Jake Charman

Resident Geek of Nitrous Junkie Racing

Chromium OS, The Saviour Of The Iconia W500?

Fri 19 Feb 2016

So, for a while now I’ve had the Acer Iconia W500 x86 based tablet and have tried several OS’s. The tablet ships with Windows 7 Home Premium but the Windows 7 OS isn’t really touch friendly enough to work well. Windows 8.1 seems to work but the Iconia requires old drivers which is no problem until our love-hate relationship with Windows Update comes back as it installs newer drivers and breaks compatibility with the auto rotate software. Windows 10 began well and to start with was working perfectly. It was faster than 8.1 and WIndows Update wasn’t being it’s usual pain in the arse self. Wasn’t being a past tense word. Yep, sooner or later, Windows Update wiped out my working drivers and installed newer incompatible ones. Despite all the issues, Windows was very good once you got it going properly. But this is really to be expected since the hardware is designed for Windows. However, on a 1GHz AMD C-50 APU with just 2gb of RAM Windows really isn’t fast enough for even day to day tablet use and any programming or network management type work was a chore.

Linux worked well. Very well in fact. Using Ubuntu 14.04 it was fast enough for day to day use and was even fast enough for some programming in Python and C# using Mono. The touch screen really wasn’t great though. Xorg currently treats the touch screen as more of a touchpad making anything more than one finger navigation painful. There’s no real right click procedure that works well and Onboard is in my opinion a poor excuse for a touch keyboard so you’re pretty much tied to the USB keyboard dock. While it is possible to get the auto rotate working, I found it difficult and had strange issues with the digitiser not rotating. Meaning that while the screen was portrait, the touch screen would still behave as if it was landscape. I think this is an issue more with Xorg seeing it as a mousing interface rather than a different device. So in conclusion, Linux is good as long as you’re willing to use the device more like a touch screen laptop than a convertible tablet.

Now to Chromium OS, the operating system I’m currently using. CloudReady installs very easily even though there is a bug in the current installer. There is very good documentation on the manual command line install which is still mostly automated. The touch keyboard is a pleasure and very similar to the Windows 8.1/10 one. It doesn’t currently detect the keyboard but I’m working on a script to detect the dock and disable the touch keyboard. I don’t currently know if it’s possible but I’m trying my best. In the meantime however, its easy enough to add the accessibility options to the menu and turn on the keyboard when it’s needed. I’m still having some slight performance issues when carrying out demanding tasks like video playback. At present, I’m putting this down to either less than optimal drivers or thermal throttling. I’ve just about an hour ago blown the device through with some compressed air and already less heat is being generated. Programming on the move is also very possible using Caret and a command line only install of Ubuntu using Crouton and is almost as good as developing on my two machine, three monitor setup. Network management is also possible with Chrome Remote Desktop I can remote into a workstation VM on my network and handle servers from there. SSH is also available from within the Chrome shell.  Touch is actually handled correctly and is a pleasure to use. The only complaint I would have is the inability to remap the function keys meaning that the f keys do the functions they would on an official Chrome device and not what is labelled on the keyboard. Also, the power button has a bit of a hair trigger when used as a lock key it’s easy to accidentally shut down the device.

Overall, Chromium is most likely the best OS I’ve used on the tablet and makes it far more usable than any of the others I’ve tried. For now at least. This tablet has become by go to “out and about” device due to it’s small size and fast boot from the SanDisk SSD.