Linux on your 2 in 1 Touchscreen Convertible Laptop

Introduction – "Distro" Selection

If you have never used Linux before, you will likely be over-whelmed when it comes to selection of a Linux Distributions with Linux enthusiasts bickering about what distribution is the best.

The following things should be considered:

  • Free, Open-Source, Closed-Source and Propriety Software
  • Distribution
  • Version
  • Desktop Environment
    • Desktop User Interface
    • Touchscreen + 2 in 1 User Interface
  • Package Managers
  • Third-Party Drivers and Multi-Media Codecs
  • Updates and Stability
  • Secure Boot Support

My personal favourite Linux Distribution is Zorin OS (Version 16) as it works well for Desktop and a 2 in 1 touchscreen convertible device. It is also very similar to Windows in terms of user interface.

Free, Open-Source, Closed-Source and Propriety Software

Although most Linux distributions are "free" for the end-user to download, install and use. Under the hood, there are human/time costs to develop them. Some open-source software is bolstered by companies.

An analogy you are common with is the Chromium Project which is open-source. This open-source project is however the basis of Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge. Google and Microsoft build Commercial products based upon Chromium which they can monetise but in turn feed code back into the foundation furthering the Chromium project.

Instead of just being the Browser, Linux can be thought of as the entire Operating System.

Third-party software developers can write software for Linux that is Open-Source and can be bundled in Linux and modified. They can alternatively write Closed-Source software which can either be monetized via a direct purchase for or provided for free.

For installation on PCs there needs to be some participation with the hardware manufacturer and the Linux community.

All Linux distributions use the same underlying Linux kernel but some are updated far more frequently than others.

When it comes to updates, there is a trade off between newer features and stability. Many Linux Distributions thus ship with a Long Term Support (LTS) release and a Feature Based Release. A LTS is released about every 2 years and is usually far more stable than a Feature Based Release which is released about every 6 months however towards the end of the 2 years, the LTS release can be pretty dated when it comes to support for newer hardware. Manufacturers such as Intel and Broadcom in particular are very good at providing Open-Source drivers and most of their drivers will be bundled directly into the Linux kernel. This means for the vast majority of hardware the drivers will be inbuilt into the Linux Kernel and "work" out of the box. NVIDIA tend to only provide Closed-Source drivers which cannot be as easily tinkered with and different Linux Distributions have a different approach to Closed-Source drivers. In the past ATI also provided Closed-Source Drivers but since their acquisition by AMD are better at providing Open-Source drivers.

Kernel, Distribution, Version and Desktop Environment

Three of the most popular (easiest to use, most features and relative stable) Linux distributions are developed by companies. These companies have a different approach to Open-Source and Closed-Source drivers.

  • Fedora (RedHat Based uses the GNOME3 Desktop Environment)
  • Canonical (Debian Based uses the GNOME3 Desktop Environment)
  • DeepIn (Debian Based uses the DeepIn Desktop Environment)

RedHat

RedHat is a Commercial Linux distribution for enterprise solutions Monetisation comes from enterprise support maintenance contracts. RedHat Commercial Linux is essentially a stable Long Term Support (LTS) designed for enterprise use. The development of RedHat Commercial Linux is generally carried out in Fedora which has a new release approximately every 6 months and can be considered bleeding edge. Fedora is more of a consumer Open-Source distribution that can be used by anyone. RedHat use numeric version numbers 1, 2, …, 34:

  • RedHat Enterprise Linux
  • Fedora

Because of the above model, RedHat Enterprise Linux tends to be designed for well-established hardware and is in general slow to innovate or provide support for newer hardware such as 2 in 1 touchscreen devices with high DPI screens which now work pretty well within Fedora. Eventually when all the features of Fedora are deemed stable enough, they will become the basis of RedHat Enterprise Linux.

Fedora 34 on a XPS 13 9365 and WD19TB with external monitor (200 % and 100 % scaling respectively)

RedHat tend to be puritan when it comes to Open-Source and will not bundle in any Closed-Source drivers or Multi-Media Codecs. They distrust Closed-Source code and see it as the primary introduction of instabilities/bugs and thus do not bundle any Closed-Source code with the Fedora Linux distribution. The RPM Fusion libraries need to be used to install Close-Sourced multimedia codecs (Google Chrome can also be installed which bundles these) or Close-Sourced drivers. Most drivers used within Linux are Open Source, drivers from Intel, AMD, Broadcom and most other chip manufacturers are included within the Linux Kernel. The main exception is NVIDIA who release Linux drivers but Closed-Source ones.

