Two and half years ago, I came across libreboot. I was looking for a linux laptop and came across this bit on the ASUS C201 page:
“This is unlike the other current libreboot laptops (Intel based). In practise, you can (if you do without the video/wifi blobs, and replace ChromeOS with a distribution that respects your freedom) be more free when using one of these laptops.”–ASUS Chromebook C201, libreboot.org. 2017
At the time, I was focused on exploring what it would mean to have the most free laptop available, and it led to the post: “Freedom & Limits: The ASUS C201 with libreboot and Parabola Linux.” The net: the machine did not have a reliable way to be free to the level of passing the requirements of the package of “your-freedom” and still be usable. The main problem is that it didn’t have a functional web browser and updates tended to bork the machine. I managed to get Arch, Parabola and Devuan linux installed on the machine. However, the installations kept breaking for various reasons, maybe half the time due to user error and half because ARM versions of the distributions were problematic for one reason or another.
In July 2019, I tried PrawnOS. It’s a nice distribution of Debian that actually was able to install to the computer’s onboard drive, which I couldn’t figure out how to do with the previous distributions. It provided a working system. Still, it really did not have a web browser that worked, I think it was still using Dillo. So, I left off at this point, happy to have learned something from the exercise.
A few days ago, I tried turning on the C201 again. I found that the distribution wouldn’t update. The documentation at github suggested I should reinstall PrawnOS. Easy enough.
I had already done the work of removing the security screw, upgrading the BIOS to libreboot, and had the machine in developer mode. If you aren’t there yet, then refer to the libreboot documentation and get to the point where it says Debian, Devuan or Parabola. Then, come back here and install PrawnOS instead.
To install PrawnOS, get the most recent release, which is available as a binary for people like me that don’t want to build from source. I tried using the browser Dillo on the C201 machine, but it kept timing out. So, I turned to wget.
$ sudo apt-get install wget
$ wget -c url_to_most_recent_release
Once you have the release, you need to copy it to the SD card. If you aren’t sure, you can always take out the SD card, run lsblk, then put the SD card back in and run lsblk again. The additional blk device is your SD card that you plug into /dev/$SD_CARD below..
$ sudo dd if=PrawnOS-*.img of=/dev/$SD_CARD bs=50M status=progress; sync
Then, you turn off the device, reboot and hit CTRL-U quickly at the menu to boot off the SD card. After booting, it gives you a prompt. Type in root, there is no password. Then, you are given a root prompt. Type:
At this point, I was really blown away by how much this has been improved since the last time I have tried installing PrawnOS to this ASUS C201. PrawnOS is a Debian-derivative, with an encrypted partition. I typically do this with every linux install, and it was nice that it was built into the process. It offers sane defaults, such as using xfce4 over gnome, since gnome seems to have problems when used on an ASUS C201 machine. It also gets more pragmatic about freedom. Freedom is useless if it means you aren’t free to do something fundamental to using a computer, like browse the web.
So, PrawnOS includes Firefox-ESR, which the Free Software Foundation doesn’t consider free because it implements digital rights management technology. However, it is essentially required in order to use a computer normally. PrawnOS makes the pragmatic choice.
After I went through the set-up process, I was able to install emacs and add-ons. I did have some trouble updating the machine, whereas xorg threw configuration errors, but nothing that made the machine unusable like I have encountered in the past. I also continue to not be able to use the touchpad. However, for Chrome-level computer use, email, web browsing and so forth, the ASUS C201 seems like it could be a viable machine.