Since the release of Windows 8 there is a market for tablet computers that are not powered by Android. Some of these, like the Dell Venue 11 Pro or the Microsoft Surface, are powerful and expensive business machines. But there is also a class of very similar looking and low priced tablet computers from a multitude of Chinese manufacturers like Chuwi, Teclast and others. Also the German computer seller Trekstor is specialized on this kind of machines. I mention this, because they have borrowed one of their late models, the S11B, to me for testing. These tablets usually have very similar specs: 2, 4, and sometimes 8 Gigabytes of RAM, an Intel Atom or Celeron CPU and mostly eMMC storage. Their touchscreen and other components are usually connected through I2C busses. The S11B is powered by a Celeron N3350 (Apollo Lake) CPU.
One of the biggest problems of these machines is that they are painfully slow. Buyers often realize quickly that these computers cannot really be used for multimedia purposes. One logical move is to try alternative operating systems. The before mentioned Trekstor S11B for example can be used with Linux. The latest Linux I tested on this tablet was Clear Linux.
Clear Linux is a Linux distribution from Intel, the manufacturer of the CPU and other chips in these Atom and Celeron powered tablet computers. On their website they claim that “Clear Linux OS is highly tuned for Intel platforms”. After I had already tested Fedora and Ubuntu Linux on the Trekstor S11B, I gave Clear Linux a try.
My first impressions of Clear Linux on the Trekstor S11B are:
- Yes, its fast. A cold boot into the Gnome Login Screen (GDM) only took 25 seconds. The handover from UEFI to the operating system happened after 12 seconds, therefore the Linux boot time was only 13 seconds. That is impressive. After typing in the password in GDM it took another 13 seconds to reach the Gnome Desktop. I had not encrypted the internal storage for my testing.
- Gnome Desktop seems to be optimized as well. Waiting times are not too long and it feels kind of snappy. Big applications, like Firefox for example, still need some seconds to load, but this is also due to the fact that the eMMC storage is rather slow. Firefox is ready after 5 seconds on the S11B. Just as a comparison: On my main Linux machine (with an i7 and SSD) it takes less then 2 seconds.
- Clear Linux is not made for Desktops and lots of Desktop applications are missing. But it supports Flathub out of the box. I also had some strange Gnome behavior where it stopped reacting to mouse clicks or touchscreen touches. I did not experience these problems with Fedora or Ubuntu on this device.
- Clear Linux does not come with the IIO Sensor Proxy, therefore acceleration sensors are not used. On my Github repository dedicated to the Trekstor S11B, I describe how to install the necessary patches.
- Clear Linux is still not yet completely ready for or dedicated to end users. Some minor bugs here and there are no problem for an experienced Linux administrator, but can be too complicated to solve for beginners. Furthermore the desktop seems not to be the focus of Clear Linux but rather providing a platform for Containers.
So why might Clear Linux be a new hope for Windows tablets? Well, its kind of fast and it is optimized for Intel processors. It boots quickly and leaves enough memory for use by other apps. Even though the Desktop experience has lots of room for improvement, Clear Linux can already be used on low end computers with Intel processors for basic office and multimedia tasks.
But there is another goal that can be achieved with these devices: They can act as a server or control device for home automation. For this they are ideal because they do not need much energy and can be acquired for little money used or new. A container server providing Nextcloud to the family, for example, can be realized with these computers. Clear Linux is made for this.