Fedora uses the GNOME3 Desktop Environment which currently is the only Linux Desktop Environment which boasts full out of the box support for 2 in 1 Touchscreen Devices.

Fedora 34 on XPS 13 9365 2 in 1 Touchscreen Device Tablet Mode and Automatic Screen Rotation
Fedora 34 on XPS 13 9365 2 in 1 Touchscreen Device Laptop Mode with Touchscreen Keyboard

The automatic rotation however doesn't work in Laptop Mode and you can unfortunately end up with an upside down screen when switching between Tablet and Laptop mode.

Laptop Mode no Automatic Rotation

Fedora uses pure GNOME however which may take a moment for users to adjust to as it lacks traditional UI elements such as a minimise and maximise button. Window sizes can however be adjusted by dragging and dropping to the edges of the screen to snap them to the top (full screen), left or right respectively.

Closed windows minimise to a bottom panel which is only shown if Activities are selected.

In Fedora the Touchpad is set to use finger presses by default opposed to a left and right click. My XPS 13 9365 for example clearly marks a left and right click button. However on Fedora clicking anywhere on the Touchpad with one finger leads to a left click. To right click I need to press down anywhere on the Touchpad with 2 fingers and to middle click (the copy/paste button) I need to press down anywhere with 3 fingers. i.e. the Touchpad reacts using a pressure sensor opposed to the marked dedicated buttons. There are additional gestures, sliding three fingers up from the bottom of the Touchpad to the top will open up activities and sliding with three fingers from the middle of the Touchpad to the left or right will switch the workspace.

I have created an installation guide for Fedora here addressing the above:

Canonical

Debian can be thought of as the equivalent to the Chromium project. Ubuntu is developed by the Canonical (USA) project but the end product is itself Open-Source. Unlike RedHat, Canonical tend to bundle in as much free "Open-Source" and "Closed-Source" in as possible so everything just "works out of the box". When it comes to updates, there is a trade off between newer features and stability. Canonical Distributions thus ship with a Long Term Support (LTS) release and a Feature Based Release analogous to RedHat Enterprise Linux and Fedora respectively for RedHat. A LTS is released about every 2 years and is usually far more stable than a Feature Based Release which is released about every 6 months however towards the end of the 2 years, the LTS release can however become pretty dated when it comes to support for newer hardware.

Canonical use YY-MM version numbers, alongside LTS to indicate whether a version is Long Term Support or a Feature Based Release.

Ubuntu uses a modified GNOME Desktop Environment (adjusted making it easier for those who are used to working with Windows and Mac). It has a Panel at the side (which always shows) and commonly used Apps can be pinned to it. The minimise and maximise buttons are shown by default making it easier to switch between Windows and the touchpad works using the button press.

GNOME3 Desktop Environment in Ubuntu 20.04

All open applications can be viewed by selecting the activities from the top.

GNOME3 Desktop Environment in Ubuntu 20.04 (Activities)

And all available applications installed can be viewed by clicking Show Applications:

GNOME3 Desktop Environment in Ubuntu 20.04 (All Apps)

The Touchscreen interface works very well and the 2 in 1 system converts seamlessly between Laptop, Tablet and Tent Mode as expected.

GNOME3 Desktop Environment in Ubuntu 20.04 (XPS 13 9365 – Laptop Mode)
GNOME3 Desktop Environment in Ubuntu 20.04 (XPS 13 9365 – Tablet Mode)

There is also a decent Touchscreen Keyboard however this is slightly behind the one offered in Fedora as it lacks the additional emoji support. Both keyboards are behind the one offered by Microsoft in Windows 10 which has emoji and symbol support.

GNOME3 Desktop Environment in Ubuntu 20.04 (XPS 13 9365 – Tent Mode)

All of the preinstalled Applications (except FireFox) work seamlessly with the Touchscreen. FireFox for some reason uses a non-touch user input method which highlights text instead of scrolling (this can be fixed by use of a single line in the Terminal but is unfortunate that such an out of the box issue exists).

