Monday, 23 May 2016

Ubuntu flavoured 16.04 ISOs for Atom based Intel Compute Sticks

UpdateThis page refers to earlier work and my latest ISOs and kernel upgrade scripts can be downloaded from my latest post.

When Intel released its Ubuntu Compute Stick it was heavily criticized as being under-spec'd. Also criticized was the choice of Ubuntu with Unity as it was deemed to be too demanding. With this in mind I've combined the latest patches and source together with Canonical's kernel source to create a range of ISOs that can work on Intel's Atom Compute Sticks from the very basic model to the latest. All include audio over HDMI, wifi and bluetooth together with patches that try to reduce the random freezes that have been known to occur.

First up is Lubuntu. I've configured it to use ZRAM both as an ISO and once installed. As a light-weight Ubuntu it is highly suitable for the minimalist STCK1A8LFC device.

Next is Ubuntu. Previously it was necessary to use the 64-bit bootloader to use my 16.04 ISO. Now I've configured it to both run and install using either the 32-bit or 64-bit bootloaders. The key benefit is the ability to easily dual-boot without needing to modify the BIOS.

Finally I've also incorporated all these features and produced Xubuntu, Ubuntu-Mate and Kubuntu ISOs. This provides a choice now of Ubuntu flavours for the Intel Compute Stick.

One potential draw-back is that each ISO includes a patched kernel to provide the missing functionality meaning it will not get any automatic kernel updates from Canonical. So I've also developed a manual patching process that allows you to download a script which will then update the kernel.


To try an ISO download it from one of the links below (i.e. the caption below each image) and write it to a USB using either 'Rufus' in Windows or 'dd' in Linux.
Update: If you are using Rufus version 2.3 or above then select 'Write in DD Image mode' when prompted otherwise for version 2.2 and below you should first let Rufus complete and then additionally download 'bootia32.efi' from and copy the file to the newly created USB's 'EFI\BOOT' directory.  

Then boot from the USB by pressing the 'F10' option immediately after powering-on your device. For installation to your device simply run the installer and follow the on-screen instructions.

Remember also to be patient as depending on the speed of your USB it can be anything from 15 to 45 seconds before anything appears on the screen.

Ubuntu Mate

Kernel Upgrade Script

If you want to upgrade the kernel to the latest Ubuntu 16.04 (but patched) version first download the upgrade script (click the caption under the image below) , make sure it is executable (use 'chmod 755 <script>') and then run as 'root' ('./<script>'). Once the script has finished executing you'll need to reboot to use the latest kernel.

As before this is only for Atom based Intel Compute sticks which includes the STCK1A8LFC, STCK1A32WFC, STK1AW32SC and STK1A32SC models.

Acknowledgements: Pierre-Louis Bossart (HDMI audio), Bastien Nocera (wifi) & Larry Finger (bt).

Monday, 16 May 2016

A Buyer's Guide to Intel Cherry Trail Mini PC Sticks

With the recent multitude of Cherry Trail mini PC sticks appearing in the market place I take a look at what is on offer and what to consider when buying one.

Currently advertised: (click on links for further details)

MeLE Star Cloud PCG02 Plus
ASUS VivoStick PC (TS10)
Meegopad T07 Pro
Dosupara Diginnos Stick DG-STK2S
Mouse MS-CH01F

Newly advertised: (click on links for further details)

Measy T8C
Vensmile i8
Presale: (Not on manufacturer's website)

Meegopad T08

Also (and maybe of interest) there are some devices on a crowd-funding platform that may or may not materialise because at least one recent crowd-funding stick has ended seemingly as a fraud and two other crowd-funding sticks are very overdue.

A Comparison Of Key Features (with differentiators):

(click to enlarge)

Buying Tips:

A key factor that should be considered before purchasing a device is the level and quality of support from both the manufacturer and the seller of the product. Reputable companies have dedicated pages on their websites for support and include download sections where all the latest firmware and software can be accessed. Typically the absence of such support means the device will probably not have much longevity in the market and software issues will not get fixed. The cost, turnaround time and likelihood for a RMA should be considered in the event that the device is or becomes faulty. Quality control on the cheaper 'clone' devices can be much poorer resulting in more frequent device failures. Some manufacturers insist on repairing faulty devices and then returning the same device rather than providing an immediate replacement. Devices first have to be returning to the reseller often using slower shipping methods to avoid import taxes before they are sent to the manufacture for fault inspection and analysis. Customers typically have to pay return shipping costs and replacement devices if offered may then be subject to additional import duties and taxes which in turn may be influenced by changing exchange rates. The resulting costs often exceed the price of alternative devices with better localized support.

Community support is very important as unfortunately so many times issues are specific to a particular model and not to the broader range of devices with the same SOC. This can range from simply wanting to know what software works best with a device or whether a certain peripheral is supported by the device to the availability of alternative OS or drivers. Don't expect something that works on one device will work on all devices. Whilst a lot of devices appear to be simply re-badging and/or cloning of other devices often subtle changes are introduced and these changes are not necessarily features. Disappointingly manufacturers prioritise providing samples to people who write glowing reviews of their products but are decidedly reluctant to provide samples for development. Developers also rely on donations to purchase devices and frugal communities result in limited device support.

With the advent of Intel mini PCs and the option of running Windows OS the issue of licensing should be considered. Arguably this is only a concern for only some manufactures and resellers however not all devices with Windows pre-installed are able to be activated. Besides devices with 'Genuine Windows' licenses there are products sold with trial licenses, cracked licenses and OEM licenses that are not applicable to the product being sold, for example with some 4GB RAM devices.

Finally some specifications are not always accurate. Adverts can carry conflicting specifications due to the habit of reusing those from other products and incorrectly editing them. Checking the written specification for a product against the manufacturer website is sometimes not enough to clarify what the device actually is as these details can be incorrect or not updated.  Pictures of a device sometimes show ports that contradict the written specification. For new models often the pictures on websites are rendered images or artistic impressions of what the device might look like. As these are created prior to the product being released sometimes hardware changes are not reflected as the images are not updated. Manufacturers may change the components during the life-cycle of a product which may result in software support issues. Independent product reviews are sometimes based on pre-release devices that occasionally change slightly prior to commercial production resulting in even the most reliable websites to sometimes including incorrect information.

I recommend undertaking a small amount of research prior to purchasing a product using a set of personal criteria based on the above points together with your individual needs. The result is that the apparent prolific market of mini PCs soon whittles down to just a couple of choices for most and for some, caveat emptor.