March 5, 2003

Turning a Lindows/Microtel box into a Debian Delight

- By Paul M. Foster -
A Lindows machine is a very inexpensive machine put out by Microtel
whose operating system is Xandros Linux, with some Lindows visual
tweaks. You can get them at Wal-Mart (online only), and all the
components (video, audio, network card) are soldered onto the
motherboard. The only thing not soldered onto the motherboard is a
winmodem that occupies the single PCI slot. The machine has an 800MHz
Via C3 processor, 256M of memory, a 40M hard drive, a wheel mouse, and
Via AC97 audio chip.

It comes in a minitower box, but the motherboard is
a mini-ITX form factor, and the power supply is something like 100 watts
or somesuch. It boots up in X Window, and only the root user (with no
password) is set up by default. The pre-installed operating system comes
with very little software. The Lindows company expects you to purchase a
$100 yearly subscription to download whatever other software you want.
Judging by its pricing compared to other Wal-Mart Linux-based machines,
I'd guess that Lindows is subsidizing these and expecting to recoup its
loss on subscriptions and other fees. (By the way, the keyboards on
these things absolutely reek. They're cheap, with a bunch of extra keys
in the wrong places. I kept hitting the backslash key every time I tried
to hit the enter key. Figure on replacing it as a first action.)

These machines, although they work well, have some problems. First,
there is the root user issue. A neophyte won't realize that he or she
shouldn't run everything as root; it's a serious security breach. And
even if you set up a normal user, I'm not sure they'd have the proper
permissions to run things like the CD player. Second, the Via C3 chip. From what I've been able to tell, the C3 is _like_ a 686, but not enough
so. There are some instructions on a 686 that the C3 doesn't implement.
So if you compile a 686 kernel on it, things may not work right. Third,
the video chip. It's a Trident Cyberblade/i1. Not easily supported under
Linux. The general concensus among Linuxers is that this is a crappy
chip which should be replaced. Fourth, the on-board Via sound chip.
Another cheapo.

If you want to pay your money to Lindows the same way you pay your money
to Microsoft, and you don't care about security, this would be a fine
machine. Unfortunately, I'm a geek, so that just won't do for me. As I
mentioned, Lindows is really Xandros Linux with some visual tweaks. I
decided to check out Xandros. They charge for their distro, and you
don't get source code for some of their software. But I don't really
want to pay Xandros either.

Turns out Xandros is really Debian Linux with some extra later-version
libraries and proprietary programs. There's an additional problem with
Xandros -- it's a mix of Debian stable, testing and unstable. I should
explain that. The Debian Linux distribution has a stable version (3.0)
codenamed "woody" that you'll find on CDs you can get on the internet.
They also have a "testing" version which will turn into the next
"stable" version once they're satisfied with it. It's pretty stable,
though. Then there is the "unstable" version (codenamed "sid"), which is
for those who like to live on the edge. Xandros is a combination of
stable, unstable and testing libraries and packages. This makes
maintenance and upgrade of its software problematic if you don't get
your software directly from Xandros.

But since Lindows is really Xandros and Xandros is really Debian, I
decided to see if I could run Debian on this machine. A couple of things
I should mention here. First, you've got two weeks from delivery to send
back one of these Wal-Mart machines. After that, it's yours permanently.
Second, before I did anything else with this machine I ran a script I
cobbled together that details all the hardware, software and settings on
the machine. That was primarily so I could see what libraries I'd need
to install from elsewhere to make the machine work. Also, the machine
comes with a CD that contains Lindows. If you have to reinstall Lindows,
pop in the CD, reboot, and in ten minutes you're back up and running
again.

So I wiped Lindows and installed Debian from CDs (woody/stable). There
were problems. For example, when you go out of X Window into the console
and back again, the monitor loses sync. You have to Ctrl-Alt-Bksp to
kill X Window. That's for version 4.1 of X. For version 3.3.6 of X, you
have the occasional problem of the console getting hacked up. That can't
be fixed except by a reboot. I mentioned some of these problems on the
Debian User list, and was advised that X Window 4.2 resolves them. But
4.2 wasn't available on woody. So I decided to upgrade to "testing" and
see if I could find something there.

Note that the "testing" version of Debian is not available on CD. You
can only install it via the internet. And you really need a version of
Debian already running on the machine to do that. Then you tell it you
want to upgrade to testing, and it goes out and tells you what new and
upgraded packages are available on the internet. Turns out there is a
statically linked beta version of X 4.2 on "testing", which I installed.
That solved the display problems. Haven't had any problems with it,
despite the "beta" moniker.

I hadn't really tested the other problems under "woody", since the
display problem was a deal breaker. But Debian "testing" resolved them
all to my satisfaction. The NIC worked, the mouse worked, the sound chip
worked, etc. The only thing that I don't know about is the winmodem. But
since I have a DSL connection, and since winmodems are Darkest Evil
(tm), I couldn't care less. If I ever need a modem, I can attach one to
the serial port.

So there you have it. A Lindows Microtel SYSMAR721 machine will work
running Debian Linux "testing" distribution, without a lot of hassle.
If you're replacing an existing machine, you'll have to do some tweaks,
like telling it what its IP address is, what other machines are on the
network, etc. But that's usual any time you swap out machines. The point
is that you don't have to be an ubergeek to do it. Will your new
Microtel machine run Windows software? Not out of the box, it won't.
Making that work is up to you. But at least you don't need a degree in
Linux to get it up and running. For $300, it's not too bad a deal.

---

Paul M. Foster (paulf@quillandmouse.com) is the CEO of Quill & Mouse
Studios, Inc.
. a Florida company that
does typesetting, graphic design, website design and hosting. He is also
president of the Suncoast Linux Users Group (SLUG).

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