my liking. But at least you won’t need to tie up a USB port with a mouse any more.
And that’s how I set up Linux Mint 17.1 XFCE Edition (32 bit) on my HP Stream 11. There are other ways and some people seem to have managed to do things that I couldn’t do. But it is possible to get a good working installation of Linux on this great little notebook.