Can the New Intel Based Tablets run Linux?

GearDiary Can the New Intel Based Tablets run Linux?

I was at Staples the other day and saw some of the new Windows 8 based tablets that have recently been released. Specifically, the Dell Venue 8 Pro. It is based on the new quad core Atom chip and uses a whole lot less power than the chips they used in netbooks. The question is: Will it run Linux? The answer is complicated.

The Dell Venue 8 Pro and Asus Transformer Book T100 and many others like it are based on Intel’s new Atom chip. This Atom chip, code named “Bay Trail” offers up twice the CPU and graphics performance of the pervious generation and promises 10 hours of battery life. They can also be fanless which is why the svelte Venue 8 Pro is so attractive to me. Plus these are REAL x86 based chips.  That means they should be able to run Linux.  How hard will it be?  Let’s find out.

According to many posts I have run across the biggest issue getting Linux to run on these is the fact that these devices have a 32 bit UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). UEFI is what Intel and Microsoft have come up with to replace the aging BIOS(Basic Input/Output System) that used to be used on most Intel based machines since the very first IBM PC. The job of UEFI and BIOS is still the same: power up the system to the point it’s booting your operating system. UEFI has replaced BIOS for many reasons but the biggest one is security. UEFI based devices can protect your operating system, usually Windows, from viruses that load at boot time. There has been some significant strides made to add support for UEFI to Linux, however most of this has been focused on the 64 bit version of UEFI. The “Bay Trail” Atom chips all use 32 bit UEFI which is where the problem currently lies. This blogger has tried to get Fedora Linux running on the Dell Venue 8 Pro and got close, but still could not get Fedora running on it. Ubuntu is a lot closer. In fact, a Ubuntu developer has proposed that they support 32 bit UEFI on Ubuntu. One thing to note: Almost all Linux distros support 64 Bit UEFI as most PCs are fully 64 bit. These “Bay Trail” devices are among the few that only support 32 Bit UEFI.

If you watch the video above you can see the solution is very close. The video is a Dell Venue 8 Pro booting Ubuntu from a USB drive. To connect the drive to the tablet the developer used a MicroUSB OTG cable to allow him to atach a traditional USB drive. The process is probably not for the faint of heart but it’s going to only get easier as the distributions figure out what to do or if they want to do it. Odds are high that they will want to support these devices since they are priced cheaply enough to become pretty popular.

Why might you want to do this?  Well if you want an ultra-portable Linux system this is one way to get it. The Asus Transformer Book T100 is probably a better candidate than the Venue 8 Pro as it has a keyboard and trackpad dock which also includes a USB 3.0 Port.  So, essentially, it would be a touch screen enabled netbook running Linux once you were able to complete this install. One other reason you might want to do this is: because you can.

Even without Linux, these are great devices to get a really portable Windows system that can ACTUALLY run regular Windows apps as well. Full Office 2013 and more would all run on these devices and they are cheap! The Dell Venue 8 Pro is only $319 on Amazon for a 64 GB version and the Asus Transformer Book T100 is  $419 and it includes the keyboard dock.  Both of these FULL Windows 8.1 machines are REAL Windows machines.  Not RT.  So it will run almost anything your full sized laptop can run.  Plus they are in the same ball park as both the iPad and most Android based tablets.  They aren’t for everyone but if you have to run Windows software and want something similar in size to a iPad they are perfect.  Once you can set them up to dual boot Windows and Linux well they may be even better.

About the Author

Joel McLaughlin
Joel is a consultant in the IT field and is located in Columbus, OH. While he loves Linux and tends to use it more than anything else, he will stoop to running closed source if it is the best tool for the job. His techno passions are Linux, Android, netbooks, GPS, podcasting and Amateur Radio.