How PrimeOS Saved My 2-in-1 Laptop (When Linux and Windows Couldn't)
My digital art journey (and how Microsoft let me down)
Digital Art is what prompted me to get into computers in the first place. In the early 90's that meant getting an MS-DOS system. Running paint programs from floppy disks certainly is a primitive affair in hindsight, but back then it blew my mind. Since then, I've used Win 95, Windows XP, Windows 7, and now on 2 Windows 10 machines, one of which is the subject of this article.
In 2015 I bought myself a 2-in-1 laptop, the Acer Switch 11v, fascinated with a Surface-type prospect on a much cheaper PC. What sold me on it was it came with an Acer Active stylus pen, and in the early days of using it I was ecstatic with the performance. Back then, the only other options was to get a Surface or a Wacom Cintiq, both of which were certainly beyond my budget.
On the Android side, any tablet would do as long as you had those big rubber tipped styluses, which I liken to drawing with an eraser. Or you could get a pricey Samsung tablet with an S pen. So, weighing cost and function, I was pretty satisfied with the Acer.
Fast forward to 2018 and 2019, and the "dreaded" Windows October 2018 update (version 1809) and May 2019 (version 1903). I won't go into the bugs and complaints about these latest Windows 10 versions, except to say that both these updates basically ruined my machine. Both updates made the Switch 11v unable to boot properly. To get into the OS, I had to basically boot into BIOS every time, exit, and then it would boot into Windows. During the times it did boot, the OS was basically a crashing mess. Opening Mail or Chrome, for example, would cause the machine to hang, and eventually a BSOD would reboot the system. Being the patient guy I am, I persisted and tried many times over to update, or even reinstall Windows 10 fresh with the media creation tool. Sadly, there was very little to no improvement.
Screenshot of my PrimeOS desktop
The search for a replacement OS
It was then that I decided to hunt for an alternative, to save my machine from the gadget graveyard. It certainly wasn't such a loss (in terms of digital art) as I had, in 2017, purchased a Galaxy Tab A with S pen, which was a budget Android tablet with greatly improved performance over the Switch 11v's stylus, and certainly fulfilled all my digital drawing/painting needs. Still, I wanted to keep the Acer, but still wanting to maintain its 2-in-1 capabilities.
Enter my Linux "adventure." Granted, I've never tried Linux before, and I must confess a little intimidation at trying it. After all, mention Linux to the average Joe and you'll probably get the "computer hacker in a dark basement typing away commands on Terminal and getting stuff done without a GUI" description. I certainly had that bias, to a certain degree. Still, I was aware of all the Linux distributions enticing people away from their Windows and Macs. So I decided to give a few a try. I installed Zorin OS, and Linux Mint Cinammon. They installed with no problems, and I was amazed at the performance of each.
But then, the touchscreen performance. It was here that I discovered that Linux distros aren't all that touchscreen-friendly, and getting an on screen keyboard to pop up automatically when you want to enter something on your browser could be a chore. Even closing stuff by tapping on "close" could take a few tries via touch. Granted, using a mouse and keyboard on these were flawless, but I didn't want to make my Switch just another laptop, I wanted to preserve it as a tablet as well.
Ubuntu 19.04 was a much better experience. Touchscreen worked, and worked well. On screen keyboard worked pretty good too, and the only complaint there was the active stylus pen became just a mouse. Also, getting gestures to work seemed like too much of a bother that I was almost resigned to just live with it all and just be glad that I had "some" touchscreen functionality.
But then, I came across a few articles about adapting Android as a desktop OS, with a few names coming up like Phoenix OS, Bliss OS, Remix OS, and so on. One particular Android OS attempt caught my eye, PrimeOS.
I don't know why I decided on PrimeOS in the end, but I did and I couldn't be happier with the result. Installation was pretty straightforward. From the moment it booted up, the Switch felt like a tablet again. This is Android after all, and it just worked like a tablet is supposed to. I even installed the apps and games I had on it while it was still on Windows 10 (which thankfully each had an Android equivalent) and dare I say they actually perform better on Android on this machine.
One caveat though is PrimeOS is still in beta, and I don't know how long it'll stay there or if a final stable release is in the cards in their future. Also, of all the apps I've installed, I'd say 99% installed well (Instagram is the only one that didn't, so far). Theming and alternate Launchers don't seem to be supported yet. But I'm very optimistic that Android as a desktop is a viable option, especially for 2-in-1's.
As a final note, I hope Linux gets better touchscreen functionality. In the little time I spent fiddling around with the distros, I could see what all the fuss about Linux was all about. I'll probably revisit it, most probably on my other Win 10 machine (a desktop) should Windows render it (forcibly) obsolete via another wonky (future) update. Thankfully, it still runs well (currently still on 1809) but crossing my fingers it doesn't meet the same fate as my Switch 11v.