The second life of the ExoPC slate

Almost two years ago Intel aproached developers in Barcelona with the mysterious tablet called ExoPC and very early version of MeeGo operating system. Some lucky developers walked out with the device and were able to start hacking on this touch screen enabled netbook tablet (indeed this device is powered by the Intel Atom x86 processor which used to be the heart of Netbooks). It was not very convenient to use, because MeeGo operating system never reached its maturity and was abandoned. There was no viable alternative for a long time. One could install Ubuntu or Windows 7 but those operating systems were not well prepared for operating without keyboard or mouse.

ExoPC running Windows 8

There surely was a place for Atom powered x86 tablets in the market and I never gave up on this device. Some new opportunities emerged soon. While most people are abandoning netbooks today, ExoPC still resists this trend, mainly because of two reasons: touchscreen, more than average resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and a decent 2GB of RAM. Two new (or heavily refreshed) operating systems appeared as an alternative OS for this device: Android 4 and Windows 8.

Android, starting with Ice Cream Sandwich version (4.0) offers an interface optimised for phones and tables without additional hardware buttons (like Home, Back, Menu, Search, etc.) and was also released as a source code. This let developers build custom ROMs and some older devices with unlocked bootloaders (i.e. Samsung Galaxy S, Nokia N900) got their more or less working version of the new Google operating system. The important step in this case was the release of the Android Atom x86 optimised image by Intel, allowing better integration of Android software for developers. As a non-expert in ROM cooking I cannot really tell if this image could help the Android X86 project, but it would be quite logical to assume so.

Downloadable Android x86 Atom optimised images

Meanwhile, before anyone in the broader public got to know that Microsoft is cooking it’s own tablet, the Redmond company started commercialising the well known ExoPC as an early Windows 8 developer device. It is still a cheap and viable alternative for the Microsoft Surface. The advantage over the current version of the MS Slate is that ExoPC runs the full version of Windows 8 (Not the Windows RT), which allows you to use all the apps compatible with the previous edition of the Windows OS. The downside is that the ExoPC slate might not be fully compatible with the future Windows 8 apps.

ExoPC in the aftermarket

It supports multi-touch, but only with 2 touch points, while the new system might require as much as 5 touch points. Windows 8 also aims at devices that can normally do much more than the PC used to do. There are plenty of sensors that help Smartphones be very useful in everyday life and will be (or already are) a part of Windows-8 compatible devices.

But the best part comes here. Even if you have installed Windows 8 on the ExoPC, you can still use it as an Android device. And this is something much better than BlueStacks implementation of the Android OS, which might not always be up to date, but especially will not give you the full Android experience.

So you can install the Android 4.0 on this device, preserving the current Windows installation. This is quite simple process which you can do in a couple of steps described in this thread (in German).

If you’re not familiar with German or cannot understand what Google Translate provides you, do this:

  • Download this ISO image
  • Free some space on your disk
  • (you can do it resizing your current system partition in Control Panel > Administrative tools > Computer Management > Disk manager)

  • Make a bootable USB and boot it
  • Choose an option to install Android
  • Create a partition manually on the free space (ext3)
  • You will need to connect a keyboard to pass through this step (sic!), but it’s actually better to have it connected already at boot to avoid funny effect on the console screen.

  • Choose to install GRUB
  • When it asks if to add the Windows partition to the bootloader, select yes
  • Install the system in the R/W mode

You can restart and begin using Android (isn’t that great!?). Well, until you find some issues. There aren’t many, but depending on how you use Android, they might be a bit painful. A list of a few of them below.

Bootloader

Linux’s Grub will overwrite Windows Bootloader. You will still be able to start both systems, but all the functionality of the Windows 8 bootloader (changing driver signing, safe mode, etc.) will not be available. That might be a bit of a deal, but if you installed Windows 8 on top of Windows 7, then probably you will see the old text-based bootloader that was installed on the partition instead of MBR. If you restore the Windows 8 bootloader in the MBR, you will not be able to launch Android. There should be some way to do it manipulating the startup items (I recommend EasyBCD) but I had no luck in this matter.

The power/sleep button

Sometimes it’s difficult to wake up the device when it went to sleep. From my experience it starts behaving normally after prompting the “Power-off” dialog. To show it, “double-click” the power button.

Battery

The battery life is not astonishing. Because the device warms up significantly, independently of the usage, I suspect the CPU scaling is not very well supported. It doesn’t seem to take advantage of the “sleep” or “suspend” state, so it’s better to turn it off while not using. It might also happen that the system will not report the current battery state (it might stall at the initial value) so you might suddenly run out of battery (this is quite obvious though). This issue only happened two or three times for me. Restarting the device fixes it.

Apps

Not all apps will be available for this version of android, especially those which use android NDK (unlike Java, this the C++ part of code that is only suitable to the CPU architecture chosen at the compile time). The examples are many games, Skype, and whatever software that makes a high use of processing power.

To address this last issue, there is a version of the ExoPC ICS, with the built-in ARM emulator (the CPU architecture used in most Android smartphones). It is still in the experimental phase, but after a half-an-hour test seems to work good for me (download ISO here). There are still some apps that will not run (probably other requirement stated in the app manifest) but even without those few missing apps ExoPC slate is now a very versatile device that can be used as a testing device for programmers, or a “couch leisure centre”.

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