A $175 writing computer

July 17, 2016 — Leave a comment

 

In which I describe how to set up an awesome writing computer for just $175.

A $175 Chromebook writing computer

Last month I advanced to candidacy in my PhD program, which means I’m done with coursework beginning my dissertation. Because I’m a productivity nut, I’ve been sharpening my tools and setting up the most efficient workflow possible. As part of that, I started rethinking my daily computer. Since 2010 my workhorse machine has been a MacBook Pro. It has aged well thanks to a RAM upgrade and SSD, but is still heavy, big, limited in battery life, and too expensive to take just anywhere. It’s also filled with distractions.

For my dissertation, I wanted an ultraportable computer that would be ideal for doing just one thing: writing. My requirements included small size, light weight, a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, a good screen, long battery life, and sturdy build. It needed to run all the tools in my workflow: R, Python, Zotero, LaTeX, SublimeText, and Scrivener.

An 11.6″ MacBook Air would be a natural choice, but the $899 price tag seemed extreme for a machine that would only be used for writing. Next I looked at inexpensive, ultraportable PCs, but they had lousy reviews or were missing key features like two-finger scrolling.

Then I discovered Chromebooks. I learned these little computers are inexpensive, have quality keyboards and trackpads, have a long battery life, earn stellar reviews, and can run Linux. Sold. I’m now writing this on a high-quality little machine that cost less than $200 and perfectly meets my need for an ultraportable dissertation writing computer. The machine is not powerful. It is not fast. But it is absolutely perfect for doing just one thing: writing. In this post I’ll walk through exactly how I set it up.

1. Purchase a Chromebook

I opted for the Acer Chromebook CB3-131-C3SZ, an 11.6″ laptop that includes a 16GB SSD and 2 GB of RAM. It is the latest in a line of high-rated Acer Chromebooks, has a great screen, and advertises a battery life up to nine hours. The keyboard feels wonderful. The trackpad isn’t quite as smooth as my MacBook Pro, but is close enough. The computer cost me about $175, which I supplemented with a $10 32GB SD card.

2. Install new firmware

It is possible to run Linux on the top of ChromeOS with relatively good performance, but I had no need for ChromeOS and wanted a clean Linux install. That entailed downloading and running new firmware. After consulting the GalliumOS supported hardware list, I identified my processor as a Bay Trail, and followed the instructions here. The process went smoothly and I had new firmware in about five minutes.

3. Install GalliumOS

GalliumOS is a lightweight distribution of Xubuntu built specifically for Chromebooks. It has excellent reviews, seamlessly supports the trackpad and function keys on my Chromebook, and delivers fantastic battery life.

4. Update the OS

Open the terminal, and run the following commands. These will update the packages in your Linux distribution:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

5. Make the trackpad feel like a Macbook

By default, touchpad scrolling works in the reverse direction as my Macbook Pro. I switched this behavior to match my Mac by searching for “Mouse and Trackpad” in the Gallium search window, then clicking “Reverse Scroll Direction.”

I also can’t stand tap-to-touch functionality, as I am constantly tapping by accident while typing. I disabled this from the “Touchpad” tab of the same menu by deselecting “Tap touchpad to click.”

6. Install Dropbox

Because this isn’t my primary computer, I wanted a quick and seamless way to keep my files in sync. I already use Dropbox to store most of my files, so that was a logical solution. However, because of the Chromebook’s limited storage capacity and becuase I want syncing to go fast, I used Dropbox’s “Selective Sync” to only sync a couple key folders.

You can download Dropbox for Debian Linux distributions here. To activate selective sync, right-click on the Dropbox icon in the accessory tray, selective “Preferences”, click the “Account” tab, and press the button for “Selective Sync.”

7. Install Software

That’s it! We’re up and running! You can now install any software packages that will run on Ubuntu and other Debian distributions of Linux. Below are instructions for setting up the various tools in my workflow:

LaTeX

Open a terminal window and run the following commands:

sudo apt-get install texlive
sudo apt-get install texlive-latex-extra
sudo apt-get install texlive-bibtex-extra
sudo apt-get install latexmk
sudo apt-get install biber

R

From the terminal, run:

sudo apt-get install r-base

The ‘r-base’ package above completely installs R on your system. You can open an instance of R simply by typing “R” from the terminal. You can also open R consoles within SublimeText (see below).

However, I also like having access to the power of RStudio, a complete IDE for R. You can download the most recent .deb file at https://www.rstudio.com/products/rstudio/download/. You can install it either by double-clicking on the .deb file in your web browser or file manager, or else install it from the terminal by navigating to the download location and typing:

sudo dpkg -i filename.deb
sudo apt-get install -f

Scrivener

Scrivener is a gorgeous application designed for writers, which breaks complex documents into a tree-like structure of smaller snippets. It also features powerful outlining and metadata tools. Now that I’m using LaTeX my writing workflow no longer includes Scrivener, but I do use it for organizing research. Scrivener has paid, highly-developed versions for MacOS and Windows. The developer also experimented with a Linux version. He recently abandoned it, but decided to release the final version for free. You can download the .deb here (and if you like it, should consider purchasing a paid version to support the developer).

Run the following lines at the command line, which will install some prerequisites. Then install the .deb file just as you did with RStudio.

sudo apt-get install python-gtk2
sudo apt-get install python-gpgme

SublimeText

SublimeText 3 is my new favorite application for doing almost anything. It is an extremely powerful, customizable, and extensible text editor. Its real power comes from its massive set of hotkeys. There is a learning curve, but once you climb it, you can rapidly switch between projects or project files, navigate within files, compile code, review results, and do many other things—all without your fingers leaving the home row of the keyboard. Even better, you can use the same interface and same hotkeys to seamlessly jump between Python, R, LaTeX, Markdown, or many other file types.

Sublime Text 3 also has a very nice full-screen mode, which makes everything disappear except for the active writing window. This is perfect for a distraction-free writing computer.

One more advantage to Sublime Text 3 is the customizable hotkeys. For me, high productivity requires mastering keyboard shortcuts, which makes it very difficult to swap back and forth between a Mac and a PC (for example, CMD-C versus CTRL-C for copying text). With SublimeText 3 I was able to remap my most common hotkeys so they feel identical to my MacBook Pro–at a small fraction of the price.

SublimeText 3 costs $70, but you can download and try it for free here. Then install the SublimeText package manager by following the instructions here.

I plan to write a separate post later explaining how I customize my ST3 environment. For now, key packages to look into are SublimeREPL and LaTeXTools.

Evince

This is a PDF viewer that integrates well with SublimeText and LaTeXTools, a SublimeText plugin. With Evince installed, building a LaTeX document in ST3 will result in the compiled PDF opening in Evince.

sudo apt-get install evince

Zotero

Zotero is free, open-source citation management system. You can automatically pull citations for journal articles and books using various web browser plugins, sync them across your devices, and automatically generate LaTeX .bib files for inclusion in your LaTeX documents. I paid a modest fee for increased storage, so all of my PDF versions of journal articles and reports are attached to Zotero bibliographic entries and automatically sync across my computers.

You can download a stand-alone Linux installer here.

Pin key apps to panel

You can pin your favorite apps to the panel by finding them in the OS menu, right-clicking them, and selecting “Add to Panel.”

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

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