Story: Setting up a productive work environment in a tiny ugly machine: OS matters

Acer aspire one D257 is the worst designed computer ever that I used: tiny keys cramped in a tiny frame, the screen size is 10", atom processor, and an 1 GB memory that will barely get your work done. It came with Windows XP that was alreay outdated when it came, and within a year, the machine was obsolete. It was lying in a corner of the home, unused.

This Sunday, I decided to work on it. I installed Manjaro linux on this machine. Earlier, I tried to install Debian with cinnamon x-window environment. It worked for a while, till I installed Firefox and Vivaldi on it. Chrome never ran on it, and I could not open more than two tabs on any of the browsers I tried. So, despite my best efforts, this machine remained unused, gathering dust. So, I went to Manjaro website, and downloaded the minimal xfce windowing environment. I did not know at that time that they had a special flavour of Manjaro linux optimised for Atom processors, so I went and downloaded a minimal version of Manjaro linux and burned the iso image on a usb disk, renamed the downloaded image as manjaro_linux.iso, and used the following command to burn it to a usb disk:

dd if="/home/arinbasu/Downloads/manjaro_linux.iso" of="/dev/sdb"

Thus burned, I removed the usb disk from the Acer aspire one netbook, then reinserted and rebooted the machine. Within a minute, I saw the netbook boot from the usb disk, and presented with a live usb. There was an invitation on the desktop to install the distro, so I went ahead and started the installation process. The installation process went without a hitch, and within another five minutes, the installation process started pulling together files from the usb disk and started me on the process of setting the timezone, the keyboard, and other details. Here I’d mention two “quirks” shall I say that I had to be mindful of:

  • I should have selected “US keyboard” and not one of the “subsets” in the dropdown choices. (I initially selected a subset in the dropdown choices in for the UK keyboard); I later found that I could not put the at sign for emails, and the tilde sign, etc, so I had to go back and reselect the correct keyboard layout
  • Other distros “autoselect” the wifi router name and set the settings. Here, I had to type the wifi router name and enter the password. But once I did so, the machine had no problem in connecting to the wifi router and I was up and connected to the Internet, which was good.

Other than these two minor very minor issues or non-issues, the installation went without any event. Within minutes, I had a working installation and I must say a fast tiny little crampy computer on my hands. I was pleased.

So it was time for some tweaking to suit my style and see what I could do with this if I wanted to use it for data analysis and some paper writing. I figured out that I’d need a few of my favourite software and tools to get it working:

I needed a web browser. Over the years, I have discovered Vivaldi and I really like it. While I have toyed with Firefox now and then, and really enjoy the speed and look of Firefox 62 (at the time of this writing), I keep coming back to use Vivaldi browser. Vivaldi is based on Chromium but I like it better than Chrome.

Anyway, on this system, I found they had a browser named “midori”. The browser had small footprint, but I found that as soon as I’d open more than three tabs, the browser would freeze. Besides this, I could not figure out a button to minimize and close the browser: these were deal breakers for me. Next, I found that Manjaro came with a nice software installer. The CLI based installers for Arch based distros, which Manjaro is one, is pacman. In manjaro, they had their own repository, and the installer was referred to as pamac; pamac is GUI based and is very nice. The installer configures the dependencies and installs everything needed to work. I really like this. However, a downside is that, manjaro’s own repository does not have everything. But Manjaro also comes with AUR (Arch User Repository) which contains hundreds of apps. In order to install these, I’d have to use pacman or yaourt as in sudo yaourt -S <packagename> But my installation was minimal and I had to separately install it before I could use. So, in order to install Vivaldi, I’d have to do:

sudo yaourt -S vivaldi-stable

As I did so, Manjaro worked on it and informed me that it had to be built. Then it returned an error message that ran out of space. I wondered this could not be true as I had 320 GB of space on hard drive, way more than my 256 GB space I had in my Macbook. It turned out that Manjaro (or Arch), if I tried to install anything from AUR would dump everything into a tmp file at the RAM, and as I had only 1 GB RAM to play with, it returned this error. So, I had to change the “temporary” holding space to somewhere in my sda. I opened /etc/yaourtrc file in a text editor (Manjaro with xfce comes with mousepad text editor which is good enough), and had to do as follows (after creating the /home/arinbasu/package_temp folder:

TMP = "/home/arinbasu/package_temp"

Then, when I reissued the command sudo yaourt -S vivaldi-stable vivaldi was installed without a hitch although building Vivaldi took a lot of time and I had to say “yes” to several confirmation message.

The next challenge was to set up an environment for data analysis. I installed jupyter notebook and installed the R inferior process for this. Unfortunately the tidyverse package took a long time to get installed and I had to abandon the process. I also installed abiword, gnumeric, and zotero for word processing, spreadsheet and reference management purposes. Manjaro comes with its own pdf viewer; installing pandoc was a lifesaver.

So, after these tools, the tiny computer is now a usable, speedy tool to get some real analyses done.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in: https://refind.com/arinbasu

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