Opinions

Distro that laptop

I recently bought a “couch companion”; a very petite laptop with a seven inch screen that folds around to make the device a tablet. With 8GB memory and 128GB storage, it’s no slouch, and it has a 1920 x 1200 screen and a reasonable keyboard. I prefer this form factor to a tablet; it’ll sit up by itself without having to be held onto, and the keyboard saves a lot of frustration if I have to type more than a quick sentence.

This device, a OneMix Yoga, came with Windows 10 installed. I’m no fan of Windows anymore, for a number of reasons which I may as well rehearse here.

  1. Microsoft has become as keen as the other tech giants to harvest personal information. While they claim their various initiatives are about personal convenience, I’m neither convinced nor impressed and won’t have a bar of it.
  2. Windows is no longer clearly ahead of other operating systems in terms of available software. I can’t find a Twitter client or a feed reader that works as well as those available for Linux, for example. The advent of the Windows Store with its emphasis on HTML-based interfaces seems to have been a disincentive for many developers.
  3. The update mechanism for Windows is the most pathetically broken system I can think of. In other operating systems, updates get your permission and execute quietly in the background without ever requiring a reboot. Windows requires a reboot routinely, and when I occasionally have to use it I’m often held up for fifteen minutes at a time waiting for its interminable update processing, both on shutdown and on restart.

So, no Windows then. Linux though, sure. But the hardware is new and proprietary, with a touchscreen that rotates 360 degrees. Is there a Linux distro that can make this device work the way I want it to?

Candidates

After a lot of research I narrowed my choices down to eight flavours of Linux and put each of them through their paces. My initial testing was from USB keys, and I made little attempt to fix hardware compatibility issues, being more interested in getting a feel for what worked, what was likely to work, and what was going to cause me pain to resolve. I was prepared to accept less than perfection – all the distros, for example, showed a login screen rotated 90 degrees and I really don’t mind. Perhaps I can resolve that in the future, but it’s not a priority.

Criteria

  • Does the audio work? To be a couch companion, this device has to play audio and video without hesitation.
  • Does it handle screen rotation? Ideally, it will identify and connect with the accelerometer and rotate the screen accordingly, also defeating the keyboard when the device is in tablet mode.
  • Does the touchscreen work? Does it align with the current display rotation?
  • How is power management? Can it turn the fan on and off? Is it likely to get good battery life? Will it suspend elegantly?
  • Will it work with my Bluetooth mouse? This is ideal for the new device because it won’t hog the single full-size USB port. Really, this isn’t an important consideration as I hope mostly to rely on the touchscreen and the small optical nub that sits above the spacebar. Still, it’s worth asking the question.
  • How usable is the interface? The device has a 1920 x 1200 screen in a small form factor, so intelligent scaling is the key to minimising fatigue. If system buttons, for example, are too small, it becomes hard work.
  • Adding all the above together gives me a score which is perhaps a reasonable indicator of which distros I should install and take to the next step.

Results

DistroDesktopAudioRotationTouchPowerBT mouseUsabilityScoreNotes
Debian 9.5.0Gnome
  • Would not run.
Manjaro 17.2.7XFCE0250004065
  • Soundcard not found.
  • No auto-rotate.
  • Touch out of sync with display, icons too small for touch.
  • No fan, suspend unreliable.
Xubuntu 18.04XFCE025500040115
  • No soundcard.
  • No auto-rotate.
  • Touch works in portrait mode, not landscape. Icons way too small for touch.
  • No fan, suspend doesn’t work on a first try.
Ubuntu 18.04Gnome+050800070200
  • No soundcard.
  • Rotation 90 degrees out.
  • Touch excellent but resolution not as good for accuracy.
  • No fan, suspend OK-ish.
  • Mouse not found.
Mint 19Cinnamon502505010050275
  • Finds the soundcard; audio could probably be made to work.
  • It was hard work getting a usable display, and rotation would have to be manual.
  • Touch rotated 90 degrees from display.
  • System buttons and icons small for touch.
  • Fan never on, TLP seems to understand the battery, but suspend is inconsistent.
Fedora 28Gnome07010050080305
  • Soundcard not found.
  • Rotation works perfectly but always 90 degrees out.
  • Touch excellent and aligned to display rotation.
  • Fan on all the time – could fix though – power management promising and suspend works.
  • Mouse not found.
OpenSUSE TumbleweedGnome10025502510040340
  • Impressive setup animation, but performance is very sluggish; perhaps too much of a heavyweight for this device.
  • Audio works. Speaker test and internet audio good through speaker and headphones.
  • Recognise the accelerometer, but 90 degrees out. Screen blanks permanently when the device is rotated to portrait. Xrandr rotate fails.
  • Touch is in sync with the screen in portrait mode (ie, with the device in landscape position).
  • Mouse recognised.
  • No fan, suspend works but doesn’t restart elegantly.
Antergos 18.8Gnome805010050080360
  • Audio works. Speaker test is fine, internet video through headphones is fine but “fuzzy” through speakers.
  • Manual rotation, but works consistently.
  • Touch is fine once you realise you need to long-press for some functions.
  • Mouse not found.
  • No fan, but suspend works well.
DistroDesktopAudioRotationTouchPowerBT mouseUsabilityScoreNotes

 

Conclusions

The above list is ranked by outcomes, and not in the order I tested these distros. I ran Mint 19 for almost a week first; it’s my default Linux experience.

Gnome is far and away the best Linux desktop environment for a touch device of this type. It’s better than Windows, which surprised me despite my strong bias against Microsoft. XFCE and Cinnamon don’t come close, although if the screen resolution is set lower they are usable. I thought Mint was acceptable … until I tried Gnome!

It was a tough call choosing between Fedora, OpenSUSE and Antergos. Screen rotation in Fedora is the best of all the options, and with some effort I’m sure I could get it working 100%. On the other hand, audio works out of the box in Antergos and OpenSUSE, and it was the audio that tipped the scales. I think OpenSUSE requires more grunt than this wee box has to offer, so I’m installing Antergos as my first choice.