FireFox Scrolling Issue in Ubuntu 20.04 (XPS 13 9365 – Tent Mode)

I have put an installation guide together for Ubuntu here:

Several other common distributions are based upon Ubuntu. These other distributions mainly modify Ubuntu to work with other Desktop Environments (User Interface). The following are maintained by Canonical and have release cycles and versions based on Ubuntu:

  • Kubuntu (Uses the KDE Desktop Environment)
  • Lubuntu (Uses the LXQt Desktop Environment)
  • Ubuntu Budgie (Uses the Budgie Desktop Environment)
  • Ubuntu Mate (Uses the Mate Desktop Environment a continuation of GNOME2)
  • Xubuntu (Uses the Xfce Desktop Environment)

Some are maintained commercially and seek donations to download the software, others are entirely Community driven.

  • POP OS (Uses the GNOME Desktop Environment)
  • Zorin (Uses the Widows Like Zorin Desktop Environment)
  • Mint (Uses the Cinnamon Desktop Environment)
  • KDE Neon (Uses the KDE Desktop Environment)
  • Elementary (Uses the Elementary Mac Like Desktop Environment)

POP OS is essentially a modified Ubuntu distribution which modifies mainly the GNOME user interface slightly further. Zorin OS is supposed change the Desktop Environment to make it look like Windows 10 however an experienced Windows user will get frustrated with this as thigns like right click context menus that work with Windows will not exist within Zorin OS making it feel somewhat stripped down.

Zorin OS is a Ubuntu based distribution which uses the Zorin Desktop Environment. This is a really polished Windows like Desktop Environment and supports 2 in 1 touchscreen Devices with the onscreen keyboard and device auto-rotation working out of the box. Version 16 in particular shows a substantial improvement over previous versions.

One of the most popular traditional Desktop Environments is Cinnamon and this is exhibited in Linux Mint.

Mint has a great Desktop Environment for Keyboard and Mouse and offers a high degree of customization:

Unfortunately it lacks in Touchscreen features with the Desktop Environment not correctly using the systems rotation sensor. This can be fixed by installing an autorotation script:

And the touchscreen keyboard being quite poor.

If moved to the bottom and set to open when a text input dialog is pressed, it totally clashes with the start menu making it unusable:

Cinnamon Desktop in Mint 20 Touchscreen Keyboard set to Bottom (XPS 13 9365 – Tent Mode with Touchscreen Keyboard Emoji)

Scroll Bars in the Cinnamon Desktop Environment also have a particularly poor Touchscreen experience. Cinnamon also inherits the Ubuntu OOBE touchscreen issue with FireFox.

Unfortunately with the above Cinnamon becomes a poor choice for a 2 in 1 Convertible Touchscreen Device. However for Keyboard and Mouse it is a great Desktop Environment. If the code for the GNOME touchscreen keyboard, the scroll bar issue and out of the box screen rotation issues were addressed it would be far more usable with a 2 in 1 Touchscreen Device.

I have put together a Mint installation guide:

KDE Neon is a Ubuntu based distribution which uses the Konqui Desktop Environment developed by KDE and Lubuntu is a Ubuntu flavour which also uses the Konqui Desktop Environment but developed by Canonical…

KDE Neon is generally more popular as it uses a LTS Kernel and focuses on improvements in the Konqui Desktop Environment by the team working on the Desktop Environment. Changes made in KDE Neon are therefore adopted more slowly in KDE Neon. KDE Neon unfortunately lacks in the OOBE for 2 in 1 Touchscreen Devices. An autorotation script and a third party utility called onboard can be installed to make it usable but the KDE team could definitely do with so work in this area to bring it up to scratch with GNOME:

DeepIn

China has long wanted software independence from American based companies. Currently there are trade-disputes between the USA and China. Huawei is a hardware company with deep links to the Chinese government and recently their Android Devices have been blocked from using Google Services. This has hindered their usage internationally and damaged their sales. DeepIn is a company that is looking to create a Chinese based Linux. Their primary purpose has been the domestic Chinese market but they also do have an international focus. It is rumoured that DeepIn will partner directly with Huawei to create Chinese software on Chinese hardware to overcome the issues of relying on American software companies.

DeepIn has a really polished Desktop Environment. It exhibits either Fashion Mode which has a Central Dock (like Windows 11 or Mac OS) or Efficient Mode which has a traditional Taskbar (like Windows 10):

The Effect Mode (similar to Windows 7 Aero) or Fashion Mode (similar to the Windows 10 Taskbar):

Although, the Desktop Environment looks polished, it unfortunately severely lacks in touchscreen support. There is no automatic screen rotation or working inbuilt touchscreen keyboard. Hopefully the DeepIn team address this so as it is otherwise a really well together Desktop Environment.

The next issue, as you might have guessed is that DeepIn 20 does not auto-rotate the devices.

DeepIn 20 No Autorotation (Latitude 13 7350 Tablet)

DeepIn has some software store limitations as the software store is based on the Chinese market.

It seems that the DeepIn team are actively working on most of these issues and I expect this distro to be much better in the coming years.

I have put together an installation guide for DeepIn here:

Canonical and RedHat Package Managers

Most people are used to using Windows and Android Devices. In Windows it has long been the convention to download software packages (.exes) from the third-party software vendor and then double click it to begin the install. The software package will normally install all required dependencies and then the main software application. On an Android Device the convention has been to use a Store where one can search and download the software and only software approved by Google is displayed. There are limited software dependencies on Android devices and most third-party Apps are limited. Microsoft have tried numerous times to switch the default software installation method from the software packages to the Microsoft Store however every time they tried it was a flop (Windows 8.1 RT and Windows 10 S) mainly because people expected far more versatility on a Windows OS.

In Linux it is common to use Downloaded Software Packages, Install Software from a Store and to install software via the Command Line.

Downloaded Software Packages

Ubuntu (Ubuntu based distributions such as POP OS, Mint, Elementary and Zorin) and DeepIn are Debian based distributions. These use Debian Packages (.DEB) to install Software which can downloaded from the software vendor and double clicked to be installed. Fedora uses RedHat Package Manager (.RPM) files.

Google Chrome for example uses a .DEB Package on Ubuntu or a .RPM Package on Fedora.

It will be opened by the Software Install:

The Software Install then allows you to install the Package:

The package installation needs to be authenticated (by inputting in your password):

Software Store

The Ubuntu Store also allows for a Software Search, Download and Install analogous to the Play Store on Android. You will need to input your password to Authenticate the Software Install.

Ubuntu Store in Ubuntu 20.04

DeepIn 20 has a similar Software Store, initially it had issues because its software servers were Chinese and the Software Descriptions and Reviews shows up in Chinese even though it was set to English Language. Much of this has been resolved in the 1003 Update however you will still get the odd Chinese character show up here and there when it is printed as part of an image.

DeepIn Store (DeepIn 20 1003)

Command Line Based Install

Software can also be installed in Debian based distributions using the Advanced Package Tool abbreviated APT. This is normally used in conjunction with the Super User DO abbreviated SUDO command (use of this command will then require you to input your password to authenticate the software install). The command makes sure the links to the software repositories is current:

sudo apt-get update

The command:

sudo apt-get install "software"

Will install "software". Replace "software" by the name of the software package without quotations.

To remove the "software" instead use:

sudo apt-get remove "software"

Fedora formerly used the command Yellowdog Update Manager (YUM) which has been superseded by the DanDeFied (DNF) YUM. To install software use:

sudo dnf install "software"

To remove "software" use:

sudo dnf remove "software"

When installing software by command line, one of the main problems in Linux has been the fact that some Open-Source software requires some dependencies to be installed in advance (which may or may not be Open-Source). Without the dependencies, the software will either not install or install and not run properly.

Snap Package Install Snapd

Until recently only the most basic of software could be installed via the Software Store (similar to Google Play Store) with limited software dependencies. The Canonical Team has recognised the issue of of Software dependencies and recently introduced the Snapd packages which will download and install the required dependencies and then the software. An example is the Open-Source Chromium Browser.

The Linux Mint team however see Snapd packages as a backdoor to installing potential unwanted programs (think of XP and all the programs bundled with toolbars) and as a result have blocked this innovation by default.